THE BLACK SWAN – Blu-ray review

I’m a sucker for swashbucklers.

Like Jimmy Buffett, I probably should have been a pirate or a seafaring man, but was born too late.

Then again, that never stopped Johnny Depp, or those in Hollywood who came before him—like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (“Sinbad the Sailor,” “The Mark of Zorro”), Errol Flynn (“Captain Blood,” “The Sea Hawk,” “Against All Flags,”), Robert Newton (“Blackbeard, the Pirate,” “Treasure Island”), or Burt Lancaster (“The Crimson Pirate”).

Or Tyrone Power, who also made his share of swashbuckling films:  “The Mark of Zorro” (1940), “Captain from Castile” (1947), “Prince of Foxes” (1949), and “The Black Swan,” a 1942 Spanish Main adventure that he made with Maureen O’Hara.

Though “The Mark of Zorro” remains Power’s best swordplay movie, “The Black Swan” is still pretty solid, and it comes to Blu-ray for the first time this week as one of the winners and runners-up in the Fox Voice Your Choice program, in which fans told the studio which films they wanted to see in HD. “The Black Swan” was the second highest vote-getter from films made in the ‘40s, behind “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

I can’t speak for the voters, but I can tell you that “The Black Swan” gets solid marks for a genre picture because it’s rousing, the swordplay and bombardments look real enough, the two stars play off of each other well, and location filming in the historically pirate-rich Port Royal, Jamaica and Cuba provide convincing backdrops.

Set during the time when pirates were turning privateers or swinging from yardarms,  “The Black Swan” revolves around pirate Capt. Jamie Waring (Power), whose loyalty to former pirate Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) is stretched to the limits after Morgan is appointed governor of Jamaica. Morgan commissions his old pirate pals “privateers” assigned with the task of ridding the Caribbean of pirates like the brutal Capt. Billy Leech (George Sanders, cast against type). But unbeknownst to any of them, Leech is also a privateer working in the service of a traitor in Port Royal who’s supplying him with information about ship movements and cargos and taking a captain’s share. Rafael Sabatini, who made a handsome living by writing pirate novels, gets credit for inspiring this screenplay, but in fact the novel and the film have little in common apart from the title.

Thomas Mitchell, who’s perhaps best known for playing Uncle Billy in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” plays Capt. Waring’s first mate and provides some of the warmth and humor that he brought to so many roles. Even more recognizable to movie fans will be Capt. Leech’s first mate, played by Oscar winner Anthony Quinn.

Executive produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, “The Black Swan” was filmed in Technicolor but released in 1.37:1 aspect ratio. When you see ships slipping into harbor ready to do battle you’ll wish it were in widescreen, but cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning photography makes good use of the small frames, with inventive lighting that seems more impressionistic than realistic. And of course the kidnapping, double-dealing politics, and backstabbing don’t hurt. There’s more of it than there is pursuit of treasure, but that’s one of the things that makes this film stand out from other swashbucklers.

“The Black Swan” isn’t rated, but the 85-minute color film would probably merit a PG for violence. It’s available through

Like the other titles in this first wave of Fox fan favorites, “The Black Swan” looks very good in HD. I was a little concerned when the boilerplate Fox searchlights were so washed out that the yellow looked pale, and some of the early exterior shots of ships battling each other have more grain that most fans are used to with Blu-rays today. But the video quality improves after that. There’s still more grain than in the other color films from this wave, but at least the edge delineation is strong—which is important given that Shamroy chose to film with a minimum of lights. “The Black Swan” is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, transferred to a 50GB disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode (38 MBPS).

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 1.0, but the mono doesn’t seem confined to the center speaker, and in my book that’s a plus. Dialogue is clear and sound effects have both volume and weight. Additional audio options are in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.

If you like old movies you’ll like listening to a commentary featuring the venerable Maureen O’Hara, who’s interviewed by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Her stories about the way things were done during the studio era of Hollywood are quite fascinating—enough to where you don’t mind if a scene-specific question leads to a longer explanation that spans a number of scenes. I could listen to this one again and again.

The only other bonus feature is the theatrical trailer.

Bottom line:
Of the old-time pirate movies, the top tier may be crowded with films like “Captain Blood,” “The Sea Hawk,” and “The Crimson Pirate.” But “The Black Swan” ranks just under those.