The Swashbuckler has been a cinema staple since Douglas Fairbanks cut a swathe through the 1920s with a flash of steel and a flailing of balletic limbs. Although usually seen as cinematic trifles, swashbuckling adventures frequently emerged as massively entertaining, joyously colourful films with an infectious energy and a sense of humour often missing from the Action movies that would eventually supplant them. As a long-time lover of Swashbucklers, I’ve always wanted to compile a top 50 list of my favourites as a guide to others who may be interested, after finding a depressing dearth of information on this most uplifting of genres. So after years of poking around in corners of charity shops, TV schedules and streaming services to uncover more and more of these rousing gems, I’ve finally achieved my goal. With Covid-19 currently keeping the world on lockdown and facing an uncertain future, there’s never been a better time to plunder this treasure chest of escapist jewels and lose yourself in the excitement of scaling the castle walls, fighting off the guards, saving the princess, swimming the moat and riding off into the sunset. I feel better already.
50. THE SCALAWAG BUNCH – 1971
Also known by the significantly cooler title Archer of Fire, as well as the blander title Long Live Robin Hood, Giorgio Ferroni’s Italian Robin Hood film is perhaps most widely known by the slightly ludicrous name The Scalawag Bunch. Ferroni was known for a string of Spaghetti Westerns starring the charismatic and athletic Giuiliano Gemma so when he made his Spaghetti Swashbuckler, Gemma was a shoe-in for the central role of Robin Hood. The Scalawag Bunch is widely available in a truncated version that is badly dubbed into English but even this abomination is a blast to watch. The limited production values in comparison with the pageantry this legend usually demands actually help The Scalawag Bunch stand apart as the unique oddity it is. Everyone involved seems to be having a ball, the pacing is swift, the script amusing and the action vigorous and entertaining. This retelling also introduces some unusual wrinkles. For instance, Robin doesn’t establish the Merry Men but joins them as a late edition, subsequently rising to be their leader. And Silviano Dianisio is a robust Maid Marian, even facing off with Robin as a contestant in the pivotal archery contest, rather that just the spectator, or occasionally prize, that other versions position her as. While it may not be what most people expect from a Robin Hood film, The Scalawag Bunch has enough scrappy charm to earn itself a place on this list.
49. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO – 1934
Rowland V. Lee’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ oft-adapted revenge novel is frequently counted among the best Swashbucklers ever made. I wouldn’t go quite that far since the film lacks the brisk pace and light-footed breeziness of most of the genre’s best offerings, but what The Count of Monte Cristo does offer is a satisfyingly dense, if not entirely faithful, cinematic version of Dumas’ weighty tome. As wronged man Edmond Dantes, the refined Robert Donat provides the film with a solid centre and even crosses swords with an enemy for a brief moment of swashbuckling pizzazz. For the most part though, The Count of Monte Cristo is a serious affair, approaching its tale of backstabbing and vengeance with an intensity that can be overwhelming across its near two-hour length. Still, it is this very intensity that makes the scenes of Dantes’ lengthy imprisonment and eventual escape so powerful and compelling, the ever-present sense of doom providing the thrilling prospect of hidden treasure and incognito retribution with an agreeably cobwebby sense of novelistic gravitas.
48. MY FAVOURITE YEAR – 1982
I class Richard Benjamin’s My Favourite Year as belonging to a fascinating sub-genre I would term the Post-Swashbuckler. Post-Swashbucklers are films that may not technically qualify as Swashbucklers themselves but which require a knowledge, understanding and a love of the genre in order to be fully appreciated and, as such, surely demand to be considered alongside the swordplay-heavy texts that preceded them. My Favourite Year then is a film about Swashbucklers which deftly and amusingly incorporates elements of the genre into its examination of it. Based on executive producer Mel Brooks’ time as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, during which he was tasked with looking after guest star Errol Flynn, My Favourite Year’s undoubted highlight is the Oscar-nominated performance by Peter O’Toole as the hard-drinking, womanising, burnt-out movie star Alan Swann. Swann is entrusted to the care of writer Benjy, a big fan of Swann’s swashbuckling epics whose experiences with the star see his hero worship tested. Though My Favourite Year does provide O’Toole with a few chances to swashbuckle, both in fake archive footage that references classics of the genre and on his drunken escapades with Benji which result in him abseiling from a building with a firehose, it is most interesting in the way it examines the relationship between swashbuckling fantasy and a reality that can be so tedious, demanding and downright frightening that it can cause a perceived hero to destroy themselves with drink. For all of these thematic complexities, My Favourite Year keeps it light for the most part and while some of it has dated badly (chiefly Benji’s rather too aggressive courtship of his co-worker K.C. which regularly shades more than a little into harassment), O’Toole’s charming performance makes the whole thing endlessly watchable.
