This post is my contribution to the "Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon," sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. For a full list of excellent entries from the other blog participants, please click here.
"The grand age of the adventure epic gave to the American people, as to people all over the world, an image of grandeur and glitter and flair which our own eccentrically stable country could barely approach. Most importantly, it gave a sense of grace. Grace - the ability to make the difficult look easy and the simple look profound - was the stylistic hallmark of the swashbuckler and the gentleman adventurer." (1)
I love a good swashbuckler.
The swashbuckler is a particular subgenre of the period adventure film, or costume epic. It's a particularly fun little corner of the movie universe, where good always triumphs over evil; disagreements are settled with swordplay and, if at all possible, accompanied by a witty verbal riposte; where heroes are dashing and villains hissable; and where historical accuracy adds plenty of background color but never gets in the way of a ripping good yarn.
Though swashbucklers have always been made by the major studios, the genre enjoyed three distinct heydays: the 1920s, when Douglas Fairbanks Sr. came bounding onto the scene; the mid-to-late 1930s, when Errol Flynn and his cheeky grin ruled the box office; and a late blossoming in the 1950s, when studios used the color and pageantry of the form to liven up their new widescreen processes and lure audiences back from the upstart medium of television.
Swashbucklers come in many flavors: the pirate movie (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk), tales of knights errant and damsels faire (The Black Shield of Falworth, Prince Valiant), Arabian fantasies, replete with desert sheiks, veiled maidens and clashing scimatars (The Desert Hawk, Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves), the Robin Hood / Zorro "steal from the rich" school, among others - all served up with sweep, panache and sumptuous production values by the Hollywood studio system. Some maintain that swashbucklers are still made even today (citing the Pirates of the Carribean franchise as one example), but really, the swashbuckler could only really exist in the more innocent age of classic Hollywood, before reflexive irony and eye-rolling self-awareness became the norm.
The 1940s, while not overburdened by the genre, certainly had more than their fair share of memorable swashbucklers. The Black Swan, in all its Technicolor glory, is one of the most beautiful to behold.
All the elements of a good swashbuckler are in clear evidence here, starting with the de rigueur title card:
Pirates ransack Jamaica, under the joint leadership of Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), captain of the Revenge, and Billy Leech (George Sanders), captain of the Black Swan. Before they can make their escape and enjoy their booty, government troops arrive and drive the pirates from the island. Jamie is captured and put to the rack to glean information on the whereabouts of Henry Morgan, the infamous pirate leader and Jamie's close confederate, whom he thought hanged by the magistrates in London. Before long, Jamie is rescued by his loyal friend Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell) and promptly throws the governor of Jamaica, Lord Denby (George Zucco), in the dungeon. He soon encounters the governor's fiery beauty of a daughter, Lady Margaret (Maureen O'Hara), and the sparks fly.
Smitten, Jamie throws Lady Margaret over one shoulder and is about to cart her off to his ship when he sees Captain Morgan (Laird Cregar) himself stride through the palace doors.
Turns out Morgan has been pardoned by the British government and sent back as the new governor of Jamaica, tasked with cleaning up the Spanish Main and ridding the shipping lanes of the depredations of his old pirate cronies. Morgan wants his old brethren to strike the colors for England and prey only on French ships. Captain Leech wants no part of this and heads off to raid the rich port town of Maracaibo. Jamie and Tommy stay loyal to Morgan and move into the governor's quarters, Jamie claiming Lady Margaret's old room for himself.
Morgan quickly finds the political wrangling of the Jamaican parliament more troublesome than his freebooter days. (Morgan: "I wish my nature hadn't changed. I'd have made that assembly walk the plank." Jamie: "You can't go wrong drowning politicians, Henry."). In the meantime, Jamie pursues Margaret, but she spurns his advances.
Lady Margaret is engaged to foppish Edward Ashley (Roger Ingram) but is unaware that he's made a deal with Leech to betray the shipping routes and movements of His Majesty's fleet, partly to line his own coffers and partly to discredit Morgan in the Jamaican assembly.
