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Classic film buffs, fencers, armchair adventurers, real swashbucklers, and romantics of many other stripes may debate over which film duel is the “best.” But no matter the standard, the duel between Errol Flynn as the hero Peter Blood and Basil Rathbone as the villain Levasseur in Captain Blood (1935) always makes the top few, often at number one. For me, there is no contest. There are a few far more historically accurate film duels (in fact, there are only a few historically accurate film duels at all), but none in my opinion exceed this one in sheer excitement, drama, swashbuckling swordplay, and watching pleasure.
The 1935 release, a remake of the silent 1924 film, was hotly anticipated. Newspapers and film magazines ate up the rumors, often created by Warner Bros. studio as part of its publicity campaign, regarding who would star in the film. A one point Robert Donat and Jean Muir were rumored in the LA Times to star, and later Bette Davis in Muir’s place. But it was Irish-Australian newcomer Errol Flynn who landed the lead and after some reshoots fell naturally into the role.
Costing a reported $1,000,000, the film was directed by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, and also starred nineteen-year-old Olivia de Havilland fresh from stage and film performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Basil Rathbone and an array of established character actors filled out the cast, supplemented by a number of real life adventurers among the ship crews and extras. Casey Robinson adapted the novel to the screenplay, simplifying it greatly but keeping the essentials. Released at Christmas, the swashbuckling romance was an immediate blockbuster and launched Flynn and de Havilland to stardom.
This post is a bit long and detailed, and occasionally technical when it comes to buccaneer history, fencing, and swords. Feel free therefore to jump around if you prefer, or just scroll through and check out the images. The major sections are marked. Reading the previous three “Duel on the Beach” posts is recommended but not required: In Fiction, in The Black Swan, and In Film. Some of the in-depth historical details below have been drawn from the annotations Treasure Light Press is writing for its forthcoming edition of Captain Blood.
The Novel Versus Film Duel
The 1935 duel was composed entirely from scratch, for the novel by Rafael Sabatini provides no significant detail. The author does include plenty of dramatic tension leading up to the swordfight, but for the assault itself we have only dialogue and minor notes.
[Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next header if you haven’t read the novel — or if you have and don’t need the refresher!].
In the novel, Peter Blood and the crew of his ship the Arabella, believed by their consort Captain Levasseur and his crew of La Foudre to be well on their way back to Tortuga after the capture of a Spanish ship, have in fact been driven to the island of “Virgin Magra” (see below) where they discover Levasseur about to torture the son of the Governor d’Ogeron of Tortuga.
Levasseur has kidnapped the young man and his sister, murdering a Dutch captain and seizing his brig in the process. The cruel pirate, modeled on the infamous l’Ollonois and described as having served under him, is in lust with Madeleine d’Ogeron, and she believed she was in love with him until his murderous brutality was revealed. Now Levasseur intends to hold both for ransom, with the threat of “not marrying” Madeleine first if his demands are not met. It’s a classic set up of romantic adventure, with nuance as only Sabatini can add.
But just in time, Peter Blood and a handful of his officers and crew arrive as the marplot. After distracting Levasseur’s crew with an offer to pay the anticipated ransom for the woman and her brother up front, and casting their portion of the ransom in the form of pearls before swine, Peter Blood intends to remove Madeleine and her brother to his forty-gun Arabella, but Levasseur will have none of it.
From the novel:
“Levasseur, his hand on his sword, his face a white mask of rage, was confronting Captain Blood to hinder his departure.
“You do not take her while I live!” he cried.
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead,” said Captain Blood, and his own blade flashed in the sunlight. “The articles provide that any man of whatever rank concealing any part of a prize, be it of the value of no more than a peso, shall be hanged at the yardarm. It’s what I intended for you in the end. But since ye prefer it this way, ye muckrake, faith, I’ll be humouring you.”
He waved away the men who would have interfered, and the blades rang together.”
There is really no more description of the duel except the following lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill. When, with both lungs transfixed, he lay prone on the white sand, coughing out his rascally life, Captain Blood looked calmly at Cahusac across the body.”
A decade later Sabatini made up for the lack of detail by writing “The Duel on the Beach” (1931) and the novel based on it, The Black Swan (1932), in which a Peter Blood-like hero, Charles de Bernis, fights a duel with a Levasseur-like villain, Tom Leach. I’ve discussed the duel in detail here. In fact, this fictional duel probably inspired elements of the Captain Blood film duel.
However, in the film two of the principal characters have been changed due to the streamlining of the novel for the script: Madeleine d’Ogeron has been replaced by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland) and her brother by diplomat Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson).
The Dueling Terrain in the Novel: The Dunes and Beach of Virgin Magra
In the novel, the duel takes place on Virgin Magra (the Meager — Skinny, that is — Virgin), which is nothing more than Sabatini’s joke on Virgin Gorda (the Fat Virgin) in the British Virgin Islands. Virgin Gorda is arguably, depending on one’s eye, rather skinny than fat, and meager as compared to other islands in produce.
Even so, it is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Mangrove, cactus including prickly pear, various scrub, and short deciduous trees (20 to 40 feet high) including allspice and quite a few others, made up most of the flora in the 17th century.
Coconut trees grow in small numbers on the island today but were probably not present in the 17th century. In fact, in the 17th century most Caribbean coconut palms, an introduced species, were on the Main, not the islands. Some small shrub palms up to fifteen feet tall probably did grow on the island, however. Species of Royal Palms grow on the island today but have been cultivated, and probably did not exist on there in the 17th century.
Sabatini is correct when he describes salt ponds on the island: in past centuries there were several bordered by mangrove swamps. Among the animals the visiting buccaneers might have encountered are sea turtles, iguanas, and large flocks of flamingos and ducks.
The Spanish and Dutch attempted small settlements in the mid-17th century on Virgin Gorda without success. In the second half of the 17th century Virgin Gorda was visited by loggers for boat- and shipbuilding timber, but these visitors established no permanent settlements. The island was probably also visited occasionally by salt-rakers.
In 1680 the English established small settlements on Virgin Gorda and nearby Tortola, the latter predominant, but the islands were soon raided by Spanish privateers or pirates, depending on one’s point of view. In the summer of 1687 the island was still apparently largely depopulated thanks to the Spanish raids.
A few families had probably been reinstalled at a small settlement at St. Thomas Bay, which would one day become known as Spanish Fort. Some authorities, based on period records, note fourteen free white males, a few free white females, and three slaves on the island at roughly this time. Very likely they hid from the buccaneer visitors, or at least from Levasseur and his French, were we to combine fact with fiction.
Given that Levasseur anchored his small eighteen-gun frigate La Foudre in the north lagoon, known as Gorda Sound and North Sound today, for repairs, the duel would have to be fought on one of the lagoon’s beaches. Although today there is only a significant dune presence at Savanna Bay, or as it was known in the 17th century, West Bay, there were other dune systems in the past, almost certainly some of them at the lagoon.
Hills — and a lazy lookout — would have screened the Arabella anchored to the southwest from view. Of course, Levasseur would have been advised to keep a good lookout (we know Peter Blood would have). Even so, Spanish pirates would surely have thought twice about attacking one or two stout buccaneer frigates.
Virgin Gorda in the 17th century has everything we imagine necessary for a duel on the beach between pirate captains — except coconut palms.
The Terrain in the Film: Three Arch Bay at Laguna Beach
The duel in the film was shot not on Catalina Island, as many fans often assume, but at Three Arch Bay at Laguna Beach. It is a classic Southern California vista: a sunny sandy shore amidst grand, craggy, evocative rocks. We will assume that the palm trees in the background were put there by the set designers and their crews, notwithstanding that Southern California (I lived in San Diego for twenty years and in LA for five) is known for its various palm trees, although the coconut is not one of them. The romantic vista adds to the scene, almost as a third character. The shot below is but one of many the beach was perfectly suited for, even demanded.
In fact, the location was chosen specifically to make the duel more exciting. From the original script by Casey Robinson: “The nature of our location will help a good deal here, for the fight not to be on the flat, but will range over the rocks and cliff edges of the rough country.”
Coincidentally, there is one location on Virgin Gorda that does look similar: “The Baths,” where sandy shore meets rock formations. It’s too far south, though, to answer the novel’s description of action and location, but following a novel closely has never stood in the way of Hollywood.
The Hero: Peter Blood
If you’ve read the novel or seen the 1935 film, you already know Peter Blood’s history: a physician (with surgical skill) accused of treason for treating a wounded rebel during the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years transportation as an indentured servant at Barbados. During a Spanish raid of reprisal he and a number of his fellow rebels-convict board the Spanish frigate at anchor while the crew is indulging in pillage and rapine ashore, capture it, and destroy the Spaniards in their boats the following morning. The rebels-convict escape to Tortuga, an island just off the north coast of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), and become buccaneers.
Given Peter Blood’s martial experience and Spanish imprisonment previous to setting down as a physician and eventually turning buccaneer, he would certainly be quite familiar with the French, Dutch, and Spanish schools of fence with thrusting weapons — the smallsword and the Spanish rapier — and also the cutlass given his Dutch naval experience, and would surely be able to handle a sword well-enough to defend himself in a variety of circumstances.
Importantly, the novel is a swashbuckling romance, with associated noble notions of duty, honor, and “right as might” rather than the opposite. These virtues set the stage for the duel in which Peter Blood rescues a swooning heroine in danger of sexual assault, a theme Sabatini often returns to in his novels and which often defines his heroes. Although swooning damsels are thankfully less popular today, the virtue of standing up for and defending the oppressed, whatever their sex and circumstances, will hopefully never go out of fashion — and likewise that Levasseurs everywhere will sooner or later get their just desserts via sword or otherwise.
A much more detailed history &c will be provided in Captain Blood: His Odyssey, the 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition later this year!
The part is played by Errol Flynn in the 1935 film. Although a bit young for the role at twenty-six — Sabatini’s hero was in his early thirties — Flynn didn’t depart too far from the character as described by the author.
The Fictional & Historical Villain: Captain Levasseur
The character of Levasseur, played with panache and an exaggerated French accent by Basil Rathbone, is based on two historical characters. Sabatini appropriated the name and some of the character from the real Captain François Levasseur, a Huguenot soldier of fortune, military engineer, and de facto governor of Tortuga from roughly 1640 to 1652. During his tenure he heroically repelled a major Spanish attack and despicably persecuted local Catholics in the name of Calvinism, among other crimes.
Neither the character of Levasseur nor the name was based, as a page or two on Wikipedia (far more often than not a terribly inaccurate resource on pirates and piracy, not to mention many other subjects) have stated, on the early 18th century French pirate, Olivier Levasseur aka La Buse (a nickname which might mean the “Buzzard” — the swift European bird of prey, not the American carrion eater — or “Mouth” or “Cow Dung” depending on spelling).
By his own admission, not to mention obviously, one of Sabatini’s his principal sources was Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, whose English and French editions were first published in the 1680s. The polylingual Sabatini read both. Each covers material the other doesn’t, and he found plenty of detail on Levasseur in the French. The real Levasseur (or Le Vasseur) was murdered by two of his closest associates — captains and companions in fortune hunting, practically family to him, according to Exquemelin — reportedly because he had raped the beautiful mistress, possibly also a slave, possibly a prostitute according to 17th century Caribbean historian Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, of one of them named Tibaut (or Thibaut). They intended to put an end to his tyranny.
Appropriate to his namesake fictional character, Levasseur was killed on the shore of Basse Terre, Tortuga at one of his warehouses by his two confreres and several of their associates: the eventual coup de grace was one or more thrusts with daggers. Perhaps his compadres killed him in part to protect Tibaut’s mistress — or perhaps just so Tibaut could keep her for himself. Reportedly just before he died Levasseur begged for a priest because he wanted to die a Catholic. Or at least du Tertre says he so pleaded.
More likely, du Tertre, a priest in anti-Reformation mode as all were, invented this to curry favor with his largely Catholic audience, not to mention keep his priestly credentials in good standing. Sabatini carried Levasseur’s unconscionable behavior over to his fictional French buccaneer who kidnaps the besotted daughter of the governor of Tortuga — his inamorata — and clearly intends to rape her if she resists his advances.
Sabatini also based the character on François l’Ollonois (or L’Ollonais as Sabatini spells it according the edition he studied), aka Jean-David Nau, &c — a vicious French buccaneer noted not only for his successes against the Spanish, but for his murder and torture of Spanish prisoners beyond that of most of his brutal brethren, few of whom would have cut the heart from a living prisoner and taken a bite from it, for example. That said, he was not the only French buccaneer to decapitate prisoners on occasion, and the torture of prisoners by buccaneers was common, horrid, and often at its worst in the search for plunder. Sabatini notes that the fictional Levasseur had learned his trade as the lieutenant of l’Ollonois.
A former indentured servant to a boucanier, l’Ollonois became a buccaneer circa 1660, rose quickly to command, and so served until his brutal and well-deserved torture and death at the hands of Native Americans on the Isthmus of Darien in 1669. His executioners burned and scattered his remains. Sabatini has clearly based the character of his Levasseur on both the original Levasseur and l’Ollonois.
The l’Ollonois lieutenant who would have been the fictional Levasseur’s historical counterpart was one of the following, or even all of them: Michel le Basque (Michel de Maristegui according to some scholars, the sieur d’Artigny according to du Tertre), a retired buccaneer and French officer who had captured a considerable Spanish prize not long before he commanded the ground force at Maracaibo in 1666, and commanded le Dauphin, l’Ollonois’s former ship, in 1668 (by now l’Ollonois commanded the Saint-Jean of 26 guns); the literate Moise Vauclin who commanded the buccaneer vice-admiral at Maracaibo, of 10 guns and 90 men; or Pierre le Picard who commanded a brigantin of 40 men at Maracaibo in 1666, separated from L’Ollonois in 1668, and guided Henry Morgan to Maracaibo in 1669. The fictional Levasseur’s previous experience at Maracaibo as L’Ollonois’ quartermaster or lieutenant would, of course, well-serve the plot of Captain Blood: His Odyssey.
One or more of these men probably also have served as the inspiration for Cahusec, the fictional Levasseur’s quartermaster (second-in-command, or lieutenant as Sabatini his it), whose name Sabatini almost certainly took from François de Rotondy, sieur de Cahuzac, who attacked the English under Edward Warner at St. Kitts (Saint-Christophe) Island in 1629 at the Battle of l’Anse-aux-Papillons.
Now that our brief exposition of history is complete, on to the actors, choreographers, and the film duel itself!
Actors as Adversaries: Errol Flynn as a Swordsman
It is common for Hollywood publicity machines to endow their stars with qualities and skills they don’t actually have, or to exaggerate them, and fencing skill of swashbuckling stars, with some notable exceptions, was treated no differently.
Errol Flynn has long had a reputation as a swordsman, but according to the film’s choreographer and fencing master Fred Cavens, not to mention Flynn himself, the swashbuckling actor was not much of a fencer, Hollywood promotional media notwithstanding. Cavens stated in 1941 that Flynn “fences execrably.” (Brady, 1941.) In fact, Cavens doubled for Flynn more than studios were willing to admit publicly.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer was more nuanced: “Flynn, on the other hand, did not have the discipline for constant practice. Fortunately, he was a quick study and a natural athlete, and this, together with his form and flair, made his duelling look good on the screen.” (Behlmer, 1965.) An accurate assessment, in my opinion.
Basil Rathbone, who played Levasseur and was in fact a skilled fencer, said that “Mr. Flynn and Mr. [Tyrone] Power were fine actors, we all know that, but they did not know swords… The only actor I actually fought with on screen was Flynn, and that’s the only time I was really scared. I wasn’t scared because he was careless, but because he didn’t know how to protect himself. I knew how to protect myself, but it’s like a professional fighter in boxing — fighting someone who doesn’t know how to fight. But sometimes the fellow doesn’t know how to fight will do something outrageous and you’ll find yourself injured. I stayed away from Flynn as much as I could, and, as he was eventually going to ‘kill’ me, it didn’t look bad on the screen.” (Jones, 1972.)
Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography ‘Tis Her wrote of her work with Flynn on Against All Flags (1952), “As you might expect, Flynn was an excellent fencer.” Even so, she also wrote, “I was flattered when critics said that I had outfenced Errol Flynn!” And so she had, being far more diligent at learning to fence from Cavens, and, as a woman actor in Hollywood, having far to prove to sexist producers and directors.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a swashbuckler in both film and life, also commented on Flynn’s swordplay: “‘Errol Flynn was good at staging a scene, especially in close ups, but I think he was better at other kinds of fencing,’ he added, pleased with his joke.” (Page, 1968.)
Flynn had little to say in his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways about his swordsmanship, perhaps because he was trying to avoid the stereotype that dogged him for so long. Even so, he admitted his lack of fencing skill:
“I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still and look forward, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.” In fact, this is an excellent en garde with the epee de combat, or late 19th and early 20th century dueling sword, and for that matter, with rapier and smallsword as well.
In fairness to Flynn, Hollywood fencing master Ralph Faulkner (more on him below) stated that Flynn “could memorize every movement in a sword script and remember them six weeks later.” (Folkart, 1987.)
