Blackbeard, the Pirate

Blackbeard, the Pirate
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Raoul Walsh
Source: Amazon streaming video

Blackbeard, the Pirate

On November 22, 1718, Edward Teach, the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard, was killed on his ship the Adventure during a fierce boarding action led by Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. By the time he was brought down, Blackbeard had been shot five times and suffered twenty wounds from edged weapons. For the most famous image depicting this event, look no further than the painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris on the cover of your editor’s Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure anthology.

Blackbeard’s career and death are also depicted in this film, in which Lt. Maynard, ordered to Port Royale in pursuit of Henry Morgan and the loot from the sack of Panama … wait, what? Whoa, this story is set in the 1670s, before Ned Teach and Rob Maynard were even born. In fact, this entire moving picture is nought but a tissue of lies! Avast! Bloody pirates—they’ll steal half a century right out from under you if you so much as look the wrong way.

History failure notwithstanding, this was one of the most popular pirate movies of the ‘50s, thanks mainly to Robert Newton’s unhinged and completely over-the-top performance as Blackbeard. Newton took all the mannerisms and speech patterns he’d developed for the rôle of Long John Silver in Treasure Island and cranked them up to eleven, frequently veering into farce and self-parody, but no less entertaining because of that. (So many “Arr”s!) Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t hold up so well. The plot is sadly muddled, starting out with Maynard undercover chasing Morgan but captured by Blackbeard, along with Edwina, a pirate-captain’s daughter who’s secretly stolen Morgan’s treasure, all of them blundering about loudly at cross-purposes, and it never really gets sorted out. Characters’ motives change suddenly from scene to scene, people stranded on islands show up back in port without explanation, and even the big ship-to-ship showdown between Blackbeard and Morgan ends in an unsatisfying draw. It’s a mess.

One could overlook the ham-handed story if the performances supporting Newton were entertaining, but the rest of the cast is just bland and forgettable. Worst is Keith Andes, who plays Maynard, the English naval lieutenant and ostensible protagonist, exactly as if he were a tough-talking New York district attorney going up against the mob—imagine a slim Peter Graves but with no sense of humor. We’re supposed to root for this guy against Blackbeard and the other pirates, but it’s flat-out impossible. His intermittent romance with Edwina (Linda Darnell) is likewise arid and unconvincing, no matter how hard Darnell tries to look adoringly at him. Yeah, no.

At least there’s a lot of action, solidly directed by Raoul Walsh; the cutlass duels in particular are quite good. The shipboard scenes are also decent, with the quarters below decks properly close and cramped, including visits to the lazaret and the orlop (or, as Newton calls it, “the arr-lop”). And Blackbeard’s crew are as filthy and repulsive a set of brutes as you’re likely to see in the otherwise over-tidy 1950s, so bonus points for that. But you won’t be able to swallow the story unless you swallow a stiff rum or three first.

Black Swan

Black Swan
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA, 1942
Director: Henry King
Source: Fox Studio Classics DVD

Black Swan

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!