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.
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.
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.
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.