Men in tights (and why we love them)

Since the days of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, swashbuckling heroes have brought much-needed joie de vivre to a cynical Hollywood. Can "Pirates of the Caribbean" revive that glorious tradition?

By Charles Taylor
Published July 8, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

The first line from Rafael Sabatini's novel "Scaramouche" is as good a definition of the spirit of swashbucklers as we're ever likely to get. Encompassing irony, sophistication, judgment that is both detached and passionate and, most important of all, the capacity for enjoyment, Sabatini's line, a transcendent piece of purple prose, could be the code of ethics for every great swashbuckling hero.

In novels, those heroes were the creation of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson and the entertaining imitators who followed -- Sabatini, Baroness Orczy and H. Rider Haggard. On-screen, the swashbuckler was embodied by Douglas Fairbanks and then Errol Flynn. And at one time or another, Stewart Granger, Burt Lancaster, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peter O'Toole (parodying Errol Flynn in "My Favorite Year"), Mandy Patinkin (parodying the genre itself in "The Princess Bride") and Antonio Banderas have all done themselves honor.

Though their descendants, from James Bond to Jackie Chan, have never gone away, swashbucklers themselves have all but disappeared from movie screens (which is why this week's big-budget would-be blockbuster, "Pirates of the Caribbean," is an anomaly). Perhaps the 1970s made them impossible. For all the great work done in that era by directors updating classic movie genres for contemporary adult audiences (as Francis Ford Coppola did with "The Godfather" and Sam Peckinpah did with "The Wild Bunch"), the very notion of movie heroism became almost impossible.

Nearly every western of the time felt duty-bound to link the American conquest of the West to our misadventure in Vietnam. It was logical all right, but also idiotic. Adventure stories cannot and should not have to bear the weight of becoming historico-political treatises, and you have to be more than a little naive -- and a total killjoy -- to go to them looking for that. (Besides, next to the "adult" westerns made in the '50s by Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, the '70s westerns look petulant and childish.)

Movie heroes were suddenly divided into two camps. For liberal audiences, there were the adventurers whose innocence was a form of brutal ignorance, stand-ins for American soldiers in Vietnam. For conservative audiences, there were rotten bastards like Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" who knew no limits and recognized no codes of conduct -- not even the law -- in getting the job done. (The thirst for heroes to whom audiences could respond had a lot to do with the popularity of martial arts and blaxploitation movies in those years.)

In swashbucklers, this revisionism seemed even more sour than it did elsewhere. Three of the four swashbucklers Richard Lester made in those years -- "The Three Musketeers," its sequel, "The Four Musketeers," and the appalling "Robin and Marian" -- could be said to represent the Vietnamization of the genre. In the Musketeers movies, Lester, diminishing everything he touched, linked each opportunity for gallantry or heroism to what was rotten and corrupt in society. (He didn't capture the real spirit of swashbucklers until he made "Superman II" in 1981.) His Robin Hood was worse, a fool because he believed in the old codes of heroism --- and, it was implied, because he supported a leader, Richard the Lionheart, who had gone out on the Crusades. This was Robin Hood as foot soldier for a medieval version of Gen. William Westmoreland, the notorious U.S. commander in Vietnam. Scratch a hero, Lester seemed to be saying, and you'll find a blank-faced and empty-headed killer underneath.

The cynicism that Vietnam and Watergate fostered in American movies gave way to the even more cynical willed naiveté of the Reagan years. But with a few exceptions, movie heroes like Rambo were often doing battle against some enemy of the republic. American movie heroes never recovered their innocence.

It's too easy to say that the swashbuckler genre, with its foppish costumes and antiquated codes of nobility and honor, seems dated and quaint to contemporary audiences. (Though it could be that audiences used to the spectacle of CGI and the quick cutting it entails may have a hard time being thrilled by the pleasure of swordplay and acrobatics. But how then to explain the popularity of Jackie Chan?) The very appeal of swashbucklers has always been that they are idealized visions of some earlier age ("The Three Musketeers" was published in 1844, and the story began in 1625) where the perfidy of the rulers is easily overcome by the true hearts of those with heroism in their souls.

