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Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Arthur, King of the Britons

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Arthur, King of the Britons

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (UK, 1975)

So, you think The Green Knight is a different cinematic take on the Arthurian legends? Well, okay, it is, but let’s go back to the early Seventies, the first time the Brits were really breaking the mold of Camelot and rolling out the Round Table.

Arthur of the Britons, Season One

Rating: ***
Origin: UK, 1972
Director: Sidney Hayers, et al.
Source: Network DVDs

Britain’s ITV network had several fine historical adventure shows early on, including The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956) and Sir Francis Drake (1961), but it was a long decade until their next one, Arthur of the Britons, in 1972, and in that time a lot of things changed, including tastes in historical sagas. Hollywood’s Technicolor past was out, replaced by gritty realistic history, at least as it was seen fifty years before now. This series was set during the time of the historical Arthur — if he existed — a time shortly after the Romans left British shores and the Saxons came across the narrow sea to fill the power vacuum. Here, “King” Arthur is one of many Celtic warlords resisting the Saxon advances, but the only one with the vision to see that the Celts must unite under a single leader if they are to hold the parts of Britain still under their control.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Lone Wolf and Cub Part 2

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Lone Wolf and Cub Part 2

The Mandalorian

We’ve already gone into the origins of the Lone Wolf and Cub films in the manga series by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, so this week let’s look at its influence on later productions, particularly the Star Wars series The Mandalorian. I’m far from the first person to point out the connections between the two, but as they show the continuing relevance of Lone Wolf and Cub even fifty years later, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit them.

To state the obvious, The Mandalorian draws most of its inspiration from the Western genre, especially the Italian variety known as Spaghetti Westerns, and of course from the Star Wars saga itself. But the Lone Wolf influence is strong: the visual archetype of the solo martial artist fighting off waves of enemies with a young son by his side or in his arms is powerful, and was adopted in whole.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Peak Musketeers

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Peak Musketeers

The Three Musketeers (1973)

Richard Lester directed the best-ever screen version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and the worst version of its sequel, Twenty Years After. Those films are discussed below, so let’s talk about Lester up here.

An American Jew from Philadelphia, Dick Lester had to go to the UK to make his mark in the movies, though he worked first in television, short subjects, and commercials. His early work was in comedy, and he was part of the gang of English comics that included Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers who created The Goon Show, a direct predecessor to Monty Python. John Lennon was a huge fan of the Goons and of Lester’s hilarious short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, and Lester got his big break when he was tapped to direct the Beatles’ first feature, A Hard Day’s Night. This kicked off what you might call the Swinging London portion of Lester’s career, during which he made some of the funniest movies of the Sixties, including Help! (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Shogunate’s End

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Shogunate’s End

Red Lion (Japan, 1969)

The Tokugawa Shogunate of the samurai military caste ruled Japan for over 300 years, keeping the island nation in a sort of stasis enforced by rigid regulation and an entrenched hierarchy. But outside, the rest of the world was changing, as the western powers of Europe and America developed economies based on global trade on terms backed up by military might. In 1853, when the United States came knocking on Japan’s door, insisting on trade concessions, the Shogunate had only swords and matchlock muskets with which to oppose armored warships, and had to comply with the American demands. Other western nations followed suit, and Japan began to open its borders, resulting in economic and political instability that the Shogunate was too weak and hidebound to manage successfully.

This period before the imperial restoration of 1868, known as Bakumatsu, was a sort of slow-burning civil war in which a number of factions struggled for ascendancy, all sides resorting to death squads and assassinations. The time of the sword, which had ruled Japan for almost a thousand years, was coming to an end.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Book was Better

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Book was Better

The Last Valley (UK/USA, 1971)

Was it, though? In the case of the 1972 Treasure Island, absolutely. With a book that good, and with such stirringly visual material, it’s hard to fail at a cinematic adaptation, though this version comes closer than most. However, when it comes to Ivanhoe, give me a screen version, any screen version, over having to read the book again. Brrr! Then, there’s The Last Valley, based on a novel by J.B. Pick that hasn’t crossed my path, so whether the movie is better than the book is a question I can’t answer. Maybe you can, though, so we’ll start with that one. As you’ll see, books win in the end.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Premium Peplum

