Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Back to 1976: SWASHBUCKLER

by Heath Holland
“Come have a wonderful time—enjoy the biggest, grandest pirate movie ever!”

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.
I have a natural affinity for movies like this, with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves carved into my own Mount Rushmore of cinematic favorites. In fact, swashbucklers like this were a big part of my formative years, just as they were with generations of movie fans. In my own youth, Robin Hood was followed by 1993’s The Three Musketeers, and even 1995’s First Knight, while more interested in romance and tragedy than high adventure, bears the hallmarks of classic adventure cinema. I seem to have a predisposition to enjoying these movies, no matter how flawed they are (I’m looking at you, Cutthroat Island). With that in mind, I have to say that 1976’s Swashbuckler is far from a success, but it’s not the disaster that audiences of the day declared it to be, either.

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.
The supporting cast in incredible. James Earl Jones gets almost as much screen time as Shaw as the captain’s right hand man, doing his own share of fencing and physical work, and the pirate crew is an assembly of character actors that includes Sid Haig. Genevieve Bujold (Dead Ringers) is the lead actress and I find it nice that her character is more than just a pretty face, participating in several on-screen battles, including a sword duel against Robert Shaw. Trinidadian-actor and choreographer Geoffrey Holder (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.
Of course, one of the biggest appeals of movies like this is the sweeping action and epic grandeur of high adventure, and while this movie isn’t exactly wall-to-wall thrills, there are a few scenes that justify the price of admission. One action piece, set around a third of the way into the film, starts with our lovable pirates drinking in a tavern. A fight breaks out, and soon the authorities are called. The fist fight turns into a sword fight, which moves to the second floor of the tavern, down a series of corridors, and then out a bedroom window, where our heroes cross to another building on a narrow beam of wood before jumping to a banana cart on the street below. With the soldiers in hot pursuit, it becomes a chase on horseback through the streets of the town, then through the outskirts, and eventually into the countryside. Finally, our heroes find themselves approaching a cliff, which they ride over at high speeds, falling at least a hundred feet to the water below, where they then swim to their ship and make their escape. It’s an AMAZING scene that is filled with real excitement. There are no special effects, and everything is done practically with stunt men.

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.
Though it ultimately falls short of the mark, Swashbuckler does a fair job at bridging the gap between the classic adventure films of the thirties and forties with a more modern (for the time) aesthetic. What may have seemed like a failure in 1976 now seems like something much more successful in the cold light of the present day. This movie is by no means a home run, but I admire that it tries as hard as it does. It’s no secret that they don’t make movies like this anymore; pirate films never really did make much money past their heyday, with plenty of later attempts met with disinterested theater patrons. With shows like Black Sails finding success on television, it seems as if the genre isn’t completely forgotten, anyway. I don’t love Swashbuckler, but I respect it for trying something so ambitious and fun in a time when movies were very much focused on our own internal struggle for identity and meaning. In the era of Dirty Harry and All the President’s Men, here’s a movie that offered a temporary escape from reality. It doesn’t all work, but enough does to make me want to cheer for it.

Get more Heath Holland at his blog Cereal at Midnight!


  1. Stellar review! Saw this in 1977 in a military theater in Okinawa and was enraptured, though even then I could tell the guy from Young Frankenstein was waaay miscast. Didn't care. Robert Shaw's thatch of manly chest fur and especially James Earl Jones stole the day.