Browsed by
Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Boarding Party Bingo

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Boarding Party Bingo

Captain Horatio Hornblower (USA, 1951)

The Age of Sail lasted almost three millennia until wind power was replaced by steam in the late 1800s — a time that, in the mid-twentieth century, was still within living memory. Swashbuckling sea stories are still with us, but as a subject for big-budget movies, they peaked in the early Fifties. Like Westerns, many of these sea stories followed formula, and while some were great, most were considerably less than that. Let’s look at three cutlass-swinging adventures from 1951-52, two of which are worth watching even seventy years later. Out swords and pistols, me lads, and prepare to board!

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Laugh, Samurai, Laugh

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Laugh, Samurai, Laugh

Warring Clans (Japan, 1963)

In the Fifties and Sixties, samurai adventures occupied roughly the same entertainment niche in Japan as Westerns in the USA. Just as there were comedy Westerns, there were funny chambara films — though based on the movies that actually made it to Europe and the States, you might not know it, as the samurai films that got overseas distribution were mostly as serious as a hanging. However, tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight: this week we’re taking a look at three of the best humorous chambara films. They tend more toward sly parody than slapstick, so don’t expect Mel Brooks. But count on it: they still feature plenty of swordplay.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: More o’ Zorro

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: More o’ Zorro

Zorro, like the Batman, who borrowed more than a little from the adventures of the masked hero, is a perennial; Hollywood always has another reboot percolating in pre-production somewhere, and occasionally one of these makes it to the screen and the black-clad outlaw rides again. Disney’s Zorro was the definitive version from the late Fifties until the Seventies, when alternative takes on the evergreen character began to appear once more. The legend of Zorro is sturdy, iconic, and can stand a lot of revision and still work quite well. This week let’s look at Guy Williams’ version for Disney, and then a couple of variations on the theme once the character began to emerge from Williams’ long shadow.

(Reminder: Zorro’s first appearance, by the hero’s creator, Johnston McCulley, is included in Your Editor’s Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure anthology.)

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Forgotten Fantasies

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Forgotten Fantasies

Hercules in the Haunted World (Italy, 1961)

During the late Fifties and early Sixties, if you were a fan of films of imagination and the fantastic, though there were plenty of monster movies playing at the drive-in, except for the films of Ray Harryhausen there were very few classical fantasies coming out of Hollywood — and Harryhausen’s movies were mostly British productions. In fact, heroic fantasy films were thin on the ground, being regarded in America as fodder for children. Fortunately, that wasn’t always the case in Europe, where monsters still found themselves opposed by sword-swinging heroes as often as by modern soldiers with bazookas. And occasionally, those films would make it across the Atlantic, though they were usually relegated to double bills with fare such as Reptilicus and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Musashi and Kojiro

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Musashi and Kojiro

I recently finished reading Eiji Yoshikawa’s long, 1,500-page novel, Musashi, originally serialized in Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun between 1935 and 1939. It tells a fictionalized story of the early life of Musashi Miyamoto, the celebrated author of The Book of Five Rings who is considered by many the finest exemplar of Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai.

It was a good read, which was no surprise — the book has sold far more than 100 million copies, and its depiction of Musashi has inspired a number of screen incarnations, none more famous than Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956), starring Toshiro Mifune as Musashi. After finishing the novel I decided to give the films a rewatch and they stood up well, so I thought I’d present them here. Of course, we covered Samurai I in a Cinema of Swords article in October 2020, but here are Samurai II and III and a sort of spin-off from the following year, Sasaki Kojiro.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Alexandre/Alexander

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Alexandre/Alexander

William Shatner in Alexander the Great (USA, 1968)

To explain the title: this week we’re covering a lesser-known version of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, plus a movie about Alexander the Great. If this seems like a weak pretext for a Cinema of Swords article theme, you’re right — mea culpa, it’s a fair cop, I’m busted. The fact is, I was desperate for an excuse to bring you a review of an obscure adventure film about Alexander the Great that stars — wait for it — none other than William Shatner and Adam West!

