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Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

Cinema of Swords Book Announcement!

Cinema of Swords Book Announcement!

Cinema of Swords by Lawrence Ellsworth (Applause, June 15, 2023)

Hellooooo, Black Gate! If you’re a regular reader, you’ve seen my circa-weekly Cinema of Swords articles about swordplay adventure films, but this week we’re here to talk about the full Cinema of Swords volume coming your way this summer, 2023, from Applause Books. This happy event is thanks in large measure to your support and that of Black Gate’s esteemed editor John O’Neill, so thank you! For an author, every new book is an anxious roll of the dice, and it’s a thrill and a relief when your work actually makes it to publication.

So, what will you find in Cinema of Swords? The book’s mouthful of a subtitle is “A Popular Guide to Movies about Knights, Pirates, Samurai, and Vikings (And Barbarians, Musketeers, Gladiators, and Outlaw Heroes) from the Silent Era through The Princess Bride.” Fully illustrated, it compiles 400+ informative short reviews of live-action movies and TV shows on those subjects up through the ‘80s, where I stopped because that’s all I could fit into one volume. I included only films and shows that an interested person can find on streaming services or disc without paying a fortune, so long out-of-print or otherwise unavailable titles didn’t make the cut.

Reviews are listed alphabetically, but in addition to a straight title index, the book includes genre indexes so you can easily find films related to a specific interest. Conveniently, that also provides a way to give you a fuller taste of the book’s contents. Let’s see what we’ve got.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Moonraker! (No, Not That One)

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Moonraker! (No, Not That One)

The Moonraker (UK, 1958)

In many ways, 1958 was a peak year for British screen swashbucklers. On the TV screen, The Adventures of Robin Hood continued its popular run, and was joined by other series, including Ivanhoe, William Tell, and Sword of Freedom. On the big screen, the swashbuckler hit of the year was The Moonraker, a fine cloak-and-sword production that did well in Europe but didn’t really make it across the pond to America. This week, let’s take a close look at UK swords ’58.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Samurai Stocking Stuffers

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Samurai Stocking Stuffers

Master Swordsman Hirate Miki (Japan, 1951)

If you’re just getting into watching older samurai adventures movies, you can’t go wrong picking those directed by Akira Kurosawa or starring Toshiro Mifune and/or Tatsuya Nakadai. However, eventually you’ll run through all those, and then where do you look?

Fortunately, in the ‘50s through ‘70s, chambara action films were as common in Japanese movie theaters as Westerns were in America, and a lot of the very best samurai features are available with fairly decent English subtitles. This week we’re going to look at four lower-profile samurai films from the 1950s, the first three of which, though obscure, are well worth the trouble of seeking them out.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Princess Bride Redeems the ‘80s

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Princess Bride Redeems the ‘80s

The Princess Bride (USA, 1987)

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg: we may love their movies, but those guys have a lot to answer for. Their early fantasy action blockbusters, especially the Star Wars series, were such global mega-hits that they spawned countless imitators making noisy, busy, and sadly shallow films that flooded the theaters from the late ‘70s throughout the ‘80s. Everyone was chasing the golden youth market that was supposedly hooked on broad, colorful action enhanced by flashy special effects — and this pursuit infected not just Hollywood, but European and Asian studios as well.

There were some worthwhile films that followed that formula, of course — Excalibur, Time Bandits, Highlander — but in general, we got an endless series of loud actioners bloated by chase scenes, slo-mo heroic leaps, and large explosions (so many explosions). But then, in 1987, along came The Princess Bride, a small miracle of a movie with brains, heart, courage, sly wit and sharp dialogue, a film that made it possible to forget all about Red Sonja. And suddenly, the ‘80s didn’t look so bad after all.

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Cinema of Swords: For the Horde!

Cinema of Swords: For the Horde!

