Director: Henry King
By Roderick Heath
If The Sea Hawk is the working model of the old-fashioned swashbuckler, The Black Swan is its disreputable younger brother, a study in lascivious über pulp in rest and motion. Starring Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn’s chief rival for the mantle of swashbuckling heartthrob during the late 1930s-1940s, in one of his nearly a dozen collaborations with director Henry King, The Black Swan is another essential genre avatar. King, a cinema pioneer and usually a soberly artful, thoughtful director, here threw out the niceties and reduces the serious themes of the Curtiz-Flynn model to window dressing. He charges through the narrative like a whirling dervish to wrap up his narrative in 84 minutes of Technicolor-swathed foreplay. The theme usually treated cheekily, even suggestively, but ultimately decorously in Flynn’s movies, the dance of dangerous seduction between roguish outlaw and a prim lady fair like Olivia de Havilland, is here transmuted into an extended S&M fantasy. Apart from Duel in the Sun (1948), The Black Swan is, in its circuitous way, quite the filthiest, mind-bogglingly kinky and campy film I’ve seen from a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s. Whilst The Sea Hawk took the oncoming mood of war seriously enough to sail on those ill winds, The Black Swan is entirely a rejection of contemporary reflection, except perhaps in its aggressive underlying celebration of warrior masculinity as a newly desirable ideal.
Some of the films that helped to invent what would later be called the camp aesthetic (and The Black Swan surely is one, along with the likes of Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman  and the most florid Bette Davis and Joan Crawford melodramas) welled out of the underground reservoirs of this seemingly more serious era’s frenetic anxieties and perfervid fantasies, which would also disgorge film noir. Shot in Technicolor that pools with the luscious vivacity of Renaissance art, all the better for soaking up the texture of leading lady Maureen O’Hara’s vulva-red lips and the hues of Earl Luick’s costuming, The Black Swan prefigures the painterly aesthetic of King and Power’s fine later collaboration, Captain from Castile (1947). But whereas the latter film was coolly resplendent in its use of storybook colour and offered its melodramatic story as a sober epic, The Black Swan is little more than a romp through the tropes of the pirate movie.
Working from a script by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, King whirls through what should be a first act of a standard swashbuckler film in a solid 20 minutes of delirious fights and captures, rape and bondage, torture and pistol brandishing, door-entering and stair-climbing, that starts to play like French bedroom farce done in buccaneer costume. This is, as an opening title tells us in a manner suggesting cowriter Hecht lampooning his archly romantic foreword scrawl for Gone with the Wind (1939), a “story of the Spanish Main — when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was — Love, Gold, Adventure.” The very first shot, of a young Hispanic gallant serenading his lady love far below her high balcony, hits a romantic note the film only wants to subvert. Within moments, the Spanish Caribbean port is infiltrated by a band of English privateers who leap from the rooftops to overwhelm the guards and plunder the town of everything that can be carried away; the pirates are glimpsed hefting tethered girls onto their ship like sacks of grain.
Pirate captains Jamie Waring (Power) and Billy Leech (George Sanders) celebrate by getting sozzled on the beach with two trussed maidens wriggling like puppies at their feet. Leech makes a play for figurative fellatio as he tries to force one captive to drink from his mug, but as she resists, he instead splashes his symbolic seed all over her face. Spanish soldiers resurge from the night, driving out the pirates and capturing Waring, who is then stripped to the waist and hung on the governor’s rack for a little gratuitous torso-ripping and rippling. Now it’s Waring getting the wine goblet/penis substitute waved in his face. Thankfully, in bursts Waring’s chum Tommie Blue (Thomas Mitchell) with a relief party, and soon it’s the Spanish governor on the rack. Jamaica’s British governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), comes downstairs to intervene, protesting that England and Spain have now made peace, but Waring, even more infuriated, has him promptly hurled into the dungeon as a traitor. His daughter, Margaret (O’Hara) descends too, wielding a pistol and demanding to know her father’s location: Waring swats the gun from her hand and tries to kiss her as prelude to ravishing her, but the arrival of Waring’s friend, Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), distracts him so much he drops Margaret like so much laundry under his arm. Morgan’s arrival doesn’t mean, however, that the pirating business will continue as usual. Morgan, whom all of his pirating friends thought had been hung in London after being captured and shipped there by Denby, has returned as the new Jamaican governor, because he’s the only one who can persuade the pirates to hang up their cutlasses now that England has made peace with Spain—or, if he can’t, can use his knowledge to hunt them down.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan is initially spurned by Denby. Leech and fellow cutthroat Wogan (Anthony Quinn) in turn spurn the idea of giving up piracy, whilst Waring reluctantly sides with Morgan and Tommie. As he and Tommie escort Morgan into the governor’s mansion, they fight like children over the best rooms, and Waring eagerly claims Margaret’s former chamber, all the better to lounge upon her pillows to imbibe the scent she’s left on them. Tommie tries to impress a lady friend he’s picked up by making love to her in Margaret’s bed, only for Waring to catch them and kick them out. Waring tries to reinvent himself as a gentleman, or at least as close as he can get to one, in order to pursue Margaret in his new station. She, understandably, is less than thrilled initially, playing the cobra to his mongoose in a lengthy game where Waring tries to suppress his natural inclination to bend Margaret over the nearest barrel and have at it and play the gentleman suitor. When Margaret falls from her horse while fleeing from him, he tends to her in his approximation of gallant fashion, including peeling her eyes wide to check she hasn’t suffered a stroke and fetching her a drink of water using a lily pad as a cup, only for her to then clout him on the noggin with a stone. Waring has a love rival in the form of Denby’s foppish friend Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), a strutting ponce who seems by far the more ideal gentleman—except that Ingram is plotting to make himself extremely rich, destroy Morgan, and help Denby take back control of Jamaica by feeding information to Leech on where and when to attack ships, and how to avoid Waring and the other loyal captains under Morgan.
