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Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

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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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Invitation to a Keelhauling

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Invitation to a Keelhauling

Pirates of Tortuga (USA, 1961)

Once upon a time, back in the mid-20th century, pirate movies were a genre unto themselves, like Westerns, gangster films, or jungle adventures, familiar fare at Saturday matinees with rollicking stories and reliable action, with cutlass duels and fiery ship battles. Though the genre dwindled and then died by the late ‘60s, it evoked fond memories and was regularly revived thereafter in big-budget epics that were mostly too overblown and bloated for their own good.

Fortunately, the original modest but tight buccaneering adventures the blockbusters attempted to evoke are still available to watch and enjoy. Some of them hold up pretty well even in the 21st century, and you can see why they struck a chord with movie audiences back in cinematic piracy’s heyday.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Zatoichi at Large

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Zatoichi at Large

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (Japan, 1965)

Looking over my notes for the forthcoming Cinema of Swords collection (to be published by Applause Books on June 15th), I realized that there were several five-star entries in the Zatoichi series, absolute gems, that I’d never covered here at Black Gate. Worse, I hadn’t devoted an article to the blind swordsman in almost two years, and there might be newer readers who hadn’t been introduced to Shintaro Katsu and his samurai-era yakuza outlaw hero.

Well, we can’t have that. Herewith are three top-notch features from the Zatoichi series — try any one of them, and then just see if you can stop yourself from watching the rest.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Banditti!

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Banditti!

The Bandits of Corsica (USA, 1953)

After the turkeys we covered in the previous Cinema of Swords article, it’s good to get back to something fun, in this case three films about bandits and brigands. We watch these, of course, because bandits are basically land pirates, and everybody loves a good pirate movie! Sword-swinging, wise-cracking outlaw heroes are always welcome, especially when played by Richard Greene, the 1950s Robin Hood, learning the outlaw ropes here in two films that preceded his role in that classic TV series.

When I was rounding out this article by adding Ali Baba and the Seven Saracens, I realized to my shock that its review had somehow gotten overlooked and left out of the Cinema of Swords compilation coming your way from Applause Books next month. So, if you’re some kind of completist collector (like Black Gate’s esteemed editor, John O’Neill), bookmark this post and save it, as otherwise, your Cinema of Swords collection will be… incomplete!

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Near Misses in the Near East

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Near Misses in the Near East

The Adventures of Hajji Baba (USA, 1964)

Though the vogue for Middle Eastern Orientalism in 20th-century movies wasn’t entirely a scourge — where would the history of fantasy films be without Harryhausen’s 7th Voyage of Sinbad? — by and large it was mainly responsible for a lot of crap and claptrap. This goes way back to the Silent Era, peaking with The Sheik in 1921, the movie that made Rudolf Valentino a household word. Orientalist films set in the Near East almost always relied on visual clichés of colorful and exotic luxury, with female characters who exhibit a sensuality forbidden in the Christian west, and male antagonists who are cruel, dishonest, greedy, and lecherous. The protagonists, almost exclusively male, are either European or Americans of European descent, heroes who exemplify the “Western” traits of courage, daring, integrity, and respect for decency. Even when the heroes are themselves Middle Eastern, as in the movies we cover this week, they still embody those qualities deemed “Western” and are usually played by Europeans or Americans.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Moar Mondo Mifune

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Moar Mondo Mifune

Red Sun (France/Italy/Spain, 1971)

Though Toshiro Mifune in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s had proven himself a consummate actor capable of inhabiting a wide range of roles, by the late ‘60s he was pretty much typecast as a gruffly stoic warrior oozing with gravitas. That sounds limiting, and though Mifune plays that part in each of the films covered this week, the three movies are so varied they prove Mifune’s breadth as a performer even when seemingly typecast. Plus, the latter two of these movies are just a rollicking good time, and if you haven’t heard of them, I’m delighted to bring them to your attention.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Avenging Women

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Avenging Women

Lady in the Iron Mask (USA, 1952)

Much as Your Cheerful Editor loves it when it’s the women in a movie who are plying the swords, he must admit that the swashbuckling films of the 20th Century betrayed women wielding their weapons as often as they glorified them. Filmmakers kept putting swords in ladies’ hands because it’s such an attractive image, but then usually gave those sword-swingin’ women short shrift. Most of the time this was just reflexive sexism of the “Of course women don’t fight as well as men” variety, but toward the end of the century, during the backlash against the rise of feminism, the attitude was often open scorn. There are a lot of things I miss about moviemaking from Hollywood’s golden era, but endemic misogyny isn’t one o them.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 7

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 7

Oliver Reed in Gor (USA/South Africa, 1987)

We’ve come to the end of the ‘80s and the last of our Barbarian Boom articles, as fantasy films in the ‘90s diversified to offer a broader portfolio after the waning of Conan fever. And as you’ll see from the movies covered this week, by 1987 the barbarian flick genre had definitely passed into a period of decadence, with filmmakers straining to find ways to keep pumping life into it. Not that there aren’t some weird delights to be had in these desperate final outings, as you’ll see.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Samurai with a Twist

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Samurai with a Twist

Samurai Spy (Japan, 1965)

By the 1960s, the tropes of chambara films, i.e., samurai adventures, had become through endless repetition standardized and over-familiar. As with the Western film in America and Europe, it was time for variations on the theme less they lose their audience, and so antiheroes raised their unfeeling heads and genre crossovers appeared, such as the samurai-meet-kaiju Daimajin movies. This week we take a look at a couple of interesting antihero adventures plus a crossover with the then-popular secret agent genre, Samurai Spy. Let’s dive in!

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Fury of the Norsemen

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Fury of the Norsemen

The Viking (USA, 1928)

Considering there were only about a dozen-and-a-half movies about Vikings released in the first hundred years of filmmaking, they had a cultural impact far exceeding their number, establishing a clear and consistent archetype of the Viking warrior that holds true even today. All the tropes and visual hallmarks of that archetype were in place in the first full feature, 1928’s The Viking, and didn’t really change much over the subsequent 80 years. Interest peaked in the early ‘60s with a spate of films from both Hollywood and Italy, represented here by Mario Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, and didn’t get much of a rethink until Terry Jones’ Erik the Viking (1989), with its attempt to turn the genre on its head and simultaneously explore its mythic roots.

The last ten years have seen another upswing in interest in Vikings onscreen, starting with video game Skyrim in 2011 and the Vikings TV series in 2013, and there’s no sign of it slacking off, so it seems a timely moment for a quick survey of the genre’s beginnings. I hope you enjoy it.

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