Though directed by Albert Parker, who had made his name on his 1922 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore, The Black Pirate even today feels like more of a product of the film’s star and producer, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Seven years after teaming up with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, whom he was married to for roughly 15 years, to create United Artists, Fairbanks took on the eponymous role in Parker’s silent swashbuckling picture, one of the first films to fully make use of the two-strip Technicolor process, during not only a creative apex for the so-called “King of Hollywood,” but a historical and technological benchmark in the furthering of film as an international art form.
Of course, the two-strip Technicolor technology, which employed two black-and-white prints being separately put through red and green filters, dyed in the corresponding color, and then bonded together, was still far from flawless when Parker and Fairbanks put it to use. Having already supplied screenwriter Jack Cunningham with the source material, which Fairbanks had written under a pseudonym, Fairbanks went one step further by supplying the money for the color tests. The result gives suitable nuance to what might now be considered pedestrian plot mechanics involving the survivor of a marauded ship (Fairbanks) seeking vengeance against the band of pirates that caused the sinking of his ship and the death of his father.
The titular adventurer is in fact burying his father on an island when his enemies (led by Sam De Grasse and Anders Randolf) arrive on the same island to bury part of the treasure they found on the marauded ship. Favoring a long con, Fairbanks ingratiates himself with his enemies by killing their captain (Randolf) in a duel and is later popularized within the crew when, in an exquisitely kinetic sequence, he singlehandedly overtakes another ship for plunder. But the biggest jewel on this new vessel turns out to be a princess (Billie Dove) who is promised to the pirate lieutenant (De Grasse) before Fairbanks’s would-be marauder suggests that the princess be held for ransom.
This act of covert chivalry both garners him the respect of the crew’s eldest member, MacTavish (Donald Crisp), and begins a test of wills with the devious lieutenant, who plots to blow up the captured ship and ensure that the ransom will never be recovered. This kind of seafaring storytelling, at least in cinematic terms, has certainly become more convoluted and has developed a hell of a lot of bells and whistles, but it rarely has advanced in terms of sheer technical craft and narrative simplicity. Cunningham’s script runs like a thoroughbred and Fairbanks and Parker build tension, action and sufficient romance in a little over 90 minutes whereas, for instance, Gore Verbinski’s gaudy Pirates of the Caribbean series has taken longer than two hours on every occasion and has barely covered the same ground with not even half as compelling outcomes.
As entertainments go, The Black Pirate generally wants for nothing and does a great job of showcasing its two most prominent assets: Fairbanks and the two-strip technology that had premiered only four years earlier in Chester Franklin’s The Toll of the Sea. An alternative, black-and-white version of the film also employs the use of a narrator who adds little to the narrative drive with the exception of some innocuous background information. Indeed, The Jazz Singer was only a year away and sound technology was working to some extent at the time of The Black Pirate‘s production, but here we have a film that very simply works in terms of image, score, and performances alone.
A year later, Fairbanks would be elected the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, along with Pickford, would be one of the first people to press his hands and feet into wet cement in front of the newly opened Grauman’s Chinese Theater in L.A. Even when he split from Pickford and died in the late 1930s, Fairbanks remained a towering Hollywood figure, a man easily mythologized but who never really needed to be in the first place. And if The Black Pirate was, in some way, made as a vanity project, it at least accomplishes the feat of matching that vanity with a passion for the form that is rare and undervalued in a disturbing amount of similar works that have followed it.
Kino could have very easily taken a victory lap after their brilliant work on the restored Metropolis Blu-ray, but this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio is similarly revelatory. Mastered in high definition from the original two-strip Technicolor print, The Black Pirate's unique color scheme is about as clear as could ever be expected with a print well over 80 years old. Even when you completely ignore the historical weight of the film and the amount of movie love that went into getting it to the Blu-ray format, the film remains a thrilling sight. And though the film only has Mortimer Wilson's orchestral score, conducted by Robert Israel, and Lee Erwin's organ score to support in its silent version, it still sounds magnificent.
The supplemental material offers plenty of things that are enjoyable but not much that is fascinating. The exception would be film historian Rudy Behlmer's thorough and engaging commentary that goes over nearly every step of the film's production. An included talkie version of the film only highlights how useless sound can be on certain films and outtakes from the production, a few of which include commentary by Behlmer, offers very little more than the sight of an out-of-character Doublas Fairbanks Sr. A photo gallery is also included.
A standard-bearer for all swashbuckling pictures, if not the standard-bearer, The Black Pirate returns as a crackerjack entertainment, a historical benchmark, and yet another shrine to movie love courtesy of Kino.