If The Black Pirate isn’t the biggest, most lavish of pirate adventures from the silent era, it’s only because the technical aspects of making it were so demanding that other aspects of the film had to be scaled down a bit. This was the world’s third full-length Technicolor film, the first being 1922’s Toll of the Sea starring Anna May Wong in her first leading role; and the second being the western Wanderer of the Wasteland, starring Billie Dove. Another film, Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, used the process in 1925, but only for one scene, the rest of the film being shot in the more standard black and white with color tinting. The same thing was done to great effect in The Phantom of the Opera the same year. Technicolor was the next major leap forward from Kinemacolor, a process developed in Britain that represented the first move away from the days when filmmakers like Georges Melies were coloring every frame of a film by hand in order to achieve the effect.
It was, in the 1920s, still a laborious process that was used only sparingly. It required two strips of film to be run simultaneously, a difficult proposition, especially once the filmstrips inevitably warped a little after repeated use, making it next to impossible to properly focus a picture. This cumbersome process was further revised, making The Black Pirate one of the last features to use it before the new Technicolor process was inaugurated via 1928’s The Viking. The novelty of being a color film from the silent era can sometimes dominate the conversation around The Black Pirate, which is in its way fair since having to shoot using the process played a major role in how the film was staged. Still, it’s also good to break away from analysis of the technical aspects of the film and just enjoy it for what it is under all the color: a stripped-down, back to basics adventure film with the most dynamic action star of the 1920s doing what he did best.
Douglas Fairbanks plays Michel, a young man who is the sole survivor of a pirate attack. As his father dies in his arms, Michel swears revenge, then immediately sets about the task by swaggering up to the pirates, who have come ashore for a round of booty burying, and pronouncing himself a much better pirate than any of them. The captain (Anders Randolf) takes umbrage at this boast, so Fairbanks, claiming the name the Black Pirate, fights him in a duel and slays the dastardly scalawag, claiming a spot on the crew by right of combat. The pirates’ second-in-command (Sam De Grasse) is suspicious of this newcomer who has swooped in out of nowhere, so the Black Pirate decides to prove himself by single-handedly capturing the next plunderable ship that happens by.
This he does by dint of his wits and Fairbank’s amazing ability to scale walls and chains and pretty much any physical obstacle thrown in his path. The new ship secure with nary a shot fired, the Black Pirate further asserts his influence over an increasingly impressed crew by suggesting they skip the part where they just blow up the ship and instead ransom it back to its owners for a tidy sum. His road to revenge takes a detour when a young woman (Billie Dove) is discovered on board who immediately captures the Black Pirate’s heart. He’s now forced to split his time between plotting his revenge, playing the convincing role of pirate savant, and protecting the young woman from the ministrations typical of a ship full of cutthroats toward a pretty girl. For the most part, he pulls this off with aplomb, but the cranky old pirate lieutenant has never let go of his suspicion, and as the rest of the crew celebrates the Black Pirate, the lieutenant plots his downfall.
Behind the camera, Fairbanks was just as driven as he was in front of it. The idea for The Black Pirate was first conceived by Fairbanks in 1922, but he knew he wanted to shoot it in color and he knew color wasn’t up to snuff at the time. He spent years planning the film in the shadow of his other productions, honing the story while also experimenting constantly with Technicolor technology. What could you do with it? What couldn’t you do with it? How do you light a scene to yield the best results as the two strips of film run behind the filters that render the palette? What color do you make the costumes, the sets, the make-up on the actors to yield the best results? Nominally, the film’s director was Albert Parker, a journeyman who enjoyed high-profile success with The Branded Woman (1920) and Sherlock Holmes (1922). Both of those films, however, succeeded primarily because of their charismatic leads (Norma Talmadge in the former, John Barrymore in the latter), and nothing in Parker’s career spoke of an ability to handle a swashbuckling epic. The one man best suited for that task was Fairbanks himself, as avid a student of making films as he was performing in them. While Parker might have been given the privilege of sitting in the chair (Douglas Fairbanks being too dynamic in front of the camera to sit down), few who knew Fairbanks doubt that he himself was the man calling all the shots. The Black Pirate was his long-gestating passion project, after all.
Fairbank’s previous swashbuckling adventures had played out against the sort of ornate, massive sets that typified silent-era blockbusters ever since 1914’s Cabiria and 1916’s Intolerance (in which Fairbanks had an uncredited bit part). Though not quite on the scale of those ancient world epics, both Robin Hood (1922) and Thief of Bagdad boasted some pretty elaborate sets. That simply wasn’t possible with The Black Pirate being shot using the Technicolor process, which gobbled up most of the spare time anyone might have had. As a result, this is a more basic — or perhaps it’s better to say, less lavish — affair, and to compensate, the film concentrates on the physicality and stunt work of Douglas Fairbanks and his merry band of thieves. Fairbanks’ body becomes the elaborate set, and he knows how to use it. At times, almost too well. There are things he does that seem so effortless, that are executed so smoothly, that it doesn’t even occur to you that it’s a stunt. Only after the fact, after it’s rolled around in the back of your head for a little bit, does it strike what an amazing feat had just occurred, how difficult it must have been not just to do, but to do in a way that makes it seem like it was nothing at all. Fairbanks scales the chain of an anchor with deceptively effortless grace, nary a hand nor foot misplaced, no call at any point for pausing or betraying the fact that some degree of effort must be involved in accomplishing such a task.
Fairbanks fills the time between fight scenes by striking manly poses, climbing rigging, standing with arms akimbo, and flashing that famous grin. One of the most famous pirate film stunts — sticking your knife into the top of a sail and sliding down it — originates here. There’s even an impressive “underwater” sequence accomplished with pretty much total convincing. Billie Dove was one of the great actresses of the era, but she is lost amid all the gunpowder, bared teeth, and flexed biceps, given next to nothing to do in a role one ultimately barely even notices exists. The romance between Fairbanks and Dove is underbaked, but it gets the job done enough to provide convincing motivation for the final third, when the Black Pirate’s scheme begins to unravel, leading to a much-anticipated large-scale pirate battle. There’s also not much in the way of ship-to-ship combat, this being a showcase primarily for human stunt work, but the finale still remains one of the finest in the long history of swashbuckling cinema.
New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall described the film in his 1926 review as “a series of robust scenes slung on a slender thread of a story.” That’s pretty much the measure of it, but the film doesn’t need anything more than that to thrill. Although he wasn’t done with adventure cinema, The Black Pirate represents a sort of last hurrah for Fairbanks, who was 43 when he made The Black Pirate even if he could still move with the lithe precision of a well-trained man half his age. 1927’s The Gaucho and 1929’s The Iron Mask both afford him ample opportunity for swashbuckling, but nothing else would linger over his shirtless, flexing, oiled-up form in such excess and with such attention as The Black Pirate. If the sets and the direction don’t deliver the same level of spectacle as in previous films, what does it matter? Douglas Fairbanks himself is the spectacle here, and that turns out to be more than enough.