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.
25. A JESTER’S TALE – 1964
Although it is an injustice being slowly rectified by a string of excellent releases on the Second Run label, I still find it sad how few people have had the chance to properly assess the work of Czech director Karel Zeman. Invariably missing from Greatest Director lists, Zeman’s unique, idiosyncratic style combines live action and animation in a striking manner that no-one has matched since. He doesn’t trade in the living toons of Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but rather worlds of exquisite texture and allure achieved through hand-drawn backgrounds and cut-out objects. It’s almost impossible to describe Zeman’s work adequately to someone who has never seen one of his films but crucially he matches his disarming visuals with strong, unusual scripts that only increase the magic. The first Zeman film I ever saw was A Jester’s Tale, his tongue-in-cheek take of the medieval Swashbuckler which incorporates a satirical anti-war strand into its narrative. Unlike the busy courtier filled medieval epics of old Hollywood, Zeman’s dowdy countryside and forbidding castles stand almost empty, the main players being the only ones to enter their cavernous spaces. There are obvious budgetary concerns at play here but Zeman makes his smaller focus a virtue, increasing the unsettling surreal edge to his black comedy. Filled with all sorts of little absurdist gags while also incorporating the necessary amount of swordplay and romance to qualify for this list, A Jester’s Tale is an oddball gem for anyone in the mood for a very different kind of Swashbuckler.
24. THE SEA HAWK – 1940
The ninth collaboration between director Michael Curtiz and star Errol Flynn, The Sea Hawk is a prestige seafaring Swashbuckler that used a fictionalised story of the Spanish Armada to smuggle pro-British wartime propaganda into American cinemas. Previous Curtiz films Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood had already made Flynn a big name in Swashbucklers and also featured the grandiose scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold which matched the terrific action with powerful symphonic blasts of instrumentation. Korngold was on board again for The Sea Hawk and the incredible score he composed is now seen as one of his greatest achievements. While their may be a bit too much courtbound babble for fans of Swashbucklers that get a move on, whenever The Sea Hawk actually gets on the waves it comes alive with huge battle sequences, daring escapes, villainous skulduggery from the ever-brilliant Claude Rains and that all important climatic swordfight. Though still held in high regard, The Sea Hawk is less frequently seen than Flynn’s earlier Curtiz-helmed Swashbucklers but for anyone whose appetites are whetted by those its a reliably exciting discovery.
23. THE VIKINGS – 1958
When the King of Northumbria is killed during a Viking raid led by the infamous Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine), he is succeeded by his underhand cousin Aella (Frank Thring) because he had no children. However, the King’s widow secretly reveals that she is with child having been raped by Ragnar during the raid. Years later, the boy (now known as Eric and played, unfortunately, by a stiff Tony Curtis) is tracked down by disgraced nobleman Egbert (a drolly sardonic James Donald). Eric is despised by Ragnar’s brutal son Einar (Kirk Douglas) and, after he sets a falcon on Einar blinding him in one eye, Eric is condemned to death. Escaping through a possibly divinely-influenced piece of good fortune, Eric crosses swords with Einar again when both of them fall in love with Princess Morgana. With its luscious locations, sumptuous cinematography and powerful performances, The Vikings lives up to its billing as a terrific adventure with swashbuckling swordplay to boot. While it is frequently stated in relation to the film that the production values are the real star, I’d say that the moral ambiguities of Calder Willingham’s script and the suitably bold performances of Douglas and Borgnine are just as crucial, otherwise we’d have just another picture postcard bore like so many historical epics that followed. Richard Fleischer should also be congratulated for his subtle direction which allows room for viewers to draw their own conclusions about characters and events.
22. THE THREE MUSKETEERS – 1948
Though it was a hit in its day, MGM’s big, bright, lively production of The Three Musketeers isn’t much seen or discussed any more. Perhaps it is its light-heartedness, the very thing that draws a lover of Swashbucklers like myself to it, that has caused it to be dismissed as a mere trifle. But for me this stands up as the best version of Dumas’ epic tale, providing all the action, drama, comedy and star power you want in a film such as this. Although, as was usually the case with Hollywood adaptation of this story, d’Artagnan is played by an actor far too old for the part, in this case that actor happens to be Gene Kelly and casting him is a masterstroke as it allows him to bring his fleet-footed dancing skills to the art of swordfighting. The Three Musketeers features some dazzling swordfights choreographed and performed as if they were dances. Elsewhere, other casting decisions are equally inspired. Though she was apparently initially resistant to taking the part, Lana Turner seems born to play Milady, Angela Lansbury has the perfect combination of poise and youthful uncertainty as Queen Anne and who the hell wouldn’t want to see Vincent Price as Cardinal Richelieu, even if MGM dropped the Cardinal part of the characters name to avoid offending Roman Catholics. The Three Musketeers packs all the plot that Richard Lester spread over two films into a two hour runtime and does so neatly and entertainingly. It is definitely a much finer work than it is usually credited with being.