Swashbucklers are the most innocent of genres -- devoid of cynicism and populated by heroes who represented codes of loyalty and justice in an endearing way other heroes did not. Raymond Chandler may have described Philip Marlowe as a knight transplanted to the sleaze of Los Angeles, but the cynical, embittered hard-boiled hero (for all the sentimentality inherent in crime fiction and film noir) is light years away from the joie de vivre of the swashbuckling hero.

The thing that has always saved swashbuckling heroes from seeming like Boy Scouts in tights has been the self-mockery inherent in swashbucklers. The good-hearted pirates and musketeers, the lords and dons who looked out for the weak, were always motivated as much by a passion for fun as by a passion for justice. Swashbuckling heroes know that scaling walls, dueling with swords in both hands, leaping from sails and rooftops, is slightly preposterous behavior. The frequent laughter that split the faces of Fairbanks and Flynn as they were doing battle with some scoundrel was a sign of how lightly they wore their heroism, and a way of acknowledging and overcoming the audience's disbelief.

When you laugh in pleasure at some feat of derring-do, it can seem more wondrous than ever. Fairbanks and Flynn defied gravity -- and the odds -- as easily as Fred Astaire danced up a wall. When rescuing some damsel in distress, a swashbuckler was liable to be grimmer, more concentrated. When only their own hides were at stake, battle was play.

Lest anyone think that kind of comedy is a Hollywood invention, it's right there in Dumas' "Three Musketeers," which is a very funny book. Aramis, Porthos, Athos and later d'Artagnan fight with the crack timing of a comedy team, each member fulfilling a role as defined as those of the Marx Brothers (or, for that matter, those of the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!").

You can draw a line straight from the comedy in Dumas to the comedy in the earliest Hollywood swashbucklers. In "The Mark of Zorro" (the first movie version of the material was made in 1920, only a year after the masked hero made his debut in the Johnston McCulley pulp serial), Douglas Fairbanks treats swordplay so much like play that he even stops in the midst of being pursued by what looks like an entire platoon to eat breakfast. "Never do anything on an empty stomach," he advises the old woman who serves him.

If you didn't know who you were looking at, you might not connect the photos of Fairbanks off-screen -- round-faced and, with his receding hairline, looking like nothing so much as a friendly Rotarian -- with the figure he cut in movies. In "The Mask of Zorro," "Robin Hood" (1922) and "The Black Pirate" (1926), Fairbanks was transformed with curly black hair and the pencil mustache that topped his million-watt smile. His costumes, whether tights or shorts or billowing pants, kerchiefs or gaucho hats, capes or sleeveless pirate blouses, were all cut to show off his strapping build.

Fairbanks had started in the movies as the popular star of a series of light comedies. He might not have become as popular in swashbucklers if he hadn't found a way to carry a sense of humor into them. As Don Diego, the dull, perpetually sleepy young nobleman who is in fact Zorro, Fairbanks has the same relation to his secret identity as Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent has to his Superman. As Reeve did, Fairbanks plays a hero who delights in playacting the dolt in his everyday life. The young woman he courts as Don Diego finds him supremely dull. You can't blame her. Don Diego is forever stifling a yawn; worse, he does tricks with his silk hanky. But wooing her as Zorro, he leaves her in a perpetual swoon.

Comedy is the basis of the stunt work that Fairbanks did. More than 80 years later, his stunts can still leave you laughing and open-mouthed at the same time. His movies usually tease us with a little derring-do, only to unleash a panoply of feats in the finale. In "The Mask of Zorro" Fairbanks uses a hitching post to swing feet first through an open window. While battling a fat, lumbering emissary of the evil Governor, he fights as if he's everywhere at once, making the digital trickery of the multiplying-bad-guys scene in "The Matrix Reloaded" look like nonsense.

