The action and adventure genre has been a firm favourite with audiences since the 1900s and it remains as vibrant as ever in the blockbuster era. But the golden age of Hollywood swashbuckling occurred between 1920-52 before tales of historical derring-do assumed epic, widescreen proportions and sacrificed spirit for spectacle. Taken from page-turning novels by the likes of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini, these were the must-see comic-book adaptations of their day, with colossal sets and awe-inspiring stunts providing the kind of vicarious thrills that pixellated heroics can never emulate.
Although the majority of swashbucklers were set in the period between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, they were very much products of their time. With the United States facing the Great Depression, the Axis and the Cold War, heroes whose sense of honour and patriotism was complemented by courage, ingenuity, wit, athleticism and commitment proved ideal role models in the fight against injustice and tyranny. Moreover, in addition to defending the downtrodden, stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster also cocked a snook at debased authority and even had time to rescue the odd damsel in distress.
While promoting chivalric values in the midst of modern crises, swashbucklers also testified to Hollywood’s cinematic supremacy, as no one else could match the scale or opulence of meticulous period production values that were often enhanced by Technicolor and rousing scores by such masters as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman. Moreover, they made money by encouraging matinee kids to dream and by raising the morale of embattled grown-ups seeking some much-needed escapism. Despite the knowing revisionism, today’s hybridised swashbucklers fulfil much the same role and most remain deeply indebted to the classics of the studio era.
The Three Musketeers (1921)
Director Fred Niblo
Written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, père, The Three Musketeers is easily the most adapted swashbuckling novel. The earliest screen version appeared in 1898, but competing 1921 productions set the tone for the adaptations that followed. Despite its commercial success, Henri Diamant-Berger’s interpretation has largely been forgotten because Aimé Simon-Girard simply couldn’t hold a candle to Douglas Fairbanks in Fred Niblo’s Hollywood rendition.
Fairbanks had played all-American everymen prior to Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro (1920) and his exuberant display as D’Artagnan confirmed him as cinema’s first action hero. He would reprise the role in his final silent, The Iron Mask (1929), after having thrilled audiences worldwide in Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926). But this is where the 38 year-old first demonstrated the trademark poise, vitality and raffish affability that is encapsulated by a one-handed somersault balanced on a dagger that enables Fairbanks to dispatch a foe.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)
Director Rowland V. Lee
Edmond Dantès, Alexandre Dumas’s most redoubtable hero, has been played by Americans like James O’Neill (1913), Louis Hayward (1946) and Jim Caviezel (2002) and such French stars as Jean Marais (1954), Louis Jourdan (1961) and Gérard Depardieu (1998). But the most memorable performance came from a Lancastrian suffering from asthma and self-doubt, who so detested Tinseltown that Rowland V. Lee’s account of the exploits of the wronged prisoner of the Chateau d’If would be Robert Donat’s only picture outside Britain.
Exuding decency and doggedness, Donat digs his way out of his cell with the aid of ailing friar O.P. Heggie, who informs him of the treasure buried on the island of Monte Cristo. Yet it’s the way in which Donat coolly exacts his revenge upon Sidney Blackmer, Raymond Walburn and Louis Calhern, as the unholy trinity of Mondego, Danglers and De Villefort, that has audiences punching the air in triumph.
Captain Blood (1935)
Director Michael Curtiz
When a disillusioned Robert Donat declined the lead in Warner Bros’s adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel, 25-year-old Tasmanian contract player Errol Flynn grabbed the cutlass with both hands and, in the process, forged links with Hungarian director Michael Curtiz and 19-year-old newcomer Olivia de Havilland, with whom he would make 12 and eight pictures respectively.
There’s nothing coy about Flynn’s relationship with de Havilland, whose Caribbean plantation-owning father purchases the Irish doctor who has been transported for abetting the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against James II. But the edge-of-the-seat excitement comes from Flynn’s piratical attacks on booty-laden French shipping and his duels with Basil Rathbone’s cut-throat corsair. Despite recycling footage from Frank Lloyd’s The Sea Hawk (1924) to supplement its models and effects shots, this has the distinction of being the first swashbuckler to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. However, it lost out to Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
Directors John Cromwell and W.S. Van Dyke
The abdication of Edward VIII prompted David O. Selznick to produce this adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. Ronald Colman reluctantly accepted the role of the English gentleman whose Balkan fishing holiday is interrupted when courtiers C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven notice his resemblance to their crown prince, whose accession is threatened by his scheming half-brother (Raymond Massey) and his dashing sidekick (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr).
The latter actor was talked into the role of Rupert of Hentzau by his father, who had seen how Roman Novarro (his only serious rival as a silent swashbuckler) had stolen Rex Ingram’s 1922 version from Lewis Stone. Indeed, Junior makes a splendidly hissable villain and the climactic drawbridge swordfight retains its panache. Selznick was persuaded against shooting in Technicolor, as it complicated the matte shots that enabled Colman to share the screen with himself. But MGM used it for the 1952 shot-for-shot remake headlined by a doubly disappointing Stewart Granger.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold always credited this rousing yarn with saving his life, as he came to Hollywood as a late replacement for Max Steiner just as Hitler annexed his native Austria. He won an Oscar for his score and art director Carl Jules Weyl and editor Ralph Dawson were similarly recognised. Their efforts are particularly well showcased during the breathtaking duel on the magnificent castle staircase between Errol Flynn’s Lincoln Green outlaw and Basil Rathbone’s Guy of Gisbourne.
