Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Seventies Hall of Shame

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Seventies Hall of Shame

Swashbuckler (US, 1976)

Let’s face it, in the spate of historical swashbucklers that followed Richard Lester’s Musketeers films, not everything was a classic like Robin and Marian. There were a few toads in the flower garden, some rotten apples in the barrel, and it’s only fair to warn you about them. However, even a terrible misfire can have its amusing side, as you’ll see in the sterling examples gathered below, three attempts to capture the that old swordplay magic that go astray in entirely different ways.

Swashbuckler (or The Scarlet Buccaneer)

Rating: *
Origin: US, 1976
Director: James Goldstone
Source: LL DVD

We all like a good pirate adventure. This is not a good pirate adventure. This is a pirate adventure made by people who seem to think everything you need to know about pirate adventure can be learned from a ten-minute Disney theme park ride.

The star, the great Robert Shaw, is wasted here, miscast as a reckless, thoughtless, jolly frat boy of a captain, a role he plays with an appropriate lack of conviction, cackling joylessly at bawdy limericks. The talented Peter Boyle is utterly miscast as Lord Durant, a cartoonish villain who says things like, “There is no lord but Darkness.”

Geneviève Bujold is miscast as the spunky ingenue who is meant to fall in love with Shaw’s Ned Lynch; the two have zero or even negative chemistry together, and Bujold just looks angry all the time, probably at her agent for getting her into this role with its demeaning catfight and gratuitous nude swim. A young Beau Bridges is miscast as a dopey and unfunny British officer named Major Folly, say no more. In fact, everyone in the film is miscast, because none of them should be in this film.

The plot, about opposition to the ludicrously cruel and evil Lord Durant, who rules Jamaica in 1718 as a despot, is nonsense and doesn’t bear summarizing. The script is wretched, and the pacing of the direction is terrible. The tone of the movie veers widely from campy frivolity to horrific torture, sometimes in the same scene. The score for the action sequences is literally circus music. The fencing is a bad joke.

The costumes resemble nothing worn by anyone in 1718, or for that matter anyone anywhere at any time in history. There’s a food fight in the town market. Bananas are thrown. James Earl Jones, as Shaw’s piratical first mate, tries desperately to maintain a shred of dignity. Poor devil; look away from his suffering and remember other, better nights at the movies.

Jabberwocky

Rating: **
Origin: UK, 1977
Director: Terry Gilliam
Source: Columbia Tristar DVD

Though he had co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), this is really Terry Gilliam’s first film as full director (and co-writer). Visually, it’s much more ambitious than Holy Grail, displaying many of the directorial hallmarks of the man who would go on to create such brilliant classics of imaginative film as Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and 12 Monkeys (1995).

Unfortunately, Jabberwocky isn’t a very good movie.

A comic medieval fantasy, Jabberwocky expands upon some of the themes of Holy Grail, such as the venality of knights and nobles, the ignorance and filth of the Middle Ages, and the ignoble brutality of knightly combat, while adding scathing critiques of organized religion and disaster capitalism. Unlike Holy Grail, it also attempts to have a coherent story, and here the film falls flat. The storytelling is weak: the only sympathetic character, would-be medieval entrepreneur and hapless boob Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), is shallow and uninteresting, the pacing from scene to scene is terrible, the timing of the gags is frequently off, and the sound recording is often muddled and muffled. What the movie does have going for it is Gilliam’s striking visuals and intriguingly cockeyed compositions and camera angles. Most scenes are shot with natural lighting, effectively immersing the viewer in Gilliam’s medieval world.

If only the story matched up to the imagery. The kingdom of King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) is being menaced by the Jabberwock, a horrible monster that’s eating peasants alive and destroying whole villages. Refugees are crowding into the squalid capital city, enabling the greedy merchants who run the place to profit by jacking up their prices. But the king feels he must do something about the monster, so he holds a comically lethal tournament to choose a champion to face the beast.

Into this chaos wanders the feckless Dennis, who’s come to the city in hopes of joining the ranks of its predatory businessmen. Instead, he bumbles around, falling in and out of various dangerous predicaments, until he accidentally becomes the squire of the knight champion sent out to face the Jabberwock. The monster itself, when it finally appears, is a towering and ragged human-operated puppet, so crappy that it’s thoroughly delightful. John Tenniel, who drew the original portrait of the Jabberwock in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, would have been pleased.

Like Holy Grail, this isn’t so much an adventure as an anti-adventure, intended to skewer the pretentious heroics of typical medieval epics, but the punch doesn’t really land. It also stumbles as a comedy because the jokes just aren’t that good. For the film historian, Jabberwocky is a fascinating look at a unique auteur learning his trade — but as a box o’ yocks, it’s a flop.

The Norseman

Rating: *
Origin: US, 1978
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Source: MGM DVD

Around the year 1000, Vikings sailing west reached the coast of North America at Newfoundland, dubbing the coast “Vinland.” Writer-producer-director Charles B. Pierce made a film of two follow-up Norse expeditions to Vinland, but filmed it on the west coast of Florida. This squares well with star Lee Majors’ Kentucky accent, which renders Norseman as “Norzman.” It also fits with hiring a bunch of Tampa Bay Buccaneers as extras and dressing them up as cartoon Vikings out of Hagar the Horrible. Seriously, their costumes, with plastic Roman-inspired muscle-chestpieces, could not be worse. Things could only be worse if Charles B. Pierce decided to dress the Native Americans the Norz encounter as outright savages in ragged loincloths and war paint.

Does Pierce go there?

Yes, Pierce goes there.

