Friday, April 3, 2009

The Black Swan: A Classic of Piracy on the High Seas

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Seas ablaze…with black villainy, with fiery romance, with breathless deeds of daring…in the roaring era of Love, Gold and Adventure!” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot

This pirate flick features the second greatest Captain Morgan. No, the other one. So settle in with popcorn and a cold drink, and watch these rogues set sail on the cobalt seas of the Caribbean. Pieces of eight!

A lush, Technicolor pirate film, The Black Swan features a superb cast, solid special effects (for 1942), and spectacular swashbuckling. Since the action is limited mainly to the opening and an exciting, climactic sea battle, it is really the seemingly effortless acting by Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), Tyrone Power (The Mark of Zorro), and George Sanders (All About Eve) that holds the film together. Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind) and George Zucco (The Mummy’s Tomb) provide comic relief and villainy, respectively. This is another quality entry in the attractively-priced Fox Studio Classics series.

A bit of plot…
Reformed English pirate Captain Morgan (Laird Cregar, Blood and Sand) now enjoys respectability and the governorship of Jamaica following a truce between his native country and Spain. Settling into the life of a bureaucrat, Captain Morgan employs some of his former colleagues in crime to rule the island and wipe out the remaining pirates of the Caribbean. For his chief lieutenants he hires buccaneer Jamie Waring (Power) and Tommy Blue (Mitchell), a curmudgeonly pirate who holds lifelong allegiance to Waring.

All’s well until the brutish Captain Leech (Sanders) and his first mate Wogan (Anthony Quinn, The Guns of Navarone), refuse to lay down their cutlasses in favor of attacking gold-laden ships. Leech gets his intelligence from Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), a disgraced Jamaican official who wants to impeach Morgan so he can regain control of the island for corrupt former governor Lord Denby (Zucco). Ingram also has his eye on Lord Denby’s gorgeous daughter Lady Margaret (O’Hara). But Buccaneer Jamie Waring has other ideas when he catches a glimpse of Margaret’s emerald eyes and fiery hair.

When Waring and his old pal Tommy Blue are double-crossed and have to flee Jamaica, they kidnap Lady Margaret so she can’t marry Ingram. The wily pirates hastily assemble a crew and set to sea after the vile Leech, captain of The Black Swan, the fastest ship on the Caribbean.

Romance blooms as Waring and his pirates race to Tortuga where Captain Leech plans to loot the entire fleet of the Spanish Main in an explosive, swashbuckling climax.

Historical context and significance
Here’s a rollicking adventure with solid production values and a rambunctious cast who rival Errol Flynn and his band of cutthroats in Captain Blood, another classic pirate film. Power and Sanders display a remarkable facility with sword and sharp wit, while the ever-stunning O’Hara deploys a feisty temper and gorgeously defiant attitude — her greatest traits. George Sanders was always a reliable villain and cad, here almost unrecognizable under a red beard and bushy Barrymore eyebrows (above, left). For classic film fans who’ve only seen Sanders play reserved, arrogant characters in films such as Rebecca and especially All About Eve, this pirate adventure is proof positive that the great British actor could carouse with the best of them. His fencing against Powers is a marvel of choreography.

The Black Swan delivers solid entertainment, marred only by an overlong and talky second act. The production values are first-class, with simply gorgeous Technicolor cinematography to bring the vibrant color of the tropics to vivid life. Even the obvious model work involving the pirate ships holds up well in this age of excessive computer-generated imagery.

An Academy Award winner for best cinematography, the film was also nominated for best music score and best special effects.

This pirate adventure is a worthy addition to the Fox Studio Classics series, although I suspect it’s no accident the studio originally scheduled the release of the DVD to coincide with the opening of a certain Johnny Depp pirate movie that would go on to pillage the box office.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The restored image is luscious, with glowing colors and deep, true blacks. The restoration is a razor-sharp and first rate effort, as evidenced by a short feature on the extras menu illustrating the before and after condition of the print. A commentary track by knowledgeable film historian Rudy Behlmer complements the recollections offered by actress O’Hara, who turns 89 this year. Her commentary on the film is delightful. The disc also features an original theatrical trailer. Audio is clean in a choice of remixed Dolby stereo or the original mono, with three available language tracks.

The Contrarian View
The film drags during the middle section. It’s all talk and exposition when we really want to get down to swordplay and cannon fire. Those who’ve seen Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy shouldn’t expect comparable eye-popping visuals from this 1942 film. A more apt comparison would be with one of Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling epics or even The Crimson Pirate starring Burt Lancaster. By that standard, The Black Swan sails as an equal.

Though there’s plenty of violence, the film is not sufficiently savage to warrant an Arrrrr! rating.
Oh, hush.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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