Flynn had inherited the role after James Cagney had been suspended and he behaved shabbily towards Olivia de Havilland (as Maid Marion) and directors William Keighley and Michael Curtiz before Jack Warner reprimanded him. But, thanks to the exemplary ensemble and the unheralded research of British screenwriter Rowland Leigh, this remains the most exhilarating of the 160-plus film and television takes on the Sherwood Forest legend that have appeared since Percy Stow’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1908).
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Director Michael Curtiz
Owing nothing to the Rafael Sabatini novel filmed in 1924, this stirring adventure essentially recast Sir Francis Drake as Robin Hood. Seton I. Miller’s story ‘Beggars of the Sea’ provided the narrative outline, but Howard Koch incorporated an allegorical subtext that compared Flora Robson’s covertly privateer-supporting Queen Elizabeth with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Montagu Love’s expansionist Philip II of Spain with Adolf Hitler. Winston Churchill was reportedly delighted with the anti-isolationist message, which also inspired George Lucas when he came to make Star Wars (1977). John Williams similarly drew on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score, which resurfaced in the ‘Long John Peter’ episode of Family Guy (2008).
Warners spent $1.75m on the picture, building full-size ships and an imposing Anton Grot palace set for Flynn’s decisive duel with the treacherous Henry Daniell, which was cast in Expressionist shadows by cinematographer Sol Polito and choreographed with typical dynamism by swordmaster, Fred Cavens. But Flynn’s swashbuckling days were effectively over.
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Director Rouben Mamoulian
Douglas Fairbanks was honeymooning with Mary Pickford when he decided to turn Johnston McCulley’s magazine story ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ into the swashbuckling silent, The Mark of Zorro (1920). But the influence of a couple of 1930s serials meant that by the time Tyrone Power essayed Don Diego de Vega in Rouben Mamoulian’s reboot, the flashing blade resembled a masked comic-book hero as much as a cross between Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Despite requiring a double for the long shots during the swordfight finale with Basil Rathbone’s peon-oppressing guards captain, Power revels in the subterfuge of doubling as a fey fop and a rebellious bandit. He is abetted by a stalwart supporting cast and an Oscar-nominated score by Alfred Newman, as Mamoulian artfully laces the intrigue with slickly staged set-pieces. Subsequently, Zorro has featured in over 30 American, Mexican and European variations on his theme, with Gael Garcia Bernal being slated to headline Jonás Cuarón’s Z.
The Pirate (1948)
Director Vincente Minnelli
Dismissed by Time magazine as “entertainment troubled by delusions of art”, this was Judy Garland’s sole MGM venture to lose money. Yet the musicalisation of an S.N. Behrman play that wittily lampoons the gamut of swashbuckling clichés and stereotypes ranks among the genre’s forgotten glories. In 1943, the studio had lined up Greer Garson, Cary Grant and Charles Laughton for a straight Broadway transfer. But art director Lemuel Ayers convinced producer Arthur Freed it would work better with a Cole Porter songbook and Garland was teamed with Gene Kelly, Walter Slezak and director husband Vincente Minnelli.
Sadly, the marriage was disintegrating and the shoot proved protracted and problematic. But, somehow, Garland produced a performance as vibrant as Jack Martin Smith’s Caribbean sets and Harry Stradling’s Technicolor photography, while Kelly proved his boast that dancing was a man’s game by dazzlingly combining rhythm and machismo in guying Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore in the ‘Nina’ and ‘Pirate Ballet’ routines.
The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
Director Jacques Tourneur
Despite having spent a decade in the circus performing with childhood friend Nick Cravat, Burt Lancaster was primarily a noir actor before Cravat suggested he put his acrobatic skills to good use in this flamboyant blend of the legends of Robin Hood and William Tell. Set in 12th-century Lombardy, Waldo Salt’s screenplay turns around the efforts of ace Alpine archer Dardo Bartoli (Lancaster) to rescue his son from the clutches of Count Ullrich (Frank Allenby) and his bankrupted aristocratic sidekick, the Marchese de Granzia (Robert Douglas).
Bristling with muscular grace, Lancaster revels in performing their own stunts, as he walks tightropes, swings from rafters and leaps from great heights to confound his foes. Yet, while director Jacques Tourneur happily allows Lancaster to pay homage to Douglas Fairbanks, he can’t resist the temptation to subvert generic convention by having him cut down a chandelier to plunge the climactic duel with Douglas into disconcerting darkness.
The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Director Robert Siodmak
It’s often said that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg infantilised American cinema. But there’s little question that Burt Lancaster and producing partner Harold Hecht were aiming for the matinee crowd with this all-action pantomime that focuses firmly on entertainment, as Lancaster and Nick Cravat swing, tumble, leap and hurtle through a Technicolor tale of trickery and treachery like the circus veterans they were.
Whatever political subtext the blacklisted Waldo Salt might have slipped into the first draft was diluted by Roland Kibbee to an 18th-century fairytale battle between the tyrannical and the oppressed, with Lancaster learning the value of loyalty from rebel leader’s daughter, Eva Bartok. But, while director Robert Siodmak packs the denouement with James Hayter’s anachronistic inventions, the fun comes from Lancaster and Cravat (limning a daredevil Harpo Marx) running rings around baron Leslie Bradley and his cohorts in Neapolitan locales whose cost efficiency presaged the swashbuckler’s migration to Italy for the remainder of the decade.