Seen today, many of Douglas Fairbanks' films don't hold up too well, but his lavish 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate, shot in the still experimental, costly and time-consuming but here surprisingly impressive Two-strip Technicolor, works remarkably well. There's less of the camp prancing that marred his earlier Robin Hood (though the army of soldiers in swimming trunks and straps swimming to the rescue in the grand finale would look at home in any Gay Pride march) and less striking of heroic poses while manically grinning, with more genuinely exciting stunt work as he swings from the rigging or slices his way down billowing sails. Fairbanks is at his best here, not overacting or chewing the scenery as relentlessly as in some other films, perhaps because the film's revenge plot keeps him in check. The sole survivor of a pirate raid on his ship that cost his father's life, he swears to have his vengeance, bluffing his way into their crew by killing their captain in a swordfight and capturing a galleon single-handed only to risk everything for the beautiful princess they take hostage when some of the crew can think of better things to do with her than hold her for ransom.
Every pirate cliché in the book is faithfully presented, from buried treasure to walking the plank, though the pirates are especially brutal here: when one captive swallows a ring, they simply slice open his stomach to retrieve it (albeit off camera) or test the sharpness of a blade on a prisoner before disinterestedly wiping the blood off on his corpse. There's fine underplayed villainy and casual cruelty from former dentist Sam De Grasse (Prince John in Robin Hood) and comic relief from a one-armed Donald Crisp, though they're not quite enough to keep the film's pace from noticeably slackening somewhat in the middle. The most disappointing aspect is the undeveloped love story: beyond the necessities of the plot there's no real connection between Fairbanks and Billie Dove, so it's no surprise to find that in their final clinch it's actually his wife Mary Pickford standing in for her. And, while the sets are impressive - even if the galleon is the size of a warehouse inside - the model ships are never convincing. But there's more than enough here that does work, and works wonderfully well to forgive its shortcomings.
The real revelation is the use of color. Filmed on two separate strips of film - one dyed red and orange, the other blue and green - that were cemented together for exhibition, the Two-Strip Technicolor system was rarely very satisfying: good on burgundy, green, wood tones and navy blue but highly variable on flesh tones, what was a liability on most pictures actually works to its advantage here, with careful choice of color schemes paying off with what may well be the best looking Two-Strip Technicolor film. Thankfully the 1995 restoration does it justice, with the opening scenes of pirates looting and sinking a ship quite outstanding and the quality never less than good.
While the UK DVDs and some public domain releases are all black and white versions, Kino's Region 1 DVD is the 1995 Technicolor restoration with a full orchestra recording of Mortimer Wilson's original 1926 score, as well as a typically comprehensively informative audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer. Best of all, Kino's version comes with 19 minutes of revealing out-takes (sadly only in black and white, the color having completely faded), also with commentary. As well as the odd deleted snippet or mistimed stunt, there's footage of Fairbanks losing his temper after being nicked in a swordfight as well as detailed looks at many of the stunts that were shot in reverse. It's also interesting to learn that in an age before optical printers the film's lap dissolves all had to be done in-camera. Even better is Kino's region-free Bluray release, which includes an additional 29 minutes of outtakes and the adapted black and white "talkie" version of the film. All in all a terrific package - just as long as you avoid the non-Kino releases.