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Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Rejecting Bushido, Part 2

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Rejecting Bushido, Part 2

Sword of the Beast (Japan, 1965)

As outlined in Part One, in the Fifties postwar Japan’s film industry gradually returned to making chambara movies that glorified the samurai warrior code of bushido, but in the counter-cultural Sixties some filmmakers took an opposite tack, blaming bushido for supporting a culture of rigid oppression and cruelty. Some remarkable films came out of this movement, pictures of high art that depict the samurai’s wonderfully skilled swordplay while skewering the society that relied on the sword as a tool of domination. Let’s look at three films that exemplify this movement from three brilliant directors: Hideo Gosha, Kihachi Okamoto, and Masaki Kobayashi.

Sword of the Beast (or Samurai Gold Seekers)

Rating: ****
Origin: Japan, 1965
Director: Hideo Gosha
Source: Criterion DVD

Co-writer and director Hideo Gosha’s follow-up to Three Outlaw Samurai takes an even less forgiving view of society than its predecessor: individuals may be good, bad, or both, but hierarchical authority cares only for power and does only ill.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Year of Camelot and Scarecrows

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Year of Camelot and Scarecrows

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (USA, 1963)

1963: Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical Camelot finally closed after almost 900 performances, Disney’s The Sword and the Stone was preparing for release at the end of the year, and President John F. Kennedy’s administration was being compared to King Arthur’s. This didn’t go unnoticed in Arthur’s Great Britain, and the British movie industry obliged with two Camelot movies, one of them quite ambitious, that have now been largely forgotten. Indeed, Olde England was still the favorite screen setting for historical adventure, as Walt Disney, looking for a follow-up to Zorro, was well aware. And so Disney’s last great swashbuckler, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, was shot on location on England’s south coast, one classic that hasn’t been forgotten.

Sword of Lancelot (or Lancelot and Guinevere)

Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1963
Director: Cornel Wilde
Source: Alpha Video DVD

This is a worthy attempt to film the tragedy of the doomed love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, and if it falls short of greatness, it isn’t because writer, director, and star Cornel Wilde didn’t give it his all, it’s just that he wasn’t David Lean or Sergei Eisenstein.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Pirates—Italian Style!

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Pirates—Italian Style!

Morgan the Pirate (Italy/France, 1960)

We tend to think of pirate tales as mainly an English language thing, since the first early modern histories of pirates were in English, as were the genre-defining stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Kidnapped), Rafael Sabatini (The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood) and Howard Pyle. But pirate stories were extremely popular in Continental Europe as well, especially in Italy, where Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) wrote as many as 200 adventure novels, mostly about pirates or colonial adventurers who might as well have been called such. His most famous novel is The Black Corsair (1898), which has been filmed at least five times.

During the period of 1960 through 1965, the Italian film industry was famously focused on making peplum, or sword-and-sandal films, but they also dabbled in other historical adventure genres — and in the case of pirate movies, more than dabbled. At lot of these are quickies that might not be worth your time, but Italy loves a good keelhaulin’ cutthroat, and some of the Italian pirate films of the early Sixties were standouts.

Morgan, The Pirate

Rating: ****
Origin: Italy/France, 1960
Director: André DeToth/Primo Zeglio
Source: Turner Classic Movies

This is a fine Franco-Italian production, one of the best Continental pirate movies, starring Steve Reeves as Henry Morgan and Valérie Lagrange as Doña Inez, his daughter-of-the-Spanish-governor love interest. Its taut direction is primarily credited to the Hungarian-American director André DeToth, who (you can’t make this up) later in life lost one eye and wore a black eyepatch. But seriously, Morgan’s production values are good, it has topnotch cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, excellent costumes and locations, and a rolling nautical score by Franco Mannino.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Rejecting Bushido (Part One)

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Rejecting Bushido (Part One)

Chushingura: The Loyal 47 Retainers (or 47 Samurai). Japan, 1962.

After militant nationalism in Japan during the Twenties and Thirties led to the disaster of the Forties, many Japanese blamed the country’s march to war on an excessive reverence for bushido, the samurai’s martial code of honor. Media that glorified Japan’s military history was prohibited during the American occupation, but in the 1950s movies and TV shows featuring heroic samurai began returning to the mainstream. However, a significant segment of Japan’s creative community regarded this as a woeful development, and nonconformists opposed to the innate conservatism of Japanese society began making alternative samurai films that, subtly at first and then openly, accused bushido culture of oppression and cruelty. Let’s take a look at how this played out on the screen starting with two films from 1962: Chushingura, which extols the virtues of samurai honor, and Harakiri, which is a virtual mirror image of the first, examining the same themes through a different lens and reaching diametrically opposite conclusions.

