Sunday, August 22, 2010


Alfred Parker’s seafaring, swashbuckler “The Black Pirate” (***1/2 out of ****)makes watching silent movies a genuine pleasure. Although Hollywood had produced a handful of pirate epics before this 1926 release, “The Black Pirate” benefits from scenarist Elton Thomas’ ingenious screenplay and Douglas Fairbanks' nimble physical presence. Actually Elton Thomas and Douglas Fairbanks are one in the same person; Elton Thomas was Fairbanks’ nom de plume. Indeed, this grim adventure with a happy ending on the high seas boasts some of Fairbanks’ best stunts, particularly when he slices into a sail with his knife and then lets gravity draw him down the length of the canvas as the knife slashes through the material. Fairbanks performs this stunt three times. The Kino DVD provides an insightful documentary about how Parker and Fairbanks staged this extraordinary stunt. The exuberance with which Fairbanks leaps and lunges, the spectacular briny settings, and the wind-driven sailing ships make this above-average adventure opus a thoroughly entertaining spectacle despite its conspicuous lack of sound. Anybody who enjoys pirate movies, especially the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, won’t get sea-sick watching this epic. Mind you, this isn’t a fantasy with quasi-human creatures lurking about like in the Johnny Depp movie. Meanwhile, Jack Cunningham penned the screenplay from a story by Fairbanks writing under the pseudonym of Elton Thomas. The only drawback to the plot is that some of the coincidences are just too good to be true. Principally, the same island where the pirates stash their treasure is the same island that our hero has been washed up on himself.

After the opening credits, the film presents three expository title cards. The first one states: "A page from THE HISTORY and Lives of the most Bloodthirsty Pirates who ever infested THE SOUTHERN SEAS." Indeed, these pirates live up to their notoriety. The second placard spells out the themes: "Being an account of BUCCANEERS & THE SPANISH MAIN, the Jolly Roger, GOLDEN GALLEONS, bleached skulls, BURIED TREASURE, the Plank, dirks & cutlasses, SCUTTLED SHIPS, Marooning, DESPERATE DEEDS, DESPERATE MEN, and--even on this dark soil--ROMANCE." Finally, the third placard states: "It was the custom of THESE PIRATES to SUBDUE their prey, LOOT the ship, BIND their captives and BLOW THEM UP." Reportedly, Fairbanks and original director Donald Crisp quarreled and Fairbanks replaced him with Parker. Earlier, Crisp directed the Fairbanks’ 1925 “Zorro” sequel “Don Q Son of Zorro.” Nevertheless, Crisp remained aboard as a salty old dog of pirate named MacTavish who helps out our hero on several occasions.

The agile Douglas Fairbanks toplines this lightweight but lavish escapade as the Duke of Arnoldo. As "The Black Pirate" unfolds, the sea wolves are looting a ship. They have tied up virtually everybody left alive and then spill a powder train from the deck to the powder magazine located in bowels of the ship. Indeed, these guys are rather ruthless. The pirates loot the ship, bind the captives, and then run a powder train to blow up both the captives and the ship. These pirates don't play around Parker shows us the looted ship in a long shot as it explodes and then sinks. Arnoldo (Douglas Fairbanks of "The Thief of Bagdad") and his aristocratic father are the only survivors. Not only are the details about their survival omitted, but also the pirates don’t recognize the Duke when he inquires about throwing in with them. Moreover, neither Arnoldo nor his father appeared in the earlier scenes. In fact, Fairbanks' character doesn't show up until 9 minutes into the action. Arnoldo’s father hands him an elaborate ring that Michel later uses to prove his identity. Arnoldo vows to avenge the death of his dad at the hands of dastardly pirates. The Duke masquerades as a cutthroat himself and confronts them after they have stashed their treasure in an underwater cave on the island. Before these pirates can stash their treasure, they have to dig up a chest with the key to the locked gate of their secret underwater hiding place. Arnoldo fights his way into their ranks to end their criminal ways. Before he challenges the pirate captain (Anders Randolf) to a duel, Arnoldo fashions a makeshift grave stone from a piece of flotsam and scratches his solemn vow on it to exact revenge on the brigands. The treacherous pirates keep our hero guessing as much as he keeps teaching them one new trick after another until he defeats them. Along the way, he saves damsel-in-distress Princess Isobel (Billie Dove of “Yellow Lily”), falls hopelessly in love with her and wins her hand in marriage. Some of our hero’s clever tricks involve capturing an entire merchant vessel all by himself. Initially, they are dubious about his chances for pulling off such a stunt, but he captures a ship. Eventually, our hero vanquishes the villains after facing certain death by having to walk the plank. The pirate lieutenant follows Arnoldo onto the plank and other pirates have their muskets loaded and ready should he stick his head above water. Arnoldo escapes death principally because MacTavish and the Princess have stolen a knife and our hero has been able to whittle through his bonds. Our hero escapes from the villains and makes his way to the governor’s mansion where he obtains a long boat equipped with a cannon and a platoon of mariners. Initially, Arnoldo had planned to ransom both the ship and the passenger, the Princess, instead of blowing it up to sink.

Clocking in at a lean 94-minutes, “The Black Pirate” contains more than enough action for its hour and a half plus length, and the characters are interesting not only for who they are but also what they accomplish. Any pirate movie that opens with the chief pirate looting the dead is a keeper. Not long after this scene, the pirate chieftain spots a hostage swallowing a ring. The pirate chieftain summons a mate and pantomimes to the mate how he needs to remove the ring from the captive. The mate leaves and the captain watches. When the mate returns, he hands the chieftain the ring that he eviscerated from the student's gullet. Naturally, the pirate chieftain gets his comeuppance when the Fairbanks' hero challenges him to a duel and defeats him. Fairbanks doesn't so much kill him as the pirate kills himself when he falls on a sword that Fairbanks had stuck in the ground. The two-tone Technicolor makes the blood soaked forearms of the pirate stand out. No pirate movie, not even the Errol Flynn sound classics, ever topped this until the advent of R-rated movies. Indeed, "The Black Pirate" boasts everything a great pirate movie needs. Interestingly, this was Fairbank's last major money maker.