None of this lack of fencing ability stopped the Warner Bros. or other studio publicity machines from claiming otherwise. In fact, Warner Bros. in its press package claimed that Flynn was trained for Captain Blood by “Professor Guiseppe Valcori, Italian fencing expert,” whose existence no amount of research can confirm — because he’s an invention of Warner Bros. In fact, Flynn was trained for the film by Fred Cavens.
Actors as Adversaries: Basil Rathbone as a Swordsman
Basil Rathbone, on the other hand, was a skilled, albeit non-competitive fencer. In his autobiography In and Out of Character he notes that he studied in London under famous masters Léon Bertrand and Félix Gravé, both of them gentlemen of the traditional French school. Reading their books and articles, it is easy to see how Rathbone came by his noble, elegant form. Later he studied, for five years according to Rudy Behlmer, under Fred Cavens, in Rathbone’s words “the greatest swordsman of them all,” with additional preparation by Cavens for various films.
According to his autobiography, Rathbone took up fencing “because in the early days, when I was training for to be an actor, you went for a job on the understanding that the producer knew you could fence, that you could sing and that you could dance.” He further noted, “I enjoyed swordsmanship more than anything because is was beautiful. I thought it was a wonderful exercise, a great sport. But I would not put it under the category of sport; I would put it under the category of the arts. I think it’s tremendously skillful and very beautiful.” (Jones, 1972.) “It’s the finest exercise I’ve discovered yet, requiring speed, timing, endurance.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
Rathbone had a deserved reputation as a good fencer among the Hollywood crowd. Cavens noted that in swashbuckling films the “villains, especially Basil Rathbone, are splendid fencers, but the heroes…are ineffectual.” He further said that Rathbone was able to handle himself throughout with ease [i.e. not doubled in The Mark of Zorro].” (Brady, 1941.) Even so, he also noted that, “He has excellent form and is the most colorful of all the people I have taught. I doubt that he would do well in competition, but for picture purposes he is better than the best fencer in the world.” (Behlmer, 1965.)
Fencing master Ralph Faulker described Rathbone as an accomplished swordsman (Folkart, 1987), and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stated that “Basil Rathbone was very good” (Page, 1968).
Long, Lean, and Lithe
One visual aspect of the duel that immediately stands out is that of two long, lean, lithe swordsmen — literally almost living swords themselves — engaged in mortal combat. Fred Cavens noted that “the ideal duelist is tall, lithe, quick on his feet, and with a nice swift coordination of of eye and muscle.” (Whitaker, 1936.) Both Flynn and Rathbone easily met this ideal.
Agesilao Greco, in his great book La Spada e la sua Disciplina d’Arte (1912), described the dueling sword — the spada or épée de combat — in terms that could apply not only to long sharp thrusting swords themselves, but to those who, with similar physical characteristics, wielded them, perfectly imagining the idealized adversaries in Captain Blood as played by Flynn and Rathbone:
“La spada è acuta, pungente, affilata, forbita, fatale, formidabile, lucida, nuda, fina, forte, ben temprata, nobile, perfetta.“
“The epee is pointed, biting, sharp, forbidding, fatal, formidable, shiny, naked, fine, strong, well-tempered, noble, perfect.” (Author’s translation.)
That said, there are outstanding fencers who are not only not long, lean, and lithe, but who appear awkward, lacking any sense of classical form. But it’s those built like Flynn and Rathbone who arguably look best in screen duels.
Fred Cavens put it best: “Film fencers should have perfect grace and form, qualities which are not necessary in competition… I have seen Olympic champions who had such atrocious form they couldn’t appear in pictures because audiences would laugh at them. But they would be extremely dangerous in a real duel.” (Behlmer, 1965.)
Flynn, and probably Rathbone as well to some degree, are also responsible for popularizing “6′ 2″ and 180 pounds” as the masculine ideal in height and weight. Fan pages and unauthorized biographies often list the height of both men as 6′ 2″ inches, although in fact both men appear to have been around 6′ 1″ tall. Flynn probably did weigh around 180 pounds. Rathbone in his autobiography gives his own weight as consistently 172 pounds.
But it was Flynn who really set the ideal, thanks to a 1936 article in the Los Angeles Times: “but he [Flynn] also started a vogue for handsome young six-foot-and-over-super-huskies as leading men which hasn’t been equaled before in screen history…it began to be realized how six feet two inches and 180 pounds of 26-year-old virility could knock ’em over at the box office.” (Wolfenden, 1936.)
And so it went from there. I still recall in the 70s and 80s men trying to impress women, and even other men in locker rooms, by their purported “6′ 2″ and 180 pounds.” The fact that half of them stood an inch or two shorter than me, who’s a hair over 6′ 1″, seemed to matter not at all to them.
So engrained was this ideal that George MacDonald Fraser in his comic, occasionally satirical, novel The Pyrates (1984) made his Boy Scout-ish naval hero, Capt. Benjamin Avery, “everything that a hero of historical romance should be; he was all of Mr Sabatini’s supermen rolled into one, and he knew it… For the record, this wonder boy was six feet two, with shoulders like a navvy and the waist of a ballerina…”
Fraser didn’t forget Rathbone: “gentlemen-adventurers proud and lithe and austere and indistinguishable from Basil Rathbone…” Further, the character of “Bilbo is Basil Rathbone playing a raffish Captain Hook.” The novel is an homage to the Golden Age of piratical swashbuckling books and films of the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Historically, if thrusting swords were used in a late 17th century duel among the English and Europeans other than the Spanish, Portuguese, and some Italians, they would usually have been smallswords with double-edged flat or hexagonal (or similar) rapier-like blades in form but shorter, or three-cornered blades, including Colichemarde blades quite broad at the forte. We can’t rule out an occasional “transitional rapier” (a modern term) with perhaps longer blades and possibly larger hilts.
Sabatini describes long rapiers as being used, and probably intended Spanish cup-hilts or transitional rapiers. However, the term was also used as slang for smallsword in the late 17th century, given that both swords were used for thrusting, so it could still be correct to say that “rapiers” were used. Historically, however, cutlasses would have most often been used (more on this in part five).
In the film, both swords are theatrical “rapiers” mounted with sport epee blades, known in the past as “hollow,” three-cornered, or triangular blades. They are stiffer by comparison to foil and saber blades, and show up well on screen. The hilts of both swords used in the film duel are a bit fanciful, neither corresponding exactly to historical swords. Flynn’s appears to something of a reduced Pappenheimer hilt (for example, a Norman type 67 but with no side rings), with two solid shells, a pair of curved quillons, and a knuckle guard, perhaps also resembling a shallow Spanish bilbo-hilt (Norman type 82) with smaller shells.
Rathbone’s rapier hilt appears to be nothing more than a common smallsword hilt (Norman type 112) but with enlarged shells, rings, and quillons. The sword designer — Fred Cavens, perhaps, or pirate historian and costume designer Dwight Franklin — was probably thinking of swords that would evoke “Cavalier” rapiers of some sort.
The enlarged hilts of the theatrical rapiers used provided a better film image, or so the thinking probably went, than the smaller, but more legitimate, authentic smallsword hilts. Plus, viewers have been conditioned by fiction and film to expect rapiers no matter the era, no matter how anachronistic. For filming, the larger rubber buttons or points d’arrêt were removed — more on this below!
Choreographer & Choreography
The duel was choreographed by famous swordfight director Fred Cavens. He began fencing at twelve years old circa 1899, was teaching other boys how to fence at fourteen, and graduated at eighteen from the famous L’École Normale de Gymnastique et d’Escrime Militaires de Belgique in Brussels, a school modeled on the famous French military school at Joinville-le-Pont near Paris. At twenty-one he was a full-fledged fencing master in the Belgian army.
After his service in the Belgian Army, Cavens emigrated to the US in 1919, soon after both his marriage to a Belgian dancer in an opera company and the end of World War One. He was invited by some American sportsmen, fencers we assume, to open a salle in Santa Barbara, California, leading to an introduction to various film studios, whose swordplay on camera to date, other than that choreographed by fellow Belgian master Henry J. Uyttenhove, was often little more than knife-sharpening actions, often in long shots, or was entirely doubled (which generally demanded long shots in order to carry out the deception). (Anon., 1936.)
Cavens got his start in Hollywood choreographing the swordplay for the 1922 short film The Three Must-Get-Theres, a parody of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 The Three Musketeers. The comic film is quite funny, even brilliant at times, and is possibly the best send-up of swordplay and musketeers I’ve seen. Although there are moments of common “blade sharpening” fake swordplay, most of the fencing is of outstanding caliber. In fact, director and star Max Linder was an accomplished fencer who had competed in epee, if not also in foil and saber. The film, by the way, is available on YouTube in a couple of versions, and also on a Grapevine DVD. The latter is by far the better version.
Fairbanks loved the swordplay in the comic film and first met Cavens on the set of Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, a production starring Fairbanks’s wife Mary Pickford. Fairbanks quickly hired him for Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) and then for his genre-establishing 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate the following year. Cavens also choreographed the swordplay in Fairbanks’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1929). (Behlmer, 1965.)
Caven’s had a theory of romantic realism — a bit more romance, a bit less realism, with authentic if at times theatrical fencing — for filming swordplay on the screen, a theory that worked quite well in practice from the audience’s perspective.
“For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what’s coming.” (Behlmer, 1965.) This, of course, is a form of false tempo, discussed here, that would likely get a fencer killed in a duel. But it works well for the audience — and that’s the goal.
Behlmer further quoted Cavens: “All movements — instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing — must be large, but nevertheless correct. Magnified, is the word. The routine — there must be a routine, and so well learned the actor executes it subconsciously — should contain the most spectacular attacks and parries it is possible to execute while remaining logical to the situation. In other words, the duel should be a fight and not a fencing exhibition, and should disregard at times classically correct guards and lunges. The attitudes arising naturally out of fighting instinct should predominate. When this occurs the whole performance will leave an impression of strength, skill and manly grace.”
Cavens prepared actors, ranging from Flynn and Rathbone to Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, Jean Peters, and many others, thoroughly, teaching them not only the scripted swordplay itself, but also fencing in general. Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography described her preparation for At Sword’s Point (1952): “I trained rigorously for six weeks with Fred Cavens and his son to perfect my stunts for the picture. Fred Cavens was an outstanding Belgian military fencing master and had trained all the great swashbucklers in Hollywood. He taught me intricate attacks and parries, envelopments, disengagements, and coupes. Physically, I’ve never worked harder for a role.” For The Corsican Brothers (1941), Cavens coached Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for a month prior to filming. (Brady, 1941.)
His process was described by Thomas Brady: “Cavens’s greatest value to a producer is his ability to prepare a fight with the precision of a choreographer. No impromptu bout, he says, looks truly exciting to the camera. His technique with a picture follows a regular pattern. First, with the director and the camera man, he examines the sets to be used for fights and learns in general what the action must be and how much time it shall take. Then, in the esoteric language of the swordsman he writes down every move the attacking fencer will make. For a three-minute fight in Fox’s “The Mark of Zorro,” Cavens’s “score” ran to 750 words. Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone had to memorize it… Even when Cavens and his own son fight a duel on the screen, as in “The Corsican Brothers,” they memorize a “ballet” routine beforehand.” (Brady, 1941.)
The Duel Master Scene in the shooting script by Casey Robinson includes the following notes, which depart from Sabatini for whom Levasseur was a mere thug and bully in both his life and his swordsmanship:
“The details of this duel must naturally, be worked out by an expert in this line. We wish to emphasize here the general nature that this fight must have. Usually duels in pictures are contests between some agile, brilliant, hero and a slow and dull witted, even though powerful villain. Such is not the case here. Here we must have a great fight between two truly great swordsmen, equally matched in quickness, brilliance, and skill. It is not a fight to the first advantage or the first spilling of blood, but a fight to the death. It is a vicious, terrific battle in which both men take a great deal of punishment before the final conclusion. In other words, the fight would be routined not after the order of duels that have been shown in pictures, but rather after the order of some of the great rough and tumble encounters that have made their pictures famous notably, the fight in “The Spoilers”. Thus, before the battle is finished, part of Blood’s clothes have been cut away and he is very much marked up by Levasseur’s sword.”
Note that dueling was still in vogue in France, Italy, and Hungary at the time of filming (although WWI had diminished the practice significantly, WWII would almost entirely put a stop to it), thus the comments on first advantage and first blood have more than purely Hollywood relevance. In fact, my first fencing master, an active swordsman during the 1930s and trained by the famous Italo Santelli, had fought at least one duel in Budapest in the 1930s. Fred Cavens had acted as directeur de combat for several duels and had fought as many more. (Anon., 1934.)
[Quick aside: until a couple or so decades ago, referees in modern fencing in the US were referred to as directors, from directeur de combat, the person who supervised a formal duel. Today, the term “referee” is used, the powers-that-be rather incredulously arguing that the name change would make fencing more accessible to the still largely imaginary audience. “One fool makes many,” according to the proverb.]
According to the LA Times, Cavens also trained “one hundred fifty men…in the art of being pirates at the Warner Studio” for Captain Blood. “They go to school every day for eight hours to fence under the tutelage of Fred Cavens… He is also teaching them how to climb riggings and other tricks of the trade.” (Kendall, 1935.) Certainly Cavens would have trained the pirates in cutlass-play, but as for teaching “pirates” to climb aloft, although Cavens would certainly know how this was done given his experience on Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926), we imagine Sailor Vincent (see below) or some other salty seafarer was actually responsible for this aspect of training.
Filming the Duel
Shooting a duel could take days. “These scenes take, Lord knows, how many set-ups. For instance, they will not take a long shot alone; they’ll take a master shot, then a medium shot and then take some close-ups. Any fight that lasts five minutes on the screen could easily take two days to shoot,” said Basil Rathbone. (Jones, 1972.)
According to Rudy Behlmer (1965), “When the duel is shown to the director, he, and perhaps the cinematographer, may alter the set, props and lighting. After which, the duel routine is broken up into master shots, close-ups, special angles, etc., and photographed with either principals or doubles, depending upon the actors’ capabilities and the specific shot.
There is a myth that the director Michael Curtiz engaged in swordplay himself during the filming: “Curtiz, who is quite the swordsman himself, having been a member of the Hungarian Olympic team in 1912, would fight with each of them first, to show how he wanted it done.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
This of course, is nonsense, at least regarding the Olympic Games, and probably in its entirety as well. Curtiz, although apparently fond of claiming he was on the 1912 Hungarian team, does not appear to been an Olympian. I have not found his Hungarian names (Manó Kertész Kaminer and Kertész Mihály) or anything similar among the fully detailed records of the foil, epee, and saber events from first pools to final of the 1912 Games. Even so, numerous biographies repeat the myth as fact, although occasionally the word “allegedly” is used. For good reason did Cavens, not Curtiz, choreograph the duel.
Doubling of the sword-fighting actors was common at the time, including in Captain Blood. “The villains, especially Basil Rathbone, are splendid fencers, but the heroes, according to Mr. Cavens, are ineffectual fellows when it comes to cold steel… And when the script demands that he [Errol Flynn] resort to the sword to defend his honor, Warner Brothers resorts to Mr. Cavens.” (Brady, 1941.)
However, Fred Cavens, as proved by the photo below, as well as others farther down, doubled Rathbone, not Flynn, when necessary during the duel.
Flynn was apparently doubled as necessary by Caven’s assistant, Ralph Faulkner, soon to become one of Cavens’s principal Hollywood heirs. Faulkner had been a member of the US Olympic saber team at the 1932 Games: “One of the mysteries in the competition between Poland and the United States was the removal of Ralph Faulkner, the only Southern Californian on the team, from the American line-up. Faulkner had been entered in the contest with Hungary and had succeeded in taking two of the three bouts for America in her score against that country.” (Durbin, 1932.)
A mystery indeed! [And a brief digression!] The Hungarians ruled saber for fifty years; their national saber championship was tougher than the Games themselves, so deep were the Hungarians in elite sabreurs. That Faulkner could win two of three bouts against the Hungarian team that would win gold is amazing — no other fencer at the 1932 Games won more than one bout against them (in fact, for fifty years a total of slightly more than 30 Hungarian sabreurs won nearly every elite competition in the world) — and should have guaranteed his inclusion in the bronze medal bout against Poland. However, the elitist East Coast prejudice against his Southern California roots is not out of the question, and this probably cost the US a medal: the US lost to Poland by a single touch.
One of the methods of excluding “outsiders” was via cheating by side judges and bout directors during championships: the director had one and a half votes, and each of the two side judges watching a single fencer had one vote each and could therefore overrule even an honest director. The other method, common in the first half of the 20th century, was exclusion by the committee “choosing the best fencers” or even by a team captain during events. I’m speculating, of course, but these latter two means were probably the way Faulkner, an outsider, was excluded from the bronze medal match — and entirely from the individual events in the 1928 and 1932 Games.
[Warning: further fascinating digression ahead!] In fact, until the 1950s team selection in US saber fencing was reportedly largely ruled by the “New York saber Mafia,” as many non-New York fencers called the narrow-minded, cliquish US saber fencing establishment, and a number of deserving fencers failed to make the US team due to prejudice against them, including at times race and religion. (The brilliant Herb Spector, described by one of my masters as the best saber fencer in the world in a two-touch bout, springs immediately to mind, among others.)