21. THE IRON MASK – 1929
For his final farewell to the silent Swashbucklers that had made his name, Douglas Fairbanks returned once again to Dumas’ Musketeers but this time as much older men. The subjects of ageing and ultimately death imbue The Iron Mask with a genuine melancholy and an apt sense of finality, though there is still, of course, plenty of room for action and swordplay. Aware that this was the last hurrah of his silent days, Fairbanks lavished resources on the production. Working once again with Robin Hood director Allan Dwan, Fairbanks inserted two moments of synchronised sound where d’Artagnan speaks. There is also an entirely silent version of The Iron Mask, as well as a 1952 reissue that removes the intertitles and adds voiceover narration by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The story of The Iron Mask has been adapted many times, usually under the name The Man in the Iron Mask, but it is not uncommon for films to get lost in the story’s complex machinations involving identical twins and elaborate ruses. Dwan and Fairbanks, however, manage to navigate the plots numerous twists elegantly and with plenty of time for other impressive flourishes. There are some who consider The Iron Mask to be the finest of Fairbanks’ silent adventures and while I wouldn’t go that far I would say that it is a great film and an indication of how far he had come since he first donned the garb of a musketeer years earlier.
20. THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN – 1952
In 1950, Walt Disney Productions began taking their first steps into live action films with an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Two years later, Disney continued its live-action journey with the well-chosen source material of Robin Hood. Filmed, like Treasure Island before it, in Buckinghamshire, England, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men has an authentically English feel missing from many other American adaptations, thanks to a cast of well-known British actors including Richard Todd, Peter Finch, James Robertson Justice and future Last of the Summer Wine star Bill Owen. An extraordinarily good-natured film, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men works brilliantly as a lively rendition of the legend tailor-made for family viewing. The cast all appear to be having fun, particularly Elton Hayes as Alan-a-Dale, here a sort of minstrel-cum-narrator, while Richard Todd makes a likeable Robin. In a world where every new Robin Hood adaptation seems to be muddy, grim or self-consciously post-modern, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men has the storybook innocence and non-violent action that characterises the best of the folksy Robin Hood adaptations. For those who love a lungful of the feelgood air in Sherwood Forest, this version is for you.
19. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS – 1963
Don Chaffey’s 1963 adventure film Jason and the Argonauts is perhaps more of a Swords-and-Sandals fantasy than a true Swashbuckler but it cannot be ignored in the canon due to the fact that it contains one of the greatest swordfighting scenes of all time. As is often the case with films featuring the work of visual effects genius Ray Harryhausen, few people could name the director of Jason and the Argonauts because all its high-points are delivered courtesy of Harryhausen himself, often seen as the film’s true auteur. Based on Greek myths, Jason and the Argonauts is one of the classic examples of a film that you think might not be as good as you remembered as you wade through some early moments of slow-pacing and bad acting by uncharismatic performers. But then, as they always do, the Harryhausen creatures begin to appear and you remember why you were so thrilled by this film all those years ago when it was so regularly on afternoon TV. The great swashbuckling moment comes courtesy of a battle with a group of sword-wielding skeletons. The skeleton army became probably Harryhausen’s most famous creation, with the thrilling battle sequence played again and again on film clip shows. Harryhausen achieved a perfect moment of fantasy-action-adventure here by using the inherent eeriness of the stop-motion animation technique to imbue the skeletons with an even greater nightmarish quality. The jerky movements of the horrific horde seem entirely consistent with how an audience might imagine skeletons to actually move.
18. THE DUELLISTS – 1977
For many people the Ridley Scott story begins with Alien but in the clamour to get to that film and the subsequent Blade Runner, a little gem of a debut feature often gets overlooked. Scott kicked off his directorial career with a fantastic little historical drama called The Duellists. Based on the Joseph Conrad short story The Duel, The Duellists follows the story of two French officers who become locked in a series of duels spanning several years when one of them refuses to let go of a perceived slight against him by the other. Fast paced, event-packed, chillingly brutal and absurdly comic, The Duellists came in for some critical flack for casting the very American Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as French officers but ultimately this matters little when the two men are so good in their role and are surrounded by an impressive but equally un-French supporting cast that includes Albert Finney, Tom Conti, Edward Fox and Robert Stephens. It’s hard to imagine an actor who could quite so disturbingly tap into the irrational grudge-holding rage of Feraud as Keitel does, while Carradine is superbly bemused and wearied by his constant coercion into life-threatening battles. The swordfights are riveting in their realism, eschewing the light-footed frolics of your average Swashbuckler for an authentic depiction of the exhausting and bloody business of duelling that can feel physically punishing to watch.
17. ROBIN AND MARIAN – 1976
Richard Lester’s final Swashbuckler of the 70s is a completely different proposition from his slapstick Musketeer films or the largely unsuccessful Royal Flash. From a terrific script by James Goldman, writer of the exquisite screenplay for previous historical drama The Lion in Winter, Robin and Marian tells the story of an ageing Robin Hood returning to Sherwood after 20 years away fighting with King Richard the Lionheart. It is immediately apparent that this is a different kind of Robin Hood film as we first meet Richard, usually portrayed as the good and noble saviour of the people, ordering the massacre of a castle’s residents in order to get his hands on a gold statue that is actually worthless stone. When Robin and Little John refuse to attack, he condemns them to death but after the ailing and half-mad king collapses while trying to draw his sword against Robin, he frees the two prisoners. This astonishing opening sequence, featuring an excellent cameo performance by Richard Harris as the raving Richard, sets up the theme of the ravages of age that runs through Robin and Marian. A sprightly Swashbuckler this ain’t. There is swordplay, notably between Robin and the Sheriff, but it is realistically laboured as the two old men moan and groan under the weight of their weapons and the punishing damage they work so hard to inflict. An excellent cast includes Sean Connery as Robin, Audrey Hepburn as Marian, Denholm Elliott as Will Scarlet, Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck, Ian Holm as King John and Robert Shaw as the Sheriff of Nottingham. All of them do excellent work with Goldman’s poetic, bleakly comic script but Connery and Hepburn, neither personal favourites of mine, particularly stand out here as former lovers who still seem very convincingly in love. Their beautifully played reunion and subsequent tragic love story more than justifies having both their names in the title, rather than deferring to Robin’s usual top billing. Perhaps not the film to reach for when you want an escapist Swashbuckler, Robin and Marian is rather an exemplary Post-Swashbuckler, its yearning only made more painful by a love for the genre which allows the viewer to easily picture the longed-for bygone days of athletic adventures in Lincoln green.
