The swordswoman is not as common to Western cinema as she is in the costume films of Hong Kong & Japan, but she is not altogether absent either.
SWORDSWOMEN IN WESTERN CINEMA Part II
She gets token inclusion in Richard Lester's double-film version of The Three Musketeers (1974). An unlikely broadsword duel occurs between Charlton Heston & Sophia Loren in El Cid (1961). Swashbuckler (1976) gave us French actress Genevieve Bujold with sword in hand. Dragonslayer (1981) makes a feeble but interesting attempt at showing the audience a rebellious female knight, androgynous enough to pass as a young man (at least that's the film's premise--few of the audience are fooled).
Not counting camp sword & sorcery & Hercules-meets-an-Amazon films, & looking mainly at true swashbucklers regarding pirates & highway robbers, we do find a few interesting films.
It's unfortunate that these are so rarely the same kind of exciting & even realistic portraits of fighting women as we have seen from Shaolin temple films from China & Japan's samurai movies. The swordswoman of Swashbuckler meets her match all too soon, & has the buttons snipped from her blouse one by one -- a gleeful bit of rape symbolism the director no doubt thought wonderfully cute.
In The Mask of Zorro (1998) the leading lady (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is once again first alleged to be a great swordswoman, then summarily stripped to her undies by the mightier sword of Antonio Banderos, pretty much copied verbatim from Swashbuckler.
In Lester's epic Musketeers remake, the swordswoman is good for a few hearty laughs -- but so is her male opponent, so Lester is at least more fair about things, even if just as incapable of following up on the idea of a swordswoman.
A woman (Sylva Koscina) all too briefly crosses swords with a man (Stewart Granger) in Baccio Bandini's Sword of Siena (La Congiura dei dieci, 1962). Many more "swordswoman moments" occur in swashbucklers, but such interludes do not a swordswoman movie make. As a rule, the rare lady swashbuckler is introduced as quite spunky, but rapidly degenerates into a "proper" woman (i.e., a useless marshmallow) who provides the love interest & backboard for the male lead's heroism.
In Mask of the Avenger (1951) set in Italy, Jody Lawrence as Maria d'Orsini closes the film with an exciting sword battle which is a uniquely unpredictable step for the cliche "damsel in distress" to take, though the bulk of the film follows the heroics of Renato Dimorna (part Zorro, part Robin Hood) played by the insipid John Derek, plus Anthony Quinn as the chief rival.
It would seem American & British directors are a bit scared of a genuine swashbuckling female of the sort played by Angela Mao, Cheng Pei Pei, Kaji Meiko, or Junko Fuji, among so many others. Yet, if we look deep enough into the history of the swashbuckling swordswoman in Western cinema, we can indeed find some exciting material.
During the height of the swashbuckler craze in the U.S. & Britain, several specifically swordswoman-oriented films were made. One of the best was Jacques Tourneur's Anne of the Indies (1951) starring Jean Peters as Bluebeard's daughter, Captain Anne Providence, a slightly villainous pirate patterned after history's Anne Bonnie.
For a comedy romp with a cool swordswoman, Hillary Brooke puts in an appearance as Anne Bonnie in Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).
The Bonnie character is given her best treatment in The Spanish Main (1945) with Binnie Barnes & Maureen O'Hara both providing spectacular roles, Binnie as the heroic pirate Anne Bonnie & Maureen as the aristocratic Contessa Francesca.
A fine cast all round also includes Walter Slezak as the evil governor, chewing scenery very well, & Paul Henreid as Captain Van Horn.
O'Hara took up sword that same year in At Sword's Point (1952) & is awfully hot in her seven league boots, plumed hat, & villain-challenging sword. Known also as Sons of the Musketeers it features Cornell Wilde as an aging D'Artagnan.
O'Hara again takes up sword as a buccaneer in the Errol Flynn vehicle Against All Flags (1952). She is Spitfire Stevens, pirate queen in love with Brian Hawke (a tired-looking Flynn) who is working undercover for the British army to bring down the pirate empire off the east coast of Africa.
At Sword's Point seems to have been the main inspiration for the two-part cable mini-series La Femme Musketeer (2003), which is likewise about the sons of the Musketeers, one of whom is a daughter.
La Femme Musketeer should've been edited as a feature film about one hour shorter than it is, for it drags in places, & it's aimed rather too strongly at a young audience & is the sort of family film that can test the patience of the adults of the family. It feels padded out by the historical love story element, which has very little spark, & detracts from the main story & action.
But whatever might be nitpicked as faulty, there's no question but that Susie Amy as Valentine D'Artagnan is portrayed relentlessly well as a true & mighty swashbuckling figure, the equal of the best male & superior to the majority. Susie in this role is a buck-tooth beauty who does not need to jiggle her boobs to be sexy as all get-out; her costumes are rational for a woman who has set out to become the first female musketeer.