Faulkner himself confirmed this as the reason he was only permitted to compete as part of the US Olympic saber team in both 1928 and 1932, and not in the individual saber events: the controlling Eastern Establishment “didn’t feel a savage from out West could be superior.” (Folkart, 1987.)
The “Mafia’s” spine, at least in regard to the Olympic Games, was broken when Hungarian gold medalist saber fencers, including one of my own masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, emigrated to the US after the Soviet Union brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 during the Olympic Games. The Hungarians’ technique was so superior and clean that any cheating against them would have been far too obvious.
And if this clear superiority didn’t stop the mischief, I’ve seen how some of these Hungarians dealt with cheating directors and side judges clearly in cahoots with the opposing fencer: they would drop the opponent to the strip with a welting chest cut, making the hit overtly clear even to the most willfully blind. (I’ve also seen the technique used once by a Hungarian Olympic medalist frustrated with the director, a friend of his — and the fencer he dropped to the ground was also a friend. Temper, temper…)
However, even as late as the 1970s the “Mafia’s” influence was still apparent to some degree, at least in the Junior Olympics, according to several fencers I knew. As a friend of mine noted at the time, he could beat any of his fellow elite junior New York competitors anywhere in the US and world — except in New York City. A bout director there even shrugged in apology to him once, after the two side judges were repeatedly, and clearly deliberately, blind to his clean touches made with undisputed priority.
Faulkner was still teaching fencing at his salle, Falcon Studios, aka the Faulkner School of Fencing, in Hollywood, when I first started learning in 1977. By then he gave lessons seated and was nearly blind, or so I was told, but his lessons were still extraordinarily instructive in blade-work. I was advised to take a lesson just to say I had, if nothing more, but never managed to do so in part because I was well-satisfied with my own swashbuckling master, Dr. Francis Zold. (I was also a college student in LA without a car.) Many Hollywood and stage fencing choreographers — Anthony De Longis comes quickly to mind — studied under Faulkner and by their own admissions owe much to him. Maestro Faulkner died in 1985 at the age of ninety-five.
But back to the filming of the duel! Flynn was noted in the production of later films as having a drinking problem on set, which in the case of swordplay would be quite dangerous.
Whether Flynn drank during the filming of the duel in Captain Blood is not noted anywhere I can find. According to Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography, “I enjoyed working with Errol because he was a pro. He always came to work prepared. He rehearsed hard and practiced his fencing sequences very meticulously with Fred Cavens… He also knew his lines, something I greatly respect in an actor. Of course, there was one glaring inconsistency with his professionalism. Errol also drank on the set, something I greatly disliked. You couldn’t stop him; Errol did whatever he liked. If the director prohibited alcohol on the set, then Errol would inject oranges with booze and eat them during breaks. We worked around his drinking. Everything good that we got on film was shot early in the day. He started gulping his “water” early in the morning and by four P.M. was in no shape to continue filming.”
Flynn himself describes in his autobiography how when filming a boarding scene during the production of Captain Blood he fell to the ground with an attack of malaria or blackwater fever. He cured the shaking, shivering weakness of the attack with a bottle of Cognac suggested, he says, by the crew. He was called on the carpet by Jack Warner the following day as the result of this drinking: “The script girl tipped me off. They had rushes of the scene I finished after the bottle of cognac. In the film I was waving the sword about like a Cossack, shouting lines that weren’t in the script, and had almost fallen off the boat. A bit of real drunken acting.”
The filming of the duel was publicized in small ways in advance of the movie’s release. The press package claimed, for example, that “Actor Breaks Three Rapiers in Duel,” which is probably true in reference to blades. Hilts might break, but are generally much sturdier. It would be surprising if spare rapiers and blades were not on set during filming. Even so, according to a press clipping, a “rush order for additional rapiers was sent out when Errol Flynn…broke three of them during the filming of scenes in which he has a duel with a rival pirate…”
Also according to the Warner Bros. publicity package for the film and often repeated as fact, Flynn “received two small wounds during his battle with Basil Rathbone.” A separate publicity clip for newspaper release noted four: the “most serious wound was on the actor’s head, slightly above the left temple. He also was cut by his opponent, Basil Rathbone, near the right eye, on the neck and on the right forearm.”
And according to one reporter, “they really drew blood too, so that Flynn had some actual wounds to be doctored after that exciting buccaneering day.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
Although injuries do occur on occasion in well-prepared, well-choreographed swordfights, those listed here are probably pure invention for the sake of publicity: Rathbone in his autobiography states that he never hurt anyone when filming any fencing scene, nor was hurt by anyone. The photograph of Flynn below shows the “wounds” — and they appear to be nothing more than those created by a make-up artist for the scene. If Flynn were wounded during the filming of the duel, it would have therefore been by Fred Cavens, and surely due to Flynn’s own error. I think it also possible but highly unlikely that Cavens would have deliberately hit Flynn as a reminder to be careful — or not to do anything too stupid or too dangerous that might hurt his film adversary. (This can, however, be an effective teaching method with a blunt tip used during an egregious error made by a student without a jacket, although not all students are suitable to this practice.)
At one point, again according to the press package, Flynn fell off a cliff at Three Arch Bay during filming:
“Flynn was doing a scene depicting a duel with rapiers between himself as Pirate Blood and Basil Rathbone, who portrays the role of Levasseur, French buccaneer and Blood’s rival. In order to give the scene added drama, Director Michael Curtiz had Flynn drive Rathbone at swordspoint onto a small ledge on the side of a cliff overlooking the bay. The cliff was not quite perpendicular, however, sloping off gently so that the ledge was about ten or twelve feet shoreward and forty feet above the water line.
“With the cameras grinding, Flynn backed Rathbone onto the ledge according to instructions. For several minutes the rapiers of the duelists flashed. Then, suddenly, a shout of dismay rose.
“Flynn had tripped on a small rock and toppled outward from the ledge. Slowly at first, he strove to regain his footing, but in vain. When he finally realized there was no chance of saving himself, he put all his power into an outward leap. He soared out from the ledge, cut cleanly into the water, missing the base of the cliff a mere matter of inches. He swam to the beach unaided.
“A less powerful man than Flynn could not possibly have put the force behind his leap to clear the base of the cliff… [He] suffered nothing worse than a slightly lacerated knee which scraped a submerged rock.” Although it’s entirely possible that the incident did take place, Hollywood clearly does love hyperbole, not only for the sake of publicity, but for its own sake.
The shooting of the duel wrapped up near dusk on the final day. Rathbone tells an anecdote (Jones, 1972) about how “Sailor Vincent,” the nominal head of the pirate extras and, according to the press package, an “all-Navy welterweight boxing champion,” asked Flynn and Rathbone near the end of a day’s shooting if they were going to wrap it up that day or give the extras another day to get paid. “Our reputations as swordsmen were at stake,” Rathbone said, and so they decided to finish the shooting that day. They were probably quite ready to get past the exhausting shooting of the duel almost certainly.
“Now what we had to do was this:” Rathbone said, “a man stood with a stopwatch, and he timed the waves coming in. There was a short routine in which Flynn had to get me, kill me, and I had to fall exactly as a wave was coming in. If I fell exactly as a wave was coming it, it would cover me with water and as it went back out again, there I would be lying on the ground with my eyes wide open. You try lying with your eyes wide open, and sea water in them without blinking. Well, we did it! Exactly to the second, we timed the swordplay which took fifteen seconds. At the end of fifteen seconds I had to fall and the wave had to come in and I had to fall into the wave. This happened exactly to the second.
“The thing that Flynn and I expected was that Sailor Vincent would come across and say, “Well, thanks for nothing!” Instead of that, all the extras applauded loudly. They were so thrilled at the sheer skill of it because this required beautiful timing and Flynn and I worked very hard on the sequence.”
After a few more shots, and with the sun soon too low at 4:30 to shoot, filming of the duel finished and everyone went home. Rathbone noted that had they failed to get the final scene correct, they would have had to shoot again the next day because he would have had to wait for a new, dry costume.
The Myth of “Sharp Tips” Used in the Film Duel
There has long been a myth that director Michael Curtiz demanded that the tips be removed from the rapiers so they wouldn’t show up on film, and therefore the actors fought their duel with sharp points. This myth, among other issues, demonstrates a lack of understanding of how practice fencing swords are constructed and used.
The rapiers used in the duel were mounted with “dry” (i.e. non-electrical — electrical scoring was introduced the following year at the Olympic Games) epee blades, which might be considered a reasonable facsimile of the “three cornered” blades of many smallswords of the 1680s. Unlike modern epee blades, which are wider at the forte (the third nearest the hilt) and thicker at the foible (the third nearest the point), epee blades for most of the 20th century tended be narrower at both forte and foible.
Practice dry epee blades were not, and are not, sharp, but instead are forged with a flat tack-like tip, often only slightly larger in diameter than the distal end of the blade. For “dry” practice in the 1930s (which was nearly all practice back then) either a hard rubber “button” was placed over the flat tip, or a point d’arrêt with three small sharp points was lashed to it with linen thread, dental floss, or very narrow (1/16″) cloth tape. There was no sharp point beneath. See the image below.
For shooting a duel scene in any film of the era, the rubber buttons or other points d’arrêt were typically removed, leaving the flat tips which made for better visuals. The flat tips are not as obvious on film but still could be dangerous, to eyes in particular, and required well-rehearsed actors for safety. The flat tips could also scratch or even make shallow cuts in the worst cases, but were not a significant threat to life or limb except, as just noted, to eyes. Typically only a wound from a broken blade might be life threatening.
However, according to some sources citing cameraman Hal Mohr (Davis, 1971, for example), the tips of the blades were broken off at Curtiz’s demand, leaving sharp points. This not only strains belief but is easily disproven. Breaking a fencing blade is relatively easy. Breaking it immediately behind the flat tip is not. It would usually require a strong cutting tool or a hacksaw blade to cut the blade just behind the tip, and would indeed leave a much more dangerous point, something no fencing master would permit in the hands of even a talented amateur such as Rathbone, much less an unskilled fencer like Flynn.
I once choreographed and engaged in some fencing with sharp, pointed scimitars for a documentary. For safety it was necessary that both of us were highly skilled with pointed and edged weapons, we rehearsed and memorized the routine thoroughly beforehand, and during actual filming we worked at about half the speed we were capable of. Anything else with sharp or pointed swords could easily have led to serious injury or fatality.
Notably, of the many original still photographs of the Flynn-Rathbone duel in my collection, at least of those in which the points are in focus, none show sharp or broken points, but instead, as expected, the typical flat points of practice epee blades. See below, for example. The photographs of the duel were taken at various stages of the its filming. The flat tips can even be seen in some of the scenes on film when watched frame-by-frame. Further, it is hard to believe that if Rathbone and Flynn had fenced with sharp points, Rathbone would not have mentioned such a dangerous undertaking in interviews or his autobiography. Again, we have a myth promoted by the Warner Bros. publicity machine and accepted at face value by much of the public.
The Musical Accompaniment
The film score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who largely created the practice of classical composition for film music. Korngold reportedly had only three weeks to compose it, and was assisted by Hugo Friedhofer. Nearly all of the film’s music is original, with one major exception and a few minor associated additions. In addition, two minor pieces — songs sung by Spanish soldiers and seamen — were composed by Milan Roder.
The major exception, of course, was the score for the duel on the beach. Reportedly, the film’s preview had been moved up and the score had to be completed within twenty-four hours. Out of time, Korngold adapted Frans Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus to the duel, a circumstance that apparently offended his sense of artistry and professionalism.
According to Brendan G. Carroll, Korngold gave Friedhofer the Liszt score along with a new introduction and coda at 8:30 PM the day before it was required. Friedhofer spent the night arranging the adaptation. At 7:00 AM a messenger picked up the orchestration for copying. It was recorded that afternoon. That said, elements of the Liszt’s Prometheus also appear in the tracks “Peter is Bound — Pirates!” and “A Timely Interruption,” the latter of which is really a continuation of the former.
The 2001 Tsunami Captain Blood soundtrack (TSU 0141) above is the only one I’m aware of with the entire film score, including the duel. The thirty-one tracks provide an hour’s worth of neo-romantic swashbuckling listening pleasure. Out-of-print and now often listed at high prices by vendors hoping to make a quick extra buck, if you’re patient you can usually find a reasonably-priced copy. It’s my favorite of all the vinyl and CD Captain Blood soundtracks, and probably my favorite of all the full swashbuckler scores available on CD (or whatever else soundtracks are published via these days — I’ve never stopped listening to and collecting vinyl and CDs even as I’ve added other media to our collection, although I did long ago abandon cassette tapes).
Liszt’s Prometheus is also excellent listening. It’s often included on collections with Liszt’s Preludes, in which case you can also enjoy the overture to the old Flash Gordon film serial, a “space opera” — which was by definition a Western set in outer space. Our most popular modern version, arguably of both space operas and Westerns, is Star Wars and its many serializations. Star Wars has also taken over much of the old classic swashbuckling genres, to my dismay.
And now the duel itself. The best way to enjoy it — in fact, the only way — is to watch it. For those with an interest in the actual fencing details of the choreography, I’ve included a few annotations below. Fencing enthusiasts, feel free to disagree with my observations and assessments!
The fight really was between two true adventurers. Flynn was an Irish-Australian born and raised in Tasmania. In his autobiography describes himself in his youth as a “devil in boy’s clothing,” and after numerous misadventures leading to his eighteenth year he entered several years of seafaring adventure and fortune hunting — tobacco planting, gold mining, and various sea trades — associated with Papua New Guinea. An athlete but never a fencer, he does fondly describe playing with a sword an ancestor had taken from Captain William Bligh during the infamous mutiny, and he denounces his father for giving it away to the Naval and Military Club at Hobart.
Rathbone was the Patrols Officer of the Second Battalion of the Liverpool Scottish during WWI, and was awarded the Military Cross for heroism for his intelligence collection patrols, in particular one in which he led a small party across “No Man’s Land” into the German trenches for intelligence during daylight. At one point Baron von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron, and his Flying Circus, which included future Nazi leader and convicted war criminal Hermann Goerring, flew a mere one hundred feet overhead, strafing the British line. In the enemy trenches, Rathbone, using his service revolver, shot and killed a German soldier. Documents taken from the soldier’s pockets indicated that a retreat was imminent. Rathbone led his men out safely under heavy machinegun fire. (Rathbone, 1962.)
The duel could not have been easy to film and fight in the sand, a surface which presents its own special difficulties. The rear foot tends to slip on the lunge. Turning the foot onto its inner edge is helpful, as is pushing more outward than directly behind on the lunge with the rear foot, as is maneuvering the fight onto the area of wet compacted beach between the soft dry sand above and the wet saturated sand below, or onto an area of vegetation. But at least the implausible “pirate boots” — buccaneers and pirates didn’t wear them unless on horseback — would keep sand out!
The duel begins with Flynn wearing a waistcoat, with a baldric worn over a sash, apparently sewn or otherwise un-historically attached to the sash to keep the former from bouncing around. Rathbone is in his shirtsleeves, but likewise with a baldric worn over a waistcoat. Eyewitness images of buccaneers in the 1680s — the only eyewitness images of any European-derived sea rovers during the Golden Age of Piracy — do show sashes on French buccaneers, but not baldrics. Sword-belts were worn instead, given their convenience, and they’re also not as hot. If a baldric were worn, it would typically have been worn beneath a sash to prevent it from bouncing around. I’ll discuss this further in part five of this series.
And now, for fun, a brief look at some of the swordplay itself. One of these days I may annotate the entire duel, but I’ve lost my old notes and haven’t the time at the moment to review it in its entirely again. A few instances will suffice for now.
The duel begins as several of Peter Blood’s officers begin escorting Arabella Bishop to a small bluff en route to their ship. Cahusec tries to restrain Levasseur but he’ll have none of it. “You do not take her while I live!” he shouts and draws his sword. “Then I’ll take her when you’re dead!” Blood replies, drawing his own sword, tossing his hat, and beginning to remove his baldric and waistcoat. Cahusec tries one more time to dissuade his captain, but fails.
Levasseur runs at Blood and thrusts in tierce. Blood parries tierce and shifts aside for additional protection against the the attack. The men move to open ground where Levasseur makes a half lunge, thrusting in quarte. Returning to his guard, Levasseur makes several change beats from quarte to tierce and back, followed by a few disengages in the same line against Blood’s en garde in quarte.
Levasseur feints outside (tierce), then inside (quarte), and finishes with a thrust without lunging in the low line, which is parried quinte (low quarte) by Blood, who ripostes with a quick extension but no lunge. Both men are clearly engaging in reconnaissance.
Now, in a wide shot, Blood traverses to his left. Levasseur attempts a wide, too obvious head feint, saber-like (this is theatrical swordplay, after all), to the inside, then cuts to the outside. Flynn makes a half-quarte parry, followed by a tierce which parries the attack, and ripostes low in seconde. Flynn parries another attack in tierce, again ripostes seconde, then attempts a head cut which is parried by Levasseur who ripostes inside, which is parried by Flynn in prime.
