1926, United Artists. Directed by Albert Parker. Douglas Fairbanks, Billie Dove, Tempe Pigott, Donald Crisp. Silent.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: Much action violence and sometimes terrible deeds by pirates; revenge theme; sustained menace to a female prisoner’s honor.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
One of the silent era’s most spectacular action blockbusters, The Black Pirate also boasts an experimental early Technicolor process, making it one of the only color silent films. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. stars as a nobleman who is the sole survivor of a ship seized by pirates who blow up the ship, killing everyone on board, including Fairbanks’ father. Fairbanks vows revenge and subsequently joins the pirate crew, walking a fine line by seeming to aid the pirates while actually protecting potential victims and plotting the pirates’ ultimate downfall.
The film doesn’t sanitize its violent villains or gloss over their bloodthirsty ways: In the opening scene, one prisoner furtively swallows a ring to try to keep it from the pirates — but the pirate captain notices and sends a man with a knife to gruesomely retrieve it offscreen. And when a beautiful lady (Billie Dove) from a captured ship falls into the pirates’ hands, there’s no doubt of the gravity of her peril — until Fairbanks’ bold intervention on her behalf.
Fairbanks’s astonishing acrobatics remain dazzling today, and the climactic battle includes some great underwater footage of an aquatic assault on the pirates. This film includes Fairbanks’ most famous and widely copied stunt, riding down a sail on the edge of a knife; but my favorite is the scene in which he cuts loose the corner of a billowing sail and then holds on as the wind carries him up off the deck of the ship and high into the rigging.