16. THE EXILE – 1947
After Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid tribute to his father with the 1941 Swashbuckler The Corsican Brothers he enlisted in the navy. On his return following the conclusion of World War II he made two more Swashbucklers right off the bat, Sinbad the Sailor and The Exile. While neither film was a big hit, at least one of them is a lesser-known swashbuckling classic. The Exile, produced, starring and written by Fairbanks Jr., tells the fictional story of Charles Stuart, deposed as king by Cromwell and in exile in the Netherlands awaiting an opportunity to return to England. While there he meets and falls for a Dutch flower seller and farm owner, whose farm becomes a handy hideout when unrest in England sends trouble his way. Add in this mix a ravishing ex-lover, an opportunistic impostor posing as King Charles and a terrific final showdown in a windmill and you have the makings of a classic adventure film. There was one last vital ingredient. The great director Max Ophuls, among whose great works is an almost perfect film in Letter from an Unknown Woman, found himself in Hollywood without a project after he was fired from the film Vendetta due to disagreements with producer Howard Hughes. In desperate need of money to get back to Europe, Ophuls took Fairbanks Jr. up on his offer to direct The Exile. While still hitting all the essential notes of action, comedy and romance that characterise a great Swashbuckler, Ophuls direction brings a notably poetic air to the material, setting The Exile apart as a gem that satisfies in every way.
15. ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES – 1991
Yes, you’ve read that right. Kevin Reynolds’ 1991 blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is at number 15 in my list. This often derided film received many a poor critical notice, a couple of Razzie nominations for Worst Actor (with Kevin Costner’s turn as Robin winning the award) and spawned one of the most retrospectively loathed number one singles of all time in Bryan Adams’ bombastic ballad (Everything I Do) I Do It for You. So why so high? Of course, there’s a sense of personal nostalgia here too. This is one of the first big blockbuster films I can actually remember coming out at the cinema and it coincided with my class at primary school doing a big project on Robin Hood, which included a school trip to Sherwood Forest and culminated in a screening of a rented VHS of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But personal history aside, it’s just really good isn’t it?! For all its many, many flaws, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves moves at a real lick, offers plenty of action, romance, comic relief, big outdoor locations and all the jocular campfire scenes you could hope for. Though it was thought to be a grim and dark adaptation at the time, it now seems like a light-hearted thrill ride which manages to combine the subsequent fashion for darker, more realistic Robin Hoods with the old fashioned sense of adventure and swashbuckling spirit of long past. While Costner came in for a lot of criticism for not attempting an English accent, I can only imagine this would have made his performance worse. Besides which, Costner was a massive star at the time and the whole point of casting your biggest matinee idol in a role like this is that audiences want to see him as they know him, albeit swathed in green and firing flaming arrows. By keeping Robin blandly heroic, the film also allows several of its supporting players to shine, notably Whose Line is It Anyway? mainstay Mike McShane as an imposing Friar Tuck, Morgan Freeman as a loyal Moor and, of course, a scenery-digesting Alan Rickman in a Bafta-winning turn as a hilariously irritable Sheriff of Nottingham. Rickman’s performance is almost invariably flagged up as a highlight even by those who don’t like the film and, for better or worse, it ended up being one of his most famous roles. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was a massive hit, ending up second only to Terminator 2 in the year end list of highest grossing films. It remains a film loved more by audiences than critics but for me it holds the thrilling memory of first encountering blockbuster cinema, a factor that even has me feeling a small nostalgic rush upon hearing that bloody song that spent 16 weeks at the top of the charts.
14. CAPTAIN BLOOD – 1935
Captain Blood’s place in Swashbuckler history is ensured not only by its quality but by the amazing number of important firsts it spawned that were crucial to the genre’s continued success. It was the the first collaboration between director Michael Curtiz and star Errol Flynn (not counting a small non-speaking role in the same year’s The Case of the Curious Bride) who would go on to make ten more films together after this, including two absolutely key Swashbucklers and a terrific Western, Dodge City, that is practically a Swashbuckler in cowboy garb. This also marked the first pairing of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland who went on to make eight more films together. Also present is Basil Rathbone, another important name in Swashbuckler history who would reteam with de Havilland, Flynn and Curtiz in three years time for The Adventures of Robin Hood. Finally, Captain Blood features the first fully symphonic score by composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose subsequent work in the Swashbuckler genre includes phenomenally successful and instantly recognisable scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. So, quite a pedigree! Fortunately, Captain Blood is of more than just historical importance. This tale of an enslaved doctor forced into a life of piracy saw Flynn hit the ground running, becoming a star overnight and forging a lifelong connection with the Swashbuckler, the genre for which he is still best remembered. Though comparatively modest when compared with the same team’s The Adventures of Robin Hood just three years later, Captain Blood has all the high seas derring-do you could hope for and is rightfully acknowledged as a classic of the genre. It became one of only a few Swashbucklers to receive multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for Curtiz.
13. ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN – 1948
Adventures of Don Juan was a film for which the idea was proposed as early as 1939, off the back of Errol Flynn’s recent success in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Unfortunately, due to everything from post-war costume shortages to industry strikes and clashes between Flynn and proposed director Jean Negulesco, the production was postponed time and time again, only finally being realised almost a decade later. By this time Flynn was not in such good health as in the late 30s and was apparently drinking heavily during the shoot. The proposed composer for the film was Erich Wolfgang Korngold but by the time things got up and running he had retired! Subsequently, a chunk of the music used in the film was pilfered from Alfred Newman’s score for 1940’s The Mark of Zorro. Adventures of Don Juan also incorporates recycled footage from The Adventures of Robin Hood and outtakes from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Given this troubled production history, there’s every reason to expect Adventures of Don Juan to be a patchwork disaster. In fact, it is a lesser-known classic. Directed by Vincent Sherman, this beautiful Technicolor adventure has all the pace, wit, vitality, romance and swordplay you could hope for and the great mystery is why it is so rarely mentioned any more, its strange invisibility exacerbating expectations of a dud. Don Juan is a character who always makes me nervous when approaching film adaptations, given his status as a love-’em-and-leave-’em womaniser but this film, eventually directed by Vincent Sherman from a script by George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz, strikes the correct tone by make the character a rogue to be redeemed, rather than the irredeemable sexual-assaulter of the 1926 silent version. Zipping along at a great pace and never less than entertaining for the whole of its near 2 hour runtime, Adventures of Don Juan is a film that requires reappraisal and rediscovery.
12. DON Q, SON OF ZORRO – 1925
In the years leading up to 1925, Douglas Fairbanks had been making bigger and bigger, evermore ambitious Swashbucklers culminating in his 1924 masterpiece The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks could’ve kept going, reaching further and further towards the stars until the inevitable failure derailed him but instead he shrewdly opted to follow the elaborate Thief of Bagdad with a back-to-basics film that returned to his earliest swashbuckling roots. Don Q, Son of Zorro is a sequel to Fairbanks’ first Swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro. The hero this time round is Zorro’s son, although Fairbanks portrays both Don Q and his daddy, whose late arrival in the film knocks it up another notch and directly references events from the previous film. Don Q, Son of Zorro has a similar lightness to The Mark of Zorro but is a much more assured film, Fairbanks having learned his trade impeccably by this point. Though close in spirit, Fairbanks knows what to change too, making Don Q not a swordsman like his father but a crackshot with a whip over half a century before Indiana Jones became cinema’s most famous whip-wielder. Don Q, Son of Zorro pulls back slightly from the 2 hour plus runtimes Fairbanks’ films had been racking up but it pack oodles of exciting plot into its 111 minutes. Generally seen as a more trifling film in the Fairbanks oeuvre, Don Q, Son of Zorro stands out for me as a piece of pure entertainment unencumbered by excessive aspirations and all the more rip-roaringly engaging for it.
11. ROBIN HOOD – 1973
Disney’s animated version of the Robin Hood legend was one of my childhood favourites. I watched this film again and again as a kid and would have sworn blind that it was a beloved Disney classic. It was only in adulthood when I became aware of the studio’s history and critical responses to its films that I realised that Robin Hood is considered a bit of a turkey. Criticised for a baggy structure, cheaper-looking animation and bland characters, it’s actually considered among Disney’s worst films by many critics. My childhood love for this film will always colour how I see it now at least slightly, but there are plenty of films I loved as a kid that I now see as weak and Robin Hood sure ain’t one of them. The would-be animation historian in me can see why the medium’s enthusiasts often put it down. Due to time constraints, corners were cut and sharp-eyed Disney fans will easily spot bits of re-used footage from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. Little John, portrayed as a large bear and voiced by The Jungle Book‘s Phil Harris, is practically just Baloo painted brown and transplanted to Sherwood Forest. And, as is often a problem in any screen adaptation of Robin Hood, the Nottingham accents range from plummy English to Wild West era American!
But I can forgive these obvious shortcomings because Robin Hood is a fast-paced, upbeat, brilliantly colourful and very funny film that I still count among my favourite Disney films. The American accents don’t bother me a bit when it means we get charismatic performances from showbiz veterans like Phil Harris and Pat Buttram and the recycled animation only appears in small bursts and has been smoothly incorporated beyond the detection of all but the nerdiest of animation fans. One criticism I take issue with is that aimed at the film’s structure. The Robin Hood legend is made up of a series of episodic encounters and Disney have, in my opinion, done a great job of giving us an approximation of this storybook quality. From the robbery of the Royal procession through the archery contest and the climactic jailbreak, we’re provided with a barrage of swashbuckling action set-pieces that keep things moving along at an enthusiastic lick. And then there’s the notion that Robin Hood is populated by bland, one-dimensional characters. For me, this is one of the great Disney casts, with Robin made likably wily by British theatre actor Brian Bedford, Little John superbly witty by Phil Harris and Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting Lady Kluck played with scene-stealing brio by a game Carole Shelley. The film is emphatically stolen by its villains though, a British comedy dream-team of Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas as the scraggly, cowardly mummy’s-boy Prince John and his companion Sir Hiss. Every one of the pair’s many interactions is treasurable.