Chushingura: The Loyal 47 Retainers (or 47 Samurai)

Rating: ****
Origin: Japan, 1962
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Source: Image DVD

The tale of the 47 ronin is sometimes called Japan’s national epic, as it epitomizes the samurai virtues of courage and loyalty unto death. In Japan it’s been filmed at least six times, with countless other dramatic adaptations, but Inagaki’s sumptuous 1962 movie is probably the best-known retelling to Westerners. The film’s subtitle for its English language release was “The Loyal 47 Retainers,” but in the original Japanese version it’s “Story of Blossoms, Story of Snow.” Not blossoms as of budding flowers, but the fluttering petals whose day is over, and that fall as a harbinger of the death symbolized by the coming of snow.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Mighty Colossi and Hydrae

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Mighty Colossi and Hydrae

The Colossus of Rhodes (Warner Bros, 1961)

It was a time of giants on the movie screen. In Japan, inspired by King Kong (1933) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1954), the kaiju, led by Godzilla, were wreaking swaths of destruction across the modern world. But by 1958, Ray Harryhausen, who’d animated The Beast, was looking backward to the ancient world, where the giants of myth had their origins, and other filmmakers in America and Europe were following the same path. Hissing hydras raised their many heads in tales of Jason and Sindbad, while Sergio Leone recreated the Colossus of Rhodes, and though he didn’t bring it to life, it was as much mechanism as statue. To see what it would be like if the colossus walked, we are indebted, once again, to Ray Harryhausen.

The Colossus of Rhodes

Rating: ****
Origin: Italy/Spain/France, 1961
Director: Sergio Leone
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

This is Sergio Leone’s first film as a director, and it’s mostly excellent. After working as assistant director on sword-and-sandal epics such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959), Leone finally got to show what he could do as lead on this picture, which is probably the best-looking Italian historical epic of the peplum era. It has its drawbacks, though, particularly its questionable choice of lead in American cowboy star Rory Calhoun, who combines the glowering good looks of a Robert Mitchum with the leering insouciance of Dean Martin. An ancient Greek hero he ain’t. And, frankly, seven screenwriters is too many, even if one of them is Leone himself.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Flynn’s Last Flourishes

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Flynn’s Last Flourishes

The Adventures of Don Juan (Warner Bros, 1948)

Errol Flynn’s late-career swashbucklers are widely considered mediocre efforts, desperate attempts by an aging and fading star to recapture his youthful popularity, but that sells the films short. It’s true that by the late Forties, Flynn could no longer match the vigor and charm of his performances in Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940) … but really, who could? Compared to any other standard, Flynn’s later sword-slingers are average at worst and mostly better than that. Flynn wasn’t keen to make most of these pictures; he was well aware that he wasn’t the athletic rascal he’d been almost twenty years before, but he was still a solid leading man and now and then the old charm shone through. Enjoy these films for what they have to offer, and you won’t be sorry.

The Adventures of Don Juan

Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1948
Director: Vincent Sherman
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Errol Flynn had given up doing swashbucklers after The Sea Hawk (1940), but with the revival of the historical adventure genre in the late ‘40s, Warner Bros. gave him a sword and put him back in trunk-hose for The Adventures of Don Juan.  It must be said, Flynn doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the role of Don Juan de Maraña, the scandal-plagued womanizing rogue who is forced to give up his naughty ways and turn over a new leaf. After disgracing himself by plucking forbidden fruit at the English Court, Don Juan is summoned back to Madrid by the Queen of Spain (Viveca Lindfors) and commanded to reform. And, however improbably, he does, because his soul is purified for the first time by his true love … for the queen herself. (No, really.) Unfortunately, purged of the rakish qualities that made the character distinctive, Don Juan becomes a conventional noble who gets entangled in conventional court intrigues, saving the queen from a conventional treasonous minister by foiling his conventional plot at the last minute—as usual.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Hu’s On First

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Hu’s On First

Come Drink With Me (Hong Kong, 1966)

Even if you’re not a big fan of wuxia, or Chinese historical martial arts films, you’ve certainly seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so you’re aware of their distinctive visual style. That style, of course, didn’t come out of nowhere, it developed over time, and can be traced back to the work of one man, writer-director King Hu, the creator of the modern wuxia movie. This week we’re looking at Hu’s first three hugely influential films, which established the tropes, look, and feel of the genre in the Asian cinema of the late Sixties.

