The Top 10 Cinematic Swashbucklers of All Time

by Bill Gibron

13 March 2012

In celebration of the sword, here are our picks for the 10 greatest examples of onscreen blade work ever.

All right, all right. We get it. Swashbuckler is no longer the nomenclature for a certain kind of swordsman (it’s pre-pirate legacy). Thanks to a surreal fascination with all things Jolly Roger, the word has become the almost exclusive claim of the seafaring rogue. Of course, throughout history, there have been many famous names that have taken up the cutlass for the cause. Heck, until gunpowder became the explosive du jour, a finely honed piece of metal was the answer and cause of all of life’s problems. So it goes without saying that, when you mention something cinematic in connection with this category, fans will immediately flock to the Bluebeards while avoiding…well, practically everything else.

For us, however, the category remains wide open - with one caveat. Because it is so much a part of their heritage, the basis for as many of their myths and histories as anything else, we will keep the Asian approach to this topic under wraps for the time being. There are just so many amazing examples of Chinese/Japanese swordplay that to pick only a few would force us to single out several sensational examples. We’ve also tried to narrow down the choices to those best representative of the various subgenres and archetypes. For example - just this past year, a new 3D update on the classic Three Musketeers (now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Summit) arrived in theaters. Featuring Milla Jovovich and helmed by her husband Paul W. S. Anderson (Event Horizon), it may not be the best translation of the famed book, but its action sequences are indeed sensational - by 2011 standards.
Of course, we opted for something different. As a result, our collection of the 10 Greatest Cinematic Swashbucklers might be a bit different from yours. By thinking beyond the obvious, we’ve hopefully arrived at a more interesting, diverse collection, including the oddball choice we place at number ten:

#10: Violet Song Jat Shariff from Ultraviolet

As pulpy cinematic cheese, spreadable but ultimately forgettable, Ultraviolet is choice cheddar. It’s a groan-worthy guilty pleasure (much like the Three Musketeers update mentioned before) that delights in some of the most amazing swordplay ever. As the activist/avenger trying to keep her dystopian society from destroying all mutant vampires, Milla Jovovich proves she has mastery of the blade. Even better, her performance adds gravitas to a movie so goofy it winds up making even the most mediocre video game trailer seem like Citizen Kane. Among the members of this list, Violet and her vengeful nature is perhaps the most unfairly overlooked.

#9: Captain Blood from Captain Blood

Let’s face it - whenever Errol Flynn picked up the saber, movie magic was bound to occur. From Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Don Juan to The Prince and the Pauper, his name was synonymous with swordplay. But his best work perhaps was as part of this celebrated take on the pirate hero. As a matter of fact, his peers were so impressed that they nominated Captain Blood for an Oscar, and even added director Michael Curtis as a write-in candidate for Best Director (even without a nomination, he scored the second highest vote count). Amazing.

#8: Westley and Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride

For many, the best moment in this memorable movie occurs when Mr. Montoya, waiting years to deliver his well rehearsed one line, takes on his enemy and smites him mightily. For our money, however, this initial tete-a-tete between the aforementioned vigilante and a masked Westley exemplifies the best of modern swordplay. Perfectly handled by director Rob Reiner, we get passion and intrigue, brilliant choreography and a rooting interest in the end result. Once they become partners, they equal each other in bravery and derring-do. But this is the moment when it all came together - and brilliantly, one might add.

#7: King Leonidas and the Spartans from 300

There is a lot more to this movie than beefcake and homoeroticism. Zack Snyder may be considered a hit or miss filmmaker, but his work behind the lens for this adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel turned armed combat into a beautiful ballet of bloodshed. From the moment we see these rippling examples of old world warrior drop their shields and raise their blades, we expect something marvelous. With his combination of slo-mo tricks and exaggerated action beats, Snyder stuns us. Suddenly, every body blow is a bomb going off, every stab and parry a picture of brutal majesty.

#6: Jason and His Argonauts from Jason and the Argonauts

Look - any time you can battle a collection of reanimated skeletons and live to tell about it, your fate as film icons is sealed. Even better, you’re now known for taking on some of the most innovative stop motion work every created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. Even with the antiquated look of the special effects, this sequence remains a standout, lending credence to the title characters’ command of the sword. Indeed, as a member of that elite group of classic fantasy films, the work here by the cast and the man behind the puppets is pure movie magic.

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