This post is part of The Swashathon hosted by Movies Silently)
The Black Swan was ostensibly based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, who also wrote the novels The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, and Captain Blood. Indeed, the movie is called Rafael Sabatini's The Black Swan in the opening credits and in the writing credits the movie is said to be "from the Novel by Rafael Sabatini". In truth The Black Swan owes very little to the novel from which it took its name. The only character the two have in common is Henry Morgan, the historical Welsh privateer who became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Rather than being actually based on the novel of the same name, The Black Swan features an original story that, nonetheless, seems like something that Rafael Sabatini might have written.
If The Black Swan is regarded as one of the classics of the pirate movie genre, it is because it emerged from a rather remarkable creative team. Henry King had been a director since 1915 and had already directed such classics as Tol'able David (1921), Stella Dallas (1925), In Old Chicago (1937), and Jesse James (1939). The screenplay was written by none other than Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller. Ben Hecht had already co-written the classic play The Front Page with Charles MacArthur, and had worked on such films as Scarface (1932), Nothing Sacred (1937), and Gunga Din (1939). Seton I. Miller already had experience in the swashbuckling genre when he co-wrote the screenplay for The Black Swan, having worked on the screenplays of some true classics of the genre: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).
Cast in the role of the hero, Captain Jamie Waring was Tyrone Power. Not only was Tyrone Power already a major movie star, but he had already starred in one classic swashbuckler, the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro. Arguably Tyrone Power was perfectly cast in the role. It was not simply a case that he was devilishly handsome. Unlike fellow swashbuckling star Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power actually was skilled with a sword. Basil Rathbone, who had appeared opposite Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro and was a master swordsman himself once said, "“Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera.”
The Black Swan would mark the first swashbuckler film in which Maureen O'Hara was ever cast. As her career progressed she would star in enough swashbucklers that today she is one of the actresses most identified with the genre. Even in The Black Swan Miss O'Hara's character, Lady Margaret Denby, is dramatically different from heroines in previous swashbuckler movies. Unlike the sort of passive heroines often played by Olivia de Havilland in movies of the genre, Lady Margaret had a mind and will of her own. She could take whatever the men dished out to her and dish it right back at them. She could easily be described as a "fiery redhead" or an "Irish spitfire"
The rest of the cast were well suited to their roles as well. Thomas Mitchell, now best known as Gerald O'Hara in Gone with the Wind and Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life, played Jamie's lieutenant Tom Blue. George Sanders was perfect as the villain of the piece, Captain Billy Leach, as was Anthony Quinn as his first mate, Wogan. Laird Cregar not only looked like historical figure Sir Henry Morgan, but behaved as many of us imagine he would have in real life.
While The Black Swan boasted an excellent screenplay and a truly fine cast, it also boasted as much action as any swashbuckler fan could ever want. The action went well beyond swordfights, of which there are plenty in the film. The Black Swan is remarkable for its scenes of ship to ship battle--indeed, it even opens with one before the credits. What is more, the ships in the film are intricately designed and look very realistic.
Of course, the shooting of any swashbuckler film was apt to be rough and tumble, and The Black Swan was no different. That having been said, some of the mishaps on the set came from what at the time was probably an unexpected source. Columnist Sara Hamilton visited the set one day, having been told how nice a person Maureen O'Hara was. She noticed Tyrone Power with a swollen lip, who told her, "Maureen hit me." A few minutes later she ran into George Sanders, who told her, "Maureen hit me with a bottle." Unlike many actresses, apparently when Maureen O'Hara was called upon to hit one of her co-stars, she actually hit them. Maureen O'Hara admitted, "I had to smack him (referring to Tyrone Power) in the face seven times, and I know how to smack."
With the United States entering World War II, an effort was made to shoot scenes in as few takes as possible. Amazingly enough, around thirty scenes in The Black Swan were shot in only one take. 20th Century Fox felt that the chemicals used to develop film would be better used by the military.
The Black Swan proved to be a hit at the box office. It was the sixth highest grossing film in 1942, one of the banner years in film history. It also won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for cinematographer Leon Shamroy, and was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects (Fred Sersen, Roger Heman Sr., George Leverett and Best Original Score.
Seen today it is easy to see why The Black Swan was so well received upon its initial release. The film has plenty of action, including sword fights and ship to ship battles. What it is more, it benefits from very clever dialogue, most likely courtesy of screenwriter Ben Hecht. The cast does remarkably well with the material, with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara in particular playing well against each other. In many respects The Black Swan is a nearly perfect movie, with an even blend of excitement, romance, and humour. There are few pirate movies that could ever match it for its sheer amount of swashbuckling fun.