In 1926, Douglas Fairbanks was at his box office peak--quite literally, as it would turn out, since by all accounts, The Black Pirate would be his last massive hit. It's a big spectacle to go out on, though--a swashbuckling adventure shot in two-strip Technicolor to give it that added oomph.
The movie itself is pretty simple. Fairbanks plays Michel, the last survivor of a ship attacked by pirates. The dastardly seamen took everything from the boat, tied up the crew, and blew it up. Michel and his father, who dies soon after, swam to a nearby island. The son swears revenge, and fate smiles on Michel: the island he's washed up on is where the pirates stash their ill-gotten treasure. Michel, now posing as the wayfaring Black Pirate, challenges their captain to a duel, and his skill with a sword earns him a place on the crew. It's an ideal spot to get back at the men who took everything from him.
The only hitch in Michel's plan is that he didn't factor in that the buccaneers would attack another ship before he could exact vengeance upon them. He has to do some quick thinking to prevent these poor folks from going the same way as the other members of his original voyage, including protecting a beautiful princess (Billie Dove) whom the salty sailors would be more than happy to get their hands on. One in particular, played by a Sam De Grasse, a villain from other Fairbanks films, doesn't want to see this newbie take over his galleon, and he does his treacherous best to stop the Black Pirate's every plan.
The Black Pirate is a fun adventure movie, made all the more entertaining by Fairbanks' trademark acrobatics. In the film's most memorable action sequence, the Black Pirate swears to capture the princess' ship single-handed, and so he climbs aboard, scuttles up and down the sails, and subdues all hands on deck. Fairbanks had a lot of natural charisma, as is evident in the many times he turns and smiles into the camera. He knew what the audience wanted to see when they went to his movies, and he was going to give it to them. He wrote the scenario for The Black Pirate, and he made sure to include plenty of fisticuffs, peril, and romance.
Seeing the restored Technicolor image is a remarkable experience. The color process back then was both expensive and imperfect, working with two colors rather than the three that would become the standard for early color talkies. It's amazing what they could achieve with so little, especially with The Black Pirate being only the third film to use the technology. The colors are often shimmery and inconsistent, but there is also something painterly about the way they flow. Certain tones are missing and sometimes the colors change, but the restoration done on the 35 mm print used to strike this Blu-Ray is a real joy to look at. (For more on the development of the Technicolor process, see John Sinnott's review of Kino's 2004 DVD release of The Black Pirate.)
Just as impressive are the massive sets Fairbanks and director Albert Parker had built, including several full-size pirate ships. Fairbanks needed a lot of room to jump around, and his stunts are still lively and fun. I also quite liked the famous sequence of the "underwater" attack. The stunt extras were suspended from wires and mimed swimming through the air, with the watery look being added later. It must have been terribly effective in the 1920s, because it still looks pretty good to modern eyes. Their straight, unwavering path through rocky seas just adds to their image as heroic figures.
Kino has released The Black Pirate on Blu-Ray at 1080p, and the restored full-frame (1.33:1) image is sharp and full of vivid colors. Not necessarily the colors we are used to, mind you. In some instances, they will appear slightly washed out and spotty to modern eyes, but this is indicative of the primitive printing process, which Kino has tried to recreate authentically rather than jazzing it up. Most silent color films are lost, having been difficult to manufacture and take care of; they were easy to damage when running through the projector. It's to Kino's credit how good this BD looks, with minimal scratching or external noise. There is a good surface quality to the overall image, with only the occasional fuzziness, and also the occasional emergence of surprising textures. Clothes, sandy beaches, and other items sometimes reveal an amazing level of surface detail. As the oldest color film to be released on Blu-Ray, The Black Pirate really shows what the format is capable of.
The title cards also look good, though they sometimes show their age a little more than the main film. The black backgrounds, it seems, were less forgiving of wear and tear.
The Blu-Ray of The Black Pirate offers two different musical options for watching the movie. The first is easily the better choice: a 1996 recording of Mortimer Wilson's music from the original release, overseen by silent-film expert Robert Israel. It's a jaunty soundtrack, and the full orchestra naturally means a greater variety of sounds. The second score, on the other hand, is just Lee Erwin on organ, and though it works fine, it doesn't have the variance of the Wilson/Israel recording.
Both versions are mixed in stereo. It should be noted that the Erwin music is new to this edition, it was not on the earlier DVD.
Some of the extras on The Black Pirate are repeats from the 2004 release, and in actuality, are even holdovers from an even older laser disc release. Namely, there is a full-length audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. The art of the commentary has come a long way since the mid-90s, and though Behlmer may be somewhat of a pioneer, his track is as rickety as any trailblazing effort often is. His way of speaking isn't very natural, he's tied too heavily to his script/outline, and doesn't stay in sync with the movie. Still, he does provide some good background on the production for those who are willing to sit through it.
Behlmer also provides commentary on 18 minutes of outtakes from the film, giving a glimpse of what it was like on a Fairbanks set, showing some of his flubs and also some deleted scenes. This is another feature from the old disc, and it's now joined by an added half hour of outtakes taken from the Library of Congress. These new outtakes are shown without audio and are essentially more of the same: lots of interstitial scenes and do-overs, including pauses and even the clapboard markers. (These are in black-and-white.)
Another new feature on this disc is the inclusion of the shortened black-and-white talkie version of the movie. It's the same movie, essentially, but Douglas Fairbanks Jr. removed the title cards and instead narrated the movie, hoping that it would bring his father to a whole new audience. It's an interesting artifact, though I can't imagine you would ever choose to watch this instead of the original. (Though in black-and-white and just a bonus, Kino does present it here in HD.)
Finally, there is a stills gallery, navigated with your remote control.
The Black Pirate is good, frothy fun. High-seas adventure at its best! Douglas Fairbanks makes for a charming swashbuckler, and though the story is slight, the good times are many. Probably the biggest draw here, though, is the early use of Technicolor and Kino's marvelous restoration of the 1926 silent classic. The colors look remarkable on Blu-Ray, it's a top-of-the-line preservation. A must-see for film fans with a taste for the history of the art form. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.