47. ROBIN HOOD – 1922
It should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Swashbuckler genre that we’re going to be seeing a lot of Douglas Fairbanks in this list. Fairbanks, once mainly a star of comedies, was instrumental in establishing the Swashbuckler with the string of silent films he made throughout the 1920s. Among these hugely popular Swashbucklers, Robin Hood, the third such film Fairbanks made, is often seen as the best. Certainly there are those who prefer this epic rendering of the Robin Hood legend, with its towering sets and Fairbanks’ athletic showmanship, to the more famous Errol Flynn version that appeared over 15 years later. Directed by Allan Dwan, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most prolific B-movie directors, Robin Hood was anything but a B-movie. In fact, it was one of the most expensive films ever made at that point and the first film to have the honour of a Hollywood premiere bestowed upon it. Fairbanks was reportedly so overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the sets that he almost cancelled production upon seeing them. From the gargantuan castle and 12th century village to Robin’s forest hideout, the sets in Robin Hood are indeed a sight to behold and Fairbanks’ boyish athleticism as Robin provides many a thrill.
So why so low on the list? Well, for one thing Fairbanks doesn’t actually become Robin Hood until well over an hour into the film. This version of the legend spends a great deal of time setting up his time as Earl of Huntingdon, his friendship with King Richard (the always imposing Wallace Beery) and his abortive involvement in the Crusades before he even dons the Lincoln green. But this long and admittedly occasionally tedious build up to what we’re all waiting for isn’t the only reason Robin Hood hasn’t placed as highly as it would for some. This is a weird film. The tone is very strange, layering the melancholy of heavy melodrama onto a story which is usually characterised by a lighter tone. But some of Robin Hood’s lighter moments only make things weirder. An extended comedy routine near the beginning of the film has Robin for some reason declaring himself “afeared of women”, after which Richard decides to send droves of women after him in a sort of inverse Benny Hill sketch.
Robin Hood does eventually find its feet and deliver the thrills one would expect from a Fairbanks-helmed take on the tale but at nearly two and a half hours in length it’s hard not to wish that large stretches of that bizarre first hour had been left on the cutting room floor. I’d still very much encourage fans of the Swashbuckler to see Robin Hood as it is undoubtedly a key text and a crucial film in popularising the genre but while many see it as the best of Fairbanks’ adventure films, I’d put it at the bottom of the pack
46. THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL – 1934
Set in 1792 during the French Revolution, The Scarlet Pimpernel follows the adventures of the titular master of disguise as he leads a small band of English noblemen in their quest to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. Ambassador to Britain Chauvelin is tasked with uncovering the secret identity of the Pimpernel, who hides behind a comic pretence of foppishness in his everyday life as Percy Blakeney. The set-up for The Scarlet Pimpernel seems to promise a good deal of action but in 1934 the modest British film industry struggled to provide it. Although it begins with a daring mission, the film’s camera discretely turns its eye away from the details of the escape itself. Furthermore, having shown us a glimpse of how the Pimpernel operates, the film quickly settles down into a series of drawing room encounters which are more focused on Sir Percy’s facetious foppery than in the action happening in France. But while it may not deliver on swashbuckling derring-do, The Scarlet Pimpernel does provide an enjoyable mini-adventure as we watch Percy carefully and deliberately move the pieces around the board in preparation for the last act. The dialogue is often witty, with an amusing penchant for dramatic flourishes and even a hint of subversiveness, particularly in an early line spoken by Nigel Bruce’s buffoonish Prince of Wales: “Well, what can you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instincts? Gad, if it wasn’t for our fox-hunting and pheasant-shooting, I daresay we should be cruel too.”