The Golden Horde (USA, 1951)

Huns and Mongols, the mounted hordes who swept out of Central Asia into eastern and central Europe in the Middle Ages, made a lasting impact on the psyche of the folk of the lands they invaded, all the way down the 20th century—as shown by the fact that Allied propaganda during World War I successfully branded their German opponents as “the Huns.” Invoking the Mongol Horde was a reliable source of terror in mid-century movies from Russia to Italy to Hollywood, as we see in the films covered in this week’s article. All three suffer from the casual racism of the time in which they were made, but it’s better to see that and note it than to pretend it never happened or doesn’t matter. History is always seen through the lens of the time it’s viewed from, and we learn interesting lessons from its distortions.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Buccaneers Three

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Buccaneers Three

The Buccaneer (USA, 1958)

Pirates were a popular subject in midcentury Hollywood — but piracy, not so much, because it was obviously committed by bad people who would take all your stuff, given the chance (and maybe do worse). Thus the common cinematic usage of the term buccaneer, which sounds like it just describes a gentleman adventurer with an attitude rather than someone who would casually cut your throat and throw your corpse over the side. Aye, call your pirate movie a buccaneer’s tale, and even theatrical markets in the iron grip of the Legion of Decency will smile and let your film be shown at Saturday matinees to audiences full of kiddies. All keelhauling is to be conducted offscreen, if you please.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Valiant Avenging Chivalry

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Valiant Avenging Chivalry

The Valiant Ones (Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1975)

Wuxia, which can be translated as martial chivalry, is the term usually applied to tales of ancient Chinese armed martial arts, especially when retold in the context of the Hong Kong action film tradition that began in the Sixties. Wuxia movies were eclipsed by the Seventies kung fu boom but never quite went away, reviving full force in the Nineties and staying strong to this day.

By the late Seventies there was a changing of the guard, as the founding knights, directors King Hu and Chang Cheh, gave way to rising stars of chivalry such as Sun Chung and John Woo. The latter took the lessons of the founders, absorbed the frenetic dynamism of the kung fu years, and carried wuxia films forward with a new joy and energy.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Barbarian Boom Part 6

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Barbarian Boom Part 6

Amazons (1986)

By late 1986, the Barbarian Boom was well into its deliberate self-parody phase — and all the better for it, frankly. If nothing else, self-parody is inexpensive, and if you have a rock-bottom budget anyway you might as well aim for something that’s within reach. Though the spate of barbarian films in the Eighties is beloved by fantasy nerds of a certain age, as we’ve seen in our previous instalments in this series, very few of them hold up to a contemporary rewatch. Thus, it’s a pleasure this week to cover two movies we can actually recommend! To prepare yourself properly, practice your “Hur hur hur!” ahead of time so you can laugh like a real barbarian.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Swashbucklin’ Talkies

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Swashbucklin’ Talkies

Treasure Island (1934)

Swords in hand, swashbucklers strode across the silver screen throughout the silent era, especially in the Twenties, when Hollywood budgets grew large enough to encompass grand historical spectacles. Then sound came in circa 1930, and swashbucklers went out, in part because early microphones didn’t record well outside, so most of the first “talkies” were filmed on interior sound stages — not the best venues for historical action.

But historical adventure films were saved by the insatiable American (and for that matter, European) appetite for Westerns. Rootin’, tootin’ horse operas had to be shot outside, so the problem of miking away from a sound stage had to be solved. By 1934, the technical issues had been sorted out, and swashbucklers were back on the screen, led by a trio of hits in The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the first talkie version of Treasure Island. This week we’re going to enjoy a look at the latter, and follow it up with two other notable Thirties swashbucklers.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Mondo Mifune

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Mondo Mifune

Vendetta of a Samurai (Japan, 1952)

If American and European film fans recognize only one Japanese actor, it’s the great Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), who came to prominence in the west for his collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa — not just the historical films such as Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961), but also Kurosawa’s acclaimed crime movies such as The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low (1963).

Mifune had a broad range, with the ability to inhabit a wide variety of characters of all sorts, though he had the kind of classically handsome face with regular features that often limit actors to matinee idol roles. A broadly physical actor when the role required, at need he could convey deep emotion by subtle changes of facial expression. Mifune was an ambitious actor who acknowledged few limitations, and he worked with many other leading directors other than Kurosawa, often co-producing on projects he felt strongly about. This week we’re taking a look at three of his lesser known features, movies that exhibit considerable diversity just in the genre of chambara swordplay films.

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