“We are men of action; lies do not become us.”
But what makes a film a Swashbuckler? It has little to do with the small round buckler shield, though there is a connection, at least in the etymology of the word. “Swashbuckler” was a derogatory word, used to indicate a poor swordsman who covered his lack of skill with noise, either boastful comments or the clanging of his sword upon his shield. The “shield” part of the definition dropped away over time, and that left a boastful, swaggering, swordsman-bully. Modern novels, and then Hollywood, altered the word, keeping the definition, but changing the connotation. The swashbuckler is still a loudmouthed braggart, but now in a good way. Yes, he’s irresponsible and impetuous, but that is his charm as much as his flaw. He is reckless (think of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood walking into the obvious trap of the archery competition) and overconfident (Robin’s loud-mouthed challenge to Little John at the river), and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, part of what makes a film a Swashbuckler is a main character who fits the role. But that’s not enough. It must also be a costume play. The morals, heroics, and witticisms are of a different world then ours, and it needs to look that way. There are no Swashbucklers dealing with rebels in 1990s Bosnia or underground members in 1943 Germany. It’s all tunics and cloaks. Even when the story is put in space (Ice Pirates), it ends up looking like Hollywood’s version of the 1600s.
Finally, a Swashbuckler is about speed. These are fast films, in all ways. The plot whips along, the swordfights streak across the screen, and the dialog is rapid fire. Two men hacking at each other with heavy broadswords are not part of a Swashbuckler. Take off the armor, give them rapiers, add in acrobatics and a few cutting remarks, and we’re on the right track.
Unlike Film Noir, which had to wait till the mood was right and the techniques were developed to come into existence, Swashbucklers were ready to go as soon as there was film. The silent era was packed with Swashbucklers. The most famous of those were the films of Douglas Fairbanks. His The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and The Black Pirate defined the look of the genre. The stories came from romantic, costume novels, particularly the works of Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask) and Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, The Black Swan). All that was needed was sound—quick talking, clanging swords, booming cannons, and triumphant music.
Part of what made each of the 10 films I listed under Film Noir important is that they are needed to understand the genre. That’s not true of Swashbucklers. Watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, and you’ve got it all: the daring and impetuous swordsman (and archer), the quick, witty dialog, the beautiful lady, the fight for honor and what is right, the world of beautiful costumes, scenery, and castles, the evil foe, and the stirring music. There is the whole genre in one film. But that doesn’t mean I can’t come up with 10 important films to review (and in this case, 10 good ones). Click on the titles for full reviews.
Any list of top Swashbucklers needs at least one film based on the works of Alexandre Dumas, and this is the best of them. Pleasingly acted and filmed, it still just barely counts as a Swashbuckler due to its leisurely pacing and scarcity of swordfights. Directed by: Rowland V. Lee Written by: ...
One could argue that this is the first true sound Swashbuckler. It certainly has it all: pirates, a brave hero, a story by Rafael Sabatini, and some of the best movie music ever written (by the master, Erich Wolfgang Korngold). Directed by: Michael Curtiz Written by: Casey Robinson (from the novel by ...
The joy of this film comes from listening. Ronald Colman’s voice is nearly an institution; add in the voices of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, and David Niven and the picture becomes almost unnecessary. Directed by: John Cromwell Written by: John L. Balderston (from the novel by Anthony Hope) Produced ...
Most of the key artists of early Swashbucklers were involved in this film (director Curtiz, Korngold, Flynn, de Havilland, Rathbone, Pallette, Hale, Rains, fencing master Cavens). With the addition of color The Adventures of Robin Hood became the standard bearer for the genre. Directed by: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley Written by: Norman ...
One of the standard Swashbuckler plots has the hero masquerading as a fop as he rights wrongs and wins the maiden, and no film did it better than The Mark of Zorro. While not as beautiful or as witty or as lyrical as other films on this list, I think ...
There’s not much new in The Sea Hawk, but then there’s not much wrong either. This is Captain Blood, all grown up. Everyone had worked in the genre and knew exactly what to do, and did it well. Directed by: Michael Curtiz Written by: Howard Koch, Seton I. Miller (from the novel ...
This film works on José Ferrer’s Oscar-winning performance, and on the poetic dialog—taken from Brian Hooker’s translation of the French play. The low budget is obvious, but Ferrer projects the honor and love in the story so well that it makes up for any flaws. Directed by: Michael Gordon Written by: Carl ...
Scaramouche comes at the end of the golden age of Swashbucklers. Westerns were still clinging to the simplistic good vs. evil morality, but for Swashbucklers the charm was waning. Add that pretty much everything that could be done with the genre had been done, and it’s not surprising that its ...
The Princess Bride (1987)
Rob Reiner revived the Swashbuckler by placing it in a magical fantasy world where modern viewers could accept pure heroes and villains. And he took the genre where it had to go, into comedy. The adventure was now secondary (though the romance was as important as ever). None of that is meant to take away from the wit and beauty of this film.
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
The Pirates of the Caribbean is on my list primarily because it shows that Hollywood can still make a Swashbuckler. It follows The Princes Bride’s lead by including a magical world, and by focusing on comedy. It is unusual in splitting the traditional lead into two, the noble hero (Will Turner), and the amusing braggart (Captain Jack Sparrow).
And a few honorable mentions:
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
A dated version of the hero-masquerading-as-a-fop story, there isn’t enough swashing or buckling for this film to really fit the genre. Leslie Howard is enjoyable both as the effete Sir Percy and as the strangely static adventurer, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Merle Oberon adequately displays pain as the guilt-ridden wife. Raymond Massy creates one of the screens more evil villains as the righteous Citizen Chauvelin. It would be fun, if it was a bit less plodding. At 97 minutes, it feels much longer.
The Black Swan (1942)
Saturday afternoon fare, The Black Swan is a standard Swashbuckler, reasonably enjoyable and filled with clichés. Yet another film based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, it is notable for its vibrant cinematography, but little else. The action scenes are adequate and Maureen O’Hara introduces a touch of freshness by replacing the normal Swashbuckler helpless maiden with a “fiery beauty.” It’s a role she repeated in many of her films. The Black Swan should be seen because it is well known, not because it was innovative or brilliant.
The Pirate (1948)
An enjoyable oddity as Gene Kelly and Judy Garland sing and dance their way through this light pirate fluff. Kelly is particularly good as an actor pretending to be a pirate to win the girl. Garland has a slightly sickly cast about her, making it hard to see why everyone wants to marry her. The songs are decent and the mistaken identity plot is amusing.
The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973/1974)
The Three Musketeers is so omnipresent in film history that anyone interested in Swashbucklers should see some version of it. No particular adaptation stands out as the best and most are mildly watchable, so I recommend the one made in 1973 (and released in two parts) as it is the most elaborate. It never reaches the level of excitement expected in a Swashbuckler but it is filled with blandly humorous moments.
Not really a Swashbuckler, but still important as it continues the Robin Hood myth, covering the darker, final years. While not exactly historically accurate, it is much better than the Errol Flynn version at pointing out how poor a king Richard was. Sean Connery is excellent as the aged and disillusioned Robin and Audrey Hepburn matches him in every way. The always-superb Nicol Williamson plays Little John, who has stuck by Robin’s side all these years, long after it was clear that they made little difference. It is a sad film, as it should be. If you’re in the mood for a Swashbuckler, pick one of the films on my list above, but when you want a thoughtful movie about the end of legend, this is the perfect film.
The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)
Terry Gilliam’s short film was released as a prolog to Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and is easily the best thing about that film. A satire on the business world (particularly as things were in the ’80s), it follows a group of older, abused accountants as they take over their company and become pirates. But not figurative ones. With surrealistic glee, file cabinets become cannons and the building sails away. Visually, it is a stunning piece of work.