Audiences unused to British films of this era may find it hard to adapt to such long, static scenes with no musical score other than the persistent hiss and crackle of timeworn film. But The Scarlet Pimpernel has a handful of trump cards to offset this distraction in the shape of its three leads. Leslie Howard, soon to become best-known for his miscast role as Ashlie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, is marvellous as Sir Percy, hamming it up in a range of disguises and striking just the right earnest tone when asked to deliver lines of such dramatic weight as “I shall love her until the day I die. That’s the tragedy.” But it is as the mincing fopp he pretends to be that Howard is best, relishing every declaration of “sink me!” and fidgeting with a triangular lorgnette in a manner that gives his character a studied air of realism. In the role of his wife Marguerite, Merle Oberon is even better. Every bit as strikingly beautiful as the character needs to be, Oberon invests Marguerite with the emotional complexity required by the script’s tall demands. Her soured relationship with her husband provides the film’s most intriguing emotional strand, as well as a sense of duplicity derived from second-hand information which keeps the audience guessing. Finally, as the Pimpernel’s arch enemy Chauvelin, Raymond Massey is superbly reptilian, one step behind his target but always maintaining the sense that he could close that gap at any time. With its great cast and strong script, The Scarlet Pimpernel makes up for its comparative lack of action by offering an experience so wittily engaging that the verbal clashes and costume changes seem like enough of an adventure alone.
45. THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD – 1973
The second of the trilogy of Sinbad films that visual effects genius Ray Harryhausen made with various directors and Sinbads over the course of 19 years, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad attempted to bring the stop motion charm of the original Arabian Nights inspired 50s film to a whole new audience of 70s youths. The gamble worked and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad became a hit, although when Harryhausen attempted to pull off the trick again in 1977 with third instalment Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the film had the misfortune to coincide with the release of Star Wars which changed the game for good. While it’s true that the Sinbad films do decline in quality as they go along, all three have things to recommend them. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad does take a bit too long to really get going, establishing a complex plot about a magical tablet that seems negligible once Harryhausen’s monsters begin to arrive. In holding back from introducing his creations however, the film sets up our expectations and then richly fulfils them. Once it hits its stride, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is consistently thrilling, never more so than when Sinbad is forced to fight against a statue of the six-armed god Kali, each arm wielding a sword of its own. It’s one of Harryhausen’s virtuoso set-pieces, the like of which have ensured these films live on in so many people’s memories.
44. PUSS IN BOOTS – 2011
One of my biggest surprises in all my years as an animation enthusiast was just how much I loved Puss in Boots. I’ve always had an intense dislike of the overrated Shrek films and didn’t consider Puss to be that great a character, certainly not good enough to carry a whole film. So I sat down to watch Puss in Boots with low expectations and was utterly delighted to have them completely obliterated by a film that turned out to be a great deal wittier, funnier and more satisfying that the franchise from which it was spun off. A swashbuckling adventure prequel to the Shrek series, Puss in Boots avoids the pitfalls of including characters from that series other than Puss and instead introduces a host of new ones, the best of which is Humpty Alexander Dumpty, a criminal mastermind who befriends Puss but is not what he seems. Zach Galifianakis is hilarious as Humpty and Antonio Banderas is better and funnier as Puss than he ever was in the Shreks, probably because he has been freed from the constrictive straitjacket of endless fart jokes. Instead, Puss in Boots retains the fairy tale theme that ran through the Shrek series but applies it to an adventure that takes elements of the Swashbuckler and the Crime film and weaves them into something bold and original.
43. THE CRIMSON PIRATE – 1952
Director Robert Siodmak, best known for his Film Noirs, went down a very different path with The Crimson Pirate. Beginning life as a serious Swashbuckler with a script by legendary screenwriter Waldo Salt, Siodmak reportedly overhauled the script to create a goofball comedy that mixes its action with a healthy dose of boffo humour. The film stars Burt Lancaster and his former circus partner Nick Cravat with whom Lancaster had an acrobatic act. When an injury forced them to abandon the act, Lancaster took Cravat with him onto the big screen, where they made nine films together. The Crimson Pirate is actually the second of the duo’s Swashbucklers after the marvellous The Flame and the Arrow, which retained its Waldo Salt-penned screenplay and kept its humorous strand more strictly in check. By contrast, The Crimson Pirate goes for broke with its comedy, both functioning within and lampooning the Swashbuckler genre. This makes for a hell of an entertaining film but occasionally the goofiness gets a little strained. It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that The Crimson Pirate was an influence on Gore Verbinski’s celebrated but largely intolerable Pirates of the Caribbean films, over which it is still infinitely preferable.
