Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Black Swan--the book

Rafael Sabatini is one of the best adventure writers who ever existed, producing classic novels such as Captain Blood (1922), The Sea Hawk (1915) and Scaramouche (1921). A lot of his novels have been adapted into classic movies--the best of these is almost inarguable the 1935 version of Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn. The doctor-turned-slave-turned-pirate was a role that Flynn was literally born to play.

Flynn's Captain Blood was fairly close to the book in terms of the plot and his character arc, though a number of subplots were dropped and the story was streamlined. Also, Flynn's version of Blood is a much more typical action hero than the book's more sensitive protagonist, but Flynn is so good in the role that it's impossible to complain about this.

There are a couple of Sabatini novels, though, that were made into movies very, very different from the original books. Despite this, both movies were awesome in their own way.

The 1932 novel The Black Swan introduces us to Charles de Bernis, a French buccaneer who has been helping Sir Henry Morgan clean up the piracy problem in the Caribbean. But now de Bernis is heading home for France.

Or so he says. The journey is interrupted when the pirate Tom Leach (aboard his ship The Black Swan) captures the vessel on which de Bernis is a passenger. The lovely Priscilla Harridine and the somewhat annoying Major Sands are taken prisoner as well.

de Bernis and Leach know each other. The Frenchman explains that their meeting is fortuitous. He'd been planning on outfitting a ship to find Leach and join up with him. It seems de Bernis has learned that a Spanish plate fleet--loaded with treasure--is sailing for Europe soon. de Bernis needs Leach's help to take it.

Is de Bernis telling the truth? Is he improvising to save himself and the other prisoners? (He protects the others by telling Leach Priscilla is his wife and Sands is her brother.) Or did he already have a plan in mind when The Black Swan appeared on the horizon?

Actually, most attentive readers will probably figure out what's going on before the novel's climax, but the story is well-constructed, so it's still fun getting there. There's not a lot of overt action--much of the novel is set on a remote island while Leach careens The Black Swan in preparation for attacking the plate fleet. The fine line de Bernis must walk to keep the pirates happy while still protecting the innocent hostages provides a lot of solid suspense.

As a character, de Bernis is in many ways a clone of Captain Blood--a man who dresses in fine clothes as a way of subtly projected authority while always thinking quickly and improvising when necessary to keep one step ahead of everyone else. Heck, if there had been a way to fit this story into Blood's continuity, very little of de Bernis' dialogue or actions would have had to be changed.  But that's also okay, because this is the sort of character that Sabatini knows how to make interesting.

In 1942, The Black Swan was made into a swashbuckler, with Tyrone Power hamming it up as the lead. He isn't playing Charles de Bernis, though, but Captain Jamie Waring. It's a lot different from the book, but it's a fun and charming swashbuckler in its own right. We'll take a look at the film next week.

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