Flynn traverses to the left again, then attempts a flashy, and very “telegraphed,” head attack that would evolve in later films to a “triple moulinet,” which would become his signature move in his film swordplay. And every time I see it, I shout “Time him! Time him! Time him!” in my head to his adversary. Flashy, yes. And just asking to receive a time thrust in the throat!
And so it goes, all very swashbuckling and theatrical.
For the sake of time, for now at least, I’m skipping over most of the following swordplay. As the duel progresses toward the rocks upon which Levasseur will meet his end, there are a couple of long shots which looks like Rathbone and Flynn might be doubled by Cavens and Faulkner.
I do want to mention my three favorite phrases (a phrase is a complete exchange, from start to finish, in fencing, for example: attack, parry, riposte, counter-riposte, counter-attack, &c, until there is a hit or the fencers break distance). All three take place in the final moments of the duel.
First is a croisé in sixte by Levasseur, which is beautifully parried by Blood with a prime, followed immediately by the classic, and very flashy, bind-thrust riposte in tierce (or sixte) to the head, the blade arcing from low to high, almost as a moulinet, although the hit doesn’t quite land. In the right circumstances the technique can disarm the adversary. But nicely done, still!
This is soon followed by Levasseur binding Blood’s blade from sixte to septime, with Blood countering with a yielding parry in tierce as he falls. Again, nicely done!
And now the two men are face-to-face at “handy grips!” Here we have the obligatory close-up, hilt-to-hilt, deadly fury in each man’s eyes!
The adversaries quickly get to their feet, surprisingly without punching or pommeling each other, for the final engagement in which, moments after another quick, beautiful croisé in sixte parried in prime, Blood kills Levasseur by lunging off the line — an esquive or, arguably in the language of the day, a volt — and “pinking” him, to use a 17th century term, from side to side. I strongly suspect the finish was inspired by the one in the duel in Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan, published three years before.
The film duel from start to finish is just under three minutes, yet time stands still for that short time, so exciting is the swordplay and acting. A timeless scene of piratical yet noble swashbuckling indeed!
Next in the series: The Duel on the Beach in Reality!
Anon. “Frederic Cavens, 79, Taught Stars Fencing.” New York Times, May 2, 1962.
Anon. “Sealing Wax, Cabbages and Kings.” New York Times, September 30, 1934.
Rudy Behlmer. “Swordplay on the Screen: The Best of it Has Been Due to Belgian Fencing Masters.” Films in Review, June-July 1965.
Thomas Brady. “Meet Hollywood’s Fencing Master.” New York Times, October 5, 1941.
Brendan G. Carroll. The Last Prodigy: a Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Hong Kong: Amadeus Press, 1997.
John Davis. “Captain Blood.” The Velvet Light Trap, No. 1, June 1971.
Edith Durbin. “Rolph and Doug Watch Hungary Win at Sabers.” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1932.
Jean-Baptiste Dutertre. Histoire generale des Antilles habitées par les François. Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1667.
Alexandre Exquemelin. [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684.
——. [Alexander Olivier Exquemelin]. Histoire des Avanturiers Flibustiers qui se sont Signalez dans les Indes. 2 vols. Paris: Jacques Le Febvre, 1699.
Errol Flynn. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.
Burt A. Folkart. “Ralph B. Faulkner, 95, Film Swordsman, Dies.” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1987.
Russ Jones. “Rathbone.” Flashback magazine, June 1972.
Read Kendall. “Out and About in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1935.
Benerson Little. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674 – 1688. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007.
——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse, 2016.
Maureen O’Hara. ‘Tis Her. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Don Page. “Another Fairbanks Roams Sherwood Forest.” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1968.
Basil Rathbone. In and Out of Character. New York: Doubleday, 1962.
Casey Robinson. Captain Blood Shooting Script. Warner Bros., 1935.
Rafael Sabatini. Captain Blood: His Odyssey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.
——. The Black Swan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.
Warner Bros. Captain Blood Press and Publicity Package, 1935.
Alma Whitaker. “Stars Who’ve Learned Fencing for Films Make It Latest Indoor Sport.” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1936.
John R. Woolfenden. “Flock of Handsome Brutes Spring Up as Leading Men.” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1936.
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted 29 March 2022. Last updated 31 March 2022.
With the advent of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, not to mention our forthcoming thoroughly annotated anniversary edition, a look into the largely unknown, and until now unpublished, history behind the novel is timely: of real buccaneers and mystery pirates, of an incognito pirate captain whose identity we hope to reveal for the first time, and how without them there would be no famous novel Captain Blood nor any films of Errol Flynn, at least as we know them!
One of Sabatini’s major influences was the published journal of Monmouth rebel-convict Henry Pitman who, sentenced to indentured servitude on Barbados, escaped by sea, found himself marooned on Saltudos Island, and was eventually rescued by a crew of unnamed buccaneers. His story alone is worth the telling, and frankly no one does it better than he does. But before we get to Pitman’s odyssey and how it ultimately gave birth to the novel and the film version starring Errol Flynn, and thereby made him a star, we must first slip back to 1683, to Veracruz, Mexico as most of its inhabitants slept, in spite of obvious warning signs, as buccaneers set foot ashore not far away…
English Pirates Incognito & the Sack of La Vera Cruz
In the bodegas and aduana of the city lay not only two years’ worth of the plundered wealth of New Spain, but also valuable goods from the Far East, the latter having arrived after a long voyage across the Pacific to Acapulco aboard the Manila galleons, and from there across the arid Mexican countryside via mule trains known as recuas.
Pieces-of-eight and silver bars! Jewels and gold doblóns! Gold and silver church icons! Cochineal, indigo, logwood, and cacao! Rich silks and glazed china!
It was a lure the eight hundred buccaneers could not resist—and the city was wide open. Sand dunes piled high against the cheaply-built city walls, the pirate hunting Armada de Barlovento was not in port, the governor refused to believe the two ships seen earlier were pirates, and even the three-man mounted guard who spotted the buccaneers ashore were too frightened to ride ahead and give warning.
So here we have it, fact proving that fiction and film are not too far separated from it: historical buccaneers preparing to sack a sleepy Spanish town just as depicted in The Black Swan (1940) starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, or in the Disney theme park attraction, at least before it became tied to the fantasy Pirates of the Caribbean films. Surely a lovesick suitor, guitar-in-hand, is serenading his inamorata on the balcony above as buccaneers slink to the city walls and prepare to unleash a violent but, in terms of entertainment, socially acceptable assault.
But not really: Disneyland and Hollywood are fun but they’re not reality. The assault on the city was quick and brutal—and successful. The buccaneers packed the residents into the great Iglesia de San Lorenzo del Convento de la Merced, searched and found plunder everywhere, tortured residents to reveal hidden treasure, and in buccaneer fashion raped and pillaged.
First they ransacked the casas reales, or government buildings, including the governor’s palace, the customs house, and various storehouses and magazines; then the richest private homes and the city’s six churches and convents—Jesuit, Augustinian, Franciscan, and Inquisitional Dominican among them—and surely also the two church-hospitals, and likewise the two chapels outside the walls; and last, the homes and businesses likely to be of less value.
Most of the attackers were French, with a smaller number of Dutch and English buccaneers in their company. And it is with the two English captains we are concerned, even if the two most notable Dutch commanders—Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Van Horn—will be remembered in part for their brief duel on Sacrificios Island.
English buccaneer captain George Spurre discovered the Spanish governor hiding in a stable and protected him from French buccaneers who had formerly been imprisoned in the city and now sought revenge. Eventually the buccaneers set sail while the Spanish defenders and the newly-arrived treasure fleet debated, boasted of revenge, and waited on reinforcements. This bombastic do-nothingness inspired a song composed soon afterward, “La Bamba,” made famous almost three centuries later as a Top 40 Hit by 1950s pop star Ritchie Valens.
The plunderers of Veracruz sailed away with riches in their holds, divided buccaneer-fashion: two to six shares to the captain, one and a half to the quartermaster, one to most everyone else, with one vital additional spoil: a captain would typically receive anywhere from a few shares to thirty or more for the maintenance of the vessel he commanded. Any shares unused for this went into the captain’s pocket—most of them, that is. This is a fact often overlooked or even unknown to scholars and enthusiasts who over-hype the egalitarian nature of buccaneers: Successful buccaneer captains could get very rich.
George Spurre, a well-known buccaneer who commanded a sloop and sixty men, returned to Jamaica where he lived and where his plunder of broken gold, silver coin and plate, jewels, cacao, two hundredweight of cochineal dye, African or other slaves of color, and more was variously seized and embezzled by the governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Lynch, using the excuse of illegal pirate goods. Soon enough, Spurre died, leaving his wife to sue Lynch for the return of his new estate.
But it is Spurre’s compatriot, Jacob Hall, a far more fortunate pirate, who is most important to our story. He had put it about that he was from Bermuda, without doubt to cover his true origin, for he was a Carolinian from Charlestown, a place known facetiously by some as Puerto Franco thanks to the large number of French buccaneers who routinely sold their plunder and refitted there. Trading with pirates was an easy way to get cash, after all. No questions would be asked in Charlestown because everyone already knew the answers. They also knew to deny everything piratical to outsiders.
Hall was rich now, the likely five to ten extra shares awarded him from the ownership of his small vessel—a small frigate, brigantine, or barque-longue—making him so. With them he bought a house in the city and a plantation in the country, and was well on his way to becoming the notable Carolinian gentleman he would one day be. Paraphrasing Mel Brooks in The History of the World: Part I, it was good to be the captain of a profitable buccaneer voyage!
The Lure & Allure of St. Augustine
As with many who took up sea roving, Jacob Hall would not or could not put the trade aside. Just as hope inevitably sprang eternal among buccaneers after any cruise—the next one must be more profitable!—so did success breed new attempts. James Fennimore Cooper aptly put it in The Sea Lions, a novel in part of pirates and buried treasure: “Men become adventurous by oft-repeated success…” They take greater and greater risks, in other words. And this addiction to sea thieving would one day become so incurable that it would lead to a generation of outright pirates who sailed “against all flags” under their own black ones.
St. Augustine, an outpost town established to protect the Florida Strait through which the Spanish treasure fleets passed, had long been an inviting target. The most famous of seventeenth century attacks was its sack by buccaneers under Robert Searle in 1668. Today, buccaneer re-enactors and pirate pretenders flock annually to the city to reenact the piratical slaughter of 1668 via choreographed mayhem of musket and sword, albeit in a much more civilized manner, which includes neither spillage of blood nor theft, or at least none significant, nor vandalism, burning, torture, or pillage. I did once see Tea Partiers amusingly mistaken for pirates in St. Augustine by tourists, then quickly dismissed once it became clear they were common zealots rather than trope-ish buccaneers.
At least three attacks on the city had been seriously considered or attempted in the early 1680s. The first was abandoned even before a planned rendezvous took place on Anclote in the Florida Keys in 1681. The second, from late 1681 into 1682, devolved into little more than the sacking the poor-in-everything presidio of San Marcos de Apalache and the rich-in-cattle Hacienda de la Chua in Florida, plus the capture of several vessels ranging from tiny sloops to a pair of small frigates, plus the murder by the famous buccaneer John Coxon of ten Native Americans at Matanzas—doubtless his excuse for murdering them was that they resisted—and the enslavement of fifteen more. St. Augustine was left untouched.
The third, in 1683, actually landed a force composed of buccaneers, several of whose captains hailed from English colonies in North America. Disappointed at “fishing for silver” on the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas, they turned their attention to what they hoped was easier plunder. Within a mile and a half of St. Augustine they marched, only to be driven off by valiant Capitán Antonio de Argüelles and his troops.
Although it is common to reflect from present to past and imagine pirates then as they have been portrayed in modern films, rarely is Spanish courage and martial skill on display in them, although The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks is an exception.
Digression aside, in 1684 Jacob Hall—whom we imagine Hollywood might have cast Errol Flynn to play—set sail in command of a small frigate, brigantine, or barque-longue, perhaps the same he had commanded at Veracruz, part of an English buccaneer flotilla soon joined to a French one to sack St. Augustine, Florida. The French contingent was commanded by the sieur de Grammont, the third major commander of Veracruz fame—whom we imagine Hollywood might have cast Oliver Reed to play—and the English by Thomas Jingle. Alas for the raiders, a storm dispersed the eleven vessels. Some of the plunder-seekers went on to other adventures, while a few plundered poor Spanish missions along the Georgia coast.
After the planned attack on St. Augustine was thwarted, de Grammont sailed north and plundered an English merchant ketch of provisions, forcing its crew to seek food at the San Buenaventura de Guadalquini mission on what is today St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where the local military officer seized the ketch for any or all of several reasons, ranging from it being a dastardly pirate to a mere interloper on Spanish territory. One of the ketch’s crew was a Flemish seaman whose name, Jan Klare perhaps, was Hispanicized as Juan Clar. To the Fleming’s rescue came an English captain who followed in Grammont’s wake and recaptured the ketch.
Clar, who had the good or bad fortune to later fall into Spanish hands again, testified in St. Augustine that the pirate captain who rescued him was named “Chacopal,” which has misled some historians into thinking he was the pirate Jacob Evertson because it sounds like Jacob, which in fact it does (but wait a moment). The Spanish mangled a lot of English, French, and Dutch names, and vice versa: Bartholomew Sharp became Batharpe and Batcharpe, [Richard] Sawkins became Hawkins, [John] Watling became Bothing, and Jan Willems aka Yankey became Jan Zanques, for example. Occasionally, historians mangle the mangling in their attempts to reverse engineer the Hispanicization, hoping thereby to prove what they want to see.
In fact, Chacopal is merely the Spanish phonetic equivalent of Jacob Hall. Sound it out, if you like. From Clar that we learn that Hall owned a house and “hacienda” purchased with plunder from Veracruz. Yet there are no records of any Jacob Hall owning property in Charlestown or in the countryside. Further, Clar noted that Thomas Jingle also had a house there but there are no records of his property either. Notably, town records from the era are very complete, making an omission for one or both of these two captains highly unlikely.
At least one scholar has suggested that Jingle’s name was the Spanish pronunciation of a famous buccaneer captain nicknamed Yankey, noted above, probably an affectionate diminutive of Jan. The same diminutive is probably the origin of Yankee as in “Yankee Doodle” and “damn Yankees.” Jingle—“Hin-glay”—does sound a little bit like it, in fact.
But, alas, no cigar, although as I’ve noted elsewhere (“Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women”) the Spanish did smoke them at the time: six to seven inches long, about a half inch in diameter, even Spanish women smoked them, as did Native Americans, many African slaves, and quite a few Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Dutchmen as well, therefore some buccaneers and pirates too, experts residing on social media and claiming otherwise notwithstanding.
Why no cigar? Because Yankey was nowhere near St. Augustine at the time.
Thomas Jingle, “privateer,” reportedly had a privateering commission from Robert Clarke, “Governor and Captain-General of the Bahamas of New Providence,” which may have been true for the governor of the tiny pirate-and-beachcomber’s-island had a habit of issuing them without any real authority to do so other than his quite correct perception that the commissions would help line his pockets. The practice also earned him a warrant for his arrest and by 1683 the loss of his post. Jingle was from New England, some said, but his name is noted in the annals of piracy only in regard to this aborted attack on St. Augustine, and for good reason: it was not his real name.
In fact, Jingle is phonetic Spanish for Hinkley.
And Thomas Hinkley was the governor of New England.
In other words, “Thomas Jingle” was a joke at the Spaniards’ expense, akin to signing your name as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or Ronald Reagan. Or, if you want to balance the scales of insignificant political satire, Bill Clinton.
How to reconcile this?
Jacob Hall and Thomas Jingle were mystery pirate gentlemen sailing under false names, although doubtless everyone in Charlestown knew exactly who they were and supported them in their piratical escapades.
One of them, as we shall soon see, almost certainly set Errol Flynn’s career in motion.
Of Pirates, Rebels, Odd Connections, & the Want of a Nail
If there is a single decade or two that may lay legitimate claim as the ultimate origin of the greatest of pirate fiction and film, it would surely be the 1680s. Counterintuitively, it is not the previous two decades, in which Henry Morgan, François l’Ollonois, and their bloody ilk reigned and whose escapades made sea roving popular in the public mind thanks to popular written accounts, nor the second and third of the next century when the pirates who sailed under the black flag reigned and centuries later became proud symbols, with little basis in fact, of social rebellion and freedom.
The 1680s gave us three series of events critical to all things piratical today, the first two of which are vital here: the Duke of Monmouth, whose brief rebellion in England and Scotland ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 6, 1685; the suppression of Caribbean buccaneering which forced the rovers into the South Sea and beyond, and which would thirty years later help lead to the rise of pirates who sailed under the black flag; and the publication of popular editions in English and French of buccaneer-surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America.
The Monmouth rebels are necessary to understanding one of the most common piracy tropes in fiction and film, one actually quite rare, if not entirely non-existent, in reality: that of the falsely accused who is thereby compelled by circumstance to turn pirate, excluding, of course, a few buccaneers who had become sea rovers due to Spanish confiscation of their lawful cargos. Or perhaps we should just say cargos, lawful often being in the mind of the beholder in the Caribbean at the time. And in any case these men were likely to have become buccaneers no matter their circumstances.
One of these rebels was sea surgeon Mr.—not Dr., for only physicians used the latter title—Henry Pitman. Although never in arms against his king, as he says, he was nonetheless committing treason and he knew it when he joined Monmouth’s rebel army as a surgeon after dropping by with his brother to view the Duke and his rebel army. In his defense he notes that he treated wounded rebels and Royalists alike, and claimed that he was caught up in the rebellion by misadventure when a troop of Royalist horse blocked his way home. Soon afterward he lost his mount, and, prevailed upon to assist the surgeons who had their hands full with the battle-wounded, he joined the rebels, bidden by his conscience to do his sacred medical duty.
The rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor, and hundreds of prisoners were hastily tried and convicted en masse in a series of trials that soon came to be known as the Bloody Assizes. Sentenced to ten years of indentured servitude in Barbados—still a far better punishment than to be hanged, disemboweled, quartered and dismembered (all members!) and hung in parts from gibbets, as happened to many rebels, and still better than to be an African slave on a New World plantation, the counter-argument of some modern racists notwithstanding—Pitman soon tired of his treatment at the hands of the owner of his indenture, Colonel Robert Bishop. The details need not concern us at the moment. In fact, you should read them for yourself later. I’ll say it over and over: the original accounts are often far better reading than any modern secondary accounts.
Suffice it that Pitman led several of his companion rebels-convict and two debtors in an escape in a ship’s boat by night. Almost immediately the rebels-convict discovered that their boat was extremely leaky and, fearing they might be overheard by an English frigate or one of the forts in Carlisle Bay, they let seawater fill the boat almost to the gunwales before they started bailing. Afterward they were forced to bail constantly, made more difficult when one of the rebels-convict accidentally threw the bailing bowl overboard.
Almost as bad, their candles had melted into a single lump, making them useless, and their tinder and matches were now wet due to the leaking boat, thus they could not steer in the darkness by their compass, having no light. And soon everyone but Pitman, the only seafarer among them, was terribly seasick.
Here we’ll take a page from fiction and film—leaving the reader or viewer in suspense, that is—and depart from Pitman and his rebels-convict confederates as they make their way toward the Dutch islands by sea, while we look at two curiously associated piratical voyages.
The South Sea and, Once Again, St. Augustine
First we return to Puerto Franco, or Charlestown if you like, where local investors and adventurers had outfitted three armed sloops crewed with roughly equal numbers of local Englishmen and visiting French buccaneers. Their plan: sail to the Caribbean, seize a Spanish ship—or Dutch, if trading with the Spanish, for a Dutch merchantman with Spanish goods was practically Spanish anyway—and sail through the Strait of Magellan into the South Sea to plunder the Pacific Spanish Main, as many English and French buccaneers were doing at the moment. The date they set sail is uncertain: it may have been late 1686 to early 1687, or even early 1686.
The Franco-Carolinian buccaneers were successful at the beginning of their voyage, capturing a “Dutch ship of force,” but were turned back at the Strait of Magellan, unable to pass through due to severe weather. They sailed back north, to the remarkably beautiful Ilha de Fernando de Noronha more than three hundred miles off the coast of Brazil. Like Juan Fernandez Island in the South Sea, it was isolated enough that a sea roving ship could water and refit after a passage around Cape Horn or through the Strait of Magellan. Here they held council and by a vote of the crew decided to turn pirate. By this they meant they would capture ships other than Spanish, or Dutch trading with the Spanish, in this case a Portuguese merchantman if they espyed one.
However, eight of the crew, all English, abandoned the enterprise, preferring not to engage in outright piracy: buccaneering against the Spanish held no qualms for them, for only occasionally were its practitioners actually hanged. But their brethren had no boat to spare, so, taking their sea chests and plunder ashore, and with the donation of some stores, tools, rigging, and a cask of dry peas, they fashioned a four-ton boat out of mangrove—a good wood for boatbuilding, actually—in six weeks. The peas they kept for sea provision, and while on the island they ate wild figs, Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster), and Booby eggs.
Their buccaneer brethren, meanwhile, had set sail, and soon descried a large Portuguese merchantman laden with wine, linen, at least a few slaves, and other goods along the coast of Brazil. In tonnage, crew, and probably guns it was a greater ship of force than that of the pirates, yet they captured it with little resistance. The pirates told Pitman the ship was named the Grand Gustaphus, or more correctly, the Grande Gustav if this is actually the ship’s name and not one given it by the buccaneers. I found no such named ship in Portuguese or Brazilian records, but this is no surprise: records of merchant ships at the time are notoriously incomplete.
The buccaneers returned to Fernando de Noronha, put their prisoners ashore (causing the eight former crew to keep well on their guard after the buccaneers departed again), and shared the plunder. The crew divided in two, of French and English respectively, the former keeping one ship by agreement and heading home to Petit Goâve on Hispaniola, the latter keeping the other and sailing north, anchoring at “Blanco”—probably Punta de los Blanquizales, Trinidad—most likely for repairs to their now leaky ship before returning home. But first the pirates needed to know how matters stood between the English governments and pirates. Was there, for example, an amnesty available?
Now—suspensefully again—we leave these pirates for the moment as they prepare to sail into the Caribbean, and turn to another pirate voyage. Once more we head to St. Augustine, the outpost so coveted by pirates in the 1680s. In late April, 1686, the grand old buccaneer Michel, sieur de Grammont set his eye again on the Florida outpost. Once more, it was his intention to attack via the southern passage at Matanzas. Yes, this is a pattern: pirates were not going to commit suicide by sailing into the mouths of the guns of the Castillo de San Marcos. Everyone intended to attack from Matanzas instead.
Here, Capitaine Nicolás Brigaut, commanding a half-galley armed with two guns (at sea a cannon is called a gun, back then and even today) at the bow, probably a few swivels on the gunwales, and captured the year before during the sack of Campeche, Mexico (again by de Graff and de Grammont), was tasked with securing Native Americans to serve as “intelligencers” and guides, and to prevent the sentinels at the Matanzas watchtower from warning St. Augustine. He and his buccaneers easily captured the soldiers on watch: some of them rowed out to discoverer what the vessel was. The buccaneers tortured at least two for information regarding the defenses of St. Augustine.
And then everything went to hell. A Spanish force from St. Augustine counter-attacked but was beaten back. Even so, all good so far, in spite of the loss of surprise. Then the half-galley wrecked on Matanzas Bar, changing the situation entirely. Brigaut—whom we imagine might have been played by Basil Rathbone, pity about the French accent though—sent several men in a ship’s boat to warn de Grammont and tell him they would retreat to Mosquito Bar, the location today of New Smyrna Beach, where it would be easier to rescue them. The buccaneers set out on the five league march and twice more fought off attackers, including forty or fifty Native Americans. Finally, they faced Capitán Francisco de Fuentes—who might have been played by Pedro de Cordoba or perhaps by Ricardo Montalbán channeling Khan Noonien Singe—and fifty Spanish soldiers.
The buccaneers faced a naked truth: they were trapped on the beach. We imagine soldiers and pirates sweating profusely in the combination of heat, humidity, rage, and fear, their hands and faces blackened with spent gunpowder, their burning eyes squinting from salt and the sea glare. We imagine the sand sticking to the blood of those killing and of those dying or dead, most of whom probably called upon God both to kill and to save. We imagine the flies swarming over and upon the dark purple that now stained, however briefly, the windswept battlefield dotted with the living and the dead among the coastal scrub.
Here was life and death laid plain in the form of raw survival. Unfortunately for the buccaneers, luck was on the side of the Spanish by means of the timely accident that Brigaut’s men were separated into two parties. Luck, or Fortune if you will, often has poor timing, almost as if on purpose. The Spaniards slaughtered the nineteen pirates in the smaller group, then attacked the larger and massacred all but three, their desperate courage notwithstanding.
The official French account of the incident at Matanzas, sent from Governor de Cussy of Tortuga and Saint-Domingue to his superior in France, the Marquis de Seigneley, only barely resembled reality. Brigaut wasn’t a pirate, he was merely seeking provisions. The law permitted this seeking of provisions, water, and shelter in extremis. In fact, Brigaut wasn’t even mentioned, although his commander, the sieur de Grammont, briefly was.
Most of the few lines describing the incident were devoted to the sad story of a young Parisian of good family, the sieur de Chauvelin, who was reportedly given quarter, taken before the governor of St. Augustine, then put to death in spite of his quality as a gentleman. Further, during the battle itself it was twenty, or maybe seventy, pirates—or rather, twenty or seventy innocent French privateers attacked while innocently seeking provisions per international agreement—standing valiantly against three hundred Spaniards, who prevailed only after reinforcements arrived. All we really know—maybe—from this version of the story is that a young man named Chauvelin, of adventurous spirit, joined a band of flibustiers and probably died on or near a pretty Florida beach.
The most notable takeaway from the failed attack is that one of the survivors, quartermaster Diego the Black Pirate (a quartermaster was second-in-command among buccaneers and pirates), is the highest ranking Black man of full African blood noted among the predominantly white buccaneer or pirate crews. He, along with Captain Brigaut, were soon hanged or garroted at St. Augustine.
Grammont blockaded St. Augustine for two weeks, doubtless hoping for the arrival of the situado or payroll ship from Veracruz, and perhaps hoping to starve the city into negotiations. St. Augustine was not self-sufficient, so a ship had been sent to Havana for corn, or maize as it was better known then—corn was wheat, after all. Afterward de Grammont set sail to Charlestown, South Carolina where he almost certainly refreshed, refitted, and recruited as he had done before. Edward Randolph, the king’s special representative to New England, claimed that the Carolina governor had turned the pirate away. He was surely mistaken.
But 1686 was not yet finished with pirates lusting after the Florida outpost. Near the year’s end, and inspired by de Grammont’s unfortunate recent failure, Dutch pirates Jan Willems, aka Captain Yankey, and Jacob Everson—it really is them this time—along with their largely English crews from Jamaica, with some French and Dutch as well, along with a pack of Carolinians who determined that piracy might be a better way of life than farming or trading for deer skins and Native American slaves, were recruited by the governor of Carolina to attack St. Augustine in reprisal for recent Spanish reprisals on the Carolina coast.
One recent attack had just destroyed the Scottish colony at Stuarts Town in Carolina, plundered English plantations, and even threatened Charlestown itself, at least until a hurricane ended the retaliatory effort. Ironically, Brigaut’s half-galley had been refitted for Spanish use and sent on the raid. The Spanish attacks were reprisals for Carolinian-instigated reprisals by Native Americans (not that they did not have good reason without English instigation) on Spanish properties and subjects, and doubtless as general reprisals for Carolinian support for pirates. Alas, or happily perhaps, delays left many of the pirates dispirited, and added to this a new governor arrived and ordered a stop to the attack.
But thankfully for our tale, a few of the pirates Yankey had sent to steal canoes from Native Americans in the Gulf of Florida (known today as the Strait of Florida) to use in the attack via the Matanzas River were attacked by Native Americans when they went ashore to “turn turtle” for provisions. Two pirates died in the attack, and two more afterward, including the quartermaster, from cyanide poisoning caused by eating improperly-prepared cassava root.
These incidents caused these buccaneers to miss their rendezvous with Captain Yankey and their shipmates, leaving them to sail back to the Caribbean where they imagined the pickings were better. A few months later, by dint of unknown circumstances, they ended up on tiny Isla Tortuga—Saltatudos or “Salt Tortuga” as the English called it, not the Tortuga of buccaneering fame on the Hispaniola coast—near Isla Margarita along the Venezuelan coast, the latter island once a center of Spanish pearl diving until its beds were destroyed by rapacious overharvesting. Saltudos was a desert isle most of the year, except for a few months when ships, often English, dropped by to “rake salt,” and Spanish guardas-costas dropped by looking for them.
Apparently abandoned by their comrades again, or lost, a handful of Yankey’s turtle-turning buccaneers found themselves marooned, their canoe unfit for anything but shoreline voyages or a quick attack on a small Spanish merchantman that might anchor at the island.
But a new arrival would soon change this!
On May 16, after several days of trials and mistrials at sea, the rebels-convict, whose destination was Curacao, sighted Saltatudos Island. As they approached they saw a canoe paddling toward them. Quickly they loaded their muskets and blunderbuss with broken glass—in their haste they had left their bag of musket balls behind on the wharf—and prepared for a fight, fearing the two men in the canoe were Native Americans, given that they paddled rather than rowed as most Europeans did, even in canoes.
In fact, the men were not merely “Englishmen in distress, &c.,” as they claimed at first, but some of Yankey’s long lost buccaneers. The rebels-convicts and buccaneers went ashore together and brought each other up-to-date on world and local affairs, such as they had heard. The buccaneers, nodding with approval at learning that the new arrivals were Monmouth’s men, said, “That if the Duke of Monmouth had had One Thousand of them [buccaneers], they would soon have to put to flight the King’s Army.” Quite a boast, but then buccaneers were prone to such fanfaronades.
Almost immediately the marooned buccaneers were interested in Pitman’s boat. Leaky as it was, it was no use for sea roving, at least not as a water craft. The buccaneers’ canoe had low sides, but the lowly dugout canoe was otherwise a great craft for small piracies. It was swift, could be hidden easily among mangrove while buccaneers lay in wait for passing Spanish vessels, and required little maintenance. However, to be truly seaworthy for open water voyages, rather than coastal cruising (clearly the buccaneers had become separated from a larger vessel), it required raised sides to keep out the sea. This required boards, which they had, and nails, which they did not.
Pitman’s boat had a purpose after all: the buccaneers wanted to burn it for the ironwork, which was the easiest way to get at its nails and spikes, but Pitman and his companions refused. The buccaneers, being buccaneers, burned it anyway. As soon as they had raised the sides of the canoe they put out to sea, on May 25 in fact, leaving Pitman and his companions to live a marooner’s life for three months, the sort that would soon inspire Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Pitman and his companions built rude huts of scrap wood and sea grass, gathered sea turtle eggs, “turned turtle” and cooked “calipash and calipee” in the sand or dried the flesh in the sun, and for a change gathered and ate “whelks,” probably conchs. A Native American, purchased by Pitman from the buccaneers for thirty pieces-of-eight, fished for his owner with bow and arrow. The rebels-convict roasted the catch on the beach. Their clothes soon wore out, and their shoes too, but by walking so much on rocks, the “Bottoms of our Feet was hardened into such a callous substance, that there was scarce any Rocks so hard but we could boldly trample them under our feet.”
Pitman, trying to be prepared for any and every eventually, even concocted a plan of escape should they be captured by an enemy: he dissolved “a sufficient quantity of Opium in a Bottle of rich Cordial Water” and planned to give it to “those Persons that should take us,” and put them to sleep.
In the meantime, the now once more sea roving buccaneers sailed across the course of the English buccaneers who had captured the Portuguese ship and informed its captain and crew of Pitman and his companions. The buccaneer ship sailed to the island, brought Pitman aboard, and at the captain’s suggestion but via vote of the crew—buccaneers were democratic, remember—graciously took him aboard, probably because he was a surgeon, but left his companions behind. The captain sadly pointed out that he had only two votes and two shares, and could not overrule his crew. Even so, they gave the remaining marooners some provisions and promised to send a ship after them when they could.
Importantly, Pitman was extremely circumspect when it came to this pirate captain, for he never identifies him by name although he surely knew it. Without doubt, the captain did not want it put about, much less published. The names of most buccaneer captains are well-recorded, but some had good reason for remaining incognito, as we have already seen.
Learning from the Saltatudos buccaneers that New Providence Island was again inhabited, the buccaneers laid a course to the island haven of outcasts and all sorts piratical. There they unladed their ship, including its guns, and burned it. All went their separate ways, some to remain on the island, others to return to Carolina.
A few built a fort on nearby Eleuthera Island and armed it with eight of the ship’s guns, only to lose it later in the year when privately commissioned pirate hunter George Lenham in the sloop Ruby raided it, arrested the pirates, confiscated their “spoil…of little value,” and got testimony from the five Portuguese Black slaves—four men and a boy—in their possession. The pirates claimed they were preparing to sail to New England to accept a pirate amnesty. Lenham and his superior consort Captain Thomas Spragge of the HMS Drake were also accused by the residents of nearby New Providence of plundering their homes. The pirate hunters admitted to this, noting that their accusers were in fact pirates.
Pitman took passage from New Providence aboard an English ketch. He might have gone ashore at Charlestown, but for the ketch captain’s fear of arrest for having been dealing at New Providence with “privateers”—with pirates, that is. He probably had nothing to fear. Pitman remained aboard and went ashore at New York instead, yet another colony known for looking the other way when the subject was piracy. Not long after, Pitman returned to England in disguise.
In 1689 he published his short memoir, A Relation of the Great Sufferings and Strange Adventures of Henry Pitman. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ultimately gave freedom back to the rebels-convict two to three years later, although those in Barbados were required to remain on the island due to a shortage of white men for the militia and trades due to disease. In 1691 Pitman voluntarily returned to Barbados, where he died two years later.
Behold Captain Blood: His Odyssey and Errol Flynn! And Just Who Was that Unknown Pirate Captain?
So why is all of this important?
Because this is why we have Captain Blood: His Odyssey, and therefore the 1935 film which made Errol Flynn a star, and more.
