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Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Blood-Red and Blind – The Crimson Bat

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Blood-Red and Blind – The Crimson Bat

The Crimson Bat (Japan, 1969)

Here’s a pretty decent samurai series even I wasn’t aware of until recently: the Crimson Bat, four films starring Yoko Matsuyama as the eponymous hero. Moreover, all four movies are now relatively easy to find, available on YouTube with good English subtitles. There aren’t enough chambara movies with female heroes, in my opinion, so I was pleased to discover these — and hopefully, you’ll be pleased as well.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 4

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 4

The Warrior and the Sorceress (Argentina/USA, 1984)

Barbarians don’t get no respect. The fantasy films released in the wake of the unexpected worldwide success of Star Wars (1977) were all over the map, varying widely in approach and quality, but the barbarian lookalikes that followed the first Conan movie (1982) stuck to a formula, in quality plunging straight to the bottom of the barrel and mostly staying there as the barrel bumped along the cheapie exploitation circuit for the next five years or so. It’s as if filmmakers saw the sword-and-sorcery genre as suitable only for low-prestige flicks aimed at an unsophisticated market, a sad situation that wouldn’t really turn around until The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Postwar in the Greenwood

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Postwar in the Greenwood

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (USA, 1946)

In the middle of the last century, you couldn’t say “Robin Hood” without evoking the image of Errol Flynn in 1938’s classic The Adventures of Robin Hood — every movie and TV show in the next thirty years about the bandit of Sherwood Forest was made in its long, green shadow. The Robin Hood story depicted in the Flynn film became the de facto standard version of the legend, cinematic comfort food, with subsequent screen incarnations not straying far from its characters and situation. Still, there were good times to be had in that long, green shadow, and tales of Robin and his Merrie Men owned Saturday afternoons for the sleepy Fifties and well afterwards.

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