Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
One of the first and best pirate films ever made, The Black Pirate (1926) is both rip-roaring action adventure and technical marvel. Starring silent movie superstar Douglas Fairbanks at the height of his popularity, The Black Pirate was the perfect vehicle for the athletic actor as well as a chance to delve into the relatively new medium of color film. The result was tremendous, garnering Fairbanks not only another box office hit but solid reviews, too, including a glowing write-up from The New York Times‘ Mordaunt Hall, who pronounced the film full of “unrivalled beauty” and “a healthy entertainment for men of all ages.”
One of the first and best pirate films ever made, The Black Pirate (1926) is both rip-roaring action adventure and technical marvel.
The Black Pirate opens as a troupe of bloodthirsty pirates descend on a ship, killing nearly everyone aboard. Two men manage to escape to a nearby island, but the eldest of the pair dies, leaving his son, The Duke of Arnoldo (Fairbanks), alone. Vowing revenge, Arnoldo poses as The Black Pirate and joins the pirates’ crew. Through cunning and physical prowess, he soon becomes their leader and thwarts their evil plans without most of the men being any the wiser. The buccaneers take a host of prisoners, including the lovely Isobel (Billie Dove), with whom Arnoldo is smitten. To save her virtue, he claims she is a princess and that true riches are to be had if she left alone and returned to her family unharmed.
It’s a paper-thin plot and one that seems far more concerned with Fairbanks’ public image than with the story at hand; in fact, during a key romantic scene between actress Billie Dove and Fairbanks, Dove is switched out for Fairbanks’ wife Mary Pickford. The Black Pirate clearly had no intention of taking itself seriously, and announced this in the opening title screens which promised a ripping good yarn full of bleached skulls, plank walking and derring-do.
The Black Pirate clearly had no intention of taking itself seriously, and announced this in the opening title screens which promised a ripping good yarn full of bleached skulls, plank walking and derring-do.
In fact, none of Douglas Fairbanks’ costume films were meant to be taken seriously. Fairbanks came late to stardom, being 37 years old when his first big hit, The Mark of Zorro (1920), took the country by storm. Zorro was the grandaddy of all swashbucklers and the birth of the Hollywood action film, and much of its success can be credited directly to Fairbanks. His athleticism and genial charm made him the perfect action hero, and these qualities were referred to time and again as his films, as well as Fairbanks himself, were marketed to a receptive public.
After Zorro, Fairbanks relied almost exclusively on action-adventure epics, and always with a strong romantic subplot. He enjoyed a series of smash hits, including Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924), which cemented his reputation and made him an international star. Yet he was quick to devolve into self-parody, and by his 1925 sequel Don Q., Son of Zorro, could be seen posing and mugging for the camera rather than acting, his warm smile looking forced, his stunts more about the wow factor than about serving the plot.
Some of this seeps through in his performance in The Black Pirate, and modern audiences might at times find it difficult to understand Fairbanks’ massive popularity in the 1920s. He is a remarkable and irrepressible athlete with grace and charisma in spades, no question, but he is also a limited actor, and portraying quiet sincerity was never easy for him. All the work on the technical aspect of The Black Pirate lead to a much more streamlined, no-nonsense plot, however, and this lack of nuance actually helped Fairbanks achieve what his biographer Jeffrey Vance called “a refreshing return to form.” The Black Pirate is a true pioneer in economical storytelling, something the silent era was not known for, and this alone makes the film not only charming but easily accessible for modern audiences.
Inspired by the illustrations of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, Douglas Fairbanks set out from the very beginning to film The Black Pirate in color. Color film as we know it today didn’t yet exist, but hand-tinting and two-tone variations of color were available. Working closely with technicians at Technicolor, the studio created a subdued palette for Pirate, one where the reds stood in for everything from crimson to magenta to various shades of brown, and the greens could pass for blacks and some shades of blue. Interestingly, many modern films in the digital era have borrowed the aesthetic of two-strip Technicolor toning, with action films like Transformers 2 (2009) using a teal and orange palette, and historical dramas such as The Imitation Game (2014) featuring teal and magenta color-grading.
The two-tone Technicolor process was achieved by two strips of film being shot with filters, then later toned and glued together. The results ranged from fantastic and vibrant, such as in the “Red Death” scene of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), to the more muted tones of Black Pirate. After scenes shot off Catalina Island proved to be less than ideal for color reproduction, Pirate was shot almost entirely on a studio lot, which ensured everything could be meticulously controlled. All props and setpieces were dyed and the seas, which were enormous tanks built on the studio lot, were tinted with tens of thousands of gallons of ink to produce just the right shade of blue-green. This process was not without its problems, however, and after decades of poor transfers and damage, restorations have been made to return the color in The Black Pirate to as close to the original as possible. The results, simply put, are stunning.
An exhilarating tale of adventure on the high seas, The Black Pirate showcases Douglas Fairbanks at the height of his career, and features what must be one of, if not the, most famous image of Fairbanks, as he uses a saber to glide down a billowing ship’s sail. Highly influential and scads of fun, The Black Pirate is one of the best of the silent swashbucklers and a must-see for classic movie fans.
Highly influential and scads of fun, The Black Pirate is one of the best of the silent swashbucklers and a must-see for classic movie fans.