Thursday, February 2, 2012


Black-and-white photography is a better storytelling medium than color photography. The following remarks will prove this:

Peter Blood—doctor, sailor, slave and pirate—is one of those fictional characters who is pretty much made of awesome—someone too cool to really exist but whom we nonetheless think of as real. A master swordsman and tactician; a strong leader; quick of wit and always ready to improvise in the face of danger—Blood can easily stand as an equal alongside D’Artagnan, Robin Hood, Zorro, John Carter and the other great swashbucklers.

Blood originally appeared in Rafael Sabatini’s excellent 1922 novel. There was a silent movie based on the novel made in 1924 (as yet unseen by me), followed by the 1935 sound remake—the classic swashbuckler with Errol Flynn.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the Flynn flick is easily the best pirate movie ever. The cast (especially Flynn) is perfect, backed up by a strong and clever screenplay that’s very faithful to the novel. The sword fight
between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is superb and the cinematography is stunning. But, despite Blood’s awesomeness, 15 years would pass before he returned to the big screen.

In the meantime, Sabatini wrote a couple of fun sequels to Captain Blood (1931’s Captain Blood Returns and 1936’s The Fortunes of Captain Blood)--short story compilations that filled in some of the adventures Blood had as while he was still active as a pirate.

In 1950, Columbia Pictures released a film version of The Fortunes of Captain Blood, with Louis Hayward playing the title role. It’s not a sequel to the 1935 film—this Peter Blood, for instance, isn’t in love with Arabella Bishop. In fact, poor Arabella doesn’t seem to exist in this continuity. Instead, a Spanish woman named Isabelita (played by the drop-dead gorgeous Patrica Medina) takes over as the pirate’s true love.

The movie also doesn’t come close to being the true classic that the earlier film is. Hayward does a good job in the role, but Peter Blood is a role that forever belongs to Errol Flynn.  Also, the ’35 film had an energy and a sense of spontaneity that the Hayward film doesn’t quite equal.

Still, it’s a solid, entertaining film. The plot revolves around Captain Blood’s efforts to rescue some of his men after they are captured and enslaved by the Spanish. And it gets extra credit for exploring facets of Blood’s character that Errol Flynn never got around to showing us---his ability to use clever disguises and to improvise battle tactics that essentially involve running a massive con on his opponents. There’s also several fun supporting characters thrown in for good measure (most especially a very, very pretty and extremely clever tavern wench).

In 1952, Hayward and Medina recreated their roles in Captain Pirate, which is based on elements taken from Captain Blood Returns. This time around, Blood has retired from piracy and set up shop as a landowner on a Caribbean island. But another pirate is using his identity, effectively framing him for multiple murders. Blood is arrested, but Isabelita recruits his old crew and springs him from the slammer. Then Blood, using a series of disguises, tracks down the real pirate. He saves a Spanish port from destruction in the process.

This is another good film, though it suffers from the same problems as Fortunes: It’s a little slow in places and the action sequences sometimes seem staged rather than natural. Also, we don’t get any supporting characters anywhere near as fun as Pepita the vivacious tavern wench.

But, like Fortunes, it’s worth watching. Not being as good as Captain Blood still leaves a lot of room for being really good.

But compared to each other, it’s the first Hayward film—The Fortunes of Captain Blood—that is the better of the two. Why? Both films have the same cast. Both films have pretty much identical strengths and flaws.

Well, the first film doesn’t have a dumb title. (Captain Pirate? Were the producers deliberately trying to be as awkward as possible?) But the main reason it's better is that it was filmed in black-and-white, while the sequel is in color.

Watching the films in sequence makes it obvious just how superior to color as a storytelling tool the black-and-white imagery is. The clarity of black-and-white and the play of light and shadow doesn’t just highlight the strengths of Fortunes, but also covers over some of its flaws. Fortunes looks cool in a way that Captain Pirate never manages to equal.

Black-and-white photography, I think, actually aids in creating a believable fictional world. After all, in real life, pirates weren’t swashbuckling heroes who would win the girl and kill the bad guy in an expertly choreographed duel. But we accept this as true in a well-made pirate movie. We accept it even more easily when that film is in black-and-white.

It’s comparable to something Ray Harryhausen once said about stop-motion special effects. No matter how skilled the effects artist (and no one was more skilled than Harryhausen), stop motion never looks exactly real. For instance, there’s no motion blur when a stop motion monster moves quickly. But those very “imperfections” help create a feeling that we really have entered a fantasy world. This makes for a better movie as we can now more easily accept the fantasy elements.

Black-and-white photography does the same thing. When we visit a world of swashbuckers (or a world of film noir or of Warner Brothers’ gangsters or Universal monsters), we are in as much a fantasy world as that of Sinbad’s or Gwangi’s. Black-and-white imagery creates a realistic world without exactly reproducing the real world—thus helping us suspend our disbelief. It’s obviously not quite our world, so guys like Captain Blood can more easily exist in it. But it's close enough to our world so that we can still accept Peter Blood as a real person.

Of course, there are exceptions to all this. Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood, for instance, uses lush Technicolor to give the movie a strong fairy tale vibe that enhances the story. But in general, black-and-white beats color just like rock beats scissors.

Watch the two Louis Hayward Captain Blood movies back-to-back and you’ll see just how true this is.


  1. I think the same principle is true of a lot of comic strips and comic books, as well. All the color in the world won't make Roy Crane or Alex Toth's work look any better than it already is. In the same way, Caniff's Steve Canyon benefited from pure B&W the same way film noir does.

  2. I agree. Caniff especially made brilliant use of light and shadow in his strip that always worked best in black-and-white.


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