Leaping onto tabletops and mantels, swinging up to plunk down on a railing and laugh at his furious foe, even keeping up a flurry of sword work while he's lying flat on his back, Fairbanks is a perpetual motion machine. In "The Black Pirate," boasting to his hearties that he can take a ship all by himself, he swims from a fishing boat onto the front of the ship he intends to plunder and shinnies up the prow before swinging himself onto the deck. There he cuts a rope and flies up in the air to land on the topmost mast. What follows is Fairbanks' single most visually beautiful stunt: sliding down the sail of the ship on the blade of his knife. (If you're lucky enough to see the picture in its original two-strip Technicolor process, as it appears on the Kino laserdisc, the movie itself is one long visual delight, the color both soft and glowing.) It's the sort of physical display to make both dancers and athletes sigh with envy.

It was Fairbanks' "Robin Hood" (now available from Kino in a DVD that restores all the film's delicate tinting), though, a mammoth production with sets that covered five acres and reached 90 feet into the air, that gave his physical exuberance full reign. The director, Allan Dwan, never lets the sets overwhelm the actors or the story. He uses their sheer size to allow Fairbanks to slide down tapestries, scale castle walls, jump from turret to turret. The sets seem to exist to allow Fairbanks the chance to become the stuff of Isaac Newton's nightmares -- a walking, leaping, jumping rejoinder to the laws of gravity. At one point, Fairbanks jumps onto a closing drawbridge as casually as if he were stepping onto an escalator. Even safe in Sherwood among his Merry Men, this Robin Hood can barely contain himself, leaping instead of walking.

Robin Hood is the ne plus ultra of swashbuckler roles. No other part offers an actor quite the combination of heroism and romance, along with the chance to act as avenger and protector of the weak. It's no wonder that Fairbanks' successor, Errol Flynn, would in 1938 (the year before Fairbanks died), have a go at the role in the big, handsome Warner Bros. color version directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. Even without the tales of Flynn's off-screen whoring and boozing in your head, he cuts a lascivious figure.

Fairbanks' Robin Hood professed himself "afeared of women" before Maid Marian won his heart. When Flynn looks at Olivia de Havilland's Marian, his little mustache sliding into a diagonal smirk, you know that no such fear has ever crossed his heart. (It works wonders for de Havilland; this is one of her most likable performances, where the smile she returns to Flynn contains a hint that she'd enjoy the attentions of this manly man.) This isn't to make Flynn's Robin Hood sound like a green-tighted lecher. Flynn, like the young Clark Gable, had the ability to make a joke of his hypermasculinity. Here, his offhand machismo plays right into the lust (for adventure as well as women) at the heart of swashbucklers.

In the movie's most famous scene, Robin Hood interrupts a feast at the hall of the evil Prince John, striding into the proceedings with a dead stag around his shoulders, which he proceeds to dump on the royal table right in front of the prince (who, lest we forget, has made hunting in the king's forests punishable by death). In the tradition of Fairbanks, Flynn's effrontery is both funny and bracing. Flynn plays the sylvan socialist as entertainer -- and he's at his most amusing when, as in this scene, he's working a room that doesn't appreciate the joke.

There is one more "Robin Hood" worth mentioning, though it's nearly unknown to American audiences. That's the 1991 version produced by Twentieth Century Fox, directed in typically solid fashion by John Irvin, and starring Patrick Bergin in the title role and Uma Thurman as Maid Marian. The movie went into production at the same time as Paramount was preparing the horrendous Kevin Costner version. Not wanting to compete, the studio released it theatrically in Europe and showed it here on the Fox network in a version that (like the video that followed) was cut by more than half an hour. Even in this sliced-down version (which is the only way I've ever been able to see it), it's dandy.

At first this "Robin Hood" can seem off-putting because Irvin conceived of it as a dark version of the familiar tale. It's the Robin Hood story as it might have been told on an early Fairport Convention LP, as a mythic battle between the unmovable forces of authority and the irresistible spirit of paganism. The picture is shot (by Jason Lehel) almost totally in mist-covered earth tones, which is a neat visual metaphor for the pall that falls over the land during the absence of King Richard. There's a startling blasphemous moment toward the end when the fleeing Sheriff of Nottingham runs straight into Friar Tuck and the rest of the Merry Men, dressed as profane-looking satyrs and spirits. "Hello, Devil! Welcome to Hell!" Friar Tuck greets him, before sending the evil bastard there. And the pagan spirit blooms fully in the lovely ending as Robin and Marian marry and, magically, the very earth around them blooms into lush, green springtime.