As the assembly votes to impeach Morgan and remove him from office, Jamie takes drastic steps and kidnaps Margaret, hoping not only to woo the icy lady but to stall Morgan's impeachment. Intercepted by Leech and his men and vastly outgunned, Jamie pretends to join Leech in hopes of turning the tables on him later, passing Margaret off as his wife. As a sign of good faith, the cautious Leech demands that Jamie and his blushing new “bride” sail with him on the Black Swan. Leech grows suspicious over the couple's chaste sleeping arrangements, however, and snatches Margaret, leaving Jamie trussed up on the Swan, while he sails Jamie's ship Revenge into Maracaibo harbor for a surprise assault. Can Jamie escape in time to foil Leech's plans and rescue the woman he loves?
The Black Swan is not the most action packed of swashbucklers, but it's certainly one of the glossiest, beautifully produced by all the myriad, masterful craftsmen employed by 20th Century Fox at the time. Director Henry King keeps the plot moving quickly and the script, by the legendary Ben Hecht and Seeton I. Miller (loosely based on the Rafael Sabatini novel), gives the dialogue a full-blooded poetry. There's a lush score from Alfred Newman and the 3-strip Technicolor cinematography by Leon Shamroy is simply gorgeous. Special care was taken with the effects and model work. (All the full view scenes of ships sailing the Spanish Main were models, though to call them miniatures would be misleading, as they were a full 18 feet long, with 16-foot-tall masts. Their increased size helped make their movement through the waters of the Fox tank look more realistic).
Tyrone Power lacked the robust physicality of Errol Flynn, but stacked up an impressive number of swashbuckling parts in his relatively brief career, most notably The Mark of Zorro from 1941. The Black Swan isn't an out-and-out classic like Zorro, but is still pretty dang good in its own right. Power cuts a terribly handsome, dashing figure as a pirate captain, and has fun with the more unsavory, roguish elements of his character - though of course, in tried-and-true Hollywood fashion, the ultimate bad boy is eventually redeemed and ennobled by his love for a worthy woman.
Power himself apparently tired of his heroic swashbuckler roles, and felt somewhat constrained by the demands of the studio and his public to keep making them. He much preferred later, juicier parts like those in Nightmare Alley and Witness for the Prosecution that demanded a more complex kind of acting. However, I don't think his work in these period adventure films should be undervalued. It's not at all easy to bring these sorts of noble hero roles to life in an unselfconscious way. Villains are always the most colorful parts, and it's often hard to avoid coming across as bland and stiff when one plays the stalwart hero. Like Flynn, Power brought just the right balance of saucy, devil-may-care attitude and suave confidence to such roles. He made it all look easy, and that's a rare and underappreciated skill.
Sadly, another historical spectacle proved to be Power's last. According to Tony Thomas' Cads an Cavaliers: The Film Adventurers:
Tyrone Power died while making Solomon and Sheba on location in Spain in 1958, and the film was largely the cause of his death. He was aware of his heart condition; in fact it was shortly before leaving for Spain that he did a film for the American Heart Association in which he warned of the dangers of exertion and said "time is the most precious thing we have." Solomon and Sheba was the kind of film that demanded physical effort, a costume epic with much action; Power was the kind of actor loathe to let a double do what he felt he could do himself. On the afternoon of November 15, he filmed a scene with George Sanders as the villain, in which the two performed a duel with broadswords. The scene was incomplete when Power asked to stop and went to his dressing room complaining of pains in his arms and chest. An hour later he died. He was forty-four. (2)
Maureen O'Hara was already quite a star by this point in her career, and though young, her spirited, fire-and-ice persona is in full flower here. With her porcelain skin, auburn hair and wonderful figure, along with a razor tongue, strong temper, and regal manner, O'Hara possessed the perfect amount of strength and beauty to stand toe-to-toe with larger than life actors like Power and (especially) John Wayne. She also carried herself with a certain hauteur which is well-suited to her character here, a privileged governor's daughter who is above fraternizing with a lowly dog of a pirate.
