Black Shield of Falworth

Black Shield of Falworth
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1954
Director: Rudolph Maté
Source: Amazon streaming video

The Black Shield of Falworth

The Victorian children’s novel Men of Iron (1891) by the American author and artist Howard Pyle was influential in solidifying the tropes of the “knights in shining armor” medieval adventure tales popular right up through the 1950s. Pyle’s story was a simple morality play in which Myles, a young Englishman whose father was betrayed by an ambitious noble, trains as a squire and then as a knight, finally avenging his father’s betrayal. Pyle’s vivid depiction of would-be knights training with sword, shield, armor, and lance was recycled countless times in tales of medieval chivalry over the next three-quarters of a century. Men of Iron also established in popular fiction the conventions of trial by combat (“And may God defend the right”), the favorite climactic plot device of the lazy knight-pulp writer.

All of these tropes are on display in classic fashion in Falworth, Universal’s adaptation of Men of Iron. Concocted as a star vehicle for Tony Curtis, in his first big-budget epic, Pyle’s simple tale is simplified even further for the screen, while its romance aspect is fleshed out to provide additional screen time for the radiant Janet Leigh, Curtis’s wife, in the rôle of the female romantic lead, Lady Anne. Curtis’s nimble athleticism serves him well in the part of the hot-headed and energetic Myles, though when reading his lines his delivery is still sometimes embarrassingly amateurish. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue is in the highfalutin elevated diction considered appropriate for tales of medieval chivalry ever since Sir Walter Scott (e.g., “Have you not had your fill of buffoonery?”), but thankfully it’s toned down considerably from the language in the novel.

The guy who gets the best lines is Torin Thatcher—you know him as the sorcerer in 7th Voyage of Sinbad—appearing here as Sir James, the surly one-eyed master-of-arms-cum-drill-sergeant who trains Myles in the knightly martial arts. His is easily the film’s most enjoyable performance, clichéd though it may be, and when he barks a threat to hurl Myles from the battlements if he gets into another brawl, you believe him.

Falworth is Universal’s first Cinemascope extravaganza, and no expense was spared on the colorful costumes and expansive sets, with absurdly spacious castle interiors and grand courtyards where platoons of men-at-arms ply their medieval weaponry. The romance is familiar stuff, the villains’ plots are all too predictable, but the fight scenes are tight and well-choreographed, the whole thing is a pleasure to look at, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything but a simple tale of pluck and virtue triumphant over mean-spirited wickedness. (Oh, and by the way, persistent movie myth notwithstanding, Curtis never says,”Yonda stands the castle of my fadda”—for that, see “The Son of Ali Baba.”)

Black Pirate

Black Pirate
Rating: *****
Origin: USA, 1926
Director: Albert Parker
Source: Kino Video DVD

The Black Pirate

The Black Pirate was a risky experiment with a new technology that went by the name of “Technicolor”—a risk that, in the main, paid off. It was also the first big-budget Caribbean pirate movie, and Douglas Fairbanks went all-in on an original story that drew heavily on Howard Pyle’s tales, drawings, and paintings, and on Stevenson’s Treasure Island—the best possible sources, really.

The film opens with a pirate crew plundering a captured merchantman, and immediately establishes that these sea rovers are bad, bad people, as atrocities are committed in the name of plunder and sheer bloody cruelty. The pillaged ship is sunk, its powder magazine exploded, after which Fairbanks, the sole survivor, makes it ashore to a desert island, where he vows to live for revenge.

This is the film that established the visual look of all Hollywood pirate films to follow—right up to the current day, really. Waistcoats and sashes, peglegs and parrots, eye-patches and cutlasses, tattoos, piercings, and questionable facial hair—it’s all here. And then there are the familiar tropes: treasure buried in hidden caves, dividing the spoils on the quarterdeck, drunken roistering, walking the plank—look no further for their cinematic origins.

Posing as a cutthroat, Fairbanks boldly makes a bid to join the band of buccaneers, as they are conveniently burying their treasure on the island where he was marooned. He beats their best fighter in a fencing match—some nice sword-fighting, with some fine rapier-and-dagger work—and joins the crew. Challenged by a Basil Rathbone-cognate to show he understands that there’s more to piracy than swordplay, Fairbanks proves he has brains as well as brawn by taking a merchant ship by stratagem.

The stunts in this film are amazing, as Fairbanks swings through the rigging like Spider-Man. This is the movie where the riding-your-dagger-as-it-slices-its-way-down-the-sail gag was invented—it’s such a great stunt, he does it three times.

Clad all in black silks and leather, Fairbanks takes the name “the Black Pirate,” and sets out to become the pirates’ leader—and then immediately betray them. There’s a captive princess to rescue into the bargain, with whom he’s fallen in love at first sight. But his plans are foiled by a clever rival, and there follows a series of sudden reversals, clever ruses, daring escapes, and unexpected twists. Most unexpected of all, for Your Editor at least, is when Fairbanks, having escaped from the pirates, returns to rescue the princess in command of a long, slim galley rowed by three dozen body-builders clad mainly in shiny leather straps. And then, frankly, things just get weird. But the weird ending notwithstanding, this is a fabulous picture, grand and exciting, and not to be missed.