Believing that Hollywood had never effectively captured the spirit of piracy on the high seas, director Albert Parker and his star Douglas Fairbanks set out to do just that with a little help from a couple of two-tone Technicolor cameras. The year was 1926. The idea of having color in the films of Hollywood was still endlessly debated, yet Fairbanks, believing that color - in spite of its distracting abilities in its relation to acting – was the only way to honestly tell a rousing pirate story, held to his instincts. The film had to be shot in color. The determination paid off with The Black Pirate. Mirroring the color techniques of Rembrandt, the two artists went to work designing the look and feel of the ultimate pirate movie.
The film begins with the looting of a scuttled ship. The pirates aboard create a powder train around their captives and flee the ship before it explodes. Unaware that they have overlooked two captives, the pirates flee to safe water in order to divide their loot and bury their treasure. Yet, washing ashore onto one of those rumored treasure islands are Lord Arnoldo and his son, the Duke of Arnoldo (Douglas Fairbanks). After watching his father die, Arnoldo swears to bring the pirates to justice and dons the moniker of The Black Pirate. One by one, The Black Pirate challenges and bests his opponents on land and on sea. He single-handedly overtakes a ship and, once realizing that she’s onboard, saves not only himself from danger, but also the lovely Princess Isobel (Billie Dove); all in the name of justice and high seas adventure.
There is no other role that Fairbanks took that showcased his skills as a silent actor than with this film. At 43, his acrobatic skills are at their very best. He’s aggressive, full of humor, and violent swordplay. In swift movements, Fairbanks steers a ship from its anchor base, then scales the side of a ship in quick succession. He’s graceful, swinging from sail to sail, and then knifing the sail and slitting it as he slides down onto the deck. Yes, this is THAT pirate movie; the one clipped all the time in Hollywood films. Fairbanks also swings from rope to rope onboard the ship and outmaneuvers his opponents; all while smiling. It’s genius, epic, and eternal. It’s also every bit as good as it was when it premiered in 1926. Technically flawless, the stunts in The Black Pirate are still to be envied and studied to see how the master did it.
The color muting and harmonizing of The Black Pirate provided the first time – not the last – that color design would be an important part of filmmaking. Interesting use of the medium, too, for at the time, much in the way of color vs. black-and-white was ballyhooed. Some said that color was added little value to the naturalness of the narrative, others thought color was too harmful for their audiences to look at past ten or so minutes. Whatever the reason, favor was not on color’s side. Yet, Fairbanks insisted the film be shot in a muted color – like a painting found in a basement, weathered and faded – and what Fairbanks wanted, he got. The Black Pirate is the first successful use of color in a silent film.
Considered experimental and avant-garde at the time, The Black Pirate can only be considered a classic in today’s cinematic world. Parker doesn’t sanitize the violence, nor does he provide a certain amount of gloss to its subject matter of dirty pirates (à la Pirates of the Caribbean). Fairbanks’ dashing stunts are stoic and epic and still worthy of repeating in childlike awe time and time again. When he grabs hold of a corner sail and rides a cusp of wind up to the top rigging, you only wish you had the strength, the cunning prowess to be able to do that, too.
Available on Blu-ray - December 14, 2010
Screen Formats: 1.33:1
Audio: English: LPCM 2.0; English: Dolby Digital 2.0
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD)
Kino’s wonderful presentation of The Black Pirate is a master stroke of HD brilliance. The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is muted bliss. The color palette is more than pleasing and helps to validate what Parker and Fairbanks fought for. Kino did a remarkable job staying true to the two-tone color aspect because this print is rich in definition and in purpose. It’s truly an eye-opening experience to witness the power of Technicolor in a bygone era. There are two audio options: a linear PCM 2.0 mix (an orchestral performance of the original 1926 Mortimer Wilson score conducted by Robert Israel) and a Dolby Digital 2.0 organ score by Lee Erwin. The default one is best.
The featurettes are pretty interesting as they include the print of the film commissioned by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. so that audiences used to dialogue could enjoy his father’s work. This version is completely in black-and-white and all intertitles have been removed, leaving narration only. Chaplin did this with The Gold Rush, by the way, and the results were the same: interesting, but a disappointment. The narrated outtakes from The Black Pirate are interesting and enjoying and, once again, Belhmer’s enthusiasm for the film shines.
The breakdown of the Special Features are as follows: