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Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: Two-Thirds of a Miracle

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: Two-Thirds of a Miracle

The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, December 2001)

Some of us waited a very long time for these movies — or at least, that’s how it felt. I grew up in the 1960s reading science fiction and fantasy; my father had read pulps like Weird Tales back in the ‘30s, and when those stories were republished as postwar paperbacks, he bought them and then passed them on to me. But I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy on my own in my junior high school library, which had pristine copies of the Houghton Mifflin hardcovers with those two-color foldout maps bound into the endpapers. I can still picture exactly where those volumes stood on those library shelves. I read them cover to cover… and then I read them again. When Dungeons & Dragons came along a few years later, giving us all the ability to tell such stories to ourselves, the course of my life was set. And here I am, 55 years after pulling The Fellowship of the Ring down from that shelf, still telling stories of heroic fantasy — and writing about them also, it seems.

So, to those of us who grew up treading in our imaginations the weed-grown paths of Middle-earth, a world to us almost as real as that of the asphalt roads and concrete pavement where we led our physical lives, the gift of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers was unexpected and kind of a miracle. Jackson was one of us, he saw the same visions we did, and he had the talent and drive to put them on the screen, in a depiction as vivid and real as what we saw in our minds when we read the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. And if that act of respectful and dedicated creation isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what would be.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Young Horatio Hornblower

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Young Horatio Hornblower

Hornblower 1: The Duel (UK, 1998)

When you think about swashbucklers at sea, two time periods come to mind: that of the pirates and privateers, from the 16th through 18th centuries, and the Napoleonic naval era at the beginning of the 19th. British captains and crew figure prominently in both these milieus, as you’d expect from an island nation that depended on sea trade and effective warfare on the waves.

The British, of course, are proud of their naval heritage, so in the late ‘90s, when the ITV Network set out to make a series of television adaptations of C.S. Forester’s classic Hornblower novels, somehow enough money was found to shoot film adaptations with production values rarely seen on TV before Game of Thrones. The films, well-cast and well-written, were popular enough, though the size of the productions meant that only one or two could be produced per year. And fortunately for us, they still hold up, by and large (that’s nautical lingo!), a quarter-century later.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Darkness Before the Dawn

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Darkness Before the Dawn

Dungeons & Dragons (USA/Czech Republic, 2000)

Heroic fantasy on the big screen was in a parlous state at the dawn of the 21st century, and anyone whose crystal ball was foggy about the immediate cinematic future could be forgiven for thinking that swords and sorcery films were at their nadir. The Barbarian Boom was long past, Kull the Conqueror had been terrible, the Merlin miniseries was mediocre, and Xena: Warrior Princess had run its course. It was a grim time, and especially if you were a fan of Dungeons & Dragons style adventure, the pickings were slim.

However, though 2001 would bring to the faithful Brotherhood of the Wolf, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mists of Avalon, and most spectacularly, The Fellowship of the Ring, in the darkness before that dawn, the options were thin gruel or highly spiced but raw meat — as you’ll see in the films we’re covering this time ‘round.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: They Seek Him Here…

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: They Seek Him Here…

The Scarlet Pimpernel (UK, 1999)

With his double identity, outlaw status, and penchant for disguise, the Scarlet Pimpernel may have been the clear template for Zorro, but in the novels, he was more secret agent than swordsman, and most screen adaptations have been light on the action side. The BBC’s 1999-2000 series of TV movies, in direct competition with ITV’s swashbuckling Hornblower shows, sought to rectify that imbalance.

Richard Carpenter’s new version of the dapper outlaw of the French Revolution was given a hidden array of gadgets reminiscent of ‘60s spy heroes, and in most episodes found occasion to put a sword in his hand. And since Carpenter made the Pimpernel a good swordsman but not great, and constantly menaced him with guns and explosives, it added a level of urgent threat to the stories not previously seen. If Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy and the Pimpernel was less light-hearted than the Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews incarnations, he had good reason.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Consider the Rapier

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Consider the Rapier

The Mask of Zorro (USA, 1998)

Swashbucklers come in many forms and from many cultures, settling differences with their wicked nemeses with long blades of many shapes. Some leap aboard slashing with cutlasses; some coolly assume their stances with katanas at the ready, in one hand or two; some gallop to the charge, sabers waving; some wait for their attackers with claymores held high.

But I put it to you that there is no more iconic weapon for a swashbuckler to wield than the rapier. It’s a finesse weapon that relies as much on dexterity as strength, relatively light despite its three-foot blade, encouraging movement and rapid footwork. It hangs easily at the waist, from belt or baldric, an accent that adds martial flair to every bold outfit, and it looks as good on a woman as it does on a man. And crucially, it has a point but no edge, so it’s no battlefield weapon — its only function is to settle personal conflicts between antagonists with precision, by means of a thrust to wound or to kill.

