ELLSWORTH’S CINEMA OF SWORDS 1952, Part One

Against All Flags
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: George Sherman
Source: Universal Studios DVD

I know it isn’t true, but I like to think that in the late 1990s, when the wonks at Disney were considering what tone to take for the movie they planned to base on their Pirates of the Caribbean theme-park ride, they watched a lot of old pirate movies, saw Against All Flags, and said, “That’s it!” Though a few historical names appear in it, this is a story set in an Age of Piracy beyond history, or at least no closer than next door to it. The bustling Madagascar port of Libertatia is run by the Captains of the Coast, a diverse gang that includes the Latino Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn), Englishman William Kidd, a black Jamaican called Captain Death, and a woman, the fiercely independent Spitfire Stevens (Maureen O’Hara), daughter of the master gunsmith who built the impregnable defenses that protect the pirate port Against All Flags—the navies of the world.

Enter Lt. Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn), who’s been whipped out of the Royal Navy and comes to Libertatia to join the pirates. Flynn looks a trifle puffy and worn down here, frankly, but acting-wise he’s got much of his old pre-war swashbuckler mojo back. That mischievous glint is in his eye once more, and he seems to be enjoying himself, especially in his scenes with O’Hara. (I mean, who wouldn’t be?) She is great here, on top of her game, striding around in thigh-high leather boots and swinging a sword with the best of them, alternately trying to kiss Flynn or kill him. Anthony Quinn just wants to kill him—and he may be the villain, but as Captain Roc he looks damned dashing swaggering about in his black mustachios and gaudy pirate garb. He’s the one who engineers Flynn’s most dangerous challenge, a one-on-one fight in which Hawke must prove his pirate’s bona fides by dueling a giant buccaneer with hooked boarding pikes. Ouch!

Flynn, of course, is actually a Navy spy, come to Libertatia to steal the plans of its fortifications, spike the guns, and call down condign punishment upon the pirates. He has a busy agenda: he must romance Spitfire Stevens, go a-pirating with Captain Roc, rescue an East Indian princess, and survive being lashed to the deadly Tide Stakes as the claw-clacking surf crabs crawl closer, ever closer … but it’s all done with a light hand and tongue not-quite-in-cheek. By the time it comes to a head in a giant sword-fight on the deck of Roc’s brigantine, with Flynn, O’Hara, and Quinn all fencing away like fury, virtue, or at least cunning, is triumphant, and everyone has had a thoroughly satisfying piratical romp. Bonus: watch for Flynn, alone at night at the ship’s wheel, singing “Haul on the Bowline” to himself.

At Sword’s Point
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Lewis Allen
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

This sequel to The Three Musketeers was made by RKO a couple of years earlier but not released until 1952, possibly to get it out of the long shadow of the 1948 MGM version. There have been dozens of screen versions of The Three Musketeers, but Hollywood has never quite figured out how to adapt Dumas’s sequel, Twenty Years After, into a successful film. This story does use some of the elements of that novel, in particular France on the verge of civil war after the deaths of Louis XIII and Richelieu, with the aging Queen Anne trying to preserve order until Louis XIV can come of age, while fractious nobles, personified here by the scheming Duke de Lavalle (Robert Douglas) vie to seize power. However, instead of having the novel’s older versions of the four musketeers step in to sort things out, this tale calls on their grown-up children to rise to the occasion. Is this Hollywood ageism at work? Well, it certainly isn’t sexism, as one of the younger generation is Athos’s daughter, Claire (Maureen O’Hara), and she’s as good with a blade of any of the men—with the possible exception of the young d’Artagnan, who is, after all, played by an Olympic fencer (Cornel Wilde).

But let’s not gloss over the point: this is the first serious movie representation of a female swashbuckler who is the equal of the men—and accepted by them as such! There’s still plenty of flirtation toward Claire by the young Aramis and d’Artagnan—I mean, these are musketeers—but it’s not condescending, and she gives as good as she gets. The ones who underestimate Claire are the villains, and they learn to be sorry they did. The best moment in the picture is when Lavalle, who’s strong-armed the queen into letting him marry Princess Henriette, leads her to the altar, lifts her veil, and finds that Claire has taken his bride’s place, and the princess is safely in the hands of the other musketeers. Claire, faced with the wrath of the most powerful man in France, just laughs in his face.

The plot here is nothing to write home about, being the usual series of swordfights, kidnappings, escapes, pursuits, betrayals, traps, and rescues, but the writers are clearly admirers of Dumas, and there are a number of fun call-outs to the novels, e.g., minor characters named Planchet and Rochefort, and at one point Claire, hoodwinking some guards, assumes the name Countess de La Fère—the family name in the novels of her father, Athos. Plus the costumes are good, Wilde does some nicely acrobatic swashbuckling, and the blue tabards of the King’s Musketeers come out of the wardrobe for the grand finale. All fine, but it’s Maureen O’Hara who walks away with the prize for this film.

Blackbeard, the Pirate
Rating: **
Origin: USA
Director: Raoul Walsh
Source: Amazon streaming video

On November 22, 1718, Edward Teach, the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard, was killed on his ship the Adventure during a fierce boarding action led by Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. By the time he was brought down, Blackbeard had been shot five times and suffered twenty wounds from edged weapons. For the most famous image depicting this event, look no further than the painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris on the cover of your editor’s Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure anthology.