Come Drink With Me

Rating: *****
Origin: Hong Kong, 1966
Director: King Hu
Source: 88 Films Blu-ray

Sometime during the Ming Dynasty, a government official commands a file of troops who are escorting wheeled cages bearing captive bandits to prison. Suddenly they’re stopped by a white-robed man with a petition, demanding the release of the leader of the Five Tigers criminal gang. The petition is refused, and the response of the Five Tigers is instant: the troops are slain in a bloody massacre and their commander, the son of the local governor, is captured as a hostage. What can the governor do but send the Golden Swallow to rescue him?

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Bard’s Tales

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Bard’s Tales

Romeo and Juliet, 1936

William Shakespeare was the greatest playwright in history (fight me!), but his record as a screenwriter is, shall we say, uneven. There’s a long list of films adapted from or inspired by the works of the Bard of Avon, but most of them are considerably less memorable than their sources. However, sometimes a filmmaker steps up and meets the challenge and the result is a movie one can watch over and over with admiration and pleasure. Here are three films based on Shakespeare that also play regularly at our notional Theatre of the Crossed Swords. [Insert favorite Shakespeare quote here!]

Romeo and Juliet

Rating: *****
Origin: USA, 1936
Director: George Cukor
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

What’s Romeo and Juliet doing in the Cinema of Swords? Isn’t that a love story? It is, but this version is a love story punctuated by four superb rapier duels, three of them involving Basil Rathbone, and one of those is against Leslie Howard — that’s right, Sherlock Holmes crosses swords with the Scarlet Pimpernel!

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: I Heard You Like Swords

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: I Heard You Like Swords

The Sword and the Rose (Walt Disney, 1953)

What? Has Lawrence run out of theme ideas? Has the well gone dry at last? Perish the thought! I was just looking at my list and saw there were several movies with “Sword” in the title that we hadn’t covered yet, and they’re all worth discussing, so here we are.

The Sword and the Rose

Rating: ***
Origin: UK/USA, 1953
Director: Ken Annakin
Source: Walt Disney Home Video

This is based on the popular 1898 novel When Knighthood Was in Flower by Charles Major, a Victorian historical romance that had been filmed twice before in the silent era, and has just enough swashbuckling in it for inclusion here. Despite its title, it’s not set in medieval times but during the early reign of King Henry VIII, telling the story of his sister, Princess Mary Tudor, and her (largely unhistorical) love for Charles Brandon, a mere captain of the guard. Brandon is played by Disney’s chosen leading man of the time, Richard Todd, in perhaps his best performance, though he was better known for Dam Busters (1955). Princess Mary is played by Glynis Johns, who has the impossible task of making her willful and selfish character seem adorable, but she’s so good she almost pulls it off. The leads are supported by a cast of fine British actors that includes James Robertson Justice as King Henry, Michael Gough as the Duke of Buckingham, and Rosalie Crutchley as Queen Katherine, all benefiting from a strong script with a lot of cutting gibes and haughty rejoinders.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Mongols, Cossacks, and Tartars

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Mongols, Cossacks, and Tartars

The Conqueror (1956)

Let’s get barbaric! Preferably on horseback in central or western Asia. Our first movie, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, is so terrible that it’s famous for being terrible, while our second film, The Tartars, is just as terrible but unfairly and surprisingly overlooked, especially since one of its stars is Orson Welles. Ah, but our third movie, Taras Bulba…. Now that’s good stuff. So, ferment some milk, shave your skull except for a scalplock, and leave your effete civilizations behind, because we’re going steppin’ on the Steppes!

(And by the way, if this kind of setting is to your taste, you’re going to love the Harold Lamb short story collections edited by our own Howard Andrew Jones, stories that were a major inspiration and influence for Robert E. Howard. The books, including all four volumes of The Complete Cossack Adventures, plus Swords from the Desert, Swords from the West, Swords from the East, and Swords from the Sea, are still available in digital format — and if you move quickly, there may still be a few print copies left.

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