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Film / The Black Pirate

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A silent film in color! Neato.

The Black Pirate is a 1926 Silent Movie starring Douglas Fairbanks. The film opens with a band of vicious, bloodthirsty pirates removing rings from the corpses of their victims. After plundering the ship they have just seized, the pirates then blow it up in order to kill all the witnesses. However, two people—Fairbanks's character and his father—survive the blast and make it to a nearby island. The father dies on the beach, and Fairbanks is marooned, but the pirates then make landfall on his island in order to bury their loot. Fairbanks, who both wants revenge and wants to get off the island, joins them, calling himself "The Black Pirate". His plan for revenge is complicated when the next ship that they seize is revealed to be carrying a beautiful lady (played by Billie Dove).

The Black Pirate was one of the biggest hits of Fairbanks's career, and one of the best of the several rousing action films he made during The Roaring '20s. Besides being a great movie, it has two claims to fame. First is the iconic Blade Brake scene, in which Fairbanks jumps from a ship's rigging to the deck by stabbing a knife in the sail and slicing his way down, establishing a trope that has been copied and parodied ever since.

Second, the film is in color. No, seriously, this is a Technicolor film from 1926. And it wasn't even the first; the first Technicolor film was called The Toll of the Sea and was made in 1922. The two-strip Technicolor process used in this film and other films in the 20s and early 30s was difficult and expensive, and rendered a soft palette of pastels that didn't pick up some colors very well (the blue of the sky looks washed out in several scenes). The result was a unique look that to some extent resembles the desaturated look of films like Saving Private Ryan.

What partially sets this movie apart from The Toll of the Sea is that this movie proved that movies could be in color. Fairbanks spent almost half the budget of the movie running tests on audiences and proving that color film wouldn't damage peoples eyes, or ruin the artistic value of film, which were very serious claims at the time.

Also, astoundingly for a film from this era, the blooper reel survives and can be seen on special editions of the film. Of note are the many, many takes of the famous blade brake scene and several fencing accidents due to the philosophy of film swordfighting used. (Fairbanks had learned from his previous films Robin Hood and Don Q Son Of Zorro that flashy swordfighting didn't look good and actual swordfighting also did not look good. Thus this film was approached by trying to meet the two in the middle, with real swordfighting that was still slow and flashy enough for the audience to follow.)


