Robert Newton is most directly responsible for the modern conception of the pirate--the voice, accent, the lopsided swagger. He played the title character in 1952's Blackbeard the Pirate
, a good film but not half as good as Treasure Island
two years earlier, the film that established Newton so firmly in the public mind as the figure of the pirate archetype. Newton plays an unambiguous villain in Blackbeard
while half the fun in Treasure Island
is studying him, trying to guess his motives. Though it's nowhere near as good as Treasure Island
is by no means a bad film, in fact it features some extraordinarily beautiful colour compositions and some of the best pirate battles of the 1950s.
Released the same year as the cheerful, brightly coloured The Crimson Pirate
, the contrast in visual style in Blackbeard the Pirate
could hardly be more severe for another colour pirate film. Instead of blinding blue skies and red and blue sheets, Blackbeard the Pirate
goes for a gorgeous chiaroscuro, darkly shaded indigo clouds and charcoal edged hulls.
Directed by veteran noir
and adventure film director Raoul Walsh, whose career goes back to the beginning of Hollywood, it's easy to see there's a sure hand at work in the action scenes where scores of seamen swing from one ship to another and the swordplay is convincing and fast. Although he's good with a sword, the film's biggest problem is its protagonist, a dull, nondescript hero, Ben, played by William Bendix.
He lacks the sparkle of Errol Flynn or Jean Peters and the weirdness of Robert Newton. It's surprising that Newton's success as a pirate character didn't inspire filmmakers and studios to cast more creatively for the other pirate roles in the film but, aside from the fascinatingly weathered face of Skelton Knaggs as Newton's treacherous mate Gilly, most of the crew come off as modern American thugs.
The plot involves a rivalry between Blackbeard (Newton) and Henry Morgan, played by English actor Torin Thatcher who actually makes an effort at a Welsh accent. In reality, Blackbeard and Henry Morgan never sailed the seas at the same time, Morgan died when Edward Teach, Blackbeard, was still a child. Aside from this obvious departure from history, the film actually has a few details of historical perspective. Ben is trying to prove that Morgan still operates as a pirate despite the fact that, at the time the film takes place, Morgan is Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, as the real Henry Morgan eventually became. Blackbeard accuses Ben himself of being a pirate because he'd been on a ship that attacked a Spanish ship after peace had been declared but Ben defensively asserts he and his captain had been acquitted because news of the peace had not reached them at sea, which are actually very plausible circumstances.
The crew depicted in the film are also about as racially and culturally diverse as actual pirate crews, though black and Asian crewmembers aren't given more than a few lines.
Linda Darnell as Edwina Mansfield easily outshines William Bendix as her love interest not just because she always has plenty of décolletage on display. Their chemistry is curiously sexless, partly due to the fact that Bendix is a drip, partly due to Darnell playing her character in the virtuous damsel mould. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two oddly makes a bit repeated twice in the film even funnier in its understated humour--twice Ben is about to help her escape the ship but notes she'll never be able to swim in her cumbersome clothes, twice she says with unselfconscious pragmatism she can just take them off, and twice, of course, 1950s audiences were prevented from seeing anything.
And Newton is great, of course. His look in the film seems partly inspired by etchings of Edward Teach that show his beard always tied with fuses for his pistols (though this isn't explained in the film) and partly by early 20th century illustrator Howard Pyle.