Blackbeard’s career and death are also depicted in this film, in which Lt. Maynard, ordered to Port Royale in pursuit of Henry Morgan and the loot from the sack of Panama … wait, what? Whoa, this story is set in the 1670s, before Ned Teach and Rob Maynard were even born. In fact, this entire moving picture is nought but a tissue of lies! Avast! Bloody pirates—they’ll steal half a century right out from under you if you so much as look the wrong way.

History failure notwithstanding, this was one of the most popular pirate movies of the ‘50s, thanks mainly to Robert Newton’s unhinged and completely over-the-top performance as Blackbeard. Newton took all the mannerisms and speech patterns he’d developed for the rôle of Long John Silver in Treasure Island and cranked them up to eleven, frequently veering into farce and self-parody, but no less entertaining because of that. (So many “Arr”s!) Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t hold up so well. The plot is sadly muddled, starting out with Maynard undercover chasing Morgan but captured by Blackbeard, along with Edwina, a pirate-captain’s daughter who’s secretly stolen Morgan’s treasure, all of them blundering about loudly at cross-purposes, and it never really gets sorted out. Characters’ motives change suddenly from scene to scene, people stranded on islands show up back in port without explanation, and even the big ship-to-ship showdown between Blackbeard and Morgan ends in an unsatisfying draw. It’s a mess.

One could overlook the ham-handed story if the performances supporting Newton were entertaining, but the rest of the cast is just bland and forgettable. Worst is Keith Andes, who plays Maynard, the English naval lieutenant and ostensible protagonist, exactly as if he were a tough-talking New York district attorney going up against the mob—imagine a slim Peter Graves but with no sense of humor. We’re supposed to root for this guy against Blackbeard and the other pirates, but it’s flat-out impossible. His intermittent romance with Edwina (Linda Darnell) is likewise arid and unconvincing, no matter how hard Darnell tries to look adoringly at him. Yeah, no.

At least there’s a lot of action, solidly directed by Raoul Walsh; the cutlass duels in particular are quite good. The shipboard scenes are also decent, with the quarters below decks properly close and cramped, including visits to the lazaret and the orlop (or, as Newton calls it, “the arr-lop”). And Blackbeard’s crew are as filthy and repulsive a set of brutes as you’re likely to see in the otherwise over-tidy 1950s, so bonus points for that. But you won’t be able to swallow the story unless you swallow a stiff rum or three first.

Captain Pirate
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Ralph Murphy
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD

The black-and-white Fortunes of Captain Blood (1950) must have done well, because Columbia upped the production ante for this Technicolor sequel, which is quite good despite its reeeeally stupid title. (I blame Columbia’s marketing department.) Like Fortunes, it stars Louis Hayward and Patricia Medina in a story loosely based on a book by Rafael Sabatini, in this case Captain Blood Returns (1932). The writers borrowed some incidents, characters, and names from Returns, but this is an original story, and a good one; it hews closely to the historical feel and personality of Sabatini’s tales, which hinge on the balance between Peter Blood’s ruthless cunning and innate decency.

The plot here is a member of the “The only way to prove I’m not the murderer is to catch the real killer” club, piracy chapter. Blood, now a retired and respectable Jamaica planter, is on the verge of marrying Doña Isabella, whom he rescued in Fortunes, when he’s arrested and accused of returning to piracy to attack the port of Cartagena, on the evidence of Isabella’s Spanish cousin and that of Hilary Evans (John Sutton), Blood’s rival for her hand. With Blood in prison, Isabella takes over; at her behest Blood’s first mate reforms his old crew (there’s a fine rallying-the-crew montage delightfully scored to the tune of “Drunken Sailor”), Evans’s ship is boarded and captured in Port Royal harbor, and Blood is freed to sail off and try to determine who really raided Cartagena in his guise.

What follows is a high-seas detective story on the Spanish Main that takes Blood and his crew from Port Royal to Tortuga, Martinique, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Bello, bargaining with, bamboozling, and bullying a series of gratifyingly unsavory characters of every stripe, always just ahead of the pursuing English and Spanish navies. There are some tense action scenes, in which Hayward shows that he’s not only improved his already-capable fencing skills, but has added judo into the bargain, throwing scurvy dogs and Royal Marines around with equal abandon. The final duel with Sutton in a burning fortress is pretty thrilling. Does Blood finally track down the true culprit, clear his name, and marry Doña Isabella? What do you think?

The Crimson Pirate
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA
Director: Richard Siodmak
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

This isn’t the first swashbuckler farce, but it is the first great one, a hoot and a half from beginning to end. Burt Lancaster immediately sets the tone by breaking the fourth wall: high atop a ship’s mast, he does an aerial stunt, grins at the audience, and says, “Believe only what you see!” Then he does the stunt backwards by reversing the film and says, “Well, believe half of what you see!” Then it’s “Sail ho!” and we’re off to the first ship battle.

