Classic Swashbucklers, Knights, and More
By Kristin Battestella
Yes, I do love me some classic film. Moreover, if said classic film has plenty of Arthurian lords and ladies, sword fighting pirates, not so chivalrous knights, or any other medieval rogues and wenches- it’s all the better. Here’s a quick list of old school fantasy and historical films for ye olde viewing pleasure. Break out the mead and rum!
Captain Blood – I said ‘swashbuckler’. That means we’re going to spend a lot of time with the Tasmanian ladies man himself, Errol Flynn. In this 1935 stateside breakout full of feathers, frocks, and pirates; Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood) and his favorite onscreen leading lady Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind, The Heiress) debate slavery, fight imperial injustice, and battle the wonderfully ruthless Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). Some of the music, reused seafaring footage, highbrow delivery, and over the top design might be a bit much for contemporary folks, I grant you. However, the sweet sword fights, dashing story, and jolly good fun are a fan’s delight- and its all dang impressive for its time. Take that, Pirates of the
Caribbean! Now, if only this were really in color, can you imagine?
Knights of the Round Table – Medieval rogue Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward) is at it again with a seriously smokin’ Ava Gardner (Mogambo, The Barefoot Contessa) in all the Arthurian Cinemascope glory one classics fan could ask for. From the sword in the stone to all those somehow fitting but out of place 14th century French styles, director Richard Thorpe (Jailhouse Rock, The Prisoner of Zenda) keeps this colorful 1953 yarn quick and entertaining. Yes, the dialogue is a little hokey now, but the fights and fancy, chivalry and ladies are all in good fun. There’s even as much scandalous love as the Production Code will allow, complete with a saintly Elaine (Maureen Swanson, later even a real life countess!) and an appearance by the Holy Grail. What’s not to like?
The Lion in Winter – This 1968 opus starring Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) as Henry II and Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) as Eleanor of Aquitaine is as epic as they come. Sure, its long and slow by today’s standards, with too many angled zooming close ups and over the top arguments for the throne; but divine locations, authentic dressings, sweet costumes, and lovely Oscar winning music from the late James Bond composer John Barry more than make up the difference. Add Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) in their film debuts, too, and we’ve a medieval tale well told. Die hard audiences can also take in O’Toole’s prior appearance as Henry II in Becket or compare the 2003 television The Lion in Winter starring Patrick Stewart.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex – Only an exceptional few ladies could play Good Queen Bess twice, and Bette Davis (The Virgin Queen) makes a lovely royal debut here in 1939- along with our swashbuckling essential Errol Flynn as the titular Essex and a young, pre-horror maven Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh. Toss in the wonderful schemer Olivia de Havilland (again!), some sweet costumes by Orry Kelly (Some Like it Hot, Gypsy), lovely medieval decoration, and plenty of historical drama from Oscar winning director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce) and you simply can’t go wrong. And thanks to Cate Blanchett, too!
Robin and Marian – Contrary to our modern versions keeping Robin Hood young, pretty, non-English (I’m talking to you, Mr. Costner and Mr. Crowe) or otherwise badass; this 1976 Sean Connery (The Untouchables, Dr. No) yarn adds a touch of vintage class and mature romance to the outlaw’s tale. While the golden age tone and veteran retrospective bend is not what we expect, the pace and editing is a little slow at times- especially early on. It’s a little too dark in some spots, and some of the accents are kind of annoying, too; but hey, 12th Century
was no picnic. Thankfully, the look, style, and sword action are fun and authentic, along with the delightful cast including Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Richard Harris (Camelot, The Field), and Ian Holm (Alien, Lord of the Rings). England
The Sea Hawk – In Like- err Errol Flynn strikes again, this time with the none to shabby Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, another multi-talented lady reprising her turn as Her Majesty from Fire Over England (Take that Bette!). Toss in the ever wonderful Claude Raines (
Casablanca, Notorious, Mr. Smith Goes to ) as Spanish ambassador Don Alvarez, add an armada or two, and we’re okay to go. Some of director Michael Curtiz’ (yes, him again, too) black and white photography is showing its 70 year wear, but that doesn’t mean we have to go and bastardize it with some faux color! Besides, not a lot of contemporary actors can look so fitting and proper in those pointy conquistador helmets, either. The frocks- partly nipped from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex- are also charming, even if the rest of the story is pretty historically inaccurate. Even with the dated fun and faults, we just don’t make strapping, family friendly, entertaining, and adventurous yarns like these anymore. I protest! Washington
Also, don’t forget to check out our extensive Classic Camelot and Medieval Fun list, compiling these and a slew more of ye olde films of Arthur, yore, and more!