Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Movies: The Other Dark Waterfowl

As luck would have it, I was casting about Monday afternoon to find something to watch on TV while I exercised. To my delight, TCM offered up the 1942 pirate film The Black Swan, and just in time, too.

The Black Swan takes its name from one of the pirate ships in the story and is very loosely based on the book by that master of freebooting adventure, Gabriel Sabotini. Though the history involved is atrocious, the action is fun and the actors are really into their roles as gentlemen, rogues and one particularly feisty redhead.

The movie opens with our hero, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power) being tortured on the rack in a Jamaican prison. There is never any beating around the bush about Jamie’s being a pirate. He has sailed with all the greats out of Tortuga, including the infamous Henry Morgan. So Jamie is as surprised as anyone when a pack of old mates burst in and rescues him, bringing with them the news that Morgan has been made Governor of Jamaica. Of course the outgoing Governor is a prize ass but, to Jamie’s delight, his daughter Margaret Denby (Maureen O’Hara), is as hot as a Tortuga boucan.

While Morgan, who is so aptly portrayed by Laird Cregar that I feel compelled to share this picture:
Is being sworn in as Governor, Jamie tries to woo Lady Denby. She’ll have none of it, of course, as she is engaged to the foppish Roger Ingram whose penchant for super-curly wigs is off-putting at best. Little does anyone know that Ingram is secretly feeding one of Jamie’s old mates information about English treasure ships. The pirate in question, red-bearded William “Billy” Leech (George Sanders), attacks and sacks the ships and turns over a tidy portion to Ingram. Because Leech is a known associate of Morgan’s, the English Crown threatens to unseat the new Governor is Leech isn’t caught and hanged.

Jamie Waring, who has friends awaiting him at Maracaibo, takes it upon himself to undo both Leech and Ingram. He first kidnaps Margaret Denby, because he can’t see her married to a traitor, and then sets off in ship in the hopes of reuniting with his mates and then facing Leech at sea. His plans are thwarted almost immediately. Lady Margaret is a hellcat who won’t put up with Jamie’s continuous insistence that she will one day fall in love with him. To add insult to injury, Jamie’s ship is overtaken by Leech’s Black Swan and Jamie must convince the suspicious Leech both that he has come to join Leech in his pillaging and that he has brought his new wife, the former Lady Denby, along with him.

Meanwhile Morgan has made it to Maracaibo, where talented belly dancers entertain Jaimie’s friends while they wait for him. Morgan is under the impression that Jamie has turned against him and joined Leech voluntarily. He will wait for the rogue in Maracaibo and then drag him back to Jamaica to hang for piracy and kidnapping.

Leech figures out Jamie’s ruse by noting that “Mrs. Waring” is none too fond of her new groom. He ties up Jamie and locks his crew below decks, then sails both ships into Maracaibo, guns blazing. Jamie and his mates get loose, of course, and the climactic battle with cutlasses and boarding axes ensues aboard the Black Swan. Jamie cuts Leech down but is badly wounded himself, leading Lady Margaret to succumb to his gallantry. When Morgan shows up bellowing about treacherous Jamie Waring, Margaret sets him straight and even says she came with him of her own free will.

And so all is set to rights. Morgan (who repeatedly speaks of others as poor sailors) takes Jamie and Margaret back to Jamaica. In the last scene, aboard ship, Margaret is wearing piratical breeches and headgear and swearing at “Jamie-boy” for being out of his “bunk”. As the sky burns red behind them, the couple fall into each other’s arms at last. The End.

Of course Morgan never sailed out of Tortuga and was Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, not Governor proper. He was also, as we’ve discussed before, a horrid sailor who would just as soon march overland as look at a ship. Though the gentlemen’s costumes fit the movie’s time frame (1674), Lady Margaret’s wardrobe looks a lot more Madame de Pompadour than Nell Gwynne. The final slap to historical accuracy comes with repeated scenes showing the Union Jack waving boldly above the Governor’s House in Jamaica. Since Britain did not adopt that flag – and then only with the Jack itself in the canton on a blue field – until the early 18th century, you get the feeling the movie makers weren’t even trying.

The production is lovely, though, and the story is full of appropriate swash and buckle. It’s worth a look if you have a chance, Brethren. One should always experience a pirate movie when they have a chance.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! After only seeing the end of this one a while ago (late at night and after more than a few adult beverages) it was fun to watch the whole thing the other day. Captain Morgan is particularly hilarious...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Way more than hilarious. While I'm sure Power was trying really hard - and he is a great actor - Cregar completely stole the show in this one.