The Black Swan (1942)
(No – not the one with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. I’m a fan of both but this is neither the time nor the place!)
Here we have another film that most people my age are too young to have seen. Thankfully a combination of a childhood love of pirates and a cinematically nostalgic father resulted in my seeing this classic at an early age. Based on the book by Rafael Sabatini (look out for reviews of his books in a future post!)
This gloriously Technicolor film sees Tyrone Power and George Sanders buckling their swash in late 17th century Jamaica. I remember the first time I watched this just thinking ‘look, pirates!’ but on closer inspection the situation is a little more complex. Both Jamie Waring (Power) and Billy Leech (Sanders) are a hazy mix of pirate and privateer, both revelling in the usual plundering activities that pirates do but doing it with a slightly larger goal in mind; namely damaging Spanish interests in the Caribbean. Jamie describes himself as ‘a bit of ocean-scum doing the king’s dirty work’.
Both have previously worked with fellow privateer/pirate Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) and the film begins with their discussing his imminent execution following a raid on a Spanish town. Leech clearly doesn’t care that much but Jamie thinks that Morgan was the best of them. When Jamie is subsequently captured and questioned he discovers that Morgan not only evaded the noose but has been pardoned, knighted and been appointed governor of Jamaica. The former governor, Lord Denbigh, is unimpressed to say the least, as is his daughter, the beautiful Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara).
I’ll leave the rest for you to find out; the last thing I’ll mention is that Jamie, having already developed a liking for her, later tries to court Margaret in a gentlemanly manner (hardly a challenge since last time he tried to kiss her she bit through his lip and he knocked her unconscious – remember when film heroes used to do that and people thought it was fine?) but he fails miserably, not least because she is already engaged to a rather unpleasant courtier named Roger.
OK, on to reviewing. On paper there are plenty of reasons not to like this film; the under-cranked swordfighting is painfully obvious to those of us raised in the age of CGI, as are the numerous day-for-night shots that make it look like a scene keeps switching between midnight and twilight. The ‘piratical’ language can seem a bit cringeworthy as well, with threats of ‘walking the plank’ and the usual obsession with rum. It’s also a little convenient (minor spoiler alert – skip to next paragraph if you want) that the spy just happens to be the somewhat obnoxious fiancé of the love interest. The film might have been a little more thought-provoking if he’d actually been a nice guy, then we’d have appreciated Margaret’s dilemma a bit more, rather than automatically siding with Jamie.
The whole Margaret/Jamie relationship is also a little messed up when you stop and think, with the shadow of Stockholm Syndrome looming heavy over it. I mean, the man greets her by grabbing and forcing a kiss on her, and when she bites his lip he knocks her out! He repeatedly harasses her against her objections, eventually kidnapping her until she agrees that he sort of has a good side, after which she naturally falls madly in love with him. Throw in some teen angst and remove the witty dialogue and you have everything that’s wrong with post-twilight film relationships! Saying that, this is the 1940s, when roguish insistence was apparently the way to go, and while we probably shouldn’t approve, it lacks the creepy feel you’d get with this kind of relationship now.
For all this film’s flaws I can’t help but like it. I’m a fan of Errol Flynn but I have to say that Tyrone Power’s films tend to be even better. This has everything you’d want from a good pirate film – sea-battles, swordfighting, an overblown, blustering villain, a dashing (anti-)hero and a happy ending. It even has a theme song (from back when films did that!). As I’ve found with most films of this era, the random American accents of Power and O’Hara don’t really grate, even when around English actors (like the brilliant George Sanders). I can’t say why because I hate American accents in films like this now, but here it seems to work for some reason.
Another reason why I personally like this film is because it features what I’ve come to call ‘Get Carter Syndrome’ with its leading man. Tyrone Power, our sexy leading man, manages to get his shirt off two or three times in this film and hasn’t felt the need to become a bodybuilder first. This may sound hypocritical coming from a fan of the Avengers films, but I do sort of miss the days when a man could be a sex symbol and not have to adhere to this unrealistic body-stereotype that we inflict on actors now. Tyrone Power (like Errol Flynn or, in my usual example, Michael Caine) is just a man who’s in good physical shape. That’s it. He hasn’t juiced up or spent nine months on a high-protein diet or taken a dozen different supplements and hormones to make his torso look like something from a bodybuilding magazine. He’s able to be who he is and still be a sex symbol, and I personally think that’s brilliant.
Going off topic slightly, the same is true of film heroines. One of the sexiest film scenes I ever saw was in Pirates, when Donna Maria and Jean-Baptiste are hiding under the governor’s bedcovers – fully clothed – him with his hand over her mouth to stop her crying out for help. She slowly removes his hand, and he lets her, and the two kiss. The scene is incredibly sensual and it was all down to good acting and good filmmaking, something I think we’re in danger of losing in more modern cinema.
OK, I went off on one a bit there, (sorry!), back to The Black Swan. Overall this is 1940s swashbuckling at its finest, with laughs, drama, action and romance – the Ronseal off pirate films, it does in fact do exactly what it says on the tin. If you can look past the very un-PC relationship and the freakily sped-up fights, I think you’ll find this film a great bit of piratical fun!