  • Accidental Truth: Fairbanks, improvising madly after Dove is discovered on the ship they just seized, proclaims her a princess and convinces the other pirates to hold her for ransom. He's making this up, as shown when he uses Scare Quotes to refer to the "princess" when sending a note calling for help. The ending reveals that she actually is a princess.
  • Attempted Rape: One guy tries this on Dove's character. He gets shot for his troubles.
  • Bad Boss: The Captain nearly murdered one his crewmen for trying to tough his treasure. He and his lieutenant also planned on killing their men and taking the treasure for themselves.
  • Blade Brake: This trope was tested by the Mythbusters, and pronounced "busted", as the seams of the sail will always knock the blade out of your hand. In Real Life, they got the shot by having Fairbanks hang on to a knife that was attached to a rig on the other side of the sail. They also tilted the sails at an angle using forced perspective to make it seem like a straight drop.
  • Boarding Party: Fairbanks is a one-man Boarding Party. Later, when Fairbanks is leading his men back to the pirate ship to capture it, his men scuttle their boats and swim underwater to the pirate ship before boarding it.
  • The Cameo: That's Mary Pickford, Fairbanks's wife, and not Billie Dove, when the duke and the princess are kissing at the end of the movie.
  • Damsel in Distress: Dove's character. The ship she's on is captured and she's at risk of rape throughout most of the movie, with only Fairbanks, MacTavish, and her handmaid to protect her.
  • The Dragon: The pirate lieutenant is this to the pirate captain at the start of the movie, as shown when the captain consults with him about killing the other sailors. Subverted when the captain is killed less than a half hour in, and the lieutenant becomes the main villain.
  • Dressed to Plunder: Played as straight as all the other pirate tropes in this movie—there's a guy with a peg leg, a guy with a Pirate Parrot, they all have pirate bandanas, they're all wielding cutlasses and pistols, etc.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The pirate captain is introduced pulling the rings off of corpses, which his men then toss on the deck. He and his crew are immediately established as murderous, evil Type 1 pirates.
  • Flynning: An exciting sword fight between Fairbanks and the pirate captain on the beach ends with Fairbanks killing the captain by driving him onto a short sword that Fairbanks stuck in the ground.
  • Funetik Aksent: MacTavish's dialogue is rendered this way in title cards. ("Wud ye now?")
  • Gory Discretion Shot: One victim who was captured alive swallows his ring rather than hand it over. The captain gestures to one of his men, who walks out of frame. He returns with the ring and a bloody knife.
  • Handicapped Badass: MacTavish only has one arm but that doesn't hinder him in the least.
  • Heel–Face Turn: MacTavish, who presumably was as dangerous as all the other bloodthirsty pirates, becomes loyal to Fairbanks after Fairbanks kills the pirate captain. MacTavish is then a good guy for the rest of the movie, protecting Dove and helping Fairbanks retake the ship.
  • He Knows Too Much: After burying the booty, the pirate captain and his lieutenant are about to kill the others—"Dead men tell no tales"—when Fairbanks shows up and asks to join.
  • King Incognito: Hints throughout that Fairbanks is an important person: Dove's companion recognizes Fairbanks's fancy ring, and the note Fairbanks gives him refers to "a detachment of my best soldiers". At the end Fairbanks is revealed to be the "Duke of Arnoldo".
  • Klingon Promotion: Fairbanks kills the pirate Captain and takes over the role, though he does have to prove himself once more afterwards.
  • Leave No Witnesses: Standard operating procedure for the pirates. They blow up a ship that has quite a few survivors still on it.
  • Love at First Sight: Fairbanks, who is smitten with the beautiful Dove, asks MacTavish if he believes in this.
  • Master Swordsman: Fairbanks' character. It's how he initially earns the pirates' trust: beating their captain in a duel.
  • Membership Token: Dove's companion recognizes Fairbanks's ring. Fairbanks later gives him the ring with instructions to show it to the governor. Evidently, it marks him as a duke.
  • Mid-Battle Tea Break: Attempted by the film as seen in the blooper reel, Fairbanks pauses in the middle of the final fight, stabs a barrel of wine, and drinks from the resulting stream. Unfortunately, it never quite works out right and doesn't make it into the final film.
  • Nameless Narrative: Almost. The Scottish pirate played by Donald Crisp is revealed to be named MacTavish when he signs the ransom letter. No other names are given. Dove's character is named "Isobel" on several internet sites (like the IMDb and The Other Wiki), but that name is never mentioned in the film.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Downplayed. Tempe Pigott's character doesn't fight but she does row a boat and help her mistress flee from danger.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: "There is NO honor among thieves", says a title card, right before one of the pirates tries to rape Billie Dove despite the ransom agreement, only to be stopped by Fairbanks and the gang.
  • One-Man Army: Fairbanks, seeking to prove his worthiness to the pirates, says he'll capture the next ship they see all by himself. He does. He disguises himself as a fisherman to get close to the ship, climbs aboard and up into the rigging, uses the Blade Brake to jump down and ambush the sailors on watch, and then gains control of the ship's cannons to force the crew below.
  • Pirate: Vicious, murderous Type 1 pirates who kill their prisoners.
  • Pirate Booty: And plenty of it. Fairbanks has to act quickly when the real pirates decided Billie Dove is booty and start drawing lots to decide who gets her.
  • Pirate Parrot: This film plays the pirate tropes so straight that it even throws in a parrot, perched on a pirate's shoulder.
  • Powder Trail: How the pirates get rid of the ships they raid and kill all the survivors. They lay a powder trail to the magazines, light it, and get off before it blows up.
  • Rescue Romance: Dove starts to develop feelings for Fairbanks when he tries to help her escape.
  • Scare Quotes: Fairbanks, improvising madly after Dove is discovered on the ship they just seized, proclaims her a princess and convinces the other pirates to hold her for ransom. He's making this up, as shown when he uses scare quotes to refer to the "princess" when sending a note calling for help.
  • Seadog Peg Leg: It wouldn't be a proper pirate movie without at least one.
  • Slap Yourself Awake: When the evil pirate lieutenant looks like he might rape Bessie Dove, MacTavish sets himself up as a guard, and props a sword under his nose to wake himself up if he dozes off. At the end, when Fairbanks and Dove join in an embrace that lasts a long time, MacTavish does the same thing.
  • Title Drop: "The Black Pirate" signs the ransom letter with this name.
  • Walk the Plank: The lieutenant forces Fairbanks to this at one point.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: "Lady, I grieve profoundly this mishappening."
  • You Killed My Father: Fairbanks swears vengeance on the pirates for killing his father.