One aspect of Robin Hood that is often overlooked in the clamour to find fault with it is the film’s amazing soundtrack. In a canny piece of casting, American singer-songwriter Roger Miller (of King of the Road fame) is cast as Alan-a-Dale, who here serves as narrator. This also allowed Disney to tap Miller for a handful of songs including the catchy instrumental ‘Whistle Stop’, the lively ‘Oo-De-Lally’ and the mournful ‘Not in Nottingham’, the latter being one of the great, forgotten Disney ballads. But the film’s big show-stopper is ‘The Phony King of England’, written by ‘Moon River’ co-writer Johnny Mercer and performed with the liveliness you’d expect from the great Phil Harris. A witty, mocking song about the tyrannical Prince John, the sequence in which the oppressed inhabitants of Nottingham celebrate and dance to its performance has the uplifting effect of attending a Billy Bragg gig during the reign of a Tory government.
Robin Hood was the first Disney film to be released on Home Video. This was reportedly because Disney were concerned about making their classics so readily available when they still periodically gave them cinematic re-releases but felt that Robin Hood was one of their least valuable assets and so were happy to test the Home Video market with this unprized effort. Perhaps this is the reason that Robin Hood is beloved of a certain generation who were able to get their mitts on a home copy when other Disney films remained elusive. Me and my brothers almost wore out a rental copy we took out of the local newsagents, watching it several times in one night. But while that nostalgic element has undoubtedly played a part in my continued love of Robin Hood, I still feel that it stems from more than just that. This is a great film with strong characters, good storytelling, brilliant voice work and a superb soundtrack. It may not stand out artistically from more carefully crafted Disney classics but the emphasis here is on creating a good time for everyone, which has made it one of my most frequently rewatched Disney films and surely an important film in the nurturing of my early love for Swashbucklers.
10. THE MARK OF ZORRO – 1940
Fizzily directed by the underrated Rouben Mamoulian, The Mark of Zorro was a sound remake of the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle of the same name and borrows liberally from the adventure cinema that went before it. But Mamoulian is able to bring together all the recognisable elements of a great adventure with such wit, charm and craftsmanship that the result is a film that ranks among the best of the genre. So, from The Adventures of Robin Hood Mamoulian rips cast members Basil Rathbone and Eugene Pallette and places them in roles extremely similar to those they played before. Pallette, with his room-shaking bellow and avuncular girth, essentially reprises his Friar Tuck performance, albeit under the new name Fray Felipe, while Rathbone is once again a sneering, dignified villain who controls things from the sidelines. For fans of Swashbucklers, these reprisals are an enjoyable tip of the hat to the high watermark of the genre, as well as a welcome opportunity to see these two thespians recreate iconic roles. In the central role of Don Diego Vega aka Zorro, Tyrone Power is absolutely superb. In the all-important action sequence he has a catlike agility which is marvellous to watch, while in other scenes he has a comedic flair as he hides behind a phony foppish persona (itself a tribute to Leslie Howard’s performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel).
Keeping things to a lean 90 minutes, The Mark of Zorro moves in waves. It takes plenty of time setting up its characters and their relationships before barrelling into action set-pieces that are all the more thrilling for the emotional investment the film has earned. Of course, its all played with a joyously heightened sense of theatricality but that doesn’t stop us rooting for Zorro to liberate the people of California from the clutches of the evil Alcade. Along the way, Mamoulian drops in reminders of his directorial genius. A crowd scene is presented as a sea of jostling sombreros; an expositional poster showing the rising price on Zorro’s head is swiftly and gracefully destroyed by the swordsman himself, seen only as a shadow on the wall; and, of course, there’s that swordfight. The climactic battle between Power and Rathbone is rightly seen as one of the great movie swordfights. Mamoulian cleverly differentiates it from that other great Rathbone swordfight from The Adventures of Robin Hood by staging it in close quarters, as opposed to the cavernous castle that housed its inspiration. This gives the fight a sense of intimacy while not making it any less epic. We know who will triumph but you still watch with your heart in your mouth as the two men face-off and, when Zorro triumphantly plants his sword in the ceiling as a sign of his return to a peaceful life, our cheers are rapturous.
9. THE FLAME AND THE ARROW – 1950
For a long time Errol Flynn was the go-to-guy for Swashbucklers but by the 1950s the ravages of age and his own excesses were making him seem less convincing in a pair of tights with every passing film, while his would-be successor Tyrone Power was looking for more serious roles and devoting more time to theatre. The breach was open and, perhaps surprisingly for those who know him for his later, more complex dramatic roles, it was Burt Lancaster who somersaulted into it. Although he had already begun to make a name for himself in tough guy roles, Lancaster was still fresh talent and he brought with him his skills as a former circus performer. While previous swashbuckling stars had made use of a nimble grace comparable with dance, Lancaster and his acrobat friend Nick Cravat (with whom Lancaster made nine films, of which The Flame and the Arrow was the first) brought the art of tumbling into the genre, drawing on their former stage act in order to add new levels of spectacle to the action scenes. Drawing obvious influence from The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Flame and the Arrow is a colourful, fast-paced blast of a picture that looks sumptuous and moves at an exhilarating lick. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, a director best known for his intelligent horror films Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Demon, The Flame and the Arrow has fallen into relative obscurity but is a must for Swashbuckler buffs. Its gorgeous Technicolor presentation alone demands an immediate restoration.
