as Robin Hood
Overthrow of corrupt power, restoration of authority, culmination with romantic union. Done with dynamic action in film, frequently featuring swordplay on a ship or in a castle, it’s called a swashbuckler.
Webster’s defines the word as a daring adventurer—swash meaning swagger, buckler meaning shield. In film the swashbuckler starts with Douglas Fairbanks. Without sound (other than an organist playing off to the side), and without color (although they did have a two-tone effect to differentiate night from day), Fairbanks starred in The Mark of Zorro (1920), inspired by Robin Hood legends and set in California, two years before he starred as the outlaw of Sherwood proper.
Fairbanks did it all before anyone. The Three Musketeers (1921), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926) showcase the infectious enthusiasm and impressive physicality that made the Colorado-born actor the first action movie star. He collaborated with his equally cinematically successful wife, Mary Pickford, director D.W. Griffith, plus the most famous person in the world, Charlie Chaplin, and together they formed United Artists.
But it was Warner Brothers, a generation later, which produced the three seminal swashbuckling films: Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940) all feature the amazing combination of Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, actor Errol Flynn, a Tasmanian, and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, born in what is now Czech Republic.
As the bridge between both versions, character actor Alan Hale played Little John to not only Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in 1922, but with Flynn as well in 1938.
Flynn’s unique verisimilitude accounts for much of the film’s success. (There’s an interesting documentary from Turner Classic Movies, Welcome to Sherwood, about the making of the film, much of which was shot in Chico.) It was also an early Technicolor movie, though, and remains one of the best examples of sheer attention to the use of color in film. As Maid Marian, Olivia De Havilland positively beams with indescribable winning charm. She starred with Flynn and classy baddie Basil Rathbone three years earlier in Captain Blood, and worked with Flynn in several films afterwards.
Olivia De Havilland
in Captain Blood (1935)
Curtiz’s signature use of shadow as a filmmaker achieves sublime heights in the climactic sword fight between Rathbone—an accomplished fencer—and Errol Flynn, with action fluidly and flawlessly contributed through the music of Wolfgang Korngold, a prodigy whose first orchestral piece at age 14 caught the attention of Strauss and Mahler.
The Sea Hawk has the most rousing score of any swashbuckler, but lack of color and lack of De Havilland puts Raphael Sabatini’s story slightly behind the legendary outlaw.
He may have been a poor man’s Errol Flynn, yet Stewart Granger—real name James Stewart—starred in three of the best adventure movies ever, all featuring tremendous swashbuckling flair. King Solomon’s Mines (1950), plus The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche, both in 1952, richly exemplify the genre, and all but scream to be seen on the big screen.
Still another generation later, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, directed the best film versions of Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers (1973)—it doesn’t make much sense that they’re called Musketeers when what they use all the time is swords, but whatever—and The Four Musketeers (1975) both look like living Rembrandts and brim with bawdy humor and dashing action featuring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston and an all-star cast.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a Rudyard Kipling story directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as a pair of bold, unscrupulous freebooters, is certainly one of the best adventure films. Yet, like the excellent Robin and Marian (1976), there is none of the sweeping charm, a vital element in the swashbuckler not seen again until Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).
Stewart Kirby writes for