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At Sword's Point: Swashbuckling in the Movies
 
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by

Nick Evangelista

Nick Evangelista bio


The swashbuckler movie: <CUT! Take two.>

The Swashbuckler Movie!

The glamour of the cinematic sword gets our attention, grabbing our sense of the romantic, stimulating our imagination. The confrontation between hero and villain as, rapier in hand, they duel through dark castle hallways in a beautiful dance of death is a timeless piece of movie lore.

From Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.'s Mark of Zorro in 1920, to Tyrone Power's Mark of Zorro in 1940, to Antonio Banderas's Mask of Zorro in 1998, the swashbuckler film has been a special, almost magical, film genre, encoding the tenets of justice, fairplay, and brave deeds rewarded that form the basis of myths about our society, our worldview. Nowhere else is the ritual of redress so elegant, and the consequences of good vanquishing bad so graceful.

Ultimately, it is the fencing, the swordplay in the swashbuckler movie, that catches our attention. It is upon this one element that the film may be made or broken. Technically speaking, though, the sword fighting portrayed in most film duels is usually historically and technically incorrect in the extreme. Film fencing is often overly broad and filled with anacronistic fencing techniques, more of an eclectic collection of moves rather than a depiction of a single historical style. There are some who look down on the cinematic sword fight as somehow third rate because of this lack of "reality.". But, truthfully, it isn't meant to be a depiction of true fencing, any more than a portrait by Rembrandt is meant to be a human being. It has been designed only to create a pleasing dramatic effect. And when it is done well, that in itself is enough. Nowhere else is the "art" of swordplay more apparent than in the swashbuckler film. It is the graceful vision that thrills us, the spirit of it, not the bloody reality.

Fencing masters, men who lived by the sword, were hired to ensure the success of filmed swordplay. Their skills were rarely publicized, but the moments of derring-do they created made or broke the films they worked on. They trained actors to be passable fencers, choreographed swordfights with the precision of dance routines, and often doubled for their stars in the more difficult and dangerous blade exchanges.

Henry Uyttenhove, Fred Cavens, Jean Heremans, and Ralph Faulkner (here shown in white shirt, crossing sabres with Ronald Coleman in Prisoner of Zenda) were the best of Hollywood's oldtime fencing masters. The first three, coincidentally, were natives of Belgium; the last was born in Abilene, Kansas, U.S.A. Each man had a lengthy career in sport fencing. Each man was a dedicated teacher. Producing the best sword fights movie audiences had ever seen was, for them, a matter of personal pride and honor.

They produced brilliant sword fights for such classic films as Robin Hood (Uyttenhove; 1921), The Black Pirate (Cavens; 1926), The Prisoner of Zenda (Faulkner; 1937). The Adventures of Robin Hood (Cavens; 1938), The Mark of Zorro.(Cavens; 1940), The Corsican Brothers (Cavens; 1941), The Three Musketeers (Heremans; 1948), The Court Jester (Faulkner; 1956), and Cyrano de Bergerac (Cavens; 1950).


Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., in Don Q, Son of Zorro

Of course, we can't forget the dashing stars of old, who tricked us into believing the images of romance and adventure up on the movie screen. Errol Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood; 1938), Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Iron Mask; 1929), Ronald Colman (The Prisoner of Zenda; 1937), Tyrone Power (The Mark of Zorro; 1940), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (The Corsican Brothers; 1941), Louis Hayward (The Man in the Iron Mask; 1939), and Cornel Wilde (The Bandit of Sherwood Forest; 1946) made the oldtime swashbuckler films fun to watch.

In more modern times, stars like Michael York (The Three Musketeers; 1974), Sean Connery (Robin and Marian; 1976), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian; 1982), David Carradine (Warrior and the Sorceress; 1984), Christopher Lambert (Highlander; 1985), Val Kilmer (Willow;1988). Robin Williams (Hook; 1991), Kevin Costner (Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves), and Mel Gibson (Braveheart; 1995), have continued the swashbuckling legacy of Fairbanks and Flynn.

We must realize, of course, that it takes a special kind of actor to wear a costume and wield a sword in a believeable fashion as the aforementioned actors have done. If they were, in fact, mere dash and charm without much true skill with the sword, they nevertheless made audiences believe wholeheartedly in their posturings, the ultimate goal of any actor.

In the end, we are left with an image of romance. The swashbuckler film, with its sense of black and white, of the grand scheme of things, gives us what we need emotionally, fulfilling our innermost feelings of life. We recall the bravery of Cyrano de Bergerac, the justice of Robin Hood and Zorro, and the loyalty and brotherhood of the Three Musketeers. In an age without clearcut realities, of injustice, of greed, and shallow deeds heralded, we are reminded that we are more than the sum total of what we see on the nightly news.

With the swashbuckler film, we dream.

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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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This file was last modified Sunday, Mar 26 2006, 17:16:37 EST