In 1006 A.D., the Vikings, a “lusty horde of blonde giants,” conquer Europe and then head west, lusty for more conquering. King Eurich (Mel Ferrer) went a-conquering west and never came back, so his sons Thorvald (Lee Majors) and Eric (Charles B. Pierce’s 12-year-old son Chuck) find another longship and set out after him. This ship, which Pierce borrowed from somewhere in North Carolina to make the film, is actually pretty cool, so props for that prop. However, no points awarded for the Vikings’ plastic horned helmets or modern metal crossbows.

Thorvald and Eric bring with them their shipmaster Ragnar, played by Cornel Wilde, who looks pained and embarrassed, possibly hoping no one will recognize him behind his bristling Norz beard. They also bring a hunchbacked Norz wizard named Death Dreamer played by Jack Elam, which is okay because nothing can embarrass Jack Elam.

The Vikings land by wading ashore onto a Florida beach, where they are immediately attacked by the local Native Americans, who are all howling savages who say “Yah!” a lot. They don’t speak any English, which in this film is a definite advantage, because that means they don’t have to utter Charles B. Pierce’s wooden dialogue. Example: Thorvald wants to chase the Indians into the Florida woods and make them tell him where his father can be found, but Death Dreamer solemnly warns Thorvald, “To go into the forest after them is worse than crossing the high Alps to kill the white bear with empty hands.” Right. There’s a lot of that stuff, except when the dialogue is suppressed by flat and intrusive narration by the adult Eric, which would be unwelcome except that it has the virtue of suppressing the dialogue.

With the help of a young, underclad Native American woman named Winetta (Susie Coelho), the Vikings eventually find King Eurich and his crew, who have been blinded and enslaved by the Indians because savages. There’s a tedious chase through the forest in which Charles B. Pierce displays his one directorial trick of cutting back and forth from pursuers to pursued, and a dumb fight on the beach in which ferocity is conveyed by slo-mo. This must at least have felt familiar to Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors. Perhaps he requested it.

Anyway, don’t watch this, unless you think it would be funny to see former Olympic fencer Wilde hacking away at Native Americans with a fake broadsword as if he were chopping wood. To save you the trouble: it isn’t funny. It’s just sad.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

Lone Wolf and Cub, Part I
Premium Peplum
The Book Was Better
Shogunate’s End
Peak Musketeers
Lone Wolf and Cub, Part 2
Arthur, King of the Britons
Sinbads Three
Premium Peplum: Top Hercs
Fight Direction by William Hobbs
Mash-Up or Shut Up
Classics on Screen — 1977
Wuxia in the Time of Kung Fu
So Many Prisoners of Zenda


LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle, with the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, coming in July from Pegasus Books in the US and UK. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Michael F Ehart

I have seen all three of these. I must be a glutton for punishment!

Thomas Parker

I saw Swashbuckler when it came out and liked it fine; then I saw it again decades later and of course it had unaccountably gotten much worse during the intervening years.

On the other hand, I saw another retro-genre movie of the same vintage, March or Die, a short time ago (again after a lapse of many years), and I though it still held up pretty well.

Tony Den

i have never heard of these. For that matter so many others from past posts. So many old movies I have missed, although as said, some maybe I didn’t miss much. I wonder, speaking of debatable movies, will you cover Skallawag, directed by Kirk Douglas. I saw it ones as a kid and loved it. Looked it up years later, only to find it was not so well received.

Lawrence Schick

Hi, Tony. I decided not to cover Scalawag because it’s Treasure Island moved into the Wild West, so there are no swords in it. Arbitrary, I guess, but I can’t cover everything!

Tony Den

Understood Lawrence. Didn’t think of that aspect. I saw this move as kid, in the 1980’s, but yes I recall now, there was a wild west / pirates crossover.

Jeff Stehman

I’ve watched Swashbuckler many times. It’s been several years since the last time, but I take it in the spirit it’s presented and love it. You didn’t mention Geoffrey Holder!

I saw Jabberwocky once long ago, chuckled a few times, and have rarely thought of it since.

In my youth, I saw the trailer for The Norseman and thought, how come I never get to see these cool movies? (I’m actually surprised I never saw it on Saturday afternoon TNT, which back in the day was a pretty reliable source of dubious SF movies.) Now I’ve rewatched the trailer and regret the time lost.

Joe H.

Jabberwocky is at least interesting as a historical artifact. The others … perhaps not so much.

Brian Kunde

I also saw Swashbuckler when it first came out, and loved it. Well, I was in my mid-teens, and I’m not sure I’d ever seen another pirate film before, so maybe not much to compare it against. On the next screen of the drive-in theater they were showing Jaws, which I stole a terrified glance at every so often. Pirates seemed safer. (Even then, though, the gratuitous nude diving scene seemed gratuitous.) Saw it again some years later on TV, to find they had dubbed over the raunchier bits of dialog for that market. But I still liked the movie. Even bought and read the novelization. What can I say? I had no judgment. Still, it could well be that I’d still like it if I saw it again.

Brian Kunde

And, for some reason, Swashbuckler also calls to mind that old pirate joke where the captain says, “Mate, bring me my red shirt…”

John E Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? A Seventies Hall of Shame???

I dunno, Bwana. The Seventies had an awful lot of shame in them. Of these three, I saw Swashbuckler once, Jabberwocky not at all and couldn’t bear to finish watching The Norseman. I think you’re right about Jack Elam though; by the time he made this film, he had seen everything. Thanks for the warnings about these films, I’d rather spend my time looking at some of the hidden treasures you’ve told us of in previous posts.

Thanks again!

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