on January 27, 2004
By the time this movie was made, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had already cemented his role as perhaps the greatest swashbuckler actor ever, in movies like Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, The Three Musketeers, and The mark of Zorro.
"The Black Pirate" tells the story of a young man of noble lineage, the Duke of Arnoldo (Fairbanks), who is the sole survivor of a pirate attack on his ship, which was blown to pieces, and who swears to avenge his father, killed in the explosion. On the island where he had been marooned, he comes across those pirates, busy trying to hide the loot coming from the Duke's ship. He joins them under the name of the Black Pirate after defeating the pirate leader in a rapier and dagger fight.
To show his worth, he offers to capture another ship single-handedly without a shot fired, and succeeds. However, his goal is of saving the lives of the people on board, including that of the lovely princess Isobel (Billie Dove). He therefore proposes a deal with the pirates: Since the captured ship is intact, it can be held for ransom. While the old pirate ship is going to claim the ransom, with an emissary from the captured ship on board, the Black Pirate and most of the pirate crew stay on the new ship, waiting for the return of the old ship.
The Black Pirate had secretly given a message to the emissary, telling him to send a fleet against the pirates, while he would put the princess safely on shore in the middle of the night. However, a pirate lieutenant (Sam de Grasse, who had played the part of Prince John in Fairbanks's "Robin Hood"), wants to keep the princess for himself, and arranges for the old ship to be blown up.
While the lieutenant watches the old ship being blown to pieces, he sees the Black Pirate attempting to put the Princess on shore. The Black Pirate is arrested and is condemned to the plank. He however survives, with the help of a sympathetic Scottish pirate, MacTavish (Donald Crisp), and makes it to the shore.
As the deadline for the return of the ransom ship is about to expire, the Black Pirate comes to the rescue with military help from the local Governor, reveals his noble identity, saves the Princess and asks her hand in marriage.
As far as story is concerned, it is very standard, featuring the usual elements of the swashbuckler genre: the energetic swordplay, the climactic rescue, and the happy ending.
While "The Black Pirate" was never remade in its entirety -- the closest it ever got to being remade was the 1952 swashbuckler, "Against All Flags" --, key scenes were re-used in other films. The famous scene in which Douglas Fairbanks slits his way down through the captured ship's sails was used again in one of Errol Flynn's last swashbucklers, "Against All Flags" (1952).
The main reason why this film is still fondly remembered today is because of its use of the two-strip Technicolor process, used in films since 1922, but generally reserved for a few important scenes. For example, in "Ben-Hur" (1925), the scenes featuring the Christ were always filmed in color.
The "special edition" DVD of "The Black Pirate" includes extra features, such as production stills, extra footage, and a choice of soundtracks: the score by Mortimer Wilson, or a comment by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Behlmer may not be the best narrator around, and may not help disprove the reputation of professional historians as being "boring", but he offers insightful comments on the film's production, on the stars, on the Technicolor process, and on various other aspects of the film, all of which thoroughly researched. Film buffs in particular may appreciate anecdotes, such as Mary Pickford substituting for Billie Dove in the final kiss scene because Mary could not tolerate to see Fairbanks kissing other women. Only a few words are particularly out of place, such as the reference to "side two" of the "Laserdisc", as the commentary was first used in the Laserdisc edition of the film. As well, Behlmer's narration tends to distract the viewer, but it is of such importance that it is worth listening to at least once.