The Black Swan
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA, 1942
Director: Henry King
Source: Fox Studio Classics DVD
Trust me, mates, this is one of the finest pirate movies ever made. It’s not as iconic or influential as Captain Blood or Treasure Island, but it’s every bit as good, and deserves to be better known. Like Blood, it’s a reasonably-close adaptation of a Rafael Sabatini novel, with crackling dialogue by Seton Miller (Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk) and the great Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Gunga Din). It’s one of director Henry King’s many collaborations with star Tyrone Power, and the first of their series of swashbucklers. King understood that the audience wanted a vivid, fast-moving tale, and that Power wanted rôles with both strength and nuance to them. And in this Technicolor epic, the team delivered all of that.
This movie pulls no punches: even before the main titles, a pirate ship takes down an English merchantman, and immediately after those titles, two buccaneer crews raid and sack a Spanish colonial port. And these are real pirates, not Robin Hood’s Merrie Men: murder and pillage are rife, and rapine is implied. Less than five minutes into the film, Captain Jamie Waring (Power) and Captain Leech (George Sanders, that magnificent bastard) are lolling on the beach, splitting the spoils, as Waring laments the capture of their leader, Captain Henry Morgan. Then Spanish reinforcements counterattack, Waring is taken, and put on the rack by an oily Spanish Don who demands to know where Morgan really is. Boom! Pirates swarm the castle, Waring is freed, and in walks their commander, Captain Morgan himself.
So far the movie’s been good, even better than good, but when Laird Cregar enters in the rôle of Henry Morgan, it’s elevated to remarkable. Because Cregar simply is Sir Henry Morgan, brought back from the dead after three centuries, more alive and larger in every way than every other person in Port Royal, Jamaica, and the entire Caribbean. His screen presence even out-powers Tyrone Power. There’s only one other star in the film with the megawattage to match him….
Maureen O’Hara, in the first of her many memorable swashbuckling rôles, playing the fiery Lady Marguerite Denby, daughter of the Governor of Jamaica—that is, the former governor, since Morgan has replaced him. Pirate Jamie Waring and Lady Marguerite commence a smoldering love/hate romance, and off we go!
The plot works well, with plenty of moving parts that satisfy: new governor Morgan trying to compel peace, renegade pirates plundering the Main, treacherous nobles selling out to the sea rovers—events keep moving without ever getting too complicated. The real fun in the middle part of the film comes from the interactions between the respectable citizens and Morgan’s buccaneers—theoretically the swabs have been rehabilitated, but they just can’t get the hang of polite society, because pirates gonna pirate.
Then treachery rears its head, and we’re into act three, bedad! Rather than tip the final twists and turns of the brilliant finale, let’s just point out a few things about this movie that shouldn’t be overlooked. First, there’s a fine and flavorful score by Alfred Newman that sets the mood perfectly. Second, we get the reliably-rascally Anthony Quinn leering and wearing an eye patch as George Sanders’s second in command. And last but by no means least, it’s a thrill to report that the tavern where the pirates meet is called Ye Porker’s Sterne, with an appropriately lurid pictorial sign hanging above its front door. Bedad!