42. ON GUARD – 1997
Philippe de Broca’s epic French adventure film On Guard was lauded by many in 1997 for bringing back the spirit of the Swashbuckler in a way that Hollywood had repeatedly failed to do for so long. Based on the novel Le Bossu (as the film was also known in France), On Guard is filled with great swordfights, sly comedy and a sweeping, widescreen grandeur that should please most fans of adventure films. Less pleasing is the film’s truly nauseating central romance between a middle-aged man and the teenager girl he raised as his own daughter. Whether this relationship is true to the source text I do not know but either way it plays extremely poorly in a modern film and the focus the latter half of the film places on this awkward coupling played a big part in pushing it further down this list than it may otherwise have been. Quasi-incestuous entanglements aside, On Guard was a critical success, particularly in France where it was nominated for 9 Cesar awards.
41. THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH – 1954
Forever etched in apocryphal legend as the film in which Tony Curtis utters the lines “Yonder lies da castle of my fodda”, The Black Shield of Falworth is a medieval swashbuckler in which Curtis portrays a young knight in training who is seen as the one chance to end the tyranny of the evil Earl of Alban. Along the way he falls in love with Lady Anne, portrayed by his then real-life wife Janet Leigh, as he rises through the ranks from squire to knight. The legend of that famous unspoken line has been attributed to a remark from a television interview with Debbie Reynolds in which she expressed disbelief at the idea that anyone could find the heavily New York accented Curtis convincing as a Derbyshire knight. While this may be true and I would even go as far as to say I’ve rarely found Tony Curtis convincing in any role, save for his electrifying performance in The Sweet Smell of Success, Curtis’s presence does not prevent The Black Shield of Falworth from being an effective little knights-of-olde Swashbuckler. In fact, the amusingly incongruous presence of Curtis helps to alleviate some of the film’s more serious tendencies, lowering expectations to allow it to be enjoyed as the uncomplicated Sunday matinee fare it so patently is.
40. SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS – 2003
The last of Dreamworks underrated clutch of traditionally animated films before they switched over entirely to computer animation, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas came hot on the heels of Disney’s swashbuckling sci-fi Treasure Planet the year earlier and could have helped rejuvenate interest in the Swashbuckler genre had either film been better received. Unlike Disney’s hotch-potch mess of a film however, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas keeps things more simple for a straightforward high seas adventure that many found underwhelming but which delighted this long-time Swashbuckler fan. In retrospect, the previous traditionally animated Dreamworks films had pointed the way to the inevitable arrival of an eventual Swashbuckler, with the rousingly amusing adventure film Road to El Dorado coming close to being one itself if only they’d thrown in a few swordfights! Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas fulfils these hopes, only overreaching with some of its visuals. With the fashion shifting towards computer animation, the film unsuccessfully attempts to create some of its larger monsters in that medium, failing to blend the two visual styles and leaving audiences wondering just how wonderful these leviathans would’ve been as hand-drawn creations. Still, this occasional lapse does not derail Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and though critics were perhaps correct to suggest the film lacks a little magic, it makes up for that with the vim and vigour of an old-fashioned Swashbuckler. I’d have loved to see where another traditionally animated Dreamworks film might have gone but Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was only a modest success and with the blockbuster success of Shrek two years earlier the die was already cast.
39. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN – 1934
Another fascinating Post-Swashbuckler, Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan followed on the heels of his popular hit The Private Life of Henry VIII. While the latter is the better remembered of the two, in part thanks to an Oscar-winning turn by Charles Laughton in the lead role, The Private Life of Don Juan is actually a stronger, funnier film and acted as the perfect swan song for swashbuckling legend Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks takes on the role of one of the few famous swashbucklers he didn’t portray in his silent classics, the great lover Don Juan. This amoral character had made for uncomfortable viewing in Alan Crosland’s 1926 version of his story, in which John Barrymore’s portrayal of the caddish lecher incorporates at least one alarming scene of clear-cut sexual assault. There is no danger of this in Korda’s picture, in which Fairbanks’ Don Juan is an ageing, pathetic figure. Though the poster showed a ruddy-cheeked figure holding his sword erect, it’s not too much of a stretch to read The Private Life of Don Juan’s talk of encroaching poor health as a metaphor for impotence. However, the story adds another twist as a young admirer of Don Juan’s has been impersonating him around town, keeping his legend alive even as he struggles to live up to it. If Fairbanks was at all depressed at the prospect of ending his career with self-parody then he certainly doesn’t show it. He appears to relish this comedic role, his few laboured attempts at swashbuckling performed with the same level of skill as his earlier feats of genuine derring-do.
38. PRINCE VALIANT – 1954
The success of MGM’s rather stodgy 1952 Swashbuckler Ivanhoe, one of the few Swashbucklers to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, created a brief surge in interest in Medieval adventure films. Step forward Henry Hathaway’s Prince Valiant, a film that is twice as ridiculous as Ivanhoe and at least ten times more enjoyable. The high camp of Prince Valiant is partially down to its source text being a long running Sunday papers comic strip, trapping star Robert Wagner in a bowl-cut hairdo that instantly inspires laughter. The casting of the almost-always-terrible Sterling Hayden in the pivotal role of Valiant’s mentor Sir Gawain also ups the hamminess of the production to pantomime levels. So why is it so high on the list? Because Prince Valiant is a blast, of course! Shot in ravishing Technicolor against a backdrop of terrific sets and gorgeous locations, the film offers up the joys of noisy battles, hokey romantic misunderstandings and pompous pageantry to be consumed without guilt or analysis. Prince Valiant shares a knight-in-training storyline with the same year’s The Black Shield of Falworth but approaches its material with a greater joviality that suggests the filmmakers were at least partially aware of how ridiculous the whole thing is. There is able support from James Mason and Janet Leigh (who seemingly had to be in every knight-in-training film that year) but the star of Prince Valiant is its own delightful preposterousness.
37. THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE – 1953
I’ve never really understood the less-than-enthusiastic reception the late-era Errol Flynn film The Master of Ballantrae is afforded by most. The majority of reviews focus on nothing more than the fact that Flynn looks bloated and tired by this point in his career, although for some the drastic truncating of the Robert Louis Stevenson source novel is also an issue. But for those who come to the film with no knowledge of the original text and no care for whether their swashbuckling heroes are a little weather-beaten as long as they can still wield a sword, The Master of Ballantrae is a hell of a lot of fun. Combining elements of a historical war film, a pirate movie and a romance, The Master of Ballantrae reunites Flynn with director William Keighley who co-directed his masterpiece The Adventures of Robin Hood. While not coming close to that level of quality, The Master of Ballantrae does benefit from similarly ravishing Technicolor photography, strong action, nice sets and perhaps most importantly a terrific supporting turn by British film stalwart Roger Livesey, with whom Flynn makes an unlikely but effective double act.
36. THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS – 1973/1974
Having made his name in the 1960s by directing the first two Beatles films as well as a handful of stylish, surreal comedies, Richard Lester suddenly took a fancy to Swashbucklers in the 1970s. Of the films he made in this genre, by far the most famous (though, as we shall see, not the best) were his Dumas adaptations The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Originally intended to be one epic film and shot as such, the decision to edit the film into two separate features was taken without telling the actors, ultimately leading to lawsuits to receive compensation for salaries associated with the creation of two films by those who had only been paid for one. This messy production history seems apt for a pair of films that are somewhat scrappy themselves. Lester takes a broadly comic approach to the material, with slapstick liberally mixed in with the swashbuckling action and British comedy legends Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear enjoying themselves in supporting roles. The main cast is star-studded indeed, with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain making up the titular gang and other roles filled by Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee and Raquel Welch. While the films are primarily comedic in nature, they add comedy to the story rather than poke fun at it through spoof. When the tone is required to darken in the second film, it does so accordingly. For sticklers about accents, much has been made of how a film set in France can be peopled with British and American accents but any fan of the Swashbuckler is really there for the action, the romance and the comedy and Lester’s films have all three aplenty.
35. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD – 1940
Though it can’t hold a candle to the silent classic that inspired it, British producer Alexander Korda’s lavish production of The Thief of Bagdad more than adequately continues the tradition of the epic, fantastical fantasy Swashbuckler that the earlier film epitomises. During a troubled production process, Korda went through three directors, notably the genius Michael Powell who shot a large chunk of the film. The sumptuous colour cinematography by George Perinal, so crucial in imbuing The Thief of Bagdad with much of its magic, would later be seen again in another Powell-directed classic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Korda’s team pulled out all the stops to ensure the film was a hit and the film’s cinematography, art direction and wonderful visual effects, including the first major use of bluescreening, all went on to win Academy Awards. If this version of The Thief of Bagdad doesn’t quite make you feel like you’re witnessing real magic like the original does, it at the very least approximates the thrill of gazing upon a wondrous picture book you found hidden in a forgotten corner of an abandoned attic. The old-fashioned, unconvincing, though, in the case of young star Sabu, spirited acting style certainly derives its latter day charm from the way it provides a glimpse into the past. Though it may seem slow at first, The Thief of Bagdad ultimately contains genies, magic spells, evil wizards, murderous mechanical toys and flying carpets the like of which can’t help but put a smile on your face. The influence of this film can certainly be felt in Disney’s animated classic Aladdin over half a century later.
34. THE CORSICAN BROTHERS – 1941
Based on a lesser-adapted Alexandre Dumas novel, Gregory Ratoff’s The Corsican Brothers is a lovely little Swashbuckler that tells the story of a pair of conjoined twins who, after the murder of their family, are separated and sent off to live very different lives, with one becoming a gentleman in Paris and the other a bandit living in the Corsican mountains. But they retain a strange bond that allows them to share certain experiences the other is going through. Both thirsting for vengeance for their murdered parents, the brothers are reunited but matters are complicated when they both fall for the same woman. Even in what is apparently a very loose adaptation, The Corsican Brothers has some terrifically thoughtful elements to its plot, such as when one brother cannot tell if his love for his brother’s lover is real or merely an artificial reflection of his brother’s experiences. In the dual role of the titular twins, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. pays tribute to his father’s legacy, most notably in an excellent climactic swordfight. Fairbanks Jr. later said of the film “The special effects could be better but our budget was limited. The final swordfight is the best thing about the picture.” This statement rather undersells this tight, gripping little film, even in terms of the special effects. Modest a technique though it may be, the director apparently had stuntmen wear a Fairbanks Jr. mask in the background of some shots, making it appear as if there are two of him without the use of trick photography.
33. SCARAMOUCHE – 1952
One of the major draws for us lovers of Swashbucklers is the swordfights and in that respect George Sidney’s lavish period romance Scaramouche is a must-see. The film is peppered with swordplay but most notably it climaxes with the longest swordfight in cinema history, a six and a half minute extravaganza in which Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer tear up a theatre as they try and outdo each other with their blades. Both men learned to fence in order to take on their roles and the final scene took eight weeks of preparation, with fencing moves learned like dance moves. Scaramouche was initially envisaged as a musical starring Gene Kelly and these intentions are evident in the production’s lavish Technicolor presentation which one can easily imagine pairing with song and dance routines. The story of a man who is forced to hide in the guise of an actor while plotting revenge on the man who killed his friend, Scaramouche can feel a bit baggy during lulls in the action and the romantic triangle is a tad irritating at times but every time the swords come out or the plot turns to vengeance the film more than earns its place in the Swashbuckler canon.
