[13 March 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Living in an age where either the sword or the arrow commanded respect, the characters of Peter Jackson’s epic extravaganza make mincemeat out of those without the ability of the blade. Even when their foes turn malevolent and monstrous, our hobbits and humans, dwarves and elf descendents use the cold edge of steel to make sure their cause is vindicated. And thanks to the talent in the director’s chair, who clearly believes in the old school dynamic of show (not shaky-cam) the action, we wind up with something both exhilarating and engaging.
Though not a real Jedi quite yet (at least, that’s what Master Yoda thinks), our holdover hero from the original Star Wars has a score to settle with Sith Lord Darth Vader, and this time, it ends up being doubly personal. Of course, Luke is seeking revenge for the death of his buddy and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. During his epic duel with the man-machine however, he learns a lesson that makes his heart even heavier. While he ends up losing a hand during the melee, he gains an insight into his foe that will help him win out in the end.
While there have been several versions of the Alexandre Dumas tale, our money is on this cheeky ‘70s take from famed Beatles barker Richard Lester. The casting is impeccable - Oliver Reed, Frank Findlay, and Richard Chamberlain as Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, Michael York as wannabe d’Artagnan - with supporting players equally impressive (Charlton Heston! Raquel Welch! Faye Dunaway! Christopher Lee!) and the storyline does stay (somewhat) true to the original novel. But it’s the swordplay that really sells things, a clever combination of slapstick and seriousness that would come to characterize the genre for decades to come.
Like a direct byproduct of Lester’s lunatic fringe, Gore Verbinski clearly saw the comic possibilities available to the genre when it came to giving his twee buccaneer dandy a blade. Indeed, Johnny Depp’s performance as the fallible skipper of the Black Pearl personifies the current cultural obsession with the swashbuckler. No matter the adventure (even the lame fourth installment of the series, On Stranger Tides), one can always count on the balletic back and forth between the jaunty Jack Sparrow and his various foes. It’s like having a hit song at the center of every musical you make - he’s that important…and good.
Okay, so she’s an assassin, and yes we remember what we said about leaving the Asian angle out of this for the time being, but Uma Thurman in a yellow jumpsuit, taking out the entire membership of the Crazy 88 gang singlehandedly cannot go without mention. As a matter of fact, for Tarantino’s fastidious recreation of his favorite Hong Kong tropes alone we’d pick this babe with a badass blade. But there is such artistry in the fighting, such a sense of narrative urgency and aggression that we can’t over look it. Besides, it definitely bests almost everything else herein.