Swashbucklers continued to be made after the heydays of Fairbanks and Flynn, with stars like Ronald Colman, but no single major actor was ever again associated with the genre as they were. By the time MGM produced its lavish "Scaramouche" in 1952 ("The BIG word in entertainment is 'SCARAMOUCHE,' pronounced adventure!" the ads read, helpfully), as Dick Dinman points out in his liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc version, studios were nervous about the costs associated with historical epics.

"Scaramouche" cost MGM $3.5 million, a significant sum at the time, more than the studio spent on the musicals it made at the time. It got its money back and a terrific picture besides. The highlights are Stewart Granger, ludicrously handsome and witty to boot, in the title role, a range of beauties -- Janet Leigh, Nina Foch and the luscious Eleanor Parker -- in the supporting cast, and the famous climax, a six-and-a-half-minute sword duel between Granger and Mel Ferrer conducted along the edges of private boxes in a lavish theater. It's a doozy.

The same year also brought perhaps the most sheerly pleasurable of all swashbucklers, "The Crimson Pirate," directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster, whose strapping physicality makes his entry in the genre seem inevitable. The movie had a good script (by Roland Kibbee), with Lancaster as a pirate lured into helping a band of rebels overthrow the oppressive British reign over a Caribbean island. But the real subject of the movie was a celebration of the physical exuberance of the genre. Lancaster had started out as an acrobat. Here he teams with his former partner Nick Cravat (delightful as his mute sidekick -- try to imagine Harpo Marx as a pirate), and his physical prowess damn near leaves even Fairbanks in its shadow.

In the movie's first shot, we see Lancaster swing from one mast of a pirate ship to the other and then, in close-up, turn that dazzling smile right into the camera. In one scene, the gorgeous and bored companion of a baron moans, "I wish there was something to break up the monotony of this voyage." On cue Lancaster drops in from an overhead hatch to steal the ship and, to the lady's obvious liking, a kiss. The movie is essentially one long pursuit, allowing Lancaster one stunt after another (which he only got to do once more, in Carol Reed's 1956 circus drama "Trapeze"). He's the most dashing of clowns as he leaps and runs and tumbles. If you're looking to introduce kids to the pleasures of swashbucklers, or just to older movies, "The Crimson Pirate," which has just been released on DVD, is your ticket. I can't imagine any kid -- or any adult -- not loving it.

Hollywood pretty much abandoned swashbucklers as the '50s drew to a close. Which is what made the appearance of the 1998 "The Mask of Zorro," starring Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, so surprising. The movie is one of the most glorious and stirring adventures Hollywood has ever produced, a more than worthy successor to Flynn and Fairbanks. When Zorro rides astride two steeds and leaps over a low-hanging branch in his way only to land upright back on the galloping horses, the whole spirit of swashbucklers was, for those few moments, alive again on the screen. (As were the marvels of stunt work, which have been increasingly overshadowed by CGI.)

For the last 40 years, the best friend swashbucklers have had has been the French director Philippe de Broca. It's a pity that he's best known for the icky antiwar fable "King of Hearts," because the film has overshadowed his better work. He's frankly commercial, which has always kept his name from being mentioned alongside his contemporaries in the French nouvelle vague. But at his best, he's the kind of director you pray for in commercial movies, a born entertainer. Last year, American audiences finally got to see his 1998 "On Guard!" with Daniel Auteuil and a hilarious Vincent Perez. De Broca didn't fuss about how it wasn't possible to make a swashbuckler in this day and age. He simply made it and trusted audiences to respond. (Its commercial life here was brief but it was one of the few movies I've ever seen at a critic's screening that was applauded at the end. You could feel the audience's gratitude for being given such a marvelous entertainment.)

