It’s been said that a “swashbuckler” movie is an adventure that uses history for inspiration and atmosphere, but never lets it get in the way of a good sword fight or a torrid love scene. The Black Swan is a lovely swashbuckler.
Tyron Power has been called “the poor man’s Clark Gable.” A fine Shakespearian actor, as his father had been before him. My mother, who was from a generation that appreciated both men, told me that it was a matter of type. Both men were sexy, but women preferred one or the other. She preferred Ty. I first saw Tyrone Power in the 1940 Mark of Zorro. I agreed with her immediately.
The Black Swan opens with pirates attacking a Spanish city. The thing which got my attention here was that the pirates acted like pirates – they paw through people’s possessions, drape themselves with ropes of pearls, carry off women. We meet Tyrone Power’s character, Jamie Warren, as he relaxes after the attack. He sits on the beach with Captain Billy Leech, a fellow pirate, scooping wine from a barrel with a golden cup. Both men are drunk.
This is what first got my attention- drunken pirates, spilling wine on themselves. And next, when Jamie Warren eulogizes the pirate Henry Morgan, my interest grew even more. Morgan has just been arrested and hauled back to England to be hanged.
Billy Leech played by George Sanders, an actor noted for suave sophisticated roles, wears a rough red beard. The actor insisted on it. The studio had forced him to play a pirate, but he didn’t want to be remembered for the role. He also wanted to make it easy for a stunt double to do his sword fighting scenes. Rumor had it he was just plain lazy.
As the drunken pirates chat, the Spanish counterattack and Jamie is captured. The next scene features Jamie being tortured for information.
It’s a scene worthy of a 17th century James Bond. Don Miguel, the foppish Spanish governor, questions Jamie Warren and urges his men to tighten the screws on the rack. As Jamie, Tyrone Power has his shirt off, and evidences convincing pain while throwing back assorted quips.
Don Miguel: Where is Henry Morgan?
Jamie: Hull down and sailing through your whiskers, Don Miguel!
But two shiploads of pirates counter-counterattack, and Jamie is suddenly rescued by his old friend Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell). Cut down, Jamie immediately asks for wine. The pirates torment Don Miguel and the visiting English governor. Then the governor’s daughter, Lady Margaret shows up.
A lesser production might have cast a blonde screamer, but this romantic lead is Maureen O’Hara, a redhead and a fiery Irish woman. She arrives with a pistol and confronts Jamie. He takes the pistol, kisses her, and is about to carry her off, when the plot, in the form of Henry Morgan, walks in.
Morgan is played by Laird Cregar, a gentleman of epic proportions and truly impressive presence. It’s hard to tell if he’s stealing the scenes or if his part was just written that way. Six-foot-three, wide and flamboyantly dressed, he booms out the news that his arrest and hanging have been transformed to a knighthood and a promotion to Governor of Jamaica (paralleling the real world – see my blog http://thepirateempire.blogspot.com/2013/04/captain-morgan-pirate-or-hero.html
Jamie drops Margaret – literally (he was carrying her off.) He’s an enthusiastic follower of the charismatic Morgan, and when given a chance to go straight- to receive a pardon and take government jobs - Jamie and Tommy Blue agree readily. They follow Morgan to the governor’s house and then continue to act like pirates, tearing through the place looking for the best rooms.
Morgan isn’t accepted by the existing government officials, and when he asks the other pirate captains to take the pardon, Leech, captain of the Black Swan, calls him a spy. Morgan’s – and Jamie’s – future rests on neutralizing the pirates, but the pirates aren’t cooperating.
Being at the governor’s house gives Jamie a chance to court Lady Margaret. First there’s a confrontation with Margaret’s foppish fiancé. Another production might have turned this into a sword fight, but Jamie ends matters with a convincing punch to the face. Margaret’s fiancé isn’t worth drawing a blade over. I find this very satisfying.
Jamie makes one more effort to get Margaret alone by following her when she goes riding. When her horse throws her, he tries to turn an inspection of her damaged ankle into a full-body examination. But she cleverly turns the tables on him, fools him completely and knocks him on the head with a rock.
This is the moment when Jamie falls in love, one of the better reasons in a 1940’s era movie. (Far too often the reason is: female – nearby) She’s proved herself to be much more than a delicate upper class lady. Instead, she’s Jamie’s match in intelligence and duplicity.
The chemistry between Maureen O’Hara and Tyrone Power was excellent. Both were Irish, and though O’Hara was only 22, she already had a reputation for standing up for herself.
She had initially refused to make the Black Swan, because it was being shot in color. Color was a new process, and her last experience with it had been disastrous. The method used on her previous film had lighting of such brightness, intensity and heat that she had suffered from severe headaches and even developed eye damage. It was only when she was shown that a completely different process was being used that she committed to the project.
Soon one of the government people is consorting with the pirates, giving away the location and sailing times of especially rich ships for a share in the profits and a chance to get Morgan out of office.
Jamie is sent out to sea to prevent the plunder, but before he goes, he kidnaps Margaret to prevent her impending marriage. Like all pirate captives, she haughtily refuses to dine in the captain’s cabin.
When Jamie finds Leech, however, he discovers that, in addition to the powerful Black Swan, Leech has a fleet of ships. Hopelessly outgunned, Jamie pretends that he has come to join the pirates. When Leech is suspicious, Jamie introduces Margaret as his new bride and excuse for needing to leave Jamaica in a hurry. Leech, suspicious, insists that Jamie and Margaret travel aboard the Black Swan.
Jamie and Margaret must pretend to be a newlywed couple, sleeping in a tiny cabin. Leech keeps breaking into their cabin, so they are forced to sleep in the same bed.
Now, to a modern viewers this means nothing. But in 1942, the Hays Office reviewed all movies and would not release those deemed “immoral” (Before ratings, this was the movie industry’s answer to the problem of too-explicit films drawing ire from moralists.) A man and a woman sharing a bed was, according to the Hays Code, immoral. Even if they’d been married from the year one.
Jamie and Margaret most certainly were NOT married, and Tyrone Power even had his shirt off again. The censors should never have let the film be shown. And yet they did.
Film historians believe that it’s because in this movie, Jamie is being very respectful and trying very hard to protect the woman he loves from much worse. The viewers know that Leech is a rapist, a murderer and worse. Apparently the censors were so entranced by Jamie’s gallantry that they let the scene stand.
Of course the movie ends happily, with an enormous swordfight, Morgan exonerated, and Jamie and Margaret sailing off into the sunset.
Why is the movie so good? Well, if you love beauty, it won an Oscar for cinematography, and is still used to teach students in film school. It really is that good. The minor characters are brilliant Tommy Blue/ Tommy Mitchell gets to say “By land or sea, you can always rely on me for wrongdoing of any nature.” Henry Morgan gets to throw his elaborate curled wig at people and drink ale out of a barrel. And no less person than Anthony Quinn lurks in the background, wearing an eye patch and grinning like a shark.
But my favorite bit is that the pirates act like pirates. Jamie Waring isn’t a disgraced nobleman. He’s a “sea rat” (his own words) an orphan, and a drunkard. Morgan bemoans his constrained life as an official, even as he struggles to maintain his position as governor.
The pirates, even the ones we’re supposed to like, aren’t cleaned up for consumption. For any movie, it’s a brave nod to realism, and for 1942 it’s remarkable.
The Black Swan is available on DVD. I borrowed a copy from my local library, and I’ve re-watched it several times. If you enjoyed any modern pirate movies, and want more, right now, you should give it a try.