Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Black Swan (1942)

The Black SwanThanks to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom,
pirates are fashionable in the movies again, but to see real class in the pirate genre you need to go back to 1942's oscar-nominated The Black Swan, released on DVD for the first time this Monday.

Tyrone Power plays the rumbunctuous, hot-tempered, over-drinking pirate James Waring, who suddenly finds himself having to act respectably when his fellow pirate , Henry Morgan, is given a pardon from the king. Morgan is made governer of Jamaica and tasked with ridding the Caribbean of buccaneers and Waring suddenly finds himself having to live in an altogether different society. Margaret Denby (Maureen O'Hara is the stunningly beautiful love interest, although she spends most of the film repulsed by Waring and his uncouth behaviour. When Waring and Denby first meet she is knocked out cold by the pirate, who regards her as one of his spoils, and if you're looking for political correctness, at least in the first half hour, then this film is not for you!

It's staggering to see what was achievable on film more than 60 years ago, and the film has dated only in its rather pedestrian story (which, it must be said, seems to be a lot longer than the 81 minute running time would suggest) and the over-use of back-projections. Most of the film was shot in the studio, with the battle scenes involving a lot of model work, and unfortunately the transfer here is so crisp this probably shows more than it would have done to the original cinema-going audiences.

That being said, The Black Swan opens with an action set-piece battle that wouldn't look out of place in one of today's movies. Even more impressive is a closing sword fight sequence between Tyrone Powers' character and the big baddie of the piece, played by George Sanders. This sword fight sequence shows just how feeble so many of today's modern reproductions of such scenes are: contrast it with any sword fight from Pirates of the Caribbean and marvel at how much better and dangerous looking the one staged back in the early 1940's was!

Maureen O' Hara originally received some criticism for 'just looking pretty, which is OK because that's all she needs to do', which strikes me as somewhat unfair. Yes, she is stunningly beautiful - and this amazing restoration of the original saturated Technicolor shows that to full effect - but she's also more than able to stand her ground in the scenes where she appears with her co-star, Tyrone Powers, who has surely never been in better form than he is here. Spending most of the movie stripped naked to the waist, and with boyish looks and charm, it's not hard to see why women flocked to the cinema to see him in this movie.

I should point out that my ratings above are based on current entertainment value, and unfairly compare the film with modern contemporaries. Back in 1942, when the film was originally released, I'm sure it would have received an 8 or even a 9 rating, and the Academy Award it won for Best Cinematorgraphy was undoubtedly well deserved.

Ordinarily the DVD would receive a high rating just for the transfer, which is superb, but the lack of any extra's at all when clearly some were available (the Region 1 release earlier this year had a commentary track) mark it down - there comes a point where the continual ripping off of Region 2 purchasers when it comes to missing out extra's is inexcusable.

That being said, if you're a fan of movie history, and want your own copy of this classic it will be very hard to resist, and in its defence the price is more than reasonable for the DVD debut of an oscar-winning film.

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