Piracy is to King as jewel thievery is to Lubitsch and Hitchcock: an extended mating dance. Whereas for the latter directors, that finer illicit occupation symbolised adult sexuality at its most sophisticated, piracy under King’s watch becomes a fundamental metaphor for baser, more primal processes, as the drama, whilst set nominally in a specific historical milieu, portrays a moment in human evolution that is far more remote, when animal needs and raw force give way to the relation of individuals. King isn’t the slightest bit interested in either the finagling of the villains or in delivering a comeuppance to Ingram—that’s left to be resolved after the final fade-out—but rather focuses purely on the randy energy of his stars, complemented with some neat action.
Power, who was King’s discovery, was catapulted to stardom after appearing in King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936) as an artful, but largely static romantic lead. When he played the title role in King’s 1939 drama Jesse James, and then the masked avenger in Rouben Mamoulian’s more classical The Mark of Zorro (1940), with an epic bout of swordplay between Power and Basil Rathbone that ranks as one of the most genuinely fierce ever filmed, Power became a legitimate rival to Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling idol. The air of physical discomfort that would beset Power increasingly in the later 1940s and 1950s owing to the inherited heart ailment that would finally kill him, was still nowhere to be seen, and he bounds through The Black Swan with the swaggering confidence of a movie star at full force: actually this was the next to last movie Power would make before he joined the Marines and served as pilot through the end of World War II. He was bisexual according to Hollywood scuttlebutt (but then, who wasn’t?), and certainly was no stranger to letting himself be eroticised on screen. He spends about a third of the running time of The Black Swan sans shirt, starting with an interlude of homoerotic torture.
O’Hara, on the other hand, seems to have possessed some innate quality that brought out the latent S&M fantasist in so many of the directors who worked with her: bound, gagged, and hooded in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), kidnapped repeatedly and subjected to medieval torture in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), dragged across country on her rear end at John Ford’s behest in The Quiet Man (1952), and thrown in for a bout of mud wrestling and spanking in Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock (1963). What was it about O’Hara that exposed the nakedly eager chauvinist in such filmmakers? Was it her capacity to seem at once rigidly proper and cast-iron in character, but also provocatively, lawlessly sensual under the surface? Certainly The Black Swan is predicated on just this balance, as the more ferociously contemptuous and dismissive O’Hara gets the more and more certain Waring is that Margaret secretly adores him. After he’s clobbered Ingram, who ill-advisedly tried to start a duel, he demands to know what on earth she sees in such a flop of a man. Margaret spits a stream of insults at him: “You black-hearted bully! What do you know about men or women or anything human? All you can do is shoot and kill and prey on women, with your beastly senses slobbering at the sight of anything fine!” Waring swishes his cape and struts off with a confident flourish: “I repeat my lass, you’ll have to choose between us, and very soon too.”
The idea of making an action-adventure movie as an excuse to put two roaring hot stars together was once one of the essential creeds of Hollywood; Howard Hawks was the past master of it. I recall a few years ago when watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), one of the direct descendants of this film and its brethren, how much I was struck by the blinding arc of electrochemistry between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in one singular scene together. That chemistry was otherwise entirely ignored in the series, leaving us instead with Knightley’s romance with Orlando Bloom’s blockish ingénue and Depp to romance his own CGI simulacrums. It felt like an offence to cinema and nature, one neither Hawks nor King would have committed. The classic notion that the on-screen action is only an essential backdrop to the contemplation of human mating rituals is not necessarily a degradation of the adventure movie ethic; on the contrary, it has long been one of the genre’s distinctive traits. The essential motif of misconstrued character between potential lovers is again ancient, though the peculiar tweak it’s given here is that Margaret really isn’t wrong to mistrust Waring’s “reformed” character, given what we see of the way he acts, a pure caricature of troglodytic masculinity who obeys a fundamental belief in the truth of immediate biological reaction rather than any social nicety. Freudian and mythical symbolism is invoked as Waring plants a sword between his and Margaret’s beds as both a fittingly phallic and deadly totem of the space that must remain between them until the romance is finally mutual. Whilst it could hardly seem a greater distance from King’s next film, The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Black Swan treats playfully a theme that consistently preoccupied King in his more evidently personal works: characters attempting to transcend their character flaws and evolve towards a yearned-for state of grace and enlightenment, usually within the context of a great social moment that not only offers the chance for such transcendence, but also forces it.
