One of the big influences on my imagination when I was growing up, and therefore on my writing as an adult, was the classic swashbuckling movies of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it would be good to share some of my favourites on this blog – and of course it’s a great excuse to watch them again!
Adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel of the same name, Scaramouche is set in late 18th century France. The hero, André Moreau (Stewart Granger), is the bastard son of a nobleman and best friend to Philippe de Valmorin, a hot-headed young revolutionary. Upon being told that his father, the Count de Gavrillac, has cut off his allowance, Moreau goes to visit him, and on the way meets the beautiful Aline (Janet Leigh) and falls in love with her. Unfortunately Aline turns out to be de Gavrillac’s daughter and therefore Moreau’s half-sister. Worse still, the count has just died, leaving his bastard son penniless.
When de Valmorin is killed in a duel by the arrogant Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), Moreau vows vengeance; but to have a chance of succeeding, he has to learn the art of the sword from the finest fencing masters in France. In the meantime he goes into hiding with a commedia dell’arte troupe, where he takes on the masked role of Scaramouche. This throws him back into the arms of his one-time lover, the fiery-tempered Lenore (Eleanor Parker), who plays Columbine in the same troupe. Meanwhile Aline, who is a ward of the crown, is introduced to de Maynes by the queen and they become engaged, though Aline is still in love with Moreau.
Thanks to Moreau’s popularity as Scaramouche, the troupe is invited to play in Paris. Persuaded to join the new National Assembly, whose deputies are being systematically killed off in duels by the aristocratic members of the opposition, Moreau fights several duels and wins. Believing himself ready to take on de Maynes, he tries to call him out – but each time, de Maynes is absent on the queen’s business, thanks to Aline’s scheming.
Aline cannot keep the two men apart forever, however. Her plans go awry when she persuades de Maynes to attend the theatre where Moreau and the troupe are performing. Recognising his enemy, Moreau leaps up onto the balcony, and there follows one of the longest, and possibly best, swordfights in movie history, ranging through the theatre.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it will come as no surprise to find out that Moreau wins the fight and gets the girl in the end (which girl, I will leave you to find out!).
There’s so much to love about this film, I hardly know where to start, although the final swordfight, with Granger in a stunning black-and-white Renaissance costume (including, as Queenie from Blackadder II would say, “very tight tights”) is the highlight and most memorable scene by far. And whilst its female characters may be a little stereotypical by modern standards, Aline’s spirit and cunning make her rather more likable than the typical wilting heroine of pre-women’s-lib romance. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which she feigns a tantrum in order to divert de Maynes away from duelling, played by Leigh with such mischievous delight that I was cheering her on!
Watching it again, I was struck by how much this film influenced my first novel in particular, from the swordsman hero and travelling players, to the blend of action, politics and romance. It may be escapist nonsense, but it’s very much my kind of escapist nonsense!