This film is set in the revolutionary 1790s, so we’re in Scarlet Pimpernel territory, and indeed the original script by the blacklisted Waldo Salt was a serious anti-aristocratic call to arms. According to the memoirs of Christopher Lee, who has a small part here as a king’s officer, director Richard Siodmak quickly rewrote it into a cartoony self-parody, full of action but high spirited and frequently hilarious. The chase scenes often bring to mind another Warner Bros. franchise, the Looney Tunes of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng—and that’s meant as a compliment. It even has a fine antic soundtrack by William Alwyn with a catchy main theme that evokes both sailing and circuses.

The setting is a bit fantastical in that the pirates are opposed by the troops and navy of “the King,” an unnamed imperial monarch who combines elements of England and Spain. However, the exterior scenes, which are most of them, are shot on the Italian island of Ischia, with its medieval town, harbor, and port, which grounds the production in reality. And it needs that grounding, because Lancaster and sidekick Nick Cravat, his old circus partner, are in full-on bounding-acrobat mode, knocking down rows of soldiers with barrels, driving Da Vinci-inspired steampunk tank-wagons, and dive-bombing the king’s troops from a hot-air balloon. There’s a solid liberate-the-people revolution ‘n’ romance plot to support all these shenanigans, with good performances from Eva Bartok as the spunky liberator’s daughter, Leslie Bradley as the ruthless aristo villain, and best of all Torin Thatcher as Humble Bellows, the pirate crew’s scurvy by philosophical first mate. But really this is the Flying Burt and Nick Show—Lancaster even gets to act a bit as his Captain Vallo gradually falls in love with the liberator’s daughter and grows some newly uncomfortable scruples. The best scene may be when Nick and Burt, the latter impersonating the villain, crash the island governor’s fancy ball wearing outrageously foppish finery, Burt grinning like the Cheshire cat and Nick eyeing all the ladies’ jewelry through a gilded quizzing glass. It’s just so hard to choose!

Ivanhoe
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Richard Thorpe
Source: Amazon streaming video

In 1814 the poet Walter Scott began publishing his Waverly novels of recent Scottish history, before switching, with Ivanhoe in 1820, to the Medieval era and the history of England, co-inventing (along with Jane Porter) the modern genre of the historical adventure novel in the process. Ivanhoe was a landmark in other ways as well, for its sympathetic treatment of Jews in Western societies, for establishing the character and tone of our modern version of Robin Hood, and for promoting the Medieval background as a setting for adventure tales, still as popular today in the 21st century as Scott made them in the 19th. (That’s right: no Ivanhoe, no Game of Thrones.)

This blockbuster 1952 MGM film was also something of a landmark: its success made movies of knights in shining armor a Hollywood staple for years to come, it brought Scott’s sympathy for the plight of the Jews undimmed to the big screen, and it launched Elizabeth Taylor to the heights of stardom. Its titular hero, however, is another Taylor, Robert, in the rôle of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a knight in the service of King Richard the Lion-Hearted newly returned from the Crusades. Richard has been imprisoned by Leopold of Austria, and Ivanhoe has vowed to raise the money for his ransom, and to fight for the Saxons against Prince John and Norman oppression while he’s at it. As if that weren’t enough, he also wants to marry the Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine), but to do that he’ll have to regain the lost favor of his fierce Saxon father, Sir Cedric (Finlay Currie, with an amazing head of hair). To do all this Ivanhoe must win the Big Tournament, but he can’t enter without money to buy horse and gear—which is how he meets Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of a moneylender. Do sparks fly? Yes, they do.

Of course a hero is only as good as his villains, and Ivanhoe has some dangerous foes in Prince John (the wolfish, sneering Guy Rolfe) and the foremost of the Norman knights, the arrogant Bois-Guilbert—played by George Sanders, and now you know we’re in for a good time! The movie was filmed in and among the castles of Scotland, so the scenery is fabulous, and the castle interiors are properly cramped, stony, and asymmetrical. Some of the weapons are wrong for the period, but the knights’ armor is right, suits and coifs of chainmail rather than the plate armor of later times. The film is bookended by two knightly tournament scenes, both classic in their way, but they’re outdone in the middle by the exciting siege and assault on a castle, when the Saxons, led by Robin Hood (Harold Warrender), finally rise against the Normans. If you’ve ever looked at a Medieval castle and wondered how the devil attackers could get across a moat and up a sheer wall in the face of bolts and boulders, Ivanhoe shows you how.
The movie’s not without flaws: except for a few weak jokes from Wamba, Ivanhoe’s jester-turned-squire, it’s a humorless affair, and here and there it drags a bit. Robert Taylor looks the part but his acting is rather dry and stiff, and the same can be said of Joan Fontaine. Of the leads in the love triangle, only Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca the Jewess really shines, almost literally; when she’s onscreen you can’t look away. And it’s not just because she’s stunning, she’s also far and away the best actor in the picture. Only Sanders comes close: after Bois-Guilbert loses his black villain’s heart at first sight of Rebecca, he’s conflicted at every turn, and never sure of himself again. Additional kudos must be paid to Felix Aylmer for his fine performance as the Jewish patriarch Isaac, and to Miklós Rósza for the rousing score, one of his best. A whole series of Medieval movie epics will follow in the wake of Ivanhoe, but few will be as good.

