Yes, I know my legions of readers are anxious to see the next installment of my series on My Favorite Books, but I need to take time off for a moment to share something important with everyone:
There simply aren’t enough great swordfights in movies.
This is an unacceptable situation. There are loads of movies with gunfights, but what is cinematic about people shooting at each other? People slashing and thrusting at each other with rapiers, sabers and broadswords — that’s cinematic.
There are plenty of pretty-good and good swordfight movies. Errol Flynn movies fall squarely into this category. The duels in The Adventures of Robin Hood are great fun to watch, but they fail the most important test of a great swordfight sequence: they don’t advance the story by revealing character through styles of swordplay. For my money the endless flailing around, while visually exciting, is interchangeable from film to film. (I once heard Basil Rathbone, who was classically trained and a good hand with a blade, complain that he constantly had to work to keep from injuring the untutored Flynn during their fight scenes.) In an action film, fighting style defines a character far more clearly than dialogue.
Cleverness isn’t enough, either. The strenuous stunt-fights in The Mask of Zorro (1998) are fun and ingeniously laid out, but with the exception of the duel in which Antonio Banderas systematically disrobes Catherine Zeta-Jones with deft strokes of his blade (wish I’d thought of that when I was single), they’re pretty much standard-issue action fodder.
Fighting styles are a big part of the appeal of The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), which were shot as a single film and released in two parts, which allows me to class both of them as my choice for third-best swordfight movie.
This is one of the most buoyantly entertaining movies ever made, certainly director Richard Lester’s best work apart from A Hard Day’s Night. (I’m no fan of his two cloddish Superman films.) It is also gorgeous to the eye, thanks to cinematography by David Watkins that makes almost every frame look like an Old Masters painting, and playful to the ear, thanks to a screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser (author of the Flashman series) that sparkles with wit as it stays as close as filmicly possible to the original Alexandre Dumas novel. In fact, The Three/Four Musketeers has one of the qualities that makes the Flashman series so good — it manages the difficult trick of saluting and lampooning heroism at the same time.
The Dumas novel (which tells the wonderfully, needlessly complicated story of how the Gascon bumpkin D’Artagnan joins the King’s Musketeers and helps foil Cardinal Richelieu’s plot against the Queen of France) had already been filmed a few times before Lester took his stab at it. The debunking spirit of the late 1960s and early 1970s had already produced revisionist Westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, revisionist crime dramas like The Long Goodbye and revisionist historical dramas like The Charge of the Light Bridgade. Who better than Richard Lester to direct a revisionist swashbuckler?
So in place of the stagey classical fencing techniques, perfect stances and Queensberry rules of the Errol Flynn movies, Lester and his fight choreographer William Hobbs turned the swordfights into brawls closer to the gang rumble in A Clockwork Orange than anything seen in The Sea Hawk or Captain Blood. Swords go clattering across floors, men trip over each other, and kicks in the crotch settle matters as often as crossed swords. These are fights involving professional men of action who use the means at hand to beat their opponents, and if the means at hand involve chairs, fists, knee and even wet laundry, so much the better. Whatever works.
The bruising practice bout between D’Artagnan and his father, shown beneath the opening credits, gives us a taste of what’s to come after D’Artagnan (Michael York) enters Paris and, seemingly within a five-minute period, is challenged to duels by three of the King’s Musketeers: Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). The arrival of the Cardinal’s guards at the duelling spot leads to a melee that makes D’Artagnan one of the boys, and lets us see the Musketeers in action.
Aramis appears to be the finest swordsman: he brushes aside sword thrusts with a mocking smile that hardly ever wavers. Porthos is fond of elaborate gimmicks: he cold-cocks his first opponent by tossing his blade in the air and smashing the distracted man across the jaw with a rock. (He then finds himself without a sword — a frequent problem with his tricky moves.) Athos uses his cloak as a flail to tangle the opponent’s blade or blind him before a rush. D’Artagnan is all youthful athleticism, playing cat and mouse between lines of drying laundry, then hoisting himself around a clothesline to knock an attacker flat.
Part of the charm is that even when the fighting turns serious and murderous, as it does whenever the lethal Rochefort (Christopher Lee) turns up, there is still a code of honor at work. Rochefort twice has the opportunity to kill D’Artagnan while he is unconscious, but he disdains to do so; likewise D’Artagnan, after besting Rochefort in a brilliantly staged battle in a night-shrouded forest, lets him lie rather than finish him off. In the DVD commentary, Lee is careful to note that he was the best swordsman in the cast, and he certainly handles his blade with an authority that makes him stand out amid the flying furniture and bodies. When he and Oliver Reed lock eyes amid the chaotic fight at the nunnery in The Four Musketeers, it’s one of the great badass moments in cinema, and their prolonged duel is a standout in a film loaded with great swordplay.
Hobbs himself appears as an apparent drunkard who transforms into a very sober and implacable assassin as soon as he draws Porthos into a duel. Reading his resume on the Internet Movie Database and taking in the range of styles used in each film, it’s clear that here is a man who understands film almost as well as he understands weapons, and is comfortable in many different modes: the laborious hacking and slashing of Excalibur, the crisply executed clashes in The Duellists and Dangerous Liaisons, the Errol Flynn parodies of Royal Flash.
It was no surprise to learn that Hobbs also choreographed the duels in my choice for the greatest swordfight film of all time, but before I get to that I have to talk about the second place film — a movie that couldn’t have less in common with The Three Musketeers, and which technically doesn’t even use swords, but is nevertheless a model of how to do it right.