The rapier is the weapon of choice of the heroes in all three of the movies from the late ‘90s we’re considering this time around: in the global hit that should have been a flop, in the critical darling that should have been a hit, and in the triumph that was both. Keep your knees flexed, your wrist loose, and don’t grip the hilt too tightly.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Ashes of Time

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Ashes of Time

Ashes of Time (Hong Kong, 1994/2008)

Chinese director Wong Kar-wai, whose films are visually intense, almost hallucinogenic, had a long-time love of the wuxia genre, and in the early ‘90s, when he was having trouble raising money for his production company, he agreed to make a historical martial arts film based on the classic Condor Heroes stories. Excited by the story but wanting it to be perfect, he spent almost three years on the project, but the result was Ashes of Time (1994), one of the most beautiful films ever to come out of Chinese cinema.

However, Wong nearly broke himself (and his cast) in making it, so he took a break to produce a spirited parody of the Condor Heroes story with essentially the same cast, The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), also covered below. It’s a hoot. Finally, I’ve added the undeservedly obscure Journey to the Western Xia Empire (1996), which though shot in the same western Chinese wastes as Ashes of Time is a different visual experience entirely.

And with that, we’re at the end of the ‘90s wuxia film boom, so next time, it’s back to classic swashbucklers!

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Peak ‘90s Wuxia

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Peak ‘90s Wuxia

Dragon Inn (Hong Kong, 1992)

Wuxia, which roughly translates as “chivalrous martial heroes,” is the term for armed historical martial arts adventures, fantasy tales with a history in China dating back to early medieval times. Wuxia stories were adapted to film in China as early as the 1920s, but they were never a major genre until revived in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Hong Kong cinema by directors King Hu and Chang Cheh. Wuxia movies were eclipsed by the kung fu explosion in the early ‘70s but they never really went away, and when producer-director Tsui Hark had breakout hits with his Chinese Ghost Story and Once Upon a Time in China trilogies, the Hong Kong movie machine responded in emulation.

From 1991 through 1995 an avalanche of crowd-pleasing wuxia movies burst from the Hong Kong studios. A lot of these films were low-budget quickies made to formula, but that formula could be stretched to include a great variety of approaches. The three movies covered here illustrate how eclectic the Wuxia Boom was at its height. In the late ‘90s, wuxia movies returned to occasional and irregular productions, but the eclecticism of the boom years remained a hallmark of the genre, one that continues until today.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Beware of Greeks

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Beware of Greeks

Xena and Hercules

If you were watching TV in the late ‘90s, it was pretty hard to avoid Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules series and its spinoffs, even if you wanted to. Despite its modest budget, unambitious stories, and mostly indifferent acting, this likable family-friendly series nonetheless found an audience devoted enough to sustain it through six TV seasons.

There was clearly a hunger for solid fantasy adventures, and Hercules fed that demand. In fact, the Herc series revealed so much demand for fantasy that to meet it, it generated the vastly superior Xena: Warrior Princess show, which is so good that we can forgive the much weaker Hercules show almost anything. Ki-yi-yi-yi-yi!

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Deuces Wild

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Deuces Wild

The Swordsman II (Hong Kong, 1992)

In our last Cinema of Swords article, we talked about sequels gone wrong, follow-up films to surprise hits that just went off the rails. But sometimes, at the other end of the spectrum, you get sequels done right, movies that take the strengths of the first film in a series and then build and improve on them. As an example of this, I don’t think we can do better than three wuxia films from the early ‘90s, each of which managed to incorporate the good qualities of its predecessor and then exceed them. And it’s no coincidence that all three of these films were produced by that eclectic polymath of Hong Kong cinema, Tsui Hark.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sequel Debacle

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sequel Debacle

Highlander (20th Century Fox, 1986)

Most heroic fantasy films are one-shots, made to tell a single story and hopefully do well enough at the box office to recoup their substantial production expenses. But occasionally, one of these epics strikes a chord and finds enough of an audience to warrant a sequel. It’s often the case that the folks who made the first film didn’t really have a sequel in mind when they did it, and faced with making a follow-up they flounder about somewhat.

And sometimes, dazzled by unexpected success, they simply go mad. Everyone somehow forgets what made the first movie work so well, and the sequel just goes to crazytown. This can be terrible, or this can be wonderful — and sometimes, it can be both at once.

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