"On Guard!" was de Broca's second foray into the genre. His first, the 1964 "Cartouche," has just been beautifully restored on an Anchor Bay DVD. It's a tricky movie, starting out with all the brio and good spirits of swashbucklers and making a tone shift that ends in tragedy. "Cartouche" doesn't leave you buoyant in the way that the best swashbucklers do, but it may be the single most romantic entry in the genre. And it features the pleasure of seeing Jean-Paul Belmondo, playing a street thief who becomes a Robin Hood figure, getting to try on the role of swashbuckler. It also features the ravishing young Claudia Cardinale and her ripe, frankly carnal beauty as his gypsy mistress. What's distinctive about both "Cartouche" and "On Guard!" is de Broca's instinctive talent for pageantry and color and his ability to indulge us in Gilded Age luxury without sacrificing pace. He's that great rare combination of master craftsman and fan. You get the feeling he's making these movies because he'd like to see them, and his love for the genre is palpable. To watch "Cartouche" and "On Guard!" is to feel flattered by a director who is out to indulge you.

I said earlier that while swashbucklers have disappeared, their descendants have always been with us -- not in the obvious imitators, like the Indiana Jones movies, but in others. Their spirit is present in all heroes who go about their duty with a feeling of joy, a taste for sensual indulgence. The six Johnny Weismuller-Maureen O'Sullivan "Tarzan" movies, maybe the sweetest adventure movies of them all, are jungle variations on the swashbuckling formula of daring hero and adoring damsel in distress. One of the places contemporary swashbucklers have most frequently surfaced is in pop espionage thrillers. John Steed and Emma Peel in TV's "The Avengers" have the spirit of swashbucklers, as do Modesty Blaise and her sidekick/soul mate Willie Garvin in Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise novels.

The swashbuckling spirit is surely present in James Bond, at least in Bond the rogue libertine as played by Sean Connery (rather than the repressed puritan sadist of Ian Fleming's terrible novels). You couldn't call the blaxploitation movies of the '70s in any way innocent, though at her best Pam Grier is probably the closest the movies have ever come to a great female swashbuckler. In Hong Kong, Michelle Yeoh and Brigitte Lin have come close to claiming that mantle for themselves. (The marvelous comic-book action film "Heroic Trio," starring Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, is a descendant of the swashbuckler.) But then Hong Kong cinema has long had the corner on the physical astonishment Fairbanks and Flynn specialized in. Were they alive to see him, both men would bow in respect to Jackie Chan. And even in the bloodiest John Woo pictures, Chow-Yun Fat has been one of the movie's great romantic action heroes.

Heartening as that list is, it leaves plenty of contemporary actors who could make their mark in swashbucklers. It may be too late for Patrick Swayze, whose physical gifts have largely been ignored in the movies (what a Tarzan he'd have made!). But George Clooney or Ewan McGregor probably could pull off such roles, and Jeremy Northam definitely could. Other than the great Hong Kong female stars like Yeoh and Lin, women are a tougher question, though Catherine MacCormack displayed a nice way with a sword in the yummy Renaissance bodice ripper "Dangerous Beauty."

But whoever plays the roles, and whatever form swashbucklers take, the movies need their spirit. We feel close to swashbuckling heroes in a way we never could to the traditional stern, lantern-jawed male authority figure. There's always distance between us and the men on-screen acting more bravely than we could. And while nobody fools themselves that they could do what Fairbanks or Flynn or Lancaster do, the swashbuckling hero, in his physical abandon and capacity for sensual pleasure, has the common touch that endears actors to us. John Barrymore had it, so did Jean Harlow, and Michael Caine has had it in spades for years. You don't go to swashbucklers for moral complexity. You have to look elsewhere for the darkness that some actors have explored in the characters we have been taught to think of as heroes. But saving audiences from cynicism is no small task. Allowing us to believe in heroes, and allowing us to laugh with them, is as noble a feat as any a swashbuckler has ever accomplished.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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