But we’ll start with the other Alexandre, a French Three Musketeers from the mid-Fifties, preceded by Fanfan la Tulipe, the hit film that brought swashbucklers back to the French cinema. However, if you feel the need to skip ahead to the Shatner flick, hey, this is the internet, no one’s looking.

Read More Read More

Dumas’ Musketeers: Finding their Future in the Past

Dumas’ Musketeers: Finding their Future in the Past


Court of Daggers by Alexandre Dumas,
translated by Lawrence Ellsworth (Substack, 2022)

Besides compiling the Cinema of Swords series, you might be aware of my other ongoing adventure fiction project, editing and translating new, modern editions of Alexandre Dumas’ Musketeers novels. This is an adventure in itself, as The Three Musketeers and its sequels amount to almost two million words in French, and the new English editions of the Musketeers Cycle will fill nine volumes when completed. Thus, it’s a big, multi-year project — and meanwhile the very shape of book publishing is shifting beneath our feet. But it’s shifting in ways you may find interesting, as the kind of genre fiction we celebrate here at Black Gate is even more susceptible to these changes than other literary forms.

The standard business of mainstream book publishing — at least, what seems standard because it’s what we grew up with — is under pressure from many different directions: cost of goods keeps increasing, which cuts into already slim profit margins, megacorp consolidation means fewer publishers and more homogeneity, and the internet, video games, and new digital platforms are all vying for the attention of an audience that is increasingly open to such new attractions.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 5

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 5

Red Sonja (1985)

The Barbarian Boom has now arrived at 1985, the trough at the low point of the arc, the rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel. What can I say? These are stinkers. At least the first two, Lost Kingdom and the notorious Red Sonja, have got parts that are so jaw-droppingly dumb that you can have fun pointing at them and hooting. However, Barbarian Queen is a movie that genuinely offends Your Cheerful Editor, which isn’t easy to do. Ugh. As always, your mileage may vary, but I don’t think anyone can champion these particular movies as genuinely good. Fortunately, the only direction from this nadir is up, as the fantasy genre slowly climbs toward the quality and respectability it will reach in, oh, fifteen years with the Peter Jackson Tolkien films.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sink Me! Scarlet Pimpernels!

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sink Me! Scarlet Pimpernels!

The Scarlet Pimpernel (UK, 1934)

The Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) – but really, we must give her her full name: Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orczi – no wonder they called her “Emmuska” for short – was a Hungarian noble by birth whose family left Hungary after her father’s farm was burned by rioting peasantry. Which may have had something to do with her later decision to write about the persecution of aristocrats during the French Revolution.

One day in 1903 the image of Sir Percy Blakeney appeared, fully formed, in Emma Orczy’s mind’s eye, and she knew she was seeing the protagonist of her next novel. She wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in five weeks and sent it out with high hopes, but a dozen publishers turned it down. With her husband’s collaboration she crafted a version of the story for the stage and found a company willing to produce it. After a slow start the play took off and became a huge success, after which selling the novel was suddenly easy.

Sequel followed sequel for the next thirty-plus years, and over more than a dozen novels and collections the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel probably saved more aristocrats from Mam’zelle Guillotine than were actually executed in the historically brief period of The Terror. But the Baroness wasn’t a historian, she was a storyteller – and few storytellers have created a character as indelible as Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel. Or one more perfect for translation to the silver screen.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Updating the Classics

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Updating the Classics

Henry V (UK, 1989)

New cinematic adaptations of literary classics come along regularly, and it’s no surprise why: most classics have earned that name for a reason, and in addition to valuable name recognition they have durable plots, characters, and situations that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses had several film adaptations before the ones covered below, most notably director Roger Vadim’s 1959 version that set the story in modern times (as did 1999’s Cruel Intentions) — but we, of course, prefer the period setting (because swords!). Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, has also been put on screen numerous times, including Laurence Olivier’s splendid 1944 version, previously reviewed in this article series. However, it’s Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation that’s most likely to resonate with modern Cinema of Swords readers if only because it’s naturalistic rendition of Shakespeare’s dialogue makes it easier to connect with. Now, let’s go to the library and watch some movies!

Read More Read More