Because “for want of a nail,” or of a few, there would be no canoe full of pirates to sail across the path of an incognito pirate captain who would, via their timely information, rescue a marooned rebel-convict surgeon.
Because without this captain and his crew Pitman might very likely have died on a mostly desert isle, in which case he would never have written the story of his adventures, most importantly of those with pirates. At the very least he would probably not have been rescued by pirates. And if Pitman’s odyssey were never published, Rafael Sabatini would never have read it and there would be no inspiration for Captain Blood as we know it.
And if there were no Captain Blood then there might be no films with Errol Flynn, therefore no famous Disney pirates ride as we know it—the ship versus fort scene is straight out of the novel—and therefore perhaps no famous Disney pirate films, and therefore we might have a very different modern pirate culture for everyone from scholars to writers of bodice-ripping romances to misapprehend.
Still, three questions remain unanswered: who were Jacob Hall and Thomas Jingle, the mystery pirate captains of Charlestown, South Carolina? Likewise the mystery pirate captain who rescued Henry Pitman, without whom we might have no great pirate film to make Errol Flynn a star? And might Hall or Jingle have been Pitman’s mystery captain?
To find the answer we turn first to the South Carolinian raid on St. Augustine in 1702. Led by Governor James Moore, the attacking forces moved by land and sea, sacking missions and outposts on route, and besieged the Spanish outpost but failed to capture the Castillo de San Marcos—a grand Spanish Main fortress and icon of American history, still standing and straight out of both Hollywood and reality, well worth a visit, as is the much smaller mid-18th century Fuerte Matanzas not far away—and the fifteen hundred souls packed inside.
The land forces were commanded by Colonel Robert Daniell (or Daniel), a noted Carolinian gentleman who had emigrated from Barbados. He had first purchased land in Carolina in 1677, owned a house in the city, a plantation in the countryside, and had long served in various military and naval capacities, including briefly assisting the soon-to-be famous Commodore Charles Wager during King William’s War. Daniell would one day become Lieutenant-Governor of North Carolina.
He was also, according to Don Josef de Zúñiga y Zerda, Gobernador de Florida, “one of the Jamaica pirates” (he actually he calls them as corsarios, which may refer to pirates or privateers), and “a renowned and experienced pirate, one of those who sacked Vera Cruz.”
Put plainly, Jacob Hall could be none other than Robert Daniell, who deserves not only the appellation of noteworthy early Carolina citizen and politician, but also of its most famous pirate. His list of piratical depredations includes the sack of Veracruz in 1683 and the attempted sack of St. Augustine in 1684. His is the classic exception that proves the rule, in this case of the gentleman pirate in disguise, another classic Hollywood trope that was quite rare in reality.
And Thomas Jingle? He may well have been Daniell’s occasional comrade-in-arms, James Risby, a buccaneering, pirateering, quasi-gentleman with a list of borderline skullduggeries as long as his arm. He had begun his career cutting logwood—a highly desirable dyewood—in Spanish territory circa 1669, a practice the Spanish considered highly illegal but the English government and merchant traders encouraged. In 1677 he was captured by a Spanish guardacosta and later released, but the Spaniards confiscated his vessel and cargo, perhaps provoking a career as a buccaneer in retaliation as was the case with a number of merchant captains who would turn to sea roving.
In 1683 he was sent on a mission by the governor of Jamaica to Petit Goâve, the French buccaneer haven on Hispaniola (Tortuga was largely abandoned by now, novelists and Hollywood notwithstanding), to demand the return of plunder taken by buccaneer George Spurre at Veracruz and by the notorious pirate Jean Hamlin at sea, and to forbid French buccaneers from English ports—which also means he had not accompanied Hall-Daniell at the sack of Veracruz.
Assuming his nom de guerre was Thomas Jingle, or rather, Hinkley, he commanded a vessel at the attempted sack of St. Augustine in 1684 under the sieur de Grammont. In 1696, under his real name and during a long association with the quasi-piratical sorts at New Providence Island, he ferried twenty-six fugitive crewmen of the notorious Red Sea pirate Henry Every, who had captured the Great Mughal’s treasure ship, not to mention whose crew had raped the many women aboard, from New Providence to Carolina and then across to Galloway, Ireland, where they landed discreetly and dispersed, for which he would have been paid handsomely.
In 1698 he was dubiously commissioned by the governor of New Providence as a pirate hunter along with three others including Colonel Read Elding, a mulatto sea captain of the same island and who would two years later become the de facto, if unlawfully commissioned, wife-swapping adventurer-governor of the piratical island. The pirate hunters failed to capture a real pirate, but did plunder an innocent merchant sloop for which they were accused of piracy. In 1702 Risby commanded the small naval force in the attack on St. Augustine.
In 1706, now Colonel Risby, he played an active role defending Charlestown against a Franco-Spanish attack. So famous and respected was he that “several gentlemen and others who were willing to share in the danger and honour” were adamant about serving at his side aboard a separate Dutch privateer sloop during the attack French fleet, rather than aboard the Seaflower commanded by famous slave trader, merchant trader, pirate hunter, and private naval seaman Colonel William Rhett who would later gain fame as the captor of gentleman pirate and general fool Stede Bonnet.
Which brings us to the question of the identity of the captain incognito who rescued Henry Pitman.
We assume he was almost certainly a Carolinian, given the voyage’s origin, although it’s entirely possible he might not have been. If he were, Daniell and Risby are therefore by far the two most likely candidates, being the two predominant buccaneer captains operating out of South Carolina at the time—in fact, they are the only known such English sea roving captains ported there, although others clearly touched there. My romantic inclination, never a good path on a factual quest except for inspiration, is on Daniell.
He fits the character of Pitman’s captain exactly as Governor William Markham of Pennsylvania described Daniell in 1697: “an easy good-natured man.” Likewise his vital need to remain incognito. Certainly his buccaneer experience and contacts lend him to the position, and nearly every buccaneer in the mid-1680s had his eye set on the South Sea. The Caribbean was becoming too dangerous, especially for English sea rovers.
Unfortunately, if Pitman’s statement is correct, that the pirates had been at sea roughly eighteen months, Daniell could not have been the captain because his signature is on a South Carolina document dated October 15, 1686. Of course, eighteen months, although a short cruise for buccaneers sailing into the South Sea, might be a bit long for those who failed to round Cape Horn. Eight months is more reasonable, and perhaps the longer period is a transcription or hearsay error, leaving open the window in which Daniell could very well have commanded the expedition.
Is this even partial proof? Of course not. It’s merely strong conjecture, with questions that must first be answered—and we may never have answers to some. Even so, this will not prevent the hypothesis from being posted to Wikipedia or other online pages as “fact.” There might even be other known candidates, including not only Risby, whom my objective analysis points to as the most likely, assuming the captain was a Carolinian.
There is, for example, “marriner of Charles Towne” John Williamson who when he died in 1688 had £192 in silver and gold in coin and plate (the equivalent of roughly 855 pieces-of-eight), an enormous cash sum to have on hand for any seaman, even a merchant captain! That is, unless the seaman were a successful buccaneer, or at least a frugal successful one, unlike the majority who typically spent their booty in debauchery. In fact, we have already seen that eight hundred pieces-of-eight was each common buccaneer’s share of plunder at Veracruz, suggesting Williamson may have at least been one of the crewmen of Jacob Hall aka Robert Daniell.
Another possibility for the captain of the English buccaneers is argued for by scholar Raynald Laprise. You can read about it in the pdf paper located here: Henry Pitman, ou les rendez-vous de Salt Tortuga. (I’ll also note that M. Laprise argues Thomas Handley aka Henley was Thomas Jingle, a suspect I placed on the back burner given that I could find no record of a Handley owning property in Carolina. The rest of M. Laprise’s excellent, extensive research is also well worth reading.)
Still, in my heart I stand, at least until I’m overwhelmed with evidence otherwise (which may be sooner than later) with Colonel Daniell as Pitman’s captain and therefore the secret progenitor of Rafael Sabatini’s famous Captain Peter Blood. For better and, too often, for worse, this is how the process works: heart over head. In other words, my desire-based reasoning, even if ultimately incorrect (Risby’s ghost, or that of whoever the captain really was, is surely furious and may haunt me for this), helps satisfy my need to reconcile fact with fiction, if only temporarily: in this case the romance versus reality of a gentleman pirate from Barbados one day becoming governor of Jamaica, a fiction we now know might very well have had its origin in a mystery gentleman pirate of South Carolina who one day became Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina.
Or, how the combination of mystery pirates, an obscure account of a marooned rebels and pirates, and the want of a few nails can inspire famous popular fiction and strongly influence culture three centuries later.
This tenuous adventure-romance of connections little-known and well-known, of tales rightly- and wrongly-known, this odyssey of seeking fact, creating fiction, and balancing both, is much of what the manuscript this has been excerpted and edited from is about: how fact becomes fiction, fiction fact, and how we do—and, more importantly, how we should—regard both.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted November 23, 2021. Last revised January 18, 2022.
Each media–the written word, the illustration, the motion picture–has a unique ability to convey action. A novel can not only describe but explain swordplay in action; an illustration can bring a moment in time to life and make an entire action timeless; a motion picture can show action as it unfolds and as we might see it were it real.
Of all three, by turning the written description or static illustration into moving action, film may have left us with our most indelible memories and tropes of the duel on the beach. Or so I argue tenuously, for several written descriptions and illustrations come to mind that likewise bring forth indelible memories.
With fiction we must imagine the duel, even when when well-described (but almost always imperfectly nonetheless) and accompanied by the paintings of Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth. Written descriptions may suggest extraordinary action, yet even if it’s described accurately and in detail it’s likely that only those who’ve studied swordplay can picture it well in their mind’s eye. Written explanations almost always slow the action down, providing a false tempo and, in the worst cases, a distraction.
Accompanying illustrations can only suggest action. But don’t get me wrong! Often a written description or a painting is far more evocative than a poorly choreographed film duel.
But in film we get to see the duelists move before our eyes. They lunge, parry, and riposte. They plot and execute, they snarl and rejoice. They are living swords actively arrayed in combat before us. And they are often even more dangerously and joyfully inspiring than their descriptions in fiction or accompanying paintings!
This is part three of a five-part series on the duel on the beach in fiction and film. Part one discusses the duel on the beach in fiction, part two the duel in The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, and part four the duel in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood. It’s worth reading the first two before this post, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. In this post we’ll take a look at an overview of the duel on the beach in film, with some commentary as well on film duel choreography and especially on one vital aspect of it and all swordplay: tempo.
Actors as Fencers
The actual filming of a duel can take days, and the preparation is typically extensive, beginning with a detailed written play followed by, usually, exhaustive rehearsal. I’ll provide more details on this process in the Golden Age of Film in part four, and look at actors as fencers and at tempo here instead.
Only rarely are actors actually also skilled fencers. From the Golden Age of Film just two come to mind: Cornell Wilde, a Hungarian-born US national saber champion and Olympic qualifier who just prior to the Olympic Games gave up competitive fencing for the theater and soon film, and Basil Rathbone, a studious British amateur who enjoyed swordplay and studied for five years under famous film fencing master Ralph Cavens, after having studied under famous fencing masters Félix Gravé and Léon Bertrand in the UK.
Others have managed to look the part well, with actual skill ranging from none to a little, including Danny Kaye in The Court Jester and Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers. It surely helped that both were dancers, although for real swordplay, as opposed to choreographed, re-enacted, or fake, it helps even more to be able to sense tempo or rhythm and then break it, by which means one may steal distance and time on one’s adversary, setting him or her up to be hit at the precise moment he or she is least prepared.
I’ve had students who were both excellent dancers and excellent fencers, but also those who were excellent dancers but awful fencers, entirely unable to do anything but follow their adversary’s rhythm or a simple rhythm of their own, to their great peril. A number of them could only imitate, not tactically improvise. And to be fair, I’ve had some students who were excellent fencers but awful dancers, unable to keep to a rhythm for more than a few beats–they had long been taught not to. (I’ve even been accused of this.) They could easily sense the rhythm but only with effort could they maintain it, for by training, even instinct, they wanted to break it.
Errol Flynn, famous alongside Douglas Fairbanks as the most swashbuckling of film swashbucklers, admitted in his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways that he was no swordsman:
“I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still and look forward, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.”
Our five-year-old has already, quite naturally, mastered this en garde. An old school epeeist, close friend of mine, retired Byzantine iconographer, and portrait artist at present, Elias Katsaros,* still uses this en garde, often with the point dropped a couple inches as Flynn described; it’s highly effective for him and although approaching eighty years old, he can still give elite fencers fits with his old school dueling style of epee fencing. Flynn’s comment reflects the following description by William Higford in his book Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658:
“The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable.”
At the opposite extreme is the admonition of Dr. Eugene Hamori, my fencing master of many decades: in the en garde one should appear as if always in motion, always attacking, at all times. It goes without saying that one can appear simultaneously as both a fort impregnable and constantly on the attack. But I digress.
The reality is that, then and now, most actors were not fencers but imitators who followed a carefully choreographed routine. This is vital not only for the logistics of filming but for safety too.
Fencing Tempo: Reality Versus Cinema
If there’s one aspect of cinematic duels that often drives me crazy, it’s the obvious overuse of what might best be termed the “false tempo of choreography” in film swordplay. Some background first, so please bear with me. If you find this too technical or tedious, you can just skip straight to the films themselves.
Classical tempo, or, more accurately, true tempo, sometimes called timing, is the most vital of all aspects of swordplay. Every fencing master has his or her own definition, but basically it can be defined as the most opportune time to make a fencing action, usually an offensive one–that is, the moment when my opponent is for a brief moment helpless–without my also getting hit. False tempo or false time is any other tempo. Not getting hit means exactly that: not getting hit at all. Hits excluded by the rules of fencing or by the timing of a scoring machine would still be hits if the swords were real.
Fencing tempo may be divided into physical and psychological tempo, the latter consisting of moments of inattention, over-attention, or distraction, either by the adversary’s own action, or induced–“putting the opponent to sleep” for example–in him or her. Closely associated with tempo is cadence or rhythm.
Zoltan Beke and Jozsef Polgar’s definition of fencing tempo in The Methodology of Sabre Fencing (Budapest: Corvina, 1963) is one of the best I’ve read and is what I was taught, far more often unconsciously through lessons than consciously through lecture, by both of my Hungarian masters:
“In fencing, under the concept of tempo we include that suitable moment, at which the opponent is helpless against our fencing action. It is not enough just to recognize the moment which favours the surprising of our opponent, it must be felt. Seeing in itself is not enough, because by the time we perceive it and make our decision to act, the actual moment may have passed or the position of the opponent may have changed to our disadvantage. // In practice, we also interpret tempo as a unit of time [one cadence, or one unit of fencing time]… // In the instruction of tempo attention should be devoted to both these interpretations.”
Physical tempo is often divided into hand tempo and foot tempo, particularly in the early stages of instruction. For example, a very simple instance of hand tempo: my adversary moves hand and sword laterally from the sixte position outside to the quart position inside. Anticipating this, I attack with a disengage into the opening sixte line at the moment the hand and sword begin to move, so that my point lands as my opponent’s hand and sword arrive in the quarte position. If I wait until my adversary’s hand and sword are in the quarte position to attack, he or she has the tempo–a full cadence–in which to defend against my attack. Or, I make a simple attack as my opponent starts to lower their hand, opening the line. Again, I don’t wait until the line is entirely open.
In practice, hand and foot tempo go–forgive me–hand-in-hand. One must time them both, although often one or the other predominates. For example, I may have superior blade-work against a particular adversary, leaving me to concentrate largely on finding the foot tempo with which to make the attack, and vice versa.
In sum, I want to attack in anticipation of my adversary’s movements, keeping a full cadence ahead, resulting in his or her inability to defend in time. Again, vitally, this tempo must also aid in protecting me so I don’t also get hit, and leave me in position to recover quickly or secure my adversary’s sword so I’m not hit immediately afterward (Sir Wm. Hope called such “double” hits exchanged hits).
True fencing tempo is not the tempo of a game of tag!
Similarly foot tempo. Ideally I will attack when my adversary begins his or her advance, because for a moment there is nowhere to go while the foot is in the air. The opponent is temporarily helpless to escape. Further, if my adversary is preparing an attack, they may be over-focused on it, providing me with psychological tempo in addition. They’re distracted, in other words, by their preparation. Or I can attack with an accelerating movement (usually an advance-lunge) if my adversary fails to retreat as I advance, or retreats too slowly. Again, for a brief moment my opponent is helpless to escape. Or, I can attack during my adversary’s recovery from an attack, for here psychological tempo also plays a significant role–the recovering adversary is not only typically slower than the attacker, but they tend to believe they are safer during the recovery than at the exact moment the attack has failed, and tend to let their guard down, particularly if their opponent has not previously attacked during recovery.
But there are other forms of tempo, the rules of each weapon creating them. Although classical or true tempo still applies to a degree, modern foil and saber are also governed by an artificial or false tempo of convention, also known as “right of way” rules, in theory derived from reality and true tempo but in practice suicidal, given that they now permit attacks in invitation (with the sword in a non-threatening position, that is) which with a real sword would often result in impalement.