ELLSWORTH’S CINEMA OF SWORDS: 1951

Anne of the Indies
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

We usually award the title Queen of the Swashbucklers to Maureen O’Hara, but Jean Peters makes a grab for her crown in this fine pirate melodrama. As an orphan girl, Anne (Peters) was raised aboard ship by Edward Teach—Blackbeard himself!—and now commands her own ship, the Sheba Queen, under the name Captain Providence. Since her brother was hanged as a pirate by the English, she preys on English shipping and kills English sailors without mercy, making the captives walk the plank. But one of these captured sailors is the strikingly-handsome Louis Jourdan playing a Frenchman named (what else?) François, who claims to be a privateer’s navigator who’d been captured by the Royal Navy. Captain Providence frees him, adds him to her crew, and takes him to Nassau to meet Blackbeard—which is where the real trouble starts.

This story as originally developed was supposed to be about historical female pirate Anne Bonny, but then Hollywood happened and History was shown the door. But the story we got instead, a nautical love triangle punctuated by sword fights and naval actions, is perfectly fine, with the seeds of tragedy planted in the first act bearing woeful but believable fruit in the last. And History didn’t entirely get the boot, as somebody did their research into the Age of Sail, and for once they got all the details impressively right. The sailing orders the officers bark out are accurate and appropriate, the gun crews serving the cannons follow authentic routines instead of just miming, and we get the rarely-seen spectacle of a ship careened on her side on the beach of a hidden cove, as her crew use their boarding axes to clear the barnacles from her foul bottom. Nice!

We also get brief but spot-on looks at three Caribbean ports: the brawling pirate hell of Nassau, the private club of the perfidious officers of the Royal Navy in Port Royal, and the exotic mix of traders and sailors from every sea at the slave market in the Spanish town of Maracaibo. During all this sailing around in pursuit of the plot, Jean Peters stays in fine form as the ever-angry Captain Providence—and she can fence, too! Louis Jourdan sells it as the suave but two-faced François, and the ursine Thomas Gomez makes a memorable Blackbeard. There’s even a solid early appearance in a supporting rôle as Anne’s rival by Debra Paget. Add stylish direction by Jacques Tourneur and a rollicking soundtrack by Franz Waxman, and it makes for a tidy package o’ piracy that’s well worth seeking out, bedad!

Captain Horatio Hornblower
Rating: *****
Origin: USA
Director: Raoul Walsh
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Drawing from three of the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester, this movie is easily the best depiction of Napoleonic-era naval warfare until, well, the British TV Hornblower adaptations in the late ‘90s. It also works as a character study, as a romance, and an unflinching reminder of the high human cost of war. Forester himself wrote the adaptation, though the script was handled by three Hollywood screenwriters. The film was originally developed as a vehicle for Errol Flynn, but after the disappointment of The Adventures of Don Juan, Flynn was passed over, and the movie stars Gregory Peck as Royal Navy Captain Hornblower. It’s a great choice: Peck, though not English, has the sort of awkward grandeur the rôle requires, formal and severe on the surface, but gnawed by doubt underneath. Hornblower wins his battles against the odds by out-thinking his opponents, and Peck deftly conveys the character’s native intelligence. Plus, he just plain looks great in a Royal Navy captain’s rig, like a statue from the Admiralty come to life.

The story is wide-ranging, from the tropical Pacific to the cold North Atlantic, and if it has a flaw it’s over-ambition, cramming in a midnight boarding expedition, a gun duel between ships of the line, a mad warlord, a jealous commodore, imprisonment and escape, a ship hijacked from port, and a surprise attack on an anchored French squadron under the guns of a cliff-top fortress—all in just under two hours. Somehow there’s still time for character development, camaraderie among the English officers, and the mourning of losses after the battles. Credit must be given to veteran director Raoul Walsh for keeping all of these elements moving swiftly and coherently without ever feeling rushed.

And we haven’t even gotten to the romance yet! The changing politics of war mean that Lady Barbara Wellesley (Virginia Mayo) needs a sudden ride out of Panama, and Hornblower’s is the only English ship for thousands of miles, so he’s stuck with carrying her around the Horn and back to England. Lady Barbara shows courage and heart by caring for the wounded during battle, Hornblower returns the favor by personally nursing her through a bout of debilitating tropical fever, and love blooms. But they’re adults with commitments, neither one is free, and obstacles must be surmounted. Mayo, who in a lightweight part could sometimes rely on her smile and phone it in, excels herself here as Lady Barbara, showing how well she can act when she’s engaged with the rôle. That, and her genuine chemistry with Peck, really make the love story work. But of course, Forester had a feel for stories of strong women romancing eccentric captains: he also wrote The African Queen. By the way, watch for Christopher Lee as a Spanish captain fighting a fierce cutlass duel with Hornblower—he’s the only guy in the movie who’s taller than Gregory Peck.