8. THE BLACK PIRATE – 1926
After getting back to basics with his 1925 Zorro sequel. Douglas Fairbanks showed he had lost none of his ambition to innovate by opting next to make a colour adventure. Only the third film to be shot in two-tone Technicolor, The Black Pirate is a remarkable achievement that would’ve been superb in black and white but is given an extra historical frisson with by its limited autumnal colour palette. An original story by Fairbanks, The Black Pirate is a seafaring Swashbuckler in which a man whose father has been killed by pirates vows revenge, disguising himself as a pirate looking for a crew to join and infiltrating the ranks of his father’s killers. There’s a pleasing moral tightrope that has to be walked with this tale, as Fairbanks avenging angel has to juggle performing dastardly deeds to keep up appearances with ensuring that no innocents are hurt in the name of his quest. Some of the best scenes in The Black Pirate come early on as our hero is forced to prove his worth to the crew through swordsmanship and piratical plundering. In one of the finest scenes in any Swashbuckler, Fairbanks pledges to prove himself by taking the next ship that comes along single-handedly. This is an incredible set-piece and includes the films most famous shot in which Fairbanks uses a dagger to slide down the ship’s sail, a stunt that was later referenced in the lacklustre Errol Flynn Swashbuckler Against All Flags, Italian film Rage of the Buccaneers and cult 80s adventure film The Goonies. It’s impressive, far-reaching legacy aside, The Black Pirate is simply one of the most entertaining Swashbucklers Fairbanks, or anyone for that matter, ever made and essential viewing for budding Swashbuckler enthusiasts.
7. THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD – 1958
Nathan Juran’s spirited fantasy classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a staple of 80s and 90s UK TV schedules, making it as firm a favourite with my generation, as it was with its original 1958 audience. Although Juran officially directed the film, the name more readily associated with this and the subsequent Sinbad films is that of Ray Harryhausen, the legendary visual effects creator whose work is the lynchpin of the series. Harryhausen’s Dynamation technique ingeniously blends full colour, widescreen stop-motion animated figures with the live action actors to seamless effect. As with Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien’s famous work on King Kong, modern audiences have a better idea of how these effects were achieved but it doesn’t lessen their impact. Having been taught by the best, Harryhausen does what all good students should and improves on the work of his master. The vibrant, beautiful creations in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still look completely alive today. The film knows the fantastical elements are its main attraction and does not skimp on giving the audience what it wants. In only the first ten minutes of the film we are introduced to a cyclops, a genie and a magician, wonders enough for the average fantasy film.
But The 7th Voyage of Sinbad hasn’t done with us yet, with a serpent woman, the immense mythical Roc bird, a sword-fighting skeleton and a dragon among the other wonders on offer. All told, it took Harryhausen eleven months to complete his elaborate animations. Some other aspects of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad are not quite so impressive. Much of the acting is extraordinarily wooden and passionless (“Father, you’re getting angry” says one character and the father reacts as if that’s news to him) and the dialogue alternately clunky and corny but with its excellent pacing and sumptuous delights, the film barely suffers from this. In fact, the major roles of Sinbad, Princess Parisa and Sokurah the magician are imbued with an appropriate Saturday matinee charm by their actors’ tendency to seem like the best performers in a school pantomime. And if any of the shortcomings really bother you, there’s always another brilliant action set-piece around the corner, or you could simply relish the gorgeous, eye-popping colour photography. While the cyclops is the favourite character of most, for me the undoubted highlight is the swordfight with the skeleton, an incredibly deft blending of live-action and animation which still astonishes today. The sequence worked so well that Harryhausen reworked it for Jason and the Argonauts five years later, this time with seven of the sword-wielding skinless ones.
6. THE COURT JESTER – 1955
Written, directed and produced by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, The Court Jester is a lushly-mounted comedy vehicle for Danny Kaye. Though still a well-known name in the entertainment world, Kaye remains an underrated talent whose light-hearted, easy to watch films are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the classics. A loving spoof of Swashbucklers, The Court Jester utilises sumptuous Technicolor, towering sets and period costumes that put to shame many of the films being parodied. Frank and Panama’s script is an ingenious tangle of tongue-twisting wordplay, spirited musical numbers, broad slapstick and swashbuckling action. Beginning with a simple notion of mistaken identities, the story seems to add a new comedic wrinkle every few minutes until the plot itself becomes a deft juggling act. Supported by a game cast including Glynis Johns, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker and swashbuckling stalwart Basil Rathbone, Kaye takes the opportunity to display his full comic range. He can (and does) convincingly switch between the roles of dashing leading man, happy-go-lucky minstrel, sensitive crooner, physical comedian and eloquent wordsmith at the drop of a bell-encrusted hat. Kaye’s style is also agreeably free from objectionable material of any kind, which has allowed it to date much better than the work of many comedians of the era. This is family entertainment of the most charming variety, without an ounce of cruelty whatsoever. Surprisingly then, The Court Jester bombed at the box office on its original release, at which time it was the most expensive comedy film ever made. Though it recouped barely half of what it cost, the film did eventually become very popular as a TV matinee. Though it is rarely screened now, The Court Jester is a film worth discovering. With an infectious sense of fun and an energy and wit to match, it belongs on all those lists of classic comedies from which it is so frequently absent.