The cinematography is uneven, sometimes looking like a real movie, elsetimes having that telefilm look about it. But the cinematography during swordplay choreography was given stylish silvery appearance that is a cut above the average. Apart from being bloodless for the sake of younger viewers, the duels are convincing, startling, with a romanticized elegance.
Valentine is befriended by Lady Bolton (Nastassja Kinski) who is handy with a knife even though not a swordswoman like Valentine. Although Lady Bolton turns out to be quite the villain, the story never stops sympathizing with her on some level. She's a likeable rogue instead of a femme fatale so nasty she deserves death.
Michael York steals every scene he's in as Valentine's loving, adoring father who taught his daughter everything she knows of the fence, just as Porthos, Athos, & Aramis (John Rhys-Davies, Christopher Cazenove & Allan Corduner) taught their sons.
The top villain is Cardinal Mazarin played with easy restraint by Gerard Depardieu. The Cardinal conspires to undermine the might of the king's musketeers in favor of his own guard (they are color-coded for easy recognition, musketeers blue, cardinal's guard with red bits to their black gear), as also to undermine the power of young King Louis XV, a foppish king but nevertheless worthy of a throne & of the Musketeers' devotion.
Often the sound of British or American accents out of allegedly French characters is jarring, but the acting here was just good enough for me to get over that small point. However, Cardinal Mazarin was Italian, & it was mildly amusing that when getting a French actor for the Parisian tale, they cast him in the only role that wouldn't've been French.
The most exciting villain is Captain Villeroi (Marcus J. Pirae), a wash-out in the musketeers who serves the cardinal & lives to drive the musketeers to extinction. He has an edgy, scary beauty. A villain skilled enough to be a worthy match in a duel is a well-met requirement for a successful swashbuckler. When he & Valentine cross swords for the climax, it's thrilling stuff, because both characters & their conflicts have been so interestingly developed.
A similar tale is told in Bertrand Tavernier's D'Artagnan's Daughter aka Revenge of the Musketeers (1994) inspired by though not based on Dumas' own Musketeers sequel Twenty Years After (1845).
Right off the bat the film earns kudos by having a French cast who look & sound French, except for Cardinal Mazarin, quite properly cast as Italian (Gigi Proietti). The cinematography is beautiful & captures a real sense of an earlier time of forests & wide open countryside & a muddy, narrow-alleyed Paris. It really takes you there.
Cardinal Mazarin has obtained what he believes to be a coded message regarding a conspiracy. It is actuazlly a love poem written by Quentin la Misere (Nils Tavernier) for love of Eloise D'Artagnan (Sophie Marceau), but disbelieving a real poem could be so bad, Mazarin begins the long decoding process, discovering conspiracies within conspiracies.
Meanwhile the Musketeers have what they believe to be the actual coded list, though old D'Artagnan (the splendid Philippe Noiret) thinks it looks like a simple laundry list. Which of course it is, so that like Mazarin, they are inspired only by their own imaginations. This is, however, a world where conspiracies are so rife & common that any skillful guess is apt to uncover something real.
Before long a conspiracy is exposed, one of introducing coffee into France, hooking the public on this habit forming drug, & monopolizing distribution. Oh yeah, & there's a further conspiracy, to kill young King Louis XIV (Stephane Legros).
As a swordswoman, convent-raised Eloise is untrained, & some sweetly clever choreography makes a "style" of her initial ineptitude & her real if clumsy instinct for the fence. As the film progresses, her father gives her periodic instruction, until she's ready for the film's climactic duel with a villain of certain skill. She is also the protector of the poet Misere, who loves her devotedly, himself has no inkling of how to fight, but is a worthy love interest just the same.
All swordfights & sundry martial encounters skirt along the edge of slapstick, but are nevertheless functional & believable. The Musketeers are after all elderly & a mite less spry than twenty years before. Though at heart the film is one of comedy, it is also much more than its absurd plot. Granny Artemis observed, "The klutzy humanity of it is profound throughout." For indeed the humor grows not from disrespect for the subject matter, but out of the human folly which thrives in the heroic & the villainous alike.
The Lady in the Iron Mask (1952) starred Patricia Medina, who was Maureen O'Hara's only competition for queen of the pirate epic. Medina made many films in the genre, although Lady in the Iron Mask is one of only three films to give her a bit of a fighting role, rather than exclusively the role of a "spunky damsel."
Medina plays a double role as Princess Anne & Anne's twin sister Louise. The evil Duke (John Sutton) wants to replace Anne with the more tractible Louise. It's up to the Musketeers to save Anne, but she won't be passive in the endeavors.
