The Black Swan (1942)

After a peace treaty between England and Spain, the King of England rescinds his tacit support of buccaneers. Not all of them swear off piracy, so he elevates one of them, Captain Morgan, to the post of Governor of Jamaica, and tasks him with ridding the Caribbean of the former privateers. That does not sit well with the previous Governor, Lord Denby, who plots to overthrow his successor by leaking secret information to the new leader of the pirates, Billy Leech (George Sanders), hoping that Morgan will be blamed. Our lead character is one of Morgan’s companions, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), who also happens to take an interest in Denby’s daughter Margaret (Maureen O’Hara).

This is my first ever Tyrone Power film, and I’m not sure what to think of his performance, keeping in mind the inevitable comparison to Errol Flynn. This role is an interesting one: former pirate Jamie Waring is a darker, meaner character than any I’ve ever seen Flynn play. He’s a drunkard who has no problem torturing his enemies, pillaging a town, burning it, and raping its women. The latter is never stated outright in this 69-year-old movie, of course, but it’s surprisingly heavily implied. He doesn’t really change his attitude during the film, either. His aggressive pursuit of Margaret would garner him at least a restraining order in today’s world, and some of the earlier scenes border on attempted rape, stopped only by circumstance or quick thinking on Margaret’s part.
His abusive treatment of her wears her down by the end, and that the two end up as a couple is no surprise to anyone who has seen a few adventure films from that era. But from a modern perspective, their relationship is terribly unhealthy, and their behaviour wasn’t laudable in 1942, either (common, maybe, but not praiseworthy). The screenplay unfortunately feels the need to turn her other suitor, a co-conspirator of her father, into a greedy traitor, driving her into Waring’s arms practically by default. Maybe that was the idea, presenting the male and female leads as flawed, realistic characters capable of making bad choices. But I can’t shake the feeling the audience is expected to cheer Waring on, and to root for Margaret to stop resisting him.
That brings me back to the lead actor: I don’t know if Power plays the role as intended, or is incapable of imbuing the role with the sort of charm Errol Flynn effortlessly exuded, charm that could have softened the pirate a bit by giving his lines an ironic “I don’t really mean it, I’m actually a gentleman” vibe. Whether it’s the fault of the actor, the director, or the screenwriters, the result is a rather unpleasant lead character. Also, for some reason, his American accent is highly grating. He’s not the only one with a notable American accent, but his is the only one that really bothered me. Maybe it was the character’s insistence that he’s from London.

As far as the other actors are concerned, Maureen O’Hara comports herself well; it’s not her fault the screenplay is creepy and sexist, and she plays falling for the pirate manhandling her rather convincingly. Laird Cregar’s boisterous turn as Henry Morgan is a bright spot as well.
But Anthony Quinn is utterly wasted as one of the unrepentant pirates, getting only a few sentences. And George Sanders, almost unidentifiable under a ridiculous red wig and beard, is reduced to a one-note villain where a better script could have turned him into an interesting character. Maybe that was the original intention: the sinister Jamie Waring fighting on the side of the good guys because that gives him the opportunity to fight and kill legally, contrasted with the noble Billy Leech who doesn’t trust the government and loves the freedom of the sea too much to shackle himself to the will of a King. At best, only shades of this juxtaposition are present in the final film.

Several older pirate films, like Flynn’s Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940) are more entertaining and have more impressive sea battle scenes, despite being filmed in black and white. The final battle is especially terrible; one ship is rendered out of commission by a few strokes of a blade, and the other can only be taken over because of a head scratcher of a decision the villain makes. As a result, there’s not much in the way of ship-to-ship fighting going on in the movie.
The one-on-one duels don’t fare much better. I thought I’d read Power was a good fencer, but that’s not evident from this particular picture. Most of the fights are very short, and his climactic duel with Sanders makes copious use of undercranking, making his motions appear significantly faster than natural and borderline comical.

All that said, this is not a bad film. It’s just very mediocre plot-wise and can’t redeem itself in its action scenes.


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