The Magic Carpet
Rating: *
Origin: USA
Director: Lew Landers
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

This is quite terrible. In a cheesier-than-usual Arabian palace set, the Good Caliph is just naming his newborn son his sole heir when he’s assassinated by the New Evil Caliph. The nurse escapes with the child and sends him flying away on a magic carpet. (This is the only fantasy element in the film and is completely unexplained, because Mysterious East or something.) The child is taken to a doctor, who hides the carpet and decides to raise the child as his own, not telling him that he’s the Rightful Caliph. The child grows up to be legendarily-bad leading man John Agar, who has all the screen presence and charisma of an Idaho potato. There’s a guards-oppressing-the-people montage; Agar, now called Dr. Ramoth, sees some oppressing and says some lines to show he disapproves, thought that’s the only way you can tell because his face doesn’t change. To fight the Evil Caliph’s oppression Dr. Ramoth becomes the Scarlet, or maybe Crimson Falcon, and leads a band of freedom fighters in a freedom-fighting montage. He keeps raiding the wrong caravans that don’t have the weapons he needs to arm the people to overthrow the Evil Caliph, so Agar decides he needs to infiltrate the palace to get inside information. His cunning plan is to kill a bunch of palace guards so he can get his comic sidekick inside, where he can take the place of the Evil Caliph’s wine taster and dose him with a permanent-hiccups potion. Nobody pays any attention to the dead guards, because there are plenty of them, so Dr. Ramoth cures the Evil Caliph of permanent hiccups and becomes the new palace physician.

Yeah. Now that he’s inside the palace Agar meets the Evil Caliph’s Evil Sister, who is played by, I am not making this up, Lucille Ball. With her red hair and green eyes she’s about as Arabian as a leprechaun, but I suppose what matters is that she wears harem pants and a midriff-exposing top like the, I guess the word is bevy of giggling starlets prancing around the palace and its blue plastic in-ground pool. Cast as a seductive villainess, Ball’s talents are completely wasted as she never does anything the least bit funny or, for that matter, seductive or villainous. More stuff happens: Agar finds out he’s the Rightful Caliph and flies around on his carpet, the effects for which are so awful they’re almost endearing. There’s a bunch of “swordplay,” with lots of people waving around thin curved sticks that are supposed to represent scimitars, but confusingly there are always some guys waving actual sticks because I guess the props department didn’t make enough scimitars. Also, everybody knows that when you run someone through you pass the sword behind their body, but Raymond Burr didn’t get the memo and stabs people on the wrong side. Oh, right, he’s in this too, as the Evil Caliph’s Evil Grand Vizier, wearing black facial hair that must be pretty stiff because his lips barely move when he speaks. Only his eyes look alive, the eyes of trapped animal shifting this way and that, desperately seeking an escape.

The Prince Who was a Thief
Rating: ***
Origin: USA
Director: Rudolph Maté
Source: ATI Entertainment DVD

This is the first of many sword-swinging starring rôles for Tony Curtis, whom you really can’t avoid if you’re watching historical adventures made in the ‘50s. Everybody mocks Curtis, and it’s mostly deserved, because he just doesn’t have the wits of a Burt Lancaster, or even a Louis Hayward, but he’s not terrible so much as just mediocre. Somebody was persuaded, and persuaded him, that he was movie star material, and it took Hollywood about ten years to figure out that he was best employed as a reliable second banana. Fortunately he’s offset in this film by engaging performances from Everett Sloane and from Piper Laurie, who even this early in her career knew exactly what she was doing.

As in The Prince of Foxes, Sloane excels playing a thief and assassin, though here with a comic touch he didn’t get a chance to show in the earlier film. Hired to kill the infant Dey of Tangier so the child’s wicked uncle can assume the throne, when the time comes he can’t do it, so he fakes the murder and takes the child to raise as his own. As in all these tales of a rightful monarch raised by someone else, we know how it’s going to end, so the pleasures or disappointments come in the getting from here to there. This time the trip is mostly worthwhile. The boy grows up to become Julna (Tony Curtis), the city’s greatest thief, who is fixated on its greatest prize, the treasury vault where the false dey stores the gold his tax collectors wrest from the people. The business of thieving gets a proper workout in this movie, and Julna’s exploits evoke the young Conan the Barbarian, or a Dungeons & Dragons rogue. The whole thing is shot on soundstages, with no exteriors at all, just the ever-dark city streets and the moody lamp-lit interiors that surround and tower over them.

In proper Thief of Bagdad fashion, while escaping some guards Julna goes where he shouldn’t and casts his eyes on forbidden fruit, his beautiful cousin the Princess Yasmin (Peggie Castle). The thief is smitten with the snotty princess, but as soon as he cute-meets another thief, Tina (Piper Laurie), during a bungled jewel robbery, we know she’s really the one for him. The barely-legal Laurie, as slippery as an eel and as cute as two bugs, is a wide-eyed naïf who speaks of herself in the third person like an Elder Scrolls Khajiit, and is just as adorably avaricious. Lissome and energetic, she effortlessly matches Curtis’s considerable athleticism, usually while squealing with glee. She’s a delight.

Though based on a story by Theodore Dreiser, of all people, the plot is standard-issue claptrap, with mistaken identities, intrigue in the dey’s court, and an egg-sized pearl the possession of which is the key to marrying the snotty princess. There are several unnecessary scenes of “oriental” dancing by scantily-clad women, but to be fair there’s also a lot of gratuitous swimming by the bare-chested Curtis. There are gags interspersed between the thefts and pursuits, but about half of them fall flat, often because they rely on labored locutions such as, “Begone, you sons of she-camels!” Still, the scene where the thieves use geese as projectiles is charming. In the end, Julna is revealed as the Rightful Dey—he has a tattoo AND a scar, to make doubly sure—the snotty princess is cked off, and Tina is forced to take a bath so she can be properly married. Ending in a marriage: that’s what makes it a comedy, right?

