One of the challenges with listing “swashbuckler films” is that they form a wide genre that defies easy categorization. Yes, a swashbuckling picture must be adventurous in spirit and include some swordplay. However, that definition cuts a wide swath, so one could include tales of knighthood, pirates, samurai, surf-and-sandal epics, and Vikings. To keep my list size to a scant five (that’s the “5 Best” rule!), I omitted the latter three groups and focused on classic films from the sound era only. I expect some disagreements (principally from Douglas Fairbanks fans and those bemoaning the inclusion of only two Flynn flicks…yes, his films could have dominated the list). But, hey, disagreements generate discussion and that’s a part of loving movies, right?
1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
One of the greatest films of all time with one of the greatest casts ever assembled. It has action, humor, romance, and a marvelous hissable villain in Basil Rathbone. Errol Flynn was never more dashing and Olivia de Havilland is the consummate screen heroine. The climatic swordfight is so entertaining that I missed the continuity glitch for many years (watch Basil’s sword magically move between shots). It is, quite simply, the ultimate swashbuckling film.
2. Scaramouche (1952)
Stewart Granger is marvelous in a role that Errol Flynn would have played ten years earlier. Janet Leigh, who has never looked lovelier, exudes charming innocence and Eleanor Parker gives a delightful performance as the fiery red-headed Lenore. She and Granger have a natural chemistry that makes their scenes together sparkle. The famous MGM production values are very much on display; the colors are vivid, the costumes ornate, and the set design impeccable. You’ll swear that the thrilling climactic swordfight (maybe the longest in film history at 5:35 minutes…and my personal favorite) was filmed in a real Parisian theatre draped in gold, red, and white.
3. The Court Jester (1956)
Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s such a spot-on spoof of swashbuckling films that I think it qualifies as one itself. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor).The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle with the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in the history of cinema?
4. The Mark of Zorro (1940)
I’ll probably get in trouble for listing the Tyrone Power version and not addressing Douglas Fairbanks (but I am consistent with my rules). Taking a page from Leslie Howard’s acting class, Tyrone does a fine job of playing the fop who is a fine fencer. His close quarters swordfight with Basil Rathbone (there seems to be a trend with him) is one of the more realistic duels—and it’s an entertaining one, too.
5. The Sea Hawk (1940)
There’s little similarity with Rafael Sabatini’s novel–and it should have been shot in color (by this point, Jack Warner thought Flynn was too big a draw to waste money on color). Still, The Sea Hawk is a first-rate swashbucker with Errol in top form as an English privateer who plunders Spanish ships while Queen Elizabeth looks the other way. The Sea Hawk reunites much of the Robin Hood team, including director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and performers Claude Rains, Alan Hale, and Una O’Connor. Errol’s big swordfight with baddie Henry Daniell even recalls Robin Hood, right down to Curtiz’s marvelous use of shadows.
What’s your favorite swashbuckler film? Let us know in the comments!