In modern epee, the timing of the scoring machine creates a false tempo that often takes priority over true tempo, turning it into a game of “hit at least a 20th to 25th of a second before getting hit,” rather than “hit and not get hit.” Often the majority of epee touches would be double hits were the weapons real. Again, although true tempo still plays an important role in all three weapons, it is often, unfortunately, overshadowed or even superseded by the tempos created by the rules governing the weapon.
This has long been a problem even in the days in which swords were worn and duels were fought: “…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either by Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…” (Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694.) Even three centuries ago, fencers in schools tended toward tag rather than true tempo.
There is also the false tempo of the fencing master whose goal is to get hit, unlike the fencer whose goal ideally is to not get hit. The fencing master, in other words, provides opportunities for the student to hit: he or she uses false tempo–often via exaggeration, hesitation, other error, or all of these–to train true tempo. (But he or she also uses true tempo when necessary, for example to surprise a student making a repeated error.) As an old friend, an outstanding foilist in his youth, an outstanding epeeist later, now also a retired French army colonel, put it when he first met me: “I love to fence fencing masters and teachers, they always fence like they’re giving a lesson: they hesitate and I hit them!” He was quite correct. Even so, he never won more than half his bouts against me, in spite of my teaching handicap, for the tendency to hesitate can, with practice, be suppressed, not to mention that friendly competitive Gallic arrogance can motivate an opponent. I fenced some of my favorite bouts against him.
Last, we have the false tempo of film fencing choreography, best described by famed film fencing master Fred Cavens:
“For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what’s coming.” (Fred Cavens quoted in “Swordplay on the Screen” by film historian and film swordplay commentator Rudy Behlmer in Films in Review, June-July 1965.)
But if the audience can see it coming, so in reality can the adversary, and far more easily!
At its best, with great action and editing, this false tempo of choreography is less noticeable. At other times it is awful and drives fencers like me crazy as we spot numerous opportunities in which we would have attacked or defended had we been in the duel ourselves. Worse, the clearly weaker fencer often wins per the script (watch The Spanish Main, for example). In such choreography’s defense, much of this has to do with safety, the lack of skill of many actors (although the unskilled were often doubled as much as possible), and as Cavens noted, to help the audience understand what’s going on.
Even so, film swordplay can be exciting without resorting to this false tempo–but this takes skilled actors, skilled fight choreographers, and skilled editors, not to mention willing directors. In most cases these days, in spite of a fair number of capable fight directors, film swordplay is of the “hack and slash, make it look rock and roll” variety. Trite and lazy, in other words, if exciting at times to the uninitiated.
Or, as one well-experienced Hollywood stuntman, swordsman, and film swordplay choreographer put it, “You do what the director wants, however ridiculous, or you get fired.” Fred Cavens once walked off the set after a director insisted on filming a swordfight with one of the actors standing on a table: in reality, the swordsman would be unable to defend himself adequately from adversaries cutting and thrusting at his feet and legs. Sometimes even Hollywood antics are too much.
Most directors these days don’t seem to care about exciting, accurate swordplay. Even so, we can hope and dream, and enjoy those few films that do still occasionally elevate swordplay to the degree those of us who follow the sword desire.
Now to the film duels on the beach!
To Have and to Hold, 1922
Based on the novel by Mary Johnston, a writer who had significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, this 1922 Paramount version is lost as is the 1916 Paramount version. Remakes were as common then as now–why not beat a dead horse if it’s profitable? We have no cinematic details on the duel on the beach in either version to my knowledge.
This fictional duel is perhaps best-known today for Howard Pyle’s painting of the duel for command in the novel, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. Clearly, the duel was filmed somewhere on the California coast rather than upon a flat Virginia islet. Santa Catalina Island is often considered the likely suspect location, but such scenes were more often filmed on the California coast itself or even on studio sets. See The Duel on the Beach, Part I for more general details, including paintings by Howard Pyle and Frank Schoonover.
Captain Blood, 1924
Several years prior to 1924, Douglas Fairbanks–actor, director, writer, producer (auteur in other words)–had already established the swashbuckling film genre as we know it today (and usually poorly imitated now) in The Three Musketeers and The Mark of Zorro. Film permitted him to carry swashbuckling adventure beyond the constraints of reality. His swashbuckling heroes could fight and defeat a half dozen or more enemies at once, climb buildings and do stunts like Jackie Chan before Mr. Chan was born, and swing from every chandelier in sight.
But he had yet to make a pirate film. In 1924, Vitagraph produced Captain Blood based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, a mere two years after the book’s publication, and beating Fairbanks by two years to his own pirate film. The movie was intended to be, and was, everything we’ve come expect of a blockbuster even if it’s star, J. Warren Kerrigan, had once said the following to a Denver Times reporter in 1917:
“I am not going to war. I will go, of course, if my country needs me, but I think that first they should take the great mass of men who aren’t good for anything else, or are only good for the lower grades of work. Actors, musicians, great writers, artists of every kind—isn’t it a pity when people are sacrificed who are capable of such things—of adding to the beauty of the world.”
No real Captain Blood he, clearly, nor anything resembling an honorable person, but then, actors, with some notable exceptions, are for the most part actors imitating heroes, not heroes playing heroes. Still, we expect more even from actors.
Unfortunately, only thirty minutes of the original film survive, and the duel footage is not found among them. In the image above, note the Howard Pyle-inspired arrangement of duelists and spectating pirates. Beyond this, we’re left now to our imaginations.
Historically-speaking, such duelists may have stripped off coats, sword-belts or baldrics, and, in the case of Peter Blood, periwig if he were still wearing one (he appears to have switched to his own hair by now), for which we have historical evidence, although not all swordsmen stripped down. Whether they did or did not depended largely on the circumstances of the fight and personal inclination. In the novel, there is no indication but that the two men fought as they were dressed, given the hasty development of the rencontre and drawn swords.
In fact, lighter dress was the norm in the tropical climate: a scarf instead of a periwig and a waistcoat but no coat over it, except on the most formal of occasions. And no boots, except on horseback, even if Rafael Sabatini permitted them on sandy, dune-ridden dueling shores. 🙂
In the novel, the duel was fought on Virgin Magra, Sabatini’s joke on Virgin Gorda–the island isn’t actually fat but more or less skinny, depending I suppose on your perspective. There are one or two possible beaches on Virgin Gorda where the duel, as described in the novel, could have been fought, but more on this in part four when I discuss the 1935 film version in detail in part four.
Clothes Make the Pirate, 1925
A comic film starring Leon Errol and Dorothy Gish, based on the comic pirate novel by Holman Day of the same name, the duel is merely a pretend one between two tailors masquerading as pirates, one of them named Tidd who is pretending to be the famous pirate Dixie Bull. The film no longer exists, unfortunately, and there are no stills of the duel, at least not that I’m aware of. The image above is from the photoplay edition, and depicts the final confrontation between the fake Bull and the real, with the fake triumphing, of course. After all, it’s a comic novel.
The Black Pirate, 1926
Released in 1926, The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks set the parameters and even more importantly, the expectations, for one of the three major forms of the swashbuckling pirate genre for the next century: the semi-historical pirate romance-adventure in traditional form, of which Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk are the finest examples; the semi-historical or “sort of historical” pirate adventure, any of the versions of Treasure Island for example, and the television series The Buccaneer and Black Sails (full disclosure: I was the historical consultant on Black Sails); and the purely pirate fantasy, usually with a bit of romance on the side, filled with pirate myth and trope, of which The Black Pirate is the original, and still the finest, example, although honorable mention goes to The Crimson Pirate and perhaps–and only perhaps–the first of the Disney pirate films.
The Disney pirate films carry the pirate fantasy to extreme with occult and mythological nonsense, if entertaining at times. Many pirate films, particularly the generally inferior B versions, straddle the genres between romance-adventure and pirate trope and caricature, generally leaning more on the latter. Except for some of the pirate historical romance adventures such as Captain Blood, all have been more or less, usually unsuccessfully, based on the genre formulated by The Black Pirate. Even the Disney pirate films owe not only their origin but their Peter Pan fantasy and tongue-in-cheek atmosphere to this Douglas Fairbanks film.
By his own admission Fairbanks was inspired as much by Peter Pan (thus Fairbanks’s costume) and Howard Pyle’s paintings as by Alexander Exquemelin’s buccaneers, making The Black Pirate is a straightforward pirate fantasy adventure marked by the swashbuckling derring-do of Fairbanks himself. And it’s entirely enjoyable because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
The swordplay is the film reflects the genre Fairbanks was creating, or rather, reflected the style of swordplay Fairbanks had already designed and set in motion in The Three Musketeers:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.” (New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921.)
The duel on the beach between the pirate captain (Anders Randolf) and the shipwrecked Duke of Arnoldo (Fairbanks), bent on avenging the death of his father was choreographed by Fred Cavens rather than Fairbanks’s usual Belgian master H.J. Utterhore (Henri Joseph Uyttenhove). Cavens ultimately choreographed the swordplay in more than fifty films by my count; Thomas Brady in “Meet Hollywood’s Fencing Master” (New York Times, October 5, 1941) noted seventy-five as of the date of his article.
Fairbanks’s character is a revenge-seeking, pirate-hunting Spaniard who comes to be known as the Black Pirate, so cup-hilt rapier and parrying dagger are appropriate arms. However, it’s unlikely the real pirate captain would himself have carried these weapons. But no matter–it’s fantasy entertainment after all.
The duel setup is a classic one derived from pirate myth, particularly as depicted in To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston, a novel illustrated by Howard Pyle and influential in the writing of Rafael Sabatini: a man wishing to join a pirate crew proves himself by fighting a duel with the best swordsman (or swordsmen, in the case of Johnston’s novel), and it seems that the pirate captain is always the best or one of the best. Pyle’s illustration (see part one) clearly influenced the film duel’s arrangement.
The 25 cent oversized film program–$3.64 in present dollars which was quite a good deal actually, given that most similar programs typically cost $10 to $20 today, the modern practice of gouging fans being what it is–was written, illustrated, and published in the style of a Howard Pyle, Charles Johnson, or Alexandre Exquemelin sea roving journal (or all three!). At one point it describes the duel with lines by its pretended pirate-author “Sandy MacTavish” (actually screenwriter Lotta Woods who wrote several screenplays for Douglas Fairbanks but not The Black Pirate), of which the following are examples:
“Another step backward and the Captain was in the lagoon, while the stranger, with punctilious ceremony, waited for his recovery. The Captain was like to burst a blood-vessel. He scrambled to the bank and made a powerful thrust that backed the stranger toward the line of our men.”
However, in spite of the Black Pirate’s “punctilious ceremony,” he ends the duel by causing the pirate captain to trip and fall backwards onto the point of a parrying dagger the Black Pirate had placed there beforehand just for the purpose and somehow entirely unnoticed by the entire pirate crew.
According to Tracey Goessel writing for the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress, Anders Randolph’s rapier cut Fairbanks’s arm during filming, causing the swashbuckling star to curse. She also notes that he was injured again, this time when fencing with Fred Cavens who was standing in for Randolph. A cut close to the eye was a result, but guests were present, so Fairbanks smiled and said, “Pirates always were a bloody lot.”
The duel is magnificently choreographed, easily one of the most exciting of any Hollywood film and one that certainly ties with 1935 Captain Blood duel (also choreographed by Cavens) as the best of any pirate movie. Although there are numerous Hollywood flourishes, the swordfight comes across as realistic. Given the speed of the actions and the technique involved, it’s easy to see how Fairbanks was injured.
Of course, the less-than-honorable and probably impractical-except-in-film trick of fence is arguably entirely permissible when a pirate is the adversary, not to mention when the adversary is the man who murdered your father long before (in cinematic years) Inigo Montoya sought similar revenge:
“As if a man that lies at the mercy of common Pirates [praedonibus: of the robbers or plunderers], should promise them a certain Sum of Money for the saving of his Life: ‘Tis no deceit to recede from it, tho’ he had given his Oath for the performance: for we are not to look upon Pirates [pirata] as Open and Lawful Enemies: but as the Common Adversaries of Mankind [communis hostis omnium]. For they are a sort of men with whom we ought to have neither Faith, nor Oath in common.” (Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis 3:29.107, in 44 BC. Translated by R. l’Estrange, 1720.)
Although the story is entirely fictional, we can do a little sleuthing and intelligently imagine where the duel might have taken place. Given that the tale in set in the “Southern Seas,” we know that this is the South Sea, aka the Pacific coast of the Spanish Main, and probably takes place in the 1680s when most of the great South Sea buccaneer expeditions took place.
Looking at the map in the film program, there is only one area that orients this way: the Isthmus of Darien. Therefore Panama, and therefore Isla Chepillo would be the prime candidate. It’s even shaped a bit like the island on the pirate chart! It’s not a perfect fit, but no matter: Panama and Chepillo will serve, and there are plenty of “pirate coves” to the west.
Chepillo, however, was not entirely a desert isle, making buried treasure a bit more difficult. That said, given that buried pirate treasure is a myth, we can just as easily fantasize that the island was uninhabited, or that the inhabitants were unlikely to find the treasure.
In fact, true desert isles were hard to find even in the seventeenth century. Most islands, even small ones, had inhabitants, and the rest, if they had any resources at all, were visited from time to time. In 1681, English buccaneers landed on Chepillo and took aboard good fresh water, plantains, two fat hogs–and fourteen black and mulatto prisoners. Whether free or enslaved, the buccaneers would doubtless have kept them as slaves.
Captain Blood, 1935
Not only my favorite of all film duels, and not just of those on the beach or in pirate films, but also one of the best to watch and enjoy. So notable and influential is it to the film swordplay that followed that I’m not going to discuss it here, but in a blog post to follow, one entirely devoted to the duel! My apologies to anyone (temporarily) disappointed; I promise to make it up to you!
The Queen of the Pirates (La Venere dei Pirati), 1960
An Italian pirate film dubbed into English, starring Gianna Maria Canale, queen of Italian costume films, as Sandra, who with her father flees to sea to escape a false accusation and, naturally, become pirates. The film has plenty of pirate tropes, and two years later Canale would reprise her role as a pirate queen in The Tiger of the Seven Seas. She wields a rapier quite well and quite aggressively, if Hollywood-style, in both films, including in a tavern duel in the latter. Coming from a family of circus performers, she has an obvious athletic grace.
In fact, I am impressed with her swordplay, having previously only seen Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters of this era swashbuckle well sword-in-hand. Canale compares well with these three film swordswomen and might be fiercer than all three, including even Peters.
In the film, Sandra and another pirate captain agree to settle their differences “con la punta de la spada,” which happens to be represented by cup-hilt rapiers. Assuming the pirates are intended to be Italian as described in the film’s description, the swords are then for once appropriate: cup-hilt rapiers were common in Spanish-held regions of Italy in the 17th century. I’m unsure what century the film is actually set in, though: the film advertising pretends the 16th, but the pirates look quite 17th century Hollywood Caribbean.
What follows is, if too short, a respectable if theatrical film duel with single rapiers that ends in Sandra disarming the other pirate captain with a disarm that actually can work in real fencing, at which point they laugh and make friends again. Canale displays some tight technique, including quick disengages against attempted beats and binds. Unfortunately, given the duel’s short length, there isn’t much opportunity for movement across a wide setting. The movie was filmed on location on the shores of Tuscany, although the sea settings were intended to represent the Adriatic on the eastern coast of Italy. The film’s “master of arms” was fencing master, actor, and stunt performer Franco Fantasia. See also Rage of the Buccaneers below.
Morgan the Pirate, 1961
Starring pre-Schwarzenegger muscleman Steve Reeves as Henry Morgan, and a largely Italian cast dubbed into English (there are several “Spaghetti pirate” films in fact), the film is reasonably watchable if you’re a kid with nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon. It has most of the usual tropes: escaped servant-slaves, sea fights, shore fights, forts, evil Spaniards, Conquistador armor, cup-hilt rapiers, “exotic” women, &c. The color is lavish and the settings beautifully tropical.
And the duel? The usual Hollywood hack-and-slash filmed on an Italian beach (Procida Island off Naples, I believe) standing in for Basse Terre, Tortuga, with backgrounds clearly influenced by the paintings of Howard Pyle: ships at anchor, pirates watching in rapt attention, and palm trees.
The swordfight, Henry Morgan versus François l’Olonnais, begins in a tavern (another film duel trope possibly due a blog post), fought in triplicate over a desire to join the buccaneers, a need for supplies, and the protection of women. At first, l’Olonnais intends it to be a fight with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting. However, upon seeing Morgan’s muscles, he chooses swords–cup-hilt rapiers, of course, even if historically incorrect–instead. Still, Reeves’s bulk was a lot of target for a knife, and l’Olonnais might have used Butch Cassidy’s technique in addition. But no matter, swords it is because by now the duel on the beach with rapiers is a trope.
The duel continues outside in Captain Blood versus Levasseur (1935, of course) style up and down the shore and dunes. But it’s nowhere near as well-choreographed or filmed as the famous 1935 film fight, even if it has a moment or two.
