Why do we love swashbucklers so much? Well, most of all, they are a ton of fun. Adventure, romance, a dash of humor and gorgeous costumes. What more could you wish for a night at the movies?
When people talk about swashbucklers, the discussion often centers on the rousing films of Errol Flynn, the slick entertainments from Tyrone Power or movies from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Burt Lancaster and others. While these Golden Age movies are spectacular, we are going to be heading a little further back in time to enjoy this exciting genre in its infancy.
I am going to share seven unique and interesting silent swashbucklers, one for every day of the week, should you feel so inclined.
Disclaimer: The definition of “swashbuckling” is fluid. To me, it is any movie that features plenty of athletic action and can honestly be described as rollicking.
A Modern Musketeer (1917)
We are going to start things out with the man most responsible for the enduring popularity of the swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. You may have heard of epics such as The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood or The Three Musketeers. Well, before he donned costumes and that becoming mustache, Fairbanks made modern action comedies.
Modern dress films present something of a pickle to swashbuckler fans. At what point does it stop being a simple action movie and turn into something more? Fairbanks himself is the answer to that question. The key to a good swashbuckler is athletic action, true, but there should also be a roguish protagonist to go with it.
A Modern Musketeer starts out in Kansas (it even has a musketeer dream sequence) and concerns the exploits of a young man who is a little too… too… much. He leaps and jumps and climbs the church steeple for fun. Since his personality is too big for just one state, he heads out to the Grand Canyon, where he encounters a shady villain and a lovely young woman in need of rescuing.
A Modern Musketeer is an exciting showcase of just what made Fairbanks a star in the first place. Kansas can’t contain him and the movie screen is always in danger of bursting when he is in the frame. While an injured ankle prevented him from showcasing his more death-defying stunts, there is still plenty of bouncy Doug action to go around.
The Sea Hawk (1924)
Now we are moving on to a whole new breed of swashbuckler, a dark and character-driven story. The Sea Hawk is one of my favorite silent movies, bar none. It has full-size ships, exciting sea action, swordfights, a tortured hero and Milton Sills.
I don’t just love watching swashbucklers, I love reading them as well. The king of the swashbuckler novel is Rafael Sabatini. He wrote Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Black Swan, Bardelys the Magnificent and The Sea Hawk. To be honest, I had always been disappointed by the 1940 Errol Flynn version of this tale. I mean, it’s okay as minor swashbucklers go but it has absolutely nothing to do with the book. The silent version, on the other hand, is quite faithful to its source material.
Milton Sills plays an Elizabethan privateer who is betrayed by his own brother, enslaved by Spaniards, freed by Algerians, converts to Islam and becomes a Barbary corsair. Naturally, revenge in in the offing.
When I mention Milton Sills, the reaction is quite often, “Milton who?” Well, he was an academic-turned-actor who specialized in macho action films. The Sea Hawk was considered one of his best but it was actually cut apart so that the splendid ship battles could be reused in the talkies. A tour-de-force effort from UCLA resulted in a restored version in 1994. This is one of the more fortunate saves of the silent era.
Kindly resist the urge to sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. This swashbuckler is a tale of the French Revolution and another Rafael Sabatini yarn. Fans of Ramon Novarro should be particularly interested as it contains what is, in my opinion, his finest performance. (Actually, in his opinion too.)
Novarro plays a young fellow bent on revenge after his best friend is murdered by an aristocrat. Our villain is played by Lewis Stone, believe it or not. Mr. Stone played the much-beloved Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series so prepared to be shocked if you are a fan. Stone’s performance is subtle with lots of blink-and-you-miss-it acting flourishes.
Scaramouche is directed by Rex Ingram, remembered today for showcasing Valentino’s tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Ingram was famous for his beautiful cinematography and he does not disappoint here. As a director, he tended to prefer a poky pace but the driving story of Scaramouche doesn’t allow him to slow down. This film is also my favorite Rex Ingram title.
Fans of the 1952 Stewart Granger/Janet Leigh/Eleanor Parker version will find a very different tale from the one they are used to and a much darker narrative. (Also, look out for Lewis Stone is a small supporting role.) Like The Sea Hawk, the silent Scaramouche is much more faithful to its source novel.
