The Black Pirate (1926)

(Image via douglasfairbanks.org)

The Duke of Arnoldo (Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.) is a nobleman, sailing the high seas on a large ship and in the company of  friendly crew. His luck takes a nosedive when his ship is looted and blown up with all hands on deck. By some kind of miracle, this Black Pirate and his father manage to survive the explosion and wash up on an island, but the father’s luck soon runs out and he dies.

The son, promising to get revenge for his father’s death, joins the band of pirates who killed his father. His plan is to take them down from the inside – to infiltrate and ultimately disband the group. He wins them over by single-handedly capturing men, as well as winning a number of duels and generally being a perfect swashbuckler.

Once he’s accepted into the evil band of pirates, his goal becomes that of saving the life of a woman named Isobel (Billie Dove). Isobel apparently happens to be a princess, and the black pirate must compete with the pirate lieutenant (Sam De Grasse) for her affections. There are many rivals to encounter and many swords to be swung, but the black pirate is determined to become the leader of the pirates, bringing justice for his father’s death and possibly find his perfect woman along the way.

This 1926 silent, displayed in fantastic two-tone Technicolor, was directed by Albert Parker. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. himself is credited for the story (written under a pseudonym), which was adapted for the screen by Jack Cunningham.

In addition to budding color technology, this film makes an interesting use of its intertitles. Many of them emphasize not dialogue, but rather where exactly the scene is meant to be taking place (i.e. the gunpowder room) or what the big plot development of the moment is. I’m no expert on silents and don’t get to watch them nearly as much as I’d like to since they’re not quite as readily available for viewing as sound films (especially for folks like me who only absorb entertainment through legal channels, like Netflix and renting from the library), but in most I’ve seen the dialogue is the certain focus of the intertitles.

Given the low quality of the print that I watched (which was even worse during the film’s earliest portions, since my computer decided that it would be cool to pixelate everything for a while), the action was sometimes a bit hard to follow. The music (which is probably not the original music that accompanied the film) does no favors to a viewer watching a low quality version on a small, pixelated screen either. It’s often incongruous with the action, so when I couldn’t exactly see what was going on, the music did not help me at least gather the mood of the scenes. Luckily, these intertitles certainly helped me keep a grasp on the plot and in the end I felt that I had a solid understanding of the film’s storyline and major events.

(Image via iphotoscrap.com)

The film begins with the piling of bodies and stealing of the jewels off of those bodies in order to establish  just how nasty this company of pirates is. I’m not usually a huge fan of the action/adventure genre or of pirate films, but right from this opening I was drawn into The Black Pirate. Though all of the performances are natural and believable here, they aren’t the draw of the film. The action is what keeps the viewer hooked, which was very clear to me from this somewhat violent and certainly gripping opening.

And the pace never lets up from there. The Black Pirate is consistently peppered with a heavy dose of action. There’s always something exciting or suspenseful going on. But while it is certainly a pure pirate adventure at is heart, there is also a humorous edge to the film. This comes from both sections of the plot itself (for instance, the endless shenanigans over who will win over the princess) and in the incorporation of stereotypical pirate speak into the dialogue through deliberate misspellings on the intertitles.

The Black Pirate is a wonderful and completely engrossing silent adventure, recommended for Fairbanks fans, silent fans, pirate fans and adventure fans alike. The score: 3.8/5

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