Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Five Best Swashbuckler Films

One of the challenges with listing “swashbuckler films” is that they form a wide genre that defies easy categorization. Yes, a swashbuckling picture must be adventurous in spirit and include some swordplay. However, that definition cuts a wide swath, so one could include tales of knighthood, pirates, samurai, surf-and-sandal epics, and Vikings. To keep my list size to a scant five (that's the "5 Best" rule!), I omitted the latter three groups and focused on classic films from the sound era only. I expect some disagreements (principally from Douglas Fairbanks fans and those bemoaning the inclusion of only twoFlynn flicks...yes, his films could have dominated the list). But, hey, disagreements generate discussion and that’s a part of loving movies, right?

1. The Adventures of Robin Hood – One of the greatest films of all time with one of the greatest casts ever assembled. It has action, humor, romance, and a marvelous hissable villain in Basil Rathbone. Errol Flynn was never more dashing and Olivia de Havilland is the consummate screen heroine. The climatic swordfight is so entertaining that I missed the continuity glitch for many years (watch Basil’s sword magically move between shots). It is, quite simply, the ultimate swashbuckling film.

2. Scaramouche - Stewart Granger is marvelous in a role that Errol Flynn would have played ten years earlier. Janet Leigh, who has never looked lovelier, exudes charming innocence and Eleanor Parker gives a delightful performance as the fiery red-headed Lenore. She and Granger have a natural chemistry that makes their scenes together sparkle. The famous MGM production values are very much on display; the colors are vivid, the costumes ornate, and the set design impeccable. You’ll swear that the thrilling climactic swordfight (maybe the longest in film history at 5:35 minutes…and my personal favorite) was filmed in a real Parisian theatre draped in gold, red, and white.

Basil Rathbone and Danny Kaye in The Court Jester.
3. The Court Jester – Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s such a spot-on spoof of swashbuckling films that I think it qualifies as one itself. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor).The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle with the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in the history of cinema?

4. The Mark of Zorro – I’ll probably get in trouble for listing the Tyrone Power version and not addressing Doug Fairbanks (but I am consistent with my rules). Taking a page from Leslie Howard’s acting class, Tyrone does a fine job of playing the fop who is a fine fencer. His close quarters swordfight with Basil Rathbone (there seems to be a trend with him) is one of the more realistic duels—and it’s an entertaining one, too.

5. The Sea Hawk – There's little similarity with Rafael Sabatini's novel--and it should have been shot in color (by this point, Jack Warner thought Flynn was too big a draw to waste money on color). Still, The Sea Hawk is a first-rate swashbucker with Errol in top form as an English privateer who plunders Spanish ships while Queen Elizabeth looks the other way. The Sea Hawk reunites much of the Robin Hood team, including director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and performers Claude Rains, Alan Hale, and Una O'Connor. Errol's big swordfight with baddie Henry Daniell even recalls Robin Hood, right down to Curtiz's marvelous use of shadows.

Honorable mentions:  Ivanhoe, The Crimson Pirate, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Scarlet Pimpernal, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Captain Blood.

18 comments:

  1. CAPTAIN BLOOD was always my favorite with THE SEA HAWK next followed by the merry man himself, ROBIN HOOD (and I am not really a big Flynn fan but he fits these kind of roles perfectly. After watching CAPTAIN BLOOD or THE SEA HAWK you can really see how plastic Lancaster comes across in THE CRIMSON PIRATE.

    I always preferred Fairbanks ZORRO to Powers ZORRO, but that is just me.

    Great summary as always, Rick!

    John

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  2. Can't argue with your great selection of swashbucklers, Rick, I think you've covered the bases nicely! It's a shame that Jack Warner didn't make THE SEA HAWK in color; and I confess I've always been disappointed in Flynn's sword fight with Daniell, since it's obvious that non-fencer Daniell is not fencing with anybody in his shots, and that Flynn is fencing with a double. But ROBIN HOOD is truly the greatest. I haven't seen SCARAMOUCHE in a long time; your description makes me want to check back on it.

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  3. Love your list! I think you picked the two best Flynn films for swashbuckling hero - I loved Captain Blood as the first Flynn I ever saw, but for swordfights and all, the other two were better. In Sea Hawk, Daniell was obviously not a fencer, but I think Flynn did plenty of his own stuff. I know that the gorgeous long shots with the spectacular shadows on the wall were not done with Flynn - the fencers in that shot are masters. But to me it is by far the most beautiful and wonderfully scored on film.

