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.