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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Parry and Thrust (originally published 9/95)

The heroes of today's action movies have to be handy with everything from high explosives to Harrier jets to every sort of handgun known to man. There was a time, however, when the one indispensable skill for an action hero was swordsmanship. A fencing duel was, after all, an ideal form of movie fight. Unlike an impersonal gunfight, the antagonists were necessarily close to each other and face to face. Also, unlike a fistfight, the antagonists could fight furiously without letup while simultaneously engaging in witty dialogue.

Interestingly, movie sword fights seem to be making something of a comeback. "Braveheart," "First Knight," and "Rob Roy" are all examples of recent films featuring spectacular sword fights as centerpieces of the action. If you've seen these films and found the swordplay thrilling, you may want to look for the following classic titles on home video. Each one features at least one sword fight that will curl your hair.

"The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937). David O. Selznick produced this adaptation of the classic Anthony J. Hope novel, giving it the same kind of opulent Selznick treatment that Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" would receive two years later. Ronald Colman plays the dual role of the kidnapped king of Ruritania and the look-alike English relative who stands in for him. The film's classic sword fight occurs when Colman the commoner leads an expedition to rescue Colman the royal prisoner from the castle at Zenda. Confronted by a villainous henchman (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Colman engages him in a sword duel that meanders up the stairs, through the main hall, and out to the drawbridge.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). Even though new versions continue to appear, this version of the Robin Hood legend remains the definitive one for most movie fans. As the career of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., drew to a close, Errol Flynn emerged as the top swashbuckling star of the day. Here he is matched with an equally fine villain, the great Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Their climactic sword fight is both exciting and visually striking, with the antagonists' shadows looming over them on huge pillars.

"The Mark of Zorro" (1940). Twenty years earlier, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., had virtually invented the swashbuckler genre with his screen adaptation of Johnston McCulley's story of Don Diego Vega. Diego, a Spanish nobleman living in California, poses as an effeminate dandy, but when danger threatens he becomes the mysterious masked Zorro, champion of the oppressed. This remake of the Fairbanks classic established Tyrone Power as a major action star. Again, the villain who crosses swords with our hero is Basil Rathbone, who made something of a specialty of this kind of role for a while. Although movie sword fights are never really authentic, this duel contains less of that silliness of jumping on the furniture than most. Even so, veteran director Rouben Mamoulian has no problem keeping it interesting.

"Scaramouche" (1952). This version of Rafael Sabatini's novel stars Stewart Granger as Andre Moreau, the illegitimate son of a French nobleman, who makes his way in the world as an actor portraying the masked clown Scaramouche. His bitter enemy is the Marquis de Maynes, played by Mel Ferrer. In addition to being Andre's rival for the hand of Aline de Gavrillac (Janet Leigh), the Marquis has killed a friend of Andre's in a grossly unfair sword duel. The Marquis, after all, is acknowledged to be the finest swordsman in France, while Andre's doomed friend was completely unschooled in swordplay. Andre is no more competent with a sword than his slain friend, and so can do nothing about the outrage, but he swears to learn the way of the blade and to have his revenge in time. His opportunity comes one evening in the theater. Spotting the hated Marquis in the crowd, Andre challenges him from the stage. Their incredible duel, one of the longest ever filmed, takes them through the entire theater, from foyer to stage. The film's promotional trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, gives some indication of the scope of the climactic confrontation.

Of course, if you want to see where it all began, you can't do better than going back to the silent classics of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Several of them are available on home video, including "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "The Black Pirate" (1926), and "The Iron Mask" (1929). You'll find that, although later swashbucklers learned more elegant sword techniques, no one ever surpassed the elder Fairbanks's sense of sheer fun.

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