The Eagle (1925)
Rudolph Valentino is still remembered as the Great Lover and his signature role was as a lusty sheik. In truth, though, Valentino was not nuts about the typecasting and in the years before his death, he set about adjusting his screen image into something a little less sheiky.
While not as famous as his sheik roles, The Eagle is a delightful little romantic adventure that takes place in Catherine the Great’s Russia. Valentino is a Cossack who, in a winking bit of gender reversal, catches the eye of the man-eating czarina. Forced to flee, he soon becomes an outlaw and ends up romancing Vilma Banky. Miss Banky is, you guessed it, the daughter of his enemy and complications abound.
Valentino had an underappreciated flair for comedy, which gets used to great advantage in this story. He and Banky spend one evening wordlessly arguing by underlining pertinent passages in a bible. However, there is still plenty of romance for those of you who like your Valentino hot. For those of you who may not care for Valentino, give this one a try. It is heavy on action, well-directed and it is a bit of lightweight entertainment for adventure fans.
Don Juan (1926)
If Valentino was trying to shed his lover image, John Barrymore had no such qualms. Don Juan is famous today for its use of a synchronized score but it also contained its share of romance and action.
Barrymore plays the legendary lover with gusto. Let’s just say that the ham is sliced thick. He is ably supported by a very young Mary Astor. Estelle Taylor steals the show as the villainess and a pre-fame Myrna Loy is on hand as Miss Taylor’s saucy handmaiden. Phyllis Haver has a small cameo as one of our hero’s conquests.
The film also features a very enthusiastic duel between Barrymore and silent movie baddie extraordinaire, Montagu Love. (Mr. Love was killed by the very best in the silents, including Lillian Gish and Rudolph Valentino.) There is much leaping and lunging and it is all greatly entertaining.
The story is actually a bit romance-heavy for my taste but it has a loyal following and is an interesting change of pace for those of you who think of swashbucklers as purely action affairs.
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
We’ve already taken a look at Douglas Fairbanks’ contemporary action movies, now we are going to discuss the costume film that changed the course of his career. While it may seem obvious to us today that Fairbanks was made for costumed swashbucklers, he was not so sure. Would the costumes and sets overwhelm his breezy screen persona? Would the more expensive historical genre create an enormous bomb?
Fairbanks took the plunge in 1920 and became the very first screen Zorro in the process. While the film is important historically, it is also a lot of spunk in itself. Fairbanks’ stunts are a delight, his humor shines through and the whole film is a masterful bit of entertainment from beginning to end.
While Fairbanks would go on to make other classic costume adventures, The Mark of Zorro will always be a little bit special. It is lighter than its successors and less dependent on spectacle. More than any of his other films, it marks the exact dividing line between contemporary Doug and historical Doug and it turns out that this line can be described (to quote Goldilocks) as just right.
Eve’s Leaves (1926)
The ladies also got in on the action during the silent era. Actresses like Bebe Daniels and Marion Davies tried their hand with the blade. Eve’s Leaves takes things in a more nautical direction. Leatrice Joy plays a tomboy sailor with a lonely heart. Based on the advice she finds in love almanacs, she ends up shanghaiing an American businessman, who is none too pleased about the matter.
He is played by William Boyd, nine years away from becoming Hopalong Cassidy. Our heroine has to win him over, battle pirates and overcome parental objection before claiming her happiness. What I really enjoyed about the film was the fact that Joy’s heroine uses her wits, wiles and skill with knots to save the day (and Mr. Boyd) again and again. Sure, this is a comedy but her bravery is something that is still all too rare in adventure films. In fact, the film is only marred by the unfortunate inclusion of racial stereotypes.
Eve’s Leaves was ignored when initially released but I think it deserves a reevaluation, not just because it features a strong heroine (though that helps) but also because it is an excellent piece of silent entertainment.
For even more silent action with a womanly twist, do check out The Fighting Eagle, another offering from the DeMille studio.
What are some of your favorite silent swashbucklers? Be sure to share in the comments!
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