Chief villains Sanders, who, equipped with his great bushy red beard and broad accent, seems to be relishing playing a less gentlemanly kind of rotter for once, and Quinn, sporting an eye patch, feel like avatars for the perverse, consuming pan-sexuality of the “pirate” breed, imps from the innermost realm of Waring’s psyche who must be defeated if he is to truly evolve as he says he wishes. When Waring and Margaret are forced to pretend to be married for the sake of fooling Leech, he comes snuffling into their room looking as if he very much like to climb into bed with both of them, brandishing a nightgown for Margaret that he seems to like the idea of wearing himself. Meanwhile, Quinn’s Wogan lounges shirtless in the window bay of his cabin.
Whether Waring really can evolve is the chief stake of the plot. He gives in, apparently, to his most anarchic impulses when, faced with a schism between ardour and duty, he haphazardly combines both by intervening to keep Margaret from marrying Ingram by kidnapping her, cueing another of O’Hara’s bondage scenes, as Waring ties her up and wraps a big thick gag about her yap. But once he has her on his ship, Waring tries to maintain a gentlemanly forbearance, even as circumstance dictates he pretend to be signing back on with Leech and Wogan. The necessities of political loyalty are also seen as essentially erotic, just like the dance of force and seduction, softness and hardness between Margaret and Waring; Morgan’s ennobling by the King and his new suppliance to authority demands he attempt to quash his former colleagues and the roguish activities he himself still wishes he could indulge, just as Waring must give up his ravaging.
Cregar’s gleeful performance as Morgan is another highlight of The Black Swan, walking an exact line between high comedy and imperial force, appearing initially in a vision akin to the climactic moment of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when King Richard reveals himself as nobility and order incarnate, as he appears unexpectedly, resplendent in the full Restoration drag. And yet Cregar’s Morgan constantly scratches underneath his mighty black wig of state and finally tugs it off in a fit of pique. He’s almost glad when the conspiracy of the snotocracy in Jamaica forces him to flee and find his only possible salvation in one last bit of seafaring action, to try to ensnare Leech and Waring, whom he believes really has turned rascal again. As a film, The Black Swan is a work of pure illustrative élan in the most classical Hollywood fashion. In avoiding standard swashbuckling until the finale, King pares back exposition to almost comic book proportions, like the course of an attack on a treasure ship depicted in swift montage, resolving with a victimised ship’s nameplate, still affixed to a broken piece of hull, drifting in the water. The early scene in which Leech and Wogan split from Morgan, with a pie-eyed Waring unable to actually decide whom he wants to follow, is a Hogarthian litany of seedy humanity and ye olde fakery. The ultimate sympathy of The Black Swan leans distinctly towards the pirates’ side, or at least the gentlemanly ones: Morgan considers chucking in his commission for a return to sea, having gotten a taste of the more refined buccaneering of politics and high society, whilst Waring’s swashbuckling prowess is finally proven to have heroic uses.
Whilst neglecting the usual action until its last reel, The Black Swan finally lets rip in one of the most visually inventive and dazzling action sequences of its era, making the fullest use of Leon Shamroy’s photography—he very deservedly won an Oscar for his work—and some ingenious special effects, including using a mixture of matte and model work to give the battling ships the kind of crawling liveliness that wouldn’t be much seen in such fare until the arrival of CGI. Waring, finally cut loose in action, cripples Wogan’s ship by cutting its rudder lines, causing the vessel to crash headlong into the shore, and then swims to and boards Leech’s ship to engage in the compulsory death-duel with his nemesis. Sanders, never pressed for much physical acting, nonetheless rises to the occasion with some surprisingly deft swordplay, making the final battle a convincingly feral clash. Waring is skewered in the hip by his opponent, giving him a terrible wound that nonetheless also hands him the chance to dispatch his enemy with one good jab to the belly. Of course, the spectacle of Waring’s selfless and prodigious derring-do, and his newly prostrate, weakened state, finally win Margaret over, and she contemptuously dismisses Morgan’s offer to see her beastly kidnapper hung. The final clinch, rather than offering Waring secure reinstatement into polite society, offers instead Margaret, now transmuted into a pirate wench, a sexually sovereign being who feeds back to Waring his own suggestive catchphrases (“I like to sample a bottle before I buy it”) and recites “Jamie Boy’s” name thrice according to an ancient and pagan nuptial vow. It’s as sexy as movie punchlines get.