    Scarramouche was so much fun, and that long swordfight in the theatre was spectacular. You make me want to see Danny Kaye's movie again; it's been a while, and it is hilarious. Zorro with Power -- fantastic movie, in my opinion better than the Fairbanks version. Power, and Rathbone as another great villain, were just wonderful.

    I loved this article, Rick - swashbucklers are right up my alley, and I really enjoyed it.

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  4. Great list! Tyrone Power was a perfect Zorro!

    I wonder if Basil Rathbone tossed and turned at night longing to best those screen heroes.

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  5. Caftan , Basil said Flynn "Scared The Hell Out Of Me never was sure what Flynn would do. Basil said Tyrone was the best Fencer in Hollywood.

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  6. Swashbuckling and derring-do at the Cafe! I loved your list, Rick! I was especially delighted to see the inclusion of "The Court Jester" with the impeccable Danny Kaye. Get it? Got it! Good!

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  7. No argument from me about any of your choices. I would add "The Black Swan" in the list of honorable mentions, but otherwise that's it. Great list!

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  8. Fabulous list. I think I agree with your choices. Love that you included THE COURT JESTER.

    I love SCARAMOUCHE, though I haven't seen it in many years, I still remember that black and white costume Stewart Granger wore.

    By the way, I want to recommend reading Rafael Sabatini's CAPTAIN BLOOD. It is fabulous.

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  9. Not a bad list Rick, but I can't understand why you included The Court Jester. I consider that a comedy and Kaye was no fencer. I would know because I took 3 years of fencing in college. As for Tyrone's Zorro I thought he was bland in the role and again not a good fencer. Captain Blood has to be included because Flynn and Rathbone are dynamic together. When those two clashed swords it was like lightning flashes. My Dad was a great fan of this movie and would have told you the samething as me. At least you did include The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood. And you did mention Scaramouche even though Flynn wasn't in it, Granger was outstanding. I would have added Ivanhoe since it had great battle scenes and Taylor and Sanders final duel is spectacular!! Enjoyed your list even though I suggested some other movies.

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  10. Aki, I like CAPTAIN BLOOD but the big swordfight between Flynn and Rathbone is too brief (though I like how the ocean washes over Rathbone's corpse). The duel in THE COURT JESTER is a classic--and funny, too. My Dad enjoyed it tremendously, so--as with most movie things--it's a matter of taste. If you want to read 81 more comments on this post, hop over to MovieFanFare, where it was reprinted at http://www.moviefanfare.com/fanfare-guests/swashbuckler-films/.

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  11. Cool Rick..you had me at number one's Robin Hood. Can't argue with that or any of the other top 5 picks. Awesome list! I have to thank Becky for talking about it, as I came over immediately after she posted about your list.

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  12. Rick, congratulations for your well-deserved hits on MovieFanFare for your thoroughly entertaining swashbucklers list! I'm so glad that you and Becky indirectly let me to this delightful post (sorry I've been scarce, been unexpectedly busy)! I confess that THE COURT JESTER is my favorite among the fine films you mentioned, but part of that is my steadfast fondness for Danny Kaye! :-)

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  13. Sorry, Rick, but still can't agree with The Court Jester being considered a swashbuckler film. Like you said people have their opinions but to me it is a silly comedy with no elements of a swashbuckler movie. Captain Blood has great fencing scenes other than his duel with Rathbone. Ivanhoe with Taylor and Sanders is outstanding. Still you don't have a bad list. The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood are my favorites...not one other can equal them.

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  14. Great topic and post Rick! I agree with your selections, especially The Mark of Zorro. I used to be a fencer and was on my college fencing team, and the fight between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone is the best on film. How about another 5?

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  15. Glad to see Court Jester here. Kaye was the only comic actor physically able to play the same roles straight. Why he so often played hero/nerd doubles - with the two combined in one role here. He was so virtuostic that Rathbone required a double - granted it was a decade and a half after Robin Hood.

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  16. Fabulous list that gets two thumbs up from me. At least Warner didn't interfere when Polito went all sepia for the Panama sequence. It is just one highlight in "The Sea Hawk", a movie that is filled with highlights.

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  17. Love both "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "The Seahawk" (would have been better with Olivia though). Need to see the other ones!

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  18. I know silents haven't been included, but I do love John Barrymore in 'The Beloved Rogue'. Love all your choices except for 'The Court Jester', which I found unwatchable!

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