The Musketeers are played by Louis Hayward (D'Artagnan), Alan Hale (Porthos), Judd Holdren (Aramis), & Steve Brodie (Athos). Horror fans will delight to see B character actor Tor Johnson in the role of the executioner. One must be careful tracking down this rarity, lest you end up with Joe D'Amado's gosh-awfully graphic historical triple-X porno of the same title.
Another Alexander Dumas inspired swashbuckler is The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Along with The Spanish Main it dates earliest of the films for the specific swashbuckling genre in the West to feature a swordswoman as central protagonist, although swordswomen had been cropping up in one context or another since the silent era.
Wife of Monte Cristo features Lenore Aubert as the Countess of Monte Cristo, filling in for her husband when he was ill. She looks great in male garb & gets her own swordfighting scene early in the story, but is mostly relegated to a spunky damsel type character for the bulk of the tale.
Similar is The Sword of Monte Cristo (1951) starring Paula Corday as a Napoleonic era masked cavalier named Christianne Morel, heir to the fortune of the Count of Monte Cristo & leader, it would appear, of an underground rebellion. She plays opposite George Montgomery who serves the emperor Louis Napoleon (David Bond).
Maureen O'Hara had a "queen of the pirates" rival in Italy in Gianna Maria Canale, star indeed of Queen of the Pirates (1961; La Venere dei pirati, 1960).
Gianna plays Sandra, a sixteenth century pirate queen fighting against the injustice of tyrannical Duke Zulian (Paul Muller) & his cruel daughter Isabella (Scilla Gabel), discovering in the end that she is herself the true heir of the duchy.
Gianna Maria Canale is again a woman pirate, Captain Consuelo, in Tiger of the Seven Seas (1963; La Tigre dei sette mari, 1962). Consuelo inherits her father's ship, fights as an outsider for justice, & seeks a pirate treasure.
Once more, in Lion of Saint Mark aka The Marauder (Il Leone di San Marco, 1963), Gianna plays Rosanna, a woman pirate of the Adriatic Sea, circa 1620 Venice.
Lisa Gastoni is pirate Mary Read in Queen of the Seas aka Hell Below Deck (Le Avventure di Mary Read, 1961), an action packed film with an impressive heroine, a classic "good" pirate who turns the fortunes against a tyrannical governor of old Florida.
Cutthroat Island (1995) has quite a powerful, thrilling Junoesque swashbuckling gal center stage throughout. Geena Davis is an actual world-class archery champion, though in this film she does swordplay rather than archery. She also has an amazonian stature & never for a moment fails to look the part, whether decked out in pirate duds or a flouncy dress, it always seems most likely that here is a heroic woman who can do this adventure stuff for real.
On the negative side, its nonstop lighthearted action leaves scarcely any time to tell an actual story or develop credible characters. It comes off like one of those films based on Disney rides with no story to speak of & no time to take a breath. There are too many silly explosions (just about anything in this pirate world can blow up) & sillier chase scenes & a relentlessly noisy soundtrack without an ounce of subtlety.
This something-happening-every-minute pacing will hold rapt all children & adults who already suffer from short attention spans. But for me, I wish they'd balanced it out with a story that was a bit less commonplace than find-the-treasure, & gave the main cast a little less cartoon glee in motion-ridden scene atop scene.
Frank Langella steals the film playing Dog Brown, a mean-ass pirate responsible for the death of Black Harry (Harris Yulin), father of the woman pirate Morgan Adams. Morgan inherited Black Harry's ship & crew. She & her uncles Mordecai & Dog Brown each possess one-third of a map to the ultimate pirate treasure, & the pirating family pretty much just wants to kill each other for the pieces.
Great sets & costumes, visually convincing casting all round, & a maximumly cliche-driven script render Cutthroat Island appealing, but no classic.
Additional characters include Matthew Modine as the weak male lead love interest, Dr. William Shaw, not really a doctor but a thief. He does eventually rise to heroic occasion, but seems at times to have been written & cast in such a manner as to be no threat to Geena Davis as the primary heroic presence.
Traitorous John Reed (Maury Chaykin) is writing a novel based on real pirates & has been travelling with Morgan.
That it's intended more for children seems to be underscored by Morgan having with her for much of the film a pet capuchin monkey named King Charles. His role is mainly decorative & when the going gets tough, he's put in a cabinet & pretty much forgotten about until the end of the film.
The all cartoon motion void of serious content was the right recipe for making a commercial success out of Pirates of the Caribbean films that I find crapulistically boring. It didn't sell Geena Davis as a pirate, though, & the film was a box office flop. Who's to say exactly why it is that one unintelligent whiz-bang film will demand sequels while another goes right in the toilet.
Despite its limitations, Geena definitely looks the part of the pirate, & the bloody climax with plenty of cutlass swordplay does get exciting. More films that focus on truly powerful images of credibly swashbuckling gals should be made, but let's hope for slightly more original plots along the way.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl