Sunday 15 November 2015

Movie Review: The Black Swan (1942)

A second-rate pirate swashbuckler, The Black Swan mechanically ticks off the genre boxes and generally forgets about context, character and charm.

In the battle between the British and the Spanish for supremacy on the seas, Britain relies on privateer pirates to extend its power. The legendary Captain Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) is the most prominent, and his loyal followers include the charismatic Captain Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), better known as Jamie Boy, and the crusty Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders), commander of the fast and powerful ship Black Swan. Just as Jamie extricates himself from his latest entanglement with the Spanish, and sets eyes on Lady Margaret (Maureen O'Hara), a peace of sorts is declared. As a reward the King installs Captain Morgan as the new governor of Jamaica, replacing Margaret's father, Lord Denby (George Zucco).

This causes a rift among the other Captains. Jaime remains loyal to Morgan and joins the side of law and order in Port Royal. Leech does not trust the peace process and decides to stay independent, terrorizing the Caribbean seas. Jamie continues his pursuit of Margaret, although she already has a suitor in the form of English gentleman Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley). Morgan finds the job of ruling difficult, and he is undermined by both the elitists of Jamaica and Leech's piracy. Jamie has to find a way to help his friend and win Margaret's heart.

Although it offers a modicum of enjoyment, everything about The Black Swan feels rushed. Directed by Henry King, the film clocks in at 85 minutes, and sacrifices most of what passes as thoughtful narrative development. The ship-to-ship battles are perfunctory, the politics rudimentary, and the characters neatly break down into good and bad. Hardly any background context is offered for any of the individuals, and the screenplay, co-written by Ben Hecht as an adaptation of a Rafael Sabatini story, strips down character interactions to almost childish levels.

Even allowing for the era portrayed, the treatment of women is close to harrowing, with ladies reduced to so much property thrown over the shoulder by uncouth men as spoils of battle. When Jamie suddenly reforms into a government man, he does modify his behaviour and pursues Margaret in a more gentlemanly way. She plays hard to get throughout the film, as well she should.

On the plus side, the The Black Swan does look great in rich technicolor, and won the Best Cinematography Academy Award. Maureen O'Hara is gorgeous as she rises above the material and looks sniffily down on the ramshackle happenings around her. Tyrone Power is frequently given reasons to lose his shirt, amplifying the film's all-round visual appeal. George Sanders is an imposing villain, and Anthony Quinn appears in a small role as another of the rough seamen.

The Black Swan creates plenty of splashy noise, but is singularly lacking in requisite elegance.

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