32. THE THREE MUSKETEERS – 1921
The second big Swashbuckler of Douglas Fairbanks’ career, The Three Musketeers was a noticeably more ambitious project that predecessor The Mark of Zorro, packing the dense plot of Dumas’ novel into a tight two hour timeframe. This is to the film’s credit and detriment, as it manages to create an impressively epic scope while occasionally feeling a bit too busy to fit everything in. Still, the film is never dull and headaches are staved off by plenty of action interludes. The Three Musketeers is perhaps most famous for the one-handed handspring that Fairbanks performs during a duel, one of the most difficult stunts of his career and an impressive enough feat to make you forget that he is really too old at this point to be portraying the eighteen year old d’Artagnan. The Three Musketeers feels like a logical stepping stone between the more modest Mark of Zorro and the extraordinarily ambitious Robin Hood and if there were still kinks to be worked out in the style exhibited by both this and that latter film, both are evidence of the laudable ambition that made Fairbanks such a star and makes these films so compellingly watchable even to modern audiences.
31. AT SWORD’S POINT – 1952
Frequently dismissed as a trifle at best and a disaster at worst, Lewis Allen’s At Sword’s Point is actually an extraordinarily enjoyable little film that gets away with its dafter plot points by playing up to them rather than glossing over them, even leading some to see it as a spoof. At Sword’s Point focuses on the three sons and one daughter of the now aged or deceased Musketeers, who come together in lieu of their parents to aid the queen in her troubles with the evil Duc de Lavalle. RKO was the smallest of the big five classic Hollywood studios and its productions were often noticeably, if charmingly, smaller scale. At Sword’s Point is no exception, applying the modest RKO approach to what, for the bigger studios, would’ve been a lavish production. The film is all the better for its smaller scale, its short runtime perfectly accommodating the brisk, eventful tongue-in-cheek plot. Nevertheless, it is also filmed in ravishing colour, as any film featuring the striking red hair of Maureen O’Hara should be. As Claire, daughter of Athos, O’Hara is the clear standout in the cast as her fiery resolve helps her match the sceptical men every step of the way. Of course, there is a tacked on romance between her and Cornel Wilde’s son of d’Artagnan that would’ve been better omitted but we forgive At Sword’s Point this and so much else because it is just so much fun. Its merry disposition, colour cinematography and short runtime make it a frequent go-to when the mood for a Swashbuckler takes me.
30. THE MASK OF ZORRO – 1998
The 90s was an odd time for the Swashbuckler. The blockbuster success of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the beginning of the decade seemed to make it a viable genre but productions like the crass Cutthroat Island and the bloated The Man in the Iron Mask often hinted at the difficulty in successfully translating the genre’s appeal for a modern audience. But then there was Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro. Produced by Steven Spielberg who originally intended to direct, the reins of The Mask of Zorro were instead handed to Campbell, fresh off his success with the Bond film Goldeneye. While I’d love to have seen what kind of Zorro film Spielberg might have made, Campbell crafted an excellent modern Swashbuckler that boasts an easy charm and a great cast, as original Zorro Anthony Hopkins attempts to guide young thief Antonio Banderas in becoming his successor, even as he falls in love with his daughter Catherine Zeta Jones. The stage is set for light-hearted swashbuckling frolics and The Mask of Zorro, though perhaps a tad overlong, delivers on this promise. Campbell and co sadly couldn’t pull off the trick twice and a belated 2005 sequel The Legend of Zorro felt distinctly like overreaching.
29. CYRANO DE BERGERAC – 1990
Some may debate whether any version of Cyrano de Bergerac belongs on a list of Swashbucklers but it is hard not to include a film which opens with one of the greatest swordfighting scenes in modern cinema. Besides which, Swashbucklers aren’t all about swordfights and one of the elements that defines them are the courtly romances that so often run parallel to their action. Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 version of Edmond Ronstand’s play certainly delivers in the romance stakes, brilliantly unfolding the tale of the large-nosed Cyrano, a poet and swordsman whose secret love for his cousin drives him to help a young recruit in his military unit woo her so that he may declare his love vicariously. This plot may sound familiar to anyone who has seen the Steve Martin film Roxanne, which is where I also first encountered the story, but aside from a duel with tennis rackets, Martin’s modern adaptation drains away all the swashbuckle. Rappeneau’s film, by contrast, never loses the swashbuckling spirit of its opening scene. And what a scene it is, as Cyrano fences with a love rival while humiliating him with off-the-cuff poetry. In the role of Cyrano, Gerard Depardieu gives perhaps his defining performance and is riveting whether he is fighting, romancing or despairing. Jose Ferrer won an Oscar for playing the same role in Michael Gordon’s more claustrophobic 1950 version of the story but his was a boisterously theatrical, if undeniably entertaining, rendition of the role, whereas Depardieu makes Cyrano every inch a real person and his suffering easier to empathise with as a result. Cyrano de Bergerac is tainted only by an almost comically bad final act which seems to go on forever, extending the runtime of an already lengthy film. It’s a shame when the rest is so strong but Cyrano de Bergerac should nevertheless scratch the itch of any romantic Swashbuckler fans out there.
28. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO – 2002
Director Kevin Reynolds kicked off the 90s with the blockbuster smash hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves but was subsequently dogged throughout the rest of the decade by box office bombs and critical flops like Rapa-Nui, One Eight Seven and the infamous Waterworld which, while marginally profitable, became synonymous with big budget disasters. Reynolds began the 21st century with a film that to some extent turned these fortunes around. The prospect of yet another adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo might not have excited many people but Reynolds take on the tale is excellent. While it doesn’t attempt anything artistically unusual or new, this allows the film to slip comfortably into the classic Swashbuckler tradition of good, full-blooded storytelling and, as Roger Ebert’s positive review noted, this almost made it seem like something new when so few recent attempts had really captured that spirit. “The Count of Monte Cristo”, enthused Ebert, “is a movie that incorporates piracy, Napoleon in exile, betrayal, solitary confinement, secret messages, escape tunnels, swashbuckling, comic relief, a treasure map, Parisian high society and sweet revenge, and brings it in at under two hours, with performances by good actors who are clearly having fun.” This wonderful review captures the spirit of the film perfectly and summarises why I prefer it to the far more serious-minded 1934 version. The film was a modest box office success but sadly seems to have sunk into semi-obscurity, which in a way makes it all the more exciting to unearth.
27. THE MARK OF ZORRO – 1920
The film that established the Swashbuckler genre the way we still know it to this day, The Mark of Zorro was Douglas Fairbanks’ thirtieth film but the first in a run of the newly-fashioned action-adventure pictures that would become his enduring legacy. Fairbanks was primarily known as a comedy actor prior to this and The Mark of Zorro certainly has a sense of humour that runs throughout but it is pushed into the background by Fairbanks’ swashbuckling performance which foregrounds swordplay and athleticism, imbuing the film with an invigorating vitality. At 90 minutes and with a straightforward storyline of a self-appointed avenging angel with a secret identity that was an acknowledged influence on the creation of Batman, The Mark of Zorro is more streamlined and uncluttered than the epic adaptations of Fairbanks’ subsequent films The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood, making it more instantly appealing and consistently exciting. Fairbanks didn’t forget about the character that made his name and five years later he brought Zorro back in the excellent sequel Don Q, Son of Zorro.
26. BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT – 1926
Another silent Swashbuckler but a much less famous one than any of Douglas Fairbanks’ genre-defining classics, King Vidor’s Bardelys the Magnificent was long considered a lost film until a nearly complete print was discovered in 2006. Missing only the third reel, the gap in the story was filled with production stills and footage from the film’s trailer, creating a perfectly watchable version of the complete picture. King Vidor is known as one of the great silent-era directors and his Swashbuckler Bardelys the Magnificent was sandwiched between his two great masterpieces The Big Parade and The Crowd. While the film perhaps can’t be said to reach the towering heights of these cinematic essentials, Bardelys the Magnificent does benefit greatly from a strong director’s assured hand. The tale of a roguish courtier’s wager that he can win the hand of a woman who has rejected his rival, Vidor guides Bardelys the Magnificent through moments of farcical comedy, high drama, sweeping romance and jaw-dropping action with the same brilliance he displayed in his weightier works. The final swashbuckling scenes of Bardelys evading execution through death-defying acrobatics and swordplay are some of the finest of the genre, tipping their hat to the Douglas Fairbanks films that surely inspired them and which were at this stage reaching their last hurrah.
That’s it for Part 1 but be sure to join me for Part 2 when we’ll count down my 25 Greatest Swashbucklers.