The year after Jaws, Hollywood was looking for ways to send Robert Shaw back to sea. The legendary tough guy had wowed audiences in 1975 with his portrayal of Quint in Spielberg’s smash, and 1976’s Swashbuckler feels like it exists mainly to return Shaw to the high adventure of open water. This time, however, he isn’t playing a weary survivor; he’s the daring action hero of old, cut from the same cloth as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.
Swashbuckler feels like a movie pulled out of time. While this particular brand of adventure film was not quite a rarity in the seventies, there’s nevertheless something about it that belongs to another age. The story is minimal, but it’s a classic premise: in the early 1700s, colonies are being established in the Caribbean, and each one is overseen by a governor. Some of these governors are faithful to their mother country, but others are cruel and greedy, and take the resources of their lands for themselves. Enter the pirates! While some pirates had selfish motivations, others sought to tip the balance of power back into the hands of the people. We might as well be watching any of the Robin Hood movies, as an outlaw seeks to oppose corrupt authority and return control to the starved population.
The real selling point of the film is the Robert Shaw, who seems strong, powerful, and harder than a whole wheelbarrow full of bricks in this movie as the pirate captain Ned Lynch. Shaw is undeniably tough in Jaws, but the character in that movie isn’t necessarily physical. Likewise, in Shaw’s other 1976 film, Robin and Marian, he seems over the hill and a bit tired. But viewing Swashbuckler shows what a great actor he is and how much of a performance he brought to those other roles, because there is none of that fatigue or heaviness in this film. He’s light and spry, literally dashing up and down stairs in great leaps, brandishing his sword and fencing like a man half his age. Though he’s nearly fifty, he has the same agility and physical imposition that he brought to his earlier work, such as 1963’s From Russia with Love. Frankly, he looks virtually the same in this movie as he did over a decade earlier. He’s lean, toned, and agile. It’s impossible to believe that he would be gone a mere two years later.
Live and Let Die) plays a pirate ally who possesses deadly accuracy with throwing knives. On the side of colonial law, Beau Bridges (Dragonfly) plays an eager young soldier, and the wonderful Anjelica Huston appears as a pretty face in the court of the governor. Seriously, that’s all she is: a pretty face. She has no lines, though the camera often lingers on her as she gives looks of bemusement or disapproval. It feels like such a waste, but I suppose having a silent Anjelica Huston in your movie is somewhat better than not at all.
Unfortunately, the evil governor himself is played by Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver), who seems to have fallen victim to a horrible case of miscasting. Boyle embodies none of the qualities that one would associate with the role he inhabits; he sports a long black hairpiece that is neither convincing nor regal, and he carries a paunch that contradicts the incredible fencing ability we’re told he has. I believe the character is intended to be a slimy rich boy, but Boyle never quite gets there. The script does him no favors, at times depicting him as cold and murderous, then undermining that threat by showing him playing with toy ships in a bathtub. I can see how a screenwriter might think this portrayal could work, but it never does. Boyle is a fantastic actor, but it’s too much of a stretch. It would be like casting Robert De Niro in a Rocky and Bullwinkle movie.
It’s a shame the entire movie can’t be as breathtaking. Swashbuckler seems to struggle with its plot and pace, sagging for periods of time before being once again buoyed by a stunning action scene. The beautiful location cinematography helps, with coastal Mexico substituting for Jamaica and the backlot of Universal Studios offering a convincing period setting for interiors. At no point does this movie ever feel set-bound or restrained by a budget. In fact, at 8 million dollars, this is a healthy mid-budget film that feels like the studio was completely behind it. Certain things hold the film back, but the budget isn’t one of them.
Get more Heath Holland at his blog Cereal at Midnight!