5. THE PRINCESS BRIDE – 1987
Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride was the fourth film in the director’s incredible run of 80s classics that includes This is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me and When Harry Met Sally. A moderate box office success that went on to build up a cult following, The Princess Bride is a children’s fantasy by legendary screenwriter William Goldman, based on his own novel, which incorporates an absurdist element and dry wit that was rare in such films and which made The Princess Bride as much of a hit with adults as children. By the 80s the Swashbuckler was out of fashion, although its close cousin the Adventure film was thriving thanks to the success of the Indiana Jones films. Sadly, most filmmakers venturing into Swashbuckler territory didn’t take the material seriously enough to create anything of quality, resulting in dreary hokum like Zorro, the Gay Blade and The Pirate Movie. The Princess Bride, though it has elements of spoof at heart, has the affection for its terrific cast of characters and a devotion to the gravitas of its dramatic peaks that are so necessary in creating a great Swashbuckler. Though it encourages us to laugh along with it, at no point does the film find itself ridiculous. With an ensemble cast including Cary Elwes, Peter Falk, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Mel Smith, Christopher Guest, Peter Cook, Wallace Shawn and Andre the Giant, The Princess Bride lives up to its pedigree with a gentle but acid-tinged wit, great one-liners and quirky action sequences including a final showdown in which the hero is temporarily paralysed from the neck down. The comic cameos are treasurable, especially Mel Smith as a croaky albino, Peter Cook as a visually impressive clergyman and particularly Wallace Shawn as a self-styled criminal genius whose comparatively brief performance remains one of the film’s best remembered moments. But the acting honours must go to the heroes of the film, Cary Elwes as Dread Pirate Roberts and Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya. Their swordfight is one of the film’s highlights and in the finale Inigo takes centre stage with his memorable declaration ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die’, perhaps the most quoted line in a highly quotable film.
4. THE PRISONER OF ZENDA – 1937
Director John Cromwell’s adaptation of Anthony Hope’s late-Victorian adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda apparently suffered from a difficult shoot but you’d never know by the smooth, elegant end product. There is something so utterly beguiling about this film which is hard to put your finger on but as the credits roll you know you’ve seen something special. It is certainly helped by a magnificent cast that includes Ronald Colman as the hero, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the villain and supporting turns by C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor and David Niven. Fairbanks Jr. was apparently unsure about accepting the role of Rupert of Hentzau due both to an aversion to Swashbucklers that might lead him to be compared with his father and because he would not receive top billing and was at a stage in his career when he felt he had earned it. While mulling over the offer, he asked his fathers advice and the greatest swashbuckler of all enthusiastically encouraged him to take the part, advising that not only was The Prisoner of Zenda one of the greatest romantic adventures ever written but that Rupert was one of the greatest villains. Fairbanks Jr. listened to his father and ultimately not only aced the part but also overcame his aversion to Swashbucklers, much to the genre’s good. Shot through with romance, intrigue and humour and with a great swordfight to boot, The Prisoner of Zenda is an utter treasure which none of the subsequent film versions could touch.
3. THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN – 1962
Probably the most unusual film on this whole list and a masterpiece of cinema that is slowly starting to be recognised by film fanatics, Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is the idiosyncratic director’s greatest work and a film that once seen is never forgotten. Beautifully combining extraordinary stylised animation with live action, the film is based on Rudolph Erich Raspe’s fantastical Baron Munchausen stories about a mendacious German nobleman who spins a hell of a tall tale. Zeman makes the film a visual feast, bringing to life approximations of period artwork in particular the engravings of Gustave Dore and flooding the screen with tinted monochrome colour while Zdenek Liska’s richly atmospheric score perfectly compliments the visuals. The Baron’s adventures see him battle numerous fantastical animated creatures, including a giant fish that ingests him, and the terrific sword and sea battles ensure that the film earns is Swashbuckler stripes, even if it is a completely atypical example of the genre. It’s very hard to describe the singular magic of Karel Zeman to someone who has never encountered his work but the closest approximation I can think of is British animator Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms productions like The Clangers and Noggin the Nog, which combine a similarly eerie otherworldliness with a rivetingly vivacious sense of adventure and a vibrant, unique wit. Most of the films on this list make for perfect escapism but with The Fabulous Baron Munchausen you escape into a completely different world altogether.
2. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD – 1924
The fourth big Swashbuckler from producer/star Douglas Fairbanks, The Thief of Bagdad was long held dear as his favourite amongst all his projects and it’s easy to see why. While the preceding Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood all have plenty to recommend them, The Thief of Bagdad is still genuinely exciting and magical for audiences of any era and a great introduction to silent films for those who are seeking a way in. Directed by Raoul Walsh and utilising the most beautiful effects of the time, The Thief of Bagdad makes the audience believe in flying carpets, winged horses, magic ropes and giant monsters, all in a time when bringing any of these to the screen would have been a daunting prospect. Though later adaptations of the tale were able to take advantage of colour, sound and more sophisticated visual trickery, none managed to match the charm of this production which pulls off its magic tricks with something akin to its main character’s audacious confidence. We believe because we want to, such is the persuasive power of the imagery. Were an adaptation made of The Thief of Bagdad today, the plentiful wonders could be summoned through lifelike computer effects but what Walsh and Fairbanks achieve here feels more like sleight of hand, making us feel closer to the action and diverting our gaze from anything that betrays the artifice. Fairbanks is obviously one of, perhaps THE, most important figure in Swashbuckler history and this is his pinnacle. Fairbanks was wise never to try and replicate or top one of the most lavish and expensive films of the 20s, allowing The Thief of Bagdad to stand alone as his definitive statement and returning afterwards to a comparatively modest Zorro sequel safe in the knowledge that his legacy was now secure.
1. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD – 1938
As is evident from the number of times the character appears on this list, I have always loved the story of Robin Hood since I was a child. However, few filmic representations of this legend really managed to capture the essence of what originally struck a chord with me. My favourite Robin Hood related offerings as a boy were invariably parodies like Tony Robinson’s brilliant children’s TV series Maid Marian and her Merry Men or Chuck Jones’ classic animated shorts Robin Hood Daffy and Rabbit Hood. However, these were spoofs, albeit affectionate, of the tale I loved so. What I craved was a full-scale recreation of the jocular, boisterous, colourful epic that filled my mind every time I read the stories of Nottingham’s noble bandit. So when I first discovered The Adventures of Robin Hood all my dreams came true at once. With its beautiful outdoor settings, breathtaking cavalcade of exquisite set-pieces and relentlessly infectious joviality, Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is far and away the greatest version of the legend. It transports me to another world away from the problems of everyday life like no other film I can think of. It’s quite simply cinematic magic, all filmed in Glorious Technicolor which floods my brain with serotonin and paints a smile on my face as bright as the vivid greens and reds of its own celluloid images.
It would likely be impossible to recapture what makes The Adventures of Robin Hood so wonderful in a modern day production. The high levels of camp which characterise the whole story wouldn’t sit comfortably with any 21st century movie techniques I can think of and no current stars of the day would seem comfortable in the full Lincoln Green outfit that my vision of the true Robin Hood story demands be in place, while the rousing brilliance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s triumphant score would sound completely out of time. Yet in 1938 everything was perfect for such a yarn. The Technicolor process, relatively new at the time, was absolutely ideal for this materiel, its bold, garish attractiveness capturing the storybook joy of the narrative. The script was able to be campy without seeming ludicrous and the old style sets create a real sense of pageantry which Robin Hood absolutely hinges on. And then, of course, there is the cast. Could there ever be a more perfect man for the role of Robin Hood than Errol Flynn? His easy charm, winning smile and agile frame all make him ideal but it is his utter willingness to immerse himself in this potentially ludicrous role which makes it work so brilliantly. Flynn is unselfconscious in the extreme, seemingly loving every opportunity to prance around in tights, brandish his bow, smirk out a cheeky put-down and throw back his head in exaggerated, bellowing laughter. He’s like a schoolboy relishing being centre of attention in his school play, which taps into an essential characteristic of the boyish Robin which was so noticeably missing in so many later portrayals.
But just as crucial to the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood are the leading lady and villain and both are portrayed beautifully. Olivia de Havilland is a great Marian and she makes the speed with which she falls for Robin, a man she openly despises to begin with, utterly convincing. More impressive still, de Havilland somehow manages to make herself more beautiful as her character becomes more appealing. Some of this is achieved through the use of costume and camera work but it is mainly down to de Havilland’s acting. At the outset, as she fawns over Prince John and closes her mind to the wrongdoing that surrounds her, she is almost repulsive at times. As she melts and acknowledges her own naivety however, de Havilland unleashes her allure through her performance until she is as utterly captivating as any Maid Marian should be. With a strong villain also being so crucial to any production of this story, the presence of the ever-reliable Basil Rathbone is further cause for celebration. Rathbone seems to instinctively know how to play the role of Sir Guy of Gisbourne and he looks tremendously handsome in the period costume. Eschewing the element of camp that runs through most of the other performances, Rathbone’s Gisbourne is a threatening, frustrated presence who quietly longs for Marian and nurses a furious hatred of Robin. Even when other characters take centre stage you can see Rathbone quietly acting at the edge of the frame, his blood boiling that little bit hotter with each scene until the spectacular sword-fight at the climax of the film allows him to unleash his fury.
With all this going for it, The Adventures of Robin Hood only needed a good script and director to succeed and it has both. Embracing the essential joviality of the story but generally stopping before it spills over into the ridiculous, Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller’s screenplay wisely puts the emphasis on action with set-piece after set-piece keeping viewers enthralled. The film opens with a very brief set-up (including a nice symbolic spilling of wine) and then we are thrown immediately into the first big action sequence as Robin single handedly escapes from the castle banquet he has cockily gatecrashed. It is instantly apparent from this heart-stopping sequence that we are in for a treat and Curtiz and Keighley keep the thrills coming, some of them small scale (the duel on the bridge with Little John) and others large (the archery tournament). When any major exposition is required, they neatly insert a written caption which ensures we get all the necessary information without having to slow down the pace. By the film’s finale (a legendary sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone which is every bit as wonderful as you’ve probably heard), only the most demanding of moviegoers could complain they had not been entertained at some point of the movie.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film I absolutely adore and will never tire of. If anybody ever suggests watching it I literally jump at the chance and I find it so thrilling to this day that I have to suppress the urge to leap out of my chair during the film and mime along with the swordplay on screen. This is cinematic pageantry at its finest and unequivocally my choice for the greatest Swashbuckler of all time.