The swashbuckler is due its revenge
Movies, like fashion, art, food, whatever, moves in cycles.
Every decade or so, something gauche suddenly comes full-circle and is accepted again. There's no real science or divining in it, because the truth is that audiences and masses never know what they want until it's put in front of them.
In the early days of the movie industry, the swashbuckler was an indispensable genre that gave life to the medium. Practical effects, swarthy characters flying across the screen from chandeliers, high adventure and romance, glints of swords crossed up and down stone staircases, buckles swashed and swashes buckled. Errol Flynn, originally from Australia but of Irish descent, led the charge with movies like 'Captain Blood', 'Charge of the Light Brigade' and, of course, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'.
The swashbuckler genre traces its origin to theatre, where fencing was taught to actors as part of their stock and trade, with actors moving from the theatre tradition to movies retaining their skills with a sword. It was as prodigious as Westerns. Right through World War II, swashbucklers kept their place in movie houses, from 1937's 'The Prisoner of Zenda', 1940's 'The Mark of Zorro', 1942's 'The Black Pirate', through to 1945's 'The Spanish Main'.
By the '70s and '80s, the swashbuckler was still in high demand, albeit done with a level of knowing to them that appealed to the more cynical tastes of the time. 'The Three Musketeers', with Oliver Reed and Michael York, and 'Robin and Marian', with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, playfully embraced the over-the-top action of the '40s as a contrast to the grittiness of the era. Later, movies like 'Zorro, The Gay Blade' and Rob Reiner's fantastic 'The Princess Bride' drew upon the humour inherent in swashbucklers.
'The Princess Bride', in particular, showed just how funny swashbucklers could be. Dread Pirate Roberts, for example, calls back to the rotating cast of actors of the '40s swashbucklers, while Mandy Patinkin's revenge-obsessed Inigo Montoya captures the intensity and the romance of sword fighting. As knowing and wry as the humour is, you can tell that William Goldman and indeed Rob Reiner loved and honoured the genre in their work.
By the '90s, swashbucklers had become mainstream. Kevin Costner's world-beating 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' and 1993's 'The Three Musketeers' came with a fiery passion and chart-topping tie-in songs from the likes of Bryan Adams. Not even 'Cutthroat Island', famed for being one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, could keep swashbucklers down. By 1998, 'The Mask of Zorro' swung into cinemas with Antonio Banderas' keen sense of comedy and timing, and Catherine Zeta-Jones' captivating screen presence.
Directed by Martin Campbell - who'd later go on to direct 'Casino Royale' - the emphasis in 'The Mask of Zorro' was on clearly executed action and practical stunt-work. Antonio Banderas famously did all but only one stunt in the movie, and learned sword-fighting from the late, great Bob Anderson - an Olympic fencer who coached Errol Flynn in the '50s and was the swordmaster on Stanley Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon'. In subsequent interviews, Anderson described Banderas as "the best natural talent" he had ever worked with.
2002's 'The Count of Monte Cristo' was a modestly successful - commercially, at least - venture, with the sword-and-musket adventures perfectly balanced with a sweeping romance, played with ease by Guy Pearce, Jim Caviezel, Dagmara Domińczyk and the late Richard Harris. In the next year, however, one movie would swallow up swashbucklers and effectively collapse the genre in on itself with its ubiquitousness - 'Pirates of the Caribbean'.
The first movie, 'Curse of the Black Pearl', scored a box-office of $653 million and became the fourth-highest grossing movie of 2003, cementing the franchise and cursing all swashbucklers that followed with comparisons to it. Four sequels followed with diminishing returns, while the likes of Paul WS Anderson attempted to draft off the commercial success with an ill-fated adaptation of 'The Three Musketeers', placing Luke Evans, Matthew Macfadyen, and Ray Stevenson as Aramis, Athos and Porthos.
What the 2011 adaptation of 'The Three Musketeers' failed to act on, and what 'Pirates of the Caribbean' eventually lost, was its sense of integrity - which came from its stunt-work and its scripts embracing the flourish and the adventure of the genre. It's not that swashbucklers all have to look the same, or even that they have to follow the same kind of story, but rather that there's an awareness of it. More to the point, the action and the fighting has to have a texture to it.
There has to be a physicality to swashbucklers to them in order for them to work. From Douglas Fairbanks right up to Antonio Banderas, you have to see them swinging from the chandeliers and hopping over tables in order to feel that it's real. Likewise, directors have to give scenes a chance to breathe and exist - not furiously cutting in and out of them to hide the stuntpeople and confuse the audience. That's why the map-stealing scene in 'The Mask of Zorro' works so well. There's only a handful of cuts throughout it, and the camera flows and moves like a dancer as it tracks the action.
There are plenty of directors out there today who can easily put that kind of scene together. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski of 'John Wick' fame are the most obvious choices. Patty Jenkins caught the spectacle and the texture of swashbucklers in the battle sequences in 'Wonder Woman'. James Wan's 'Aquaman' had a taste of high-seas adventure in its opening sequence. Even TV shows like 'Black Sails', 'Into The Badlands', and 'The Witcher' showed that there's still a place for swashbucklers.
Audiences may not have lost their appetite just yet for superhero movies, despite what they might say, but the things that swashbucklers have always done well - practical action and stunts, outrageous performances, a real sense of fun and adventure - are always in fashion. Action and adventure movies don't always have to be gritty, leaden movies - they can be fun, bright, knowing, and smart enough to bring the audience somewhere familiar and remind them why they enjoyed it in the first place.
The only question remains is if someone is brave enough to pick up the sword and accept the challenge.