ELLSWORTH’S CINEMA OF SWORDS; 1950

The Black Rose
Rating: **
Origin: USA
Director: Henry Hathaway
Source: Fox Cinema Classics DVD

The Black RoseThis movie works well as a spectacle depicting 13th-century England and parts of Mongolia and China. As an adventure or character-driven story, however, it’s not so good. This is one of those films in which the angry and stubborn protagonist is told at the beginning what he needs to do to find peace and purpose, spends the next two hours determinedly rejecting that advice, before finally embracing it in the last ten minutes of the picture. Lame! In this case, Walter of Gurnie (Tyrone Power), an illegitimate son of a Saxon lord, is the angry protagonist who’s suffered injustice at the hands of his Norman relatives. Edward II (Michael Rennie)—the King of England, no less—tells Walter he needs to put aside his hatred of the Normans for his own good and that of the realm and its people, but Walter angrily insists on leaving England to seek his fortune in distant lands—in far Cathay, if necessary, which he heard about from his Oxford mentor, Roger Bacon.

Cut to central Asia, to which Walter has fast-traveled with his loyal sidekick, English longbowman Tristram Griffen (Jack Hawkins in an early rôle, his cragginess softened by youth). They join a Mongol caravan headed further east to the court of Kublai Khan, bearing tribute of gifts and women to the great conqueror. One of these women is Maryam, a half-English daughter of a captured Crusader, known as “The Black Rose” for her rare beauty. Maryam escapes the harem and joins the Englishmen disguised as a serving boy, and immediately falls in love with Walter, but he thinks having a girl along is a dangerous nuisance and irritably refuses her affections. (Do you see the pattern?) Maryam is played with conviction by the French actress Cécile Aubry, who though age twenty-one at the time of filming really looks like she’s about fourteen (ew!), which makes Walter delaying his inevitable fall for her something of a relief.

The commander of the caravan as it grows into an army is a genuine historical figure, a Mongol general called Bayam of the Hundred Eyes, played by Orson Welles as an engaging rogue. Since Welles was himself an engaging rogue, this isn’t much of a stretch, and though he’s a pleasure to watch here one can see that he isn’t really working very hard. Bayam acts as a counterweight to good King Edward, giving Walter diametrically opposed advice, which actually starts him at last on the road to realizing what a sap he’s been. Along the way there’s a deadly archery contest, several offstage battles, a torture gauntlet, and Walter’s discovery of the Eastern secrets of gunpowder and the magnetic compass. When the gang finally reaches Cathay there’s a long half-hour of clichéd Orientalism before a muddled ending that returns Walter, with Maryam, to England. Alas, we already know how it’s going to end because every single event in the plot has been thoroughly telegraphed. Oh, well, at least it looks good: the movie was shot at scenic locations in England and Morocco (standing in for Asia), plus the desert scenes have camel jokes that are almost funny.

Cyrano de Bergerac
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA
Director: Michael Gordon
Source: Alpha Video DVD

You’ve seen this, of course, probably more than once. If you haven’t smile, nod, and pretend you have, then tonight make the time to find it and watch it. It’s based on the 1897 play by French poet and playwright Edmond Rostand, who wrote the original entirely in verse, in rhymed couplets. It was a gigantic hit, ran for years and toured the world. In 1923 famous American stage actor Walter Hampden commissioned the New York poet and playwright Brian Hooker to create an English translation in blank verse, which became the standard English translation for the next half-century; Hampden, playing Cyrano, used it in touring productions throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. (Fun fact: as good as the Hooker version of Cyrano is—and it’s very, very good—there’s another fine English version that appeared in 1970 from none other than Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange.) The brilliant Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer revived the play on Broadway in 1946, winning a Tony award, reprised the rôle for a live TV production in 1949, and again for this movie version in 1950, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. The movie was an independent Stanley Kramer production, made on the cheap, and it’s been criticized for its low production values in an era of grand Hollywood epics, but really it looks fine and frankly it suits the material, opening out just enough from the staginess of the play to avoid theatrical claustrophobia.

By the time he made the movie, Ferrer had been playing the rôle of Cyrano for years, and really came to inhabit the part. He loves it, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The play was shortened somewhat to fit a feature’s run-time, with some new interstitial material written by Orson Welles (uncredited) to mask the transitions between acts; this included a brief scene between the Comte de Guiche (Ralph Clanton) and his uncle “The Cardinal,” who though unnamed is clearly intended to be Richelieu. Also added to the film were the swordfight with the “hundred” thugs and the fight with the Spanish at the Siege of Arras. For a low-budget production these were very well done, but this should come as no surprise considering the film’s fight director was the veteran sword-master Fred Cavens, who coached the fencing in just about every Hollywood swashbuckler from the silent era on. (Get this: Cavens coached Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as Zorro in 1921, Tyrone Power as Zorro in 1940, and Guy Williams as Zorro in 1957!) Ferrer holds his own in these fights, and looks good doing it—and you can tell it’s him and not a double, because who else would have such a big nose?

The Flame and the Arrow
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Here’s an overlooked gem, or at least a semi-precious stone. It’s set in northern Italy in the 12th century, when the mountains of Lombardy were occupied by the Germans of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. A mountain town ruled by the brutal Count Ulrich of Hesse, known as the Hawk (Frank Allenby), is thrilled by the return of its favorite son, the carefree hunter and crack archer Dardo (Burt Lancaster). The townspeople try to persuade Dardo to join their plans to resist the Hessians, but Dardo says he depends on no one but himself, and says he’s “not out to right anybody’s wrongs but my own.” Well, we know he won’t be singing that selfish tune for long when collective action is called for, especially since this film is written by Waldo Salt, who’s about to be blacklisted in the imminent McCarthy era when he refuses to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Time to join the revolution, Comrade Dardo!

The personal wrong that Dardo’s out to right is that he has a five-year-old son, Rudi, whom he’s raising alone because his wife left him to become the Hawk’s mistress. After Dardo, for the doubtful benefit of Rudi, publicly humiliates his mother in front of the Hawk, Count Ulrich decides to take Rudi by force into the castle and raise him as a Hessian. And thus begins the cycle of kidnappings, raids, and escapes that make up the action of the rest of the picture, as Dardo comes to assume the leadership of the anti-Hessian resistance.

The script is quite good, sharp without ever getting too dark, and with some clever byplay that almost justifies the romance between Dardo and the Hawk’s niece Lady Anne (Virginia Mayo), whom Dardo kidnaps in a bid to trade her for Rudi. Lancaster rules the screen with his infectious grin and the twinkle in his eye, and he’s an even more athletic swashbuckler than his obvious model, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., because he performs his lithe acrobatics with a virile muscularity Doug Sr. couldn’t match. The director’s chair is capably filled by Jacques Tourneur, who keeps things light, bright, and quick until the final confrontation in a darkened castle hall, staged with some of his signature moody lighting and artistic angles. Top it off with a score by Max Steiner, and you’ve got a very satisfying ninety minutes.

Fortunes of Captain Blood
Rating: ***
Origin: USA
Director: Gordon Douglas
Source: Columbia / Sony DVD

This starts out as a conventional pirate adventure, but takes an unusual turn after Captain Blood (Louis Hayward) learns that six of his crew have been captured and enslaved by the heartless Marquis de Riconete (George Macready). To try to find a way to free them, Blood leaves his ship and the rest of his crew behind and makes his way alone, disguised as a peasant, into the Spanish colonial port town of La Hacha. There, acting much like an undercover detective, he moves through a shadowy world of devious slavers, murderous smugglers, greedy jailers, and desperate women, in a story that feels less like a pirate adventure than a filibuster noir. (See, that’s clever, because “filibuster” is an old word that also used to mean “buccaneer.”)

Though some sources call this a remake of the 1935 Captain Blood, it’s not, it’s based on writer Rafael Sabatini’s The Fortunes of Captain Blood (1936), a collection of six linked short stories about Peter Blood. And in fact, the plot here reflects the sort of tale of betrayal and shifting loyalties Sabatini did so well. But as always in a Sabatini story victory goes to the adroit and clever man who nonetheless never betrays his own code of honor.

Matching the dark tone of the story, when violence breaks out it’s hard and brutal, unusually so for the Hollywood of 1950. The escape from the prison feels genuinely dangerous. Likewise, the final confrontation at sea between Blood’s ship, trapped in a bay, and the marquis’s much larger galleon, takes some sharp and unexpected turns—thanks, once again, to ideas borrowed from Sabatini. Thus, despite the slow start in La Hacha, this film pays off handsomely in the end.

Rashomon
Rating: *****
Origin: Japan
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Source: Criterion Collection DVD

Although this is director Akira Kurosawa’s first samurai film, it arguably doesn’t belong in this series, as it’s not really a chambara—a swordplay movie—but rather a historical crime tale. You probably have a general idea of what it’s about even if you’ve never seen it, as its title has become the nickname of the principle of the unreliable narrator, the same story told differently from several different viewpoints. In this case it’s the history of a crime, a rape and a murder in a lonely grove on a remote wooded mountain. The tale is told from four different points of view, and the viewer is left to tease out the truth for themselves.

The film stars Kurosawa’s favorite leading man, Toshiro Mifune, as a fierce and antic bandit, a character that prefigures his unforgettable Kikuchiyo in The Seven Samurai (1954)—and several other actors familiar from that masterpiece show up as well. It’s a striking movie, gorgeously shot in a sun-dappled forest and a relentless downpour, displaying the firm grasp Kurosawa has of the movie-making art even this early in his long career. There’s even a touch of the ghost story to it, as the murdered man tells his version of events. And of course there is that one pivotal sword duel between the samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the bandit—which is one more than you’ll find in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935), so I guess this film qualifies after all.

Rogues of Sherwood Forest
Rating: **
Origin: USA
Director: Gordon Douglas
Source: Columbia / Sony DVD

Like The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), this is another story of the son of Robin Hood, of King John, and of the Magna Carta. Young Robin (John Derek) has inherited the title of Earl of Huntingdon, and has just returned from the Crusades with Little John (Alan Hale, Sr., reprising the rôle he played opposite Fairbanks in ’22 and Flynn in ’38). He encounters treachery at the tournament where, under the eyes of the exceedingly blonde royal ward, Lady Marianne (Diana Lynn), Robin is to joust against a Flemish knight with the absurd name of Sir Baldric. (Right?) Baldric’s lance is secretly pointed where Robin’s is bated, but Robin wins anyway, which vexes evil King John (George Macready). Curses!

Angry John repairs to the same castle set we see in all these postwar Robin Hood flicks, bringing his henchmen along so he has somebody to snarl exposition at: thanks to the foolishly liberal policies of the late King Richard, it seems the barons have acquired a measure of autonomy John wants to crush. But he needs money to hire mercenaries, so he resorts to the usual means to pay for a bloated military budget, by raising taxes on the commoners to oppressive levels. Soon Robin and Little John have given up their Crusaders’ armor for green tights and are riding around resisting tax collectors. They get captured in a brawl in Nottingham square, and we’re off to the usual routine of defiance, imprisonment, escape, and rallying the yeomen.

This is another of those California Robin Hood films in which everyone has horses and there’s a great deal of gratuitous galloping, troops of charging horsemen splitting left and right just before they ride over the camera. The movie breaks no new ground, and in fact goes out of its way wherever possible to evoke and emulate The Adventures of Robin Hood, which had been re-released to great success in 1948. But apparently no one thought to hire Fred Cavens to coach the fencers, because the swordplay here is embarrassingly lame. The too-handsome John Derek looks pretty in his jerkin and tights, but he can’t act worth a farthing. Alan Hale, Sr. is making his last appearance in a feature film, and he’s visibly tired and barely getting through it. Only the ever-reliable George Macready shows any fire, so much so that toward the end you almost start to root for him. But he can’t fight history, not in a film that’s based on one actual-factual event, and he’s finally forced to affix the royal seal to the Magna Carta that delimits the monarch’s powers. Curses!

The Three Musketeers
Rating: *
Origin: USA
Director: Budd Boetticher
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

Over the opening title card, the Magnavox Theater announcer intones, “The Three Musketeers: the first full-length film made in Hollywood especially for television!” Magnavox Theater was a brief series of seven one-hour dramas broadcast in the fall of 1950, all of which were live TV except this episode, which was produced by Hal Roach Studios. These sort of early TV “prestige” productions were a lot like Classics Illustrated comic book adaptations—earnest and well-meaning, but stiff, flat, and awkwardly abridged. The abridgement here consists of throwing out nearly everything in the novel except the duel between the musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, Buckingham’s secret visit to the queen, and the gauntlet d’Artagnan and the musketeers must ride to Calais to recover the diamond studs, with narration by Athos to fill in the gaps. Production values are better than usual for 1950 television—that is, just two notches above terrible. For once, Porthos is well cast, played here by Mel Archer, a giant of a man with a booming voice, but the rest of the actors are forgettable. For Dumas completists only.

Treasure Island
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA
Director: Byron Haskin
Source: Disney DVD

Walt Disney liked to adapt classic tales that were well-known (and copyright-free), so when he decided to make his first live-action feature, it’s not surprising that he chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with its child protagonist and adventures in exotic locales. What is surprising is how hard-edged and gritty it is, considering Disney’s later (well-earned) reputation for peddling bland conformist mediocrity. This 1950 film is as tense and dynamic as its pre-Code 1934 predecessor, and just as closely adapted from the novel, though the exact choice of scenes and dialogue varies between the two. Moreover the Disney version, of course, is in vibrant full color.

Though the Disney film’s Billy Bones, Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesy, and Captain Smollett can’t match up to their earlier incarnations, Bobby Driscoll as young Jim Hawkins does well, and is far less grating than the saccharine Jackie Cooper. And as good as Wallace Beery was as Long John Silver—and he was very good indeed—Robert Newton in the Disney version simply blows him away. He is Stevenson’s consummate con man in the flesh, all deference and false humility, constantly letting the mask slip just enough to show the audience the calculating schemer behind the smile—a trick he learned from Beery, to be sure, but Newton perfects it. Plus, the broad West-Country accent he adopts as Silver has become the default talk-like-a-pirate voice of piratical rogues ever since. You can blame Newton for “Ahr,” which he slips in everywhere; at the end of a funeral prayer for a man he’s murdered, he even solemnly intones, “Ahr-men.” And with a wink, you know the mutiny will soon be on.

The film was shot almost entirely on location in Cornwall and the tropics, and it looks great, including the background matte paintings of Bristol Port and a distant Hispaniola run aground on Treasure Island’s shore. Speaking of the Hispaniola, the ship plays such an important rôle in the plot that in any adaptation of Stevenson’s tale it’s practically a member of the cast, and for this version they’ve got a fine square-rigged three-master that’s completely persuasive. The most important decision in the novel, and the most intense scene in the film, is when Jim Hawkins decides to leave the safety of the stockade and go alone to cut the Hispaniola adrift, which leads to the nightmarish pursuit of the lad across the darkened deck and up into the rigging by the deranged and murderous pirate Israel Hands (Geoffrey Keen). It’s the emotional climax of the movie, and after Jim wins through single-handed, there’s no doubt but that in the end the ragtag pirates will be no match for young Hawkins and the forces of right and decency, no matter how John Silver plies his deceitful silver tongue.