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Premium Peplum

(Goliath and the Sins of Babylon, Italy, 1963)

If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like. Between 1959 and 1964, the leading genre of Italian adventure films was the peplum, or sword and sandal movie. The fad for these began in 1958 with the first Steve Reeves Hercules film, and there were a whole lot of Hercules films to follow, but we’re going to save those for another day and cherry-pick our way through the non-Herc movies. Peplum films tended to be made quickly and cheaply: indifferently written, poorly acted, and with weak production values. Even those with larger budgets often ran aground on the rocks of tedium and cliché. But there were a few silk purses among the sow’s ears, so this week let’s point out some fun exceptions that might be worth your time. If, you know, this is the kind of thing you like.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Lone Wolf and Cub, Part 1

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Lone Wolf and Cub, Part 1

Lone Wolf and Cub 1: Sword of Vengeance (Japan, 1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub, the celebrated samurai manga series by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, began in 1970 and, wildly popular, eventually ran to many thousands of pages and was adapted to both film and television. However, it was virtually unknown in America and Europe until 1980 when the compilation Shogun Assassin was released, drawing on the first two motion pictures. But Shogun Assassin emphasized the series’ brutal violence and was regarded by most in the west as trash cinema, a reputation that was unchanged until 1987 when the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series was finally republished in the US and UK by First Comics. With covers and endorsements by then-fan-favorite Frank Miller, the comics were widely acclaimed, and the movies finally found release in the United States and Europe in their original forms.

This week we’re taking a look at the first three Lone Wolf movies from 1972-73. Despite their level of gore and carnage, which was considered extreme at the time, these are serious films, adapted from the manga by Kazuo Koike himself. Their success is all the more remarkable because star Tomisaburo Wakayama, middle-aged and heavy, looks so little like a samurai matinee idol. But Wakayama had been a dedicated martial artist before he became an actor, and his surprising athleticism adds depth and credibility to the role.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: A Little History

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: A Little History

El Cid (USA/Italy, 1961)

“Inspired by historical events”: the dreaded phrase that history wonks have come to learn usually means “bears little resemblance to historical events.” But hey, historical epics have to start somewhere, and it might as well be with a little history. To be fair, historical adventure film concepts often start from the best available accounts, but then scripts get rewritten and rewritten again, producers and directors have their own ideas about how the screenplay should get visualized, and before you know it you’ve got… well, El Cid (1961) for one, with a couple of other examples as well, including an admirable entry in The 300 Spartans (1962), which tries harder than most to get it right. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Zatoichi’s Finest

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Zatoichi’s Finest

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (Japan, 1966)

The Zatoichi films, a chambara series that features Shintaro Katsu as a blind yakuza swordsman, was very popular in Japan, running throughout the Sixties and totaling 19 films in quick succession, followed less rapidly by a final half-dozen “special” entries. Though the films in the series tend to follow a familiar formula, they are successful because the elements of that formula are a rich mixture of suspense, pathos, action, comedy, and wistful romance. Katsu’s Zatoichi is a blind masseur at the lowest level of Shogunate Japan’s social hierarchy, but he deeply resents the abuse he suffers from his social betters, and his preternaturally keen senses enable him to develop the skills of a sleight-of-hand gambler and, more importantly, a lightning-fast swordsman. A master of iaijutsu, or the slash on the draw, Ichi holds his blade in a reverse grip that is lethally effective when he gets inside the guard of those wielding longer katanas. He also has a lightning wit that enables him to suss out plots and conspiracies from a few overheard clues. Best of all, though he has a temper, Ichi is inherently good-hearted and always comes to the aid of the vulnerable suffering at the hands of their abusers.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: More Hammer Historicals

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: More Hammer Historicals

The Viking Queen (UK, 1967)

Though by 1967 the Hammer Films brand was thoroughly associated with Dracula and similar horrors, the studio stubbornly continued to turn out films in other genres, including historical swashbucklers. Our first film, The Viking Queen, definitely has that sensational Hammer touch, but A Challenge for Robin Hood could almost be a Disney film, which shows late-Sixties Hammer productions could still have a considerable tonal range.

Admittedly, our third movie, Alfred the Great, isn’t from Hammer Films, but hey, it’s British and from the same period, and it’s worth a look, so give me a break, okay?

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