In real life, Ms. O'Hara was far from a snob when it came to accepting film roles. On the commentary track, she confesses to film historian Rudy Belmer a true fondness for adventure films, and she made plenty of good ones in her career, including The Spanish Main, Flame of Araby (with Jeff Chandler), Bagdad, Against All Flags (with an aging but still game Errol Flynn) - and even wielded a sword herself, as the daughter of musketeer Athos in At Sword’s Point (with Cornel Wilde). O'Hara was a dab hand with a sword, with noted swordplay coordinator Fred Cavens reportedly naming her the best of all Hollywood's lady fencers. O'Hara and Power have great chemistry together in The Black Swan, yet only had a chance to co-star once more, in John Ford's The Long Gray Line (1955).
The supporting cast is, if anything, even stronger than the leads. Thomas Mitchell might seem an odd choice at first glance to play a buccaneer, but he tackles the role of Tommy Blue with gusto. Anthony Quinn isn’t given much to do except glower behind an eyepatch and grin like a shark, but is an effective presence nonetheless. George Zucco and Roger Ingram bring the right degree of acid-tongued contempt to their lordly roles. And it’s a real treat to see the usually suave and dapper George Sanders playing a rough and tumble pirate. (Not one to overexert himself, Sanders apparently took the part on the proviso that he wore a beard to make it easier for him to be doubled in the fencing scenes.) 1942 was a banner year for Sanders, as he starred in a full nine (!) films, not only playing villains against Power in Swan and Son of Fury, but 3 Falcon mystery programmers (A Date with the Falcon, The Falcon Takes Over and The Falcon's Brother), roles in Tales of Manhattan, Her Cardboard Lover and Quiet Please: Murder, as well as scoring the lead as a surrogate Paul Gaugin in The Moon and Sixpence.
As good as Power, O'Hara and the rest of the cast are, the one who truly steals the show is Laird Cregar as Henry Morgan. At 6‘ 3”, Cregar gives a literally towering performance, his deep, booming voice and large stature bringing a real authority to the part. When he's on screen, he's mesmerizing. A unique and extremely talented actor, Cregar died tragically young at age 31, only a few years after completing work on The Black Swan. His premature death surely robbed cinemagoers of many more wonderful performances yet to come.
The Black Swan does have a few plot holes. For example, we never see the treacherous Ashley get his just desserts, despite his actions having caused hundreds of deaths and the loss to the Crown of more than a million pounds in gold and sterling. It's also never made clear if his skullduggery had the support of Lord Denby, such is Denby's hatred of Morgan (though the latter is probably an unlikely scenario).
In addition, modern audiences may find it a little hard to fully root for Power’s character, at least in the beginning. In reality, pirates were (and are) the scum of the sea, murdering, pillaging, raping criminals, and the film brings about as much of this rough edge to the screen as the Hays Code would allow. It’s clear that Jamie has taken more than his fair share of lives, has pillaged and ransacked with the worst of them, and had his way with many of the women he captured (who, it’s implied, came to enjoy it). He does seem to have some loyalty to his home country of England, preferring to raid the French if at all possible. To his credit, Power doesn’t downplay the more base and lusty side of Jamie’s nature. Some of this is mitigated as he goes on to renounce his piratical activities and behave in a more civilized, gentlemanly fashion by the romantic fade-out.
There’s also a shortage of swordplay for a swashbuckler, in my opinion, but the finale delivers the goods, as Power, Tommy and the rest of the Revenge's crew battle it out with Leech’s men, cannons boom, cutlasses and cudgels fly, and Power and Sanders face off in one-on-one combat. Their swordfight isn’t in the same league as the excellent one between Power and Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro, and features that annoying sped-up effect so common to fighting scenes of this era, but overall it's jolly good stuff, and caps the movie off with a rousing flourish.
Tyrone Power would go on to further costume epics, such as Captain From Castile, Prince of Foxes and The Black Rose, yet none of these were able to match the sheer swagger, splendor or pictorial beauty of The Black Swan.
Acknowledgements: (1) excerpted from Thaddeus Tuleja's introduction to Cads and Cavaliers: The Film Adventurers by Tony Thomas, published by A.S. Barnes and Company, 1973. (2) is by Thomas, also quoted from the same source.
DVD Note: The Black Swan is part of Fox's "Studio Classics" line, and looks great on DVD (one can only imagine the splendor of an eventual Blu-Ray release, should we be so lucky). Extras include a typically informative commentary track hosted by Rudy Belmer, with frequent contributions from Maureen O'Hara.
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