Mostly, it seems a set piece intended primarily to showcase Reeves’s muscles. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place in a beach party film of the era, at least as a fantasy dream scene, if a bit serious. What swordplay Reeve’s seems to know appears to have been picked up while rehearsing fights in some of the “Sword and Sandal” films he starred in. The duel ends when Reeve, clearly the underdog in swordplay, throws away his rapier, grapples with l’Olonnais, and disarms him.
The swordplay was choreographed by famous Italian fencing master Enzo Musumeci Greco, of the even more famous Aurelio and Agesilao Greco family of fencers dating to the mid-19th century. The two just-mentioned Greco brothers highly influenced the Italian form of epee fencing for both dueling and sport. Time to train students and student aptitude limit even the best of masters (not to mention being limited by a film director’s “vision”) so I certainly don’t blame Maestro Greco for the inauthentic nature of the swordplay in Morgan the Pirate.
Greco also worked with Errol Flynn in Crossed Swords, with much better swordplay, and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, which really didn’t have much in the way of swordplay although the fencing-with-fish bit is enjoyable. The Greco Academy of Arms in Rome still exists and still trains world class fencers. It also has a nationally-recognized fencing museum, the Casa Museo Accademia d’Armi Musumeci Greco that I’ve been told is well worth visiting.
To my knowledge, the soundtrack by Franco Mannino, including the track accompanying the duel, has never been released.
Rage of the Buccaneers (Gordon, il Pirata Nero), 1961
Also released as Gordon, the Black Pirate; The Black Buccaneer; The Black Pirate; Gordon, the Knight of the Seas; Pirate Warrior; and possibly other names if I’m not mistaken, the film stars Ricardo Montalbán as former slave and now pirate captain Gordon, and Vincent Price as Romero, a wealthy slave trader. It’s another “Spaghetti pirate” movie with a largely Italian cast dubbed for UK and American release, and it missed an opportunity to have these two notable actors fight a duel on the beach! Instead, Gordon fights the eye-patched Captain Tortuga who prefers not to fight fair, throwing sand in his adversary’s eyes, and engaging in other disreputable acts–perhaps because judging distance is difficult when fencing with eye (true, in fact). Gordon fights him again at the finale.
The backdrop of the duel is Howard Pyle-inspired, but lacks the sense of romantic adventure. Andrea and Franco Fantasia (see The Queen of Pirates above) are credited as fencing masters. The duel is largely Hollywood hack-and-slash, with large movements, cuts and slashes especially, quite untypical of rapier play, although there are a couple of tighter movements. The swords are cup-hilts, as usual and similarly anachronistic, assuming these aren’t Spanish pirates, which they might be, their names notwithstanding. Montalbán makes a fair attempt at a Flynn-like smirking composure, but is no fencer, often making the bent-arm stabs or pokes common to those who’ve never been taught to fence.
The movie is trope-filled, as the genre seems to require. Gordon is out to stop Romero from trading slaves, something no Caribbean pirates ever did or would have, unless to steal the slaves to sell themselves. In fact, the film opens with the duel on the beach. Captain Tortuga, it turns out, has been slave trading, something in reality pirates did quite regularly, capturing them at sea and on shore and selling them afterward.
The movie was filmed on the shores of Tuscany, probably in the same locations Queen of the Pirates was. The films were both directed by Mario Costa.
The Son of Captain Blood, 1962
Sean Flynn on the right in a classical en garde in a sword-fighting scene early in the film. It’s not truly a duel, nor on the beach. Rather, it’s a bit of a semi-comical sword brawl on the sandy shore of, ostensibly, Kingston, Jamaica. The film was an Italian-Spanish-US production featuring the son of Errol Flynn playing the son of Captain Peter Blood. Like his father, the younger Flynn looked the part of a swordsman even if his actual ability was far more theatrical than practical. A later swordfight in the film has been described by a friend of mine, himself an accomplished swordsman and swordplay teacher and choreographer, as probably the worst display of film sword combat ever filmed. I’ve been unable to discover who the film’s fight arranger was. Sean Flynn went to Vietnam in 1968 as a war correspondent. He, along with correspondent Dana Stone, were captured by Viet Cong guerillas in Cambodia in 1970 and were never heard from again. They are generally believed to have been murdered either by the Viet Cong or the Khmer Rouge.
Starring Robert Shaw as Captain Ned Lynch, more or less reprising his former role as Dan Tempest in the television series The Buccaneers, and Genevieve Bujold as gentlewoman Jane Barnet, the film’s duel on the beach is as much or more titillation than plot development. One need only watch it or view the images below to recognize this immediately. Arguably, it does put the duelists’ personalities on display, but this we already have from other scenes. Still, who doesn’t enjoy watching swordplay on a tropical beach? And it is an important trope for the genre! The Swashbuckler duel was filmed on a beach near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to represent one somewhere on Jamaica.
The film indulges in numerous pirate tropes caricatures, including the myth of siding with a rebellious populace against an unjust government, and is filled with as many anachronisms as a Disney pirate film, ranging from “pirate boots” to the Blarney Cock (the replica Golden Hinde I once visited in San Diego), a tall ship almost a century out of place–but at least it was a real ship and not a studio set! Even so, the film does (as my friend Antón Viejo Alonso reminded me) showcase Black actors–James Earl Jones as Nick Debrett and Jeffrey Holder as Cudjo–in prominent positions, including the role of Jones as what is essentially the ship’s quartermaster, or second-in-command, aboard pirate ships of the era. No other pirate films have done this so well, not even Black Sails. (The latter series did, however, do an admirable job showcasing African slaves in rebellion and allied with pirates, even if the latter is a myth. Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant for the show.)
Accepting the film for what it is–a 1970s update on The Black Pirate and The Crimson Pirate (in the UK it was released as The Scarlet Buccaneer) and a bit of an improvement on the old B-movies of the 1950s–it’s entirely enjoyable, or mostly so. All three leading actors–Shaw, Bujold, and Jones–take their roles seriously in spite of the occasional campiness and strange diversions (seriously, bath torture fetishism?) of the script.
The duel is fought with historically inaccurate swords as is common in Hollywood: Ned Lynch is armed with a cup-hilt rapier (with the classic Hollywood-issue modern epee blade instead of rapier blade), which commonly was used only by Iberians and some Italians at the time (1718) and almost out of style, and Jane Barnet with, for whatever imponderable, silly reason, a late 19th to early 20th century Radaelli fencing saber. The swordplay was choreographed with input from the film’s fencing consultant Tom Greene, a fencing student of Ralph Faulkner and a Hollywood writer and producer.
There are two other notable, if inauthentic, fencing scenes. In the first, the evil governor (played by Peter Boyle) and preening fetishist fences and defeats three Black fencing masters, killing one of them after he wounds the governor. If these Black fencers were of the standard of some of those on Barbados, I doubt the governor would have survived the encounters.
As Richard Ligon wrote in the 17th century, “I have seen some of these Portugal Negroes, at Collonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skilfully, with their Stookados, their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza, with such comeliness…they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies. For, in this Science, I had been so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent judge.”
The final fencing scene is of the obligatory duel between Shaw and the governor.
Although as Hollywood goes the fencing in the duel isn’t entirely awful (it’s of the common standard, in other words, with lots of moulinets and the tierce-seconde, tierce-seconde action that’s simple to do and looks good on screen), and although there is little realism, Shaw does an excellent job giving a patronizing, chauvinistic air, and Bujold in return the rage at being outclassed and patronized. Both give spirited performances sword-in-hand. In fact, their relationship as revealed during their swordplay is more believable than during their romantic encounters although doubtless some readers will point out that adversarial engagements often stimulate romance. Or sometimes just lust.
The expanded original motion picture soundtrack (Quartet Records, 2 CDs, 2020), composed and conducted by John Addison, includes the duel track, “Fencing Lesson” (a mere 1:28 long).
By no means is the depicted duel a conventional one. Rather, it is deadly game (in this comedy) forced upon Spanish prisoners by their pirate captors, Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red, played by Walter Matthau, in particular. Two Spanish officers are forced to fight to the death on the shoulders of two other Spaniards, one of them a priest: “Dead Man’s Nag” is the name of the game according to Captain Red. The victor will be spared.
The scene is almost certainly inspired by an illustration in The Pirates Own Book by Charles Elms (1837) in which pirates ride on the shoulders of priests as a means of abusing them. The book panders to pirate tropes: its accuracy, however, leaves much to be desired. The swordplay in the “mounted” duel is actually not bad, even if as much cutting as thrusting. The fencing master is uncredited.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2007
I hesitate to include this film because the scene is not a duel but a comical affray with swords on the beach, and soon gets even sillier. I won’t even mention but in passing the duel on the waterwheel scene. Yes, the scene is amusingly choreographed, and yes, it’s a fantasy film with pirates in it, not a pirate movie per se. Even so, the swordplay, such as there is, is the least memorable imagery of the entire scene. In fact, the comic reactions of Elizabeth Swann (played as everyone knows by Keira Knightley) are the most entertaining aspect of this romp with swords and treasure chest. Looking at the film credits, I’m unsure who choreographed the swordplay. As far as I know, the scene was filmed on St. Vincent in the Caribbean. I’ll say no more but to censure the screenwriter and director for not letting Miss Swann in her pirate garb get in on the action. It would have been quite something to have watched her swordfight-and-swashbuckle successfully against all three with her refined panache. Her swordplay on the beach is unfortunately limited to cutlass-play against several of living-dead crewmen of the Flying Dutchman.
I skipped a few films that qualify, or might. The Princess Bride’s duel above the beach probably deserves its own post. There is a Russian version of Captain Blood, but the quality of available video is terrible and, if I recall correctly, the duel on the beach looks rather bland. I’ve also skipped a number of generic pirate sword battles on the beach. Well, with one mystery exception below of an affray or beach brawl, not a duel. 🙂
Next up, this series at least, a post devoted entirely and in depth to the famous duel in Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone!
*You can find portraits painted by Elias Katsaros on his Facebook page.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted 24 August 2021. Last updated 16 May 2022.
This is not a post I’d ever intended to write, believing–clearly foolishly–that publishing a book on pirate myths would once and for all send the the myth of Rackham’s pretended “skull and crossed swords” flag to perdition where it belongs. Or mostly so. How naive! It’s not just hope that springs eternal–so does myth flying in the face of contrary fact.
Although it’s well-documented that the “Rackham” flag–quite probably the most-depicted pirate flag in film–is a fanciful 20th century invention, Wikipedia via trolls and the ignorant continues to spew nonsense regarding both Rackham and this flag, the latest of which I learned, via a historical forum on Facebook, is that the two crossed swords might represent Anne Bonny & Mary Read. (For the record, all either of them did with a sword–quite possibly a machete, in fact, based on a witness statement–as pirates as far as we know is wave them at frightened merchant seamen who had already surrendered.) I’ll get to the ridiculous notion that the swords represent the women pirates in a moment.
Trying to correct Wikipedia is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it’s never-ending. Wikipedia is a prime resource for the lazy and the gullible, and trolls and others attempting to distort facts are well-aware of this. It’s one of the best places today to replace fact with nonsense, or worse. Don’t get me wrong: there are excellent articles on Wikipedia, including some on pirates and piracy. But to the uninitiated it can be hard to tell the difference between these and those that are little more than nonsense or outright propaganda. And even the best ones are often soon rewritten–and their important facts often disappear with the revision.
A few facts about Rackham & Co. before I describe the 20th century origin of the flag:
There is no record of any pirate flag John “Calico Jack” Rackham ever flew, if he even flew one. The only record of any flag he flew is of a white one, probably as a French flag for deception. This doesn’t mean he never flew a black flag, but if he did we have no idea what it looked like. None of the witnesses at his trial mention a black flag.
Again, as noted above, the black flag attributed to him, with skull (“death’s head”) and crossed cutlasses (or hangers or falchions) is a 20th century invention. More on this in a moment.
Rackham was a smalltime pirate who whose piracies prior to late 1720, if any (although likely; “Charles Johnson” claims he was once Charles Vane’s quartermaster), cannot be corroborated, and he would doubtless be entirely forgotten today were it not for two women who briefly sailed with him, Anne Bonny & Mary Read, and a publisher/editor, apparently Nathaniel Mist, who greatly “sexed up” their petty sea thieving. For most of his time in command, Rackham’s crew numbered only ten, including the two women and himself; he had added nine more drunk volunteers earlier the same day he was captured at sea. His piratical cruise lasted less than two months. It’s entirely possible that even his nickname, “Calico Jack,” is an invention.
At the time Rackham sailed with these women in his crew, he commanded a tiny 12-ton sloop named William he stole at anchor at New Providence (Johnson reimagined it as a swift 40 ton sloop), and was robbing small largely defenseless fishing and trading vessels in the waters off New Providence, Hispaniola, and Jamaica: seven small fishing boats, three merchant trading sloops, one small merchant schooner, and one small canoe. Most if not all of them were local “Mom & Pop” coastal seafarers, in other words. Hardly epic escapades. None of the vessels Rackham captured put up a fight.
Bonny & Read wore women’s clothing aboard, and dressed as men only the very few times they robbed small merchant traders and fishermen. In fact, there is only one confirmed attack in which they dressed as men, although it is probable they also did when capturing other vessels.
There was only one battle in which the two women pirates might actually have fought side by side–the battle in which they and Rackham were captured–and it was over in a moment, literally. There wasn’t much of a fight other than a single “great gun”–apparently in this case a swivel gun, not a carriage-mounted gun–and possibly a pistol fired by the pirates, and neither did any damage. There is no record of any other resistance by the two women pirates or any of the men. The pirates surrendered immediately after Jonathan Barnet’s sloop fired a broadside and volley of small arms. No pirates are recorded as having been wounded or killed in the brief action.
Further, most of what “Charles Johnson” wrote about Bonny & Read cannot be corroborated in spite of extensive research by numerous scholars and other researchers. Although much of what “Johnson” wrote about pirates in general is clearly factual and has been corroborated (pistols hanging from silk slings is an example of what might be invention proved to be a fact by the Whydah wreck, for example), he also embellished–lied–often, almost certainly to improve sales potential. His depiction of Bonny and Read as the only pirates willing to fight while the rest were drunk below deck, and Bonny’s scornful upbraiding of Rackham as having failed to fight like a man, were surely invented or grossly exaggerated by the author.
As for the modern origin of the flag, I’ll quote from the draft manuscript of The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths (I’m too lazy to pull up the published final):
“Many…pirate flags depicted today, such as those purportedly of Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackam, and Blackbeard, are modern inventions without historical basis. The pirate flag we know incorrectly as Calico Jack’s, with crossed cutlasses under a skull, may well have been inspired by the flag used in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood, that of a pair of cutlass-holding arms crossed beneath a skull. And this film flag may have been inspired by the early flag of Bartholomew Roberts, that of a death’s head and an arm holding a cutlass, or by the Dutch red battle ensign with an arm holding a cutlass, or by the seventeenth century flag of Algiers (a notorious have of Barbary corsairs), or even by a Barbary corsair flag of no quarter.
“We simply do not know what the pirate flags of these three pirate captains really looked like…except that Blackbeard’s was a black flag with a “death’s head,” and not the commonly attributed black flag with horned skeleton [apparently a very early 20th century invention]. Similarly, the purported pirate flags of Christopher Moody and John Quelch are misattributions: Moody’s is actually the Barbary corsair flag of no quarter described later in this chapter, and Quelch never flew a pirate flag…
“The origin of our modern popular but fanciful renditions is a series of several books whose illustrations were passed from one to the next, with few or any changes. The earliest publication of this series discovered to date—and probably the origin [except for the fanciful Blackbeard horned devil flag which was published previously in The Mariner’s Mirror]—is Basil Lubbock’s The Blackwall Frigates, published in 1922. The book includes a plate of eight pirate flags (even though the Blackwall frigates only came into being a century after the Golden Age of Piracy expired, but pirate flags sell books), three of which are misattributions, although otherwise mostly accurate, and one is a fanciful flag taken from an illustration in Charles Johnson’s pirate chronicle. [Rackham’s purported flag is not among them.]
“Most of these flags, with names now added, were reproduced in Charles Grey’s Pirates of the Eastern Seas. Patrick Pringle’s Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, published two decades later, includes nine pirate flags, all reproduced exactly from Grey’s book. In 1959, Hans Leip’s Bordbuch des Satans (Log of the Satans) includes some very similar flags clearly inspired by Lubbock, Grey, and Pringle, although two have been miscaptioned. Leip also adds three new flags, all imaginary: those of Calico Jack Rackam, Stede Bonnet, and Henry Every [“Long Ben”]. [Every’s flag includes a skull with a bandana and earring, a clear giveaway that it’s an invention.]
“Most of Leip’s pirate flags were reproduced exactly in 1961 in Pirates of the Spanish Main, part of the American Heritage Junior Library, with credit to Leip’s book. Pirates of the Spanish Main became a classic source of historical pirate lore—and mythical pirate flags—to literally thousands of young readers who imagined themselves pirates, not to mention to publishers of subsequent books on piracy. Similarly identified flags, some accurate, some, like those in the other books, not, were published in 1978 in Pirates, a title in the popular Time-Life “The Seafarers” series [including the “Calico Jack” flag with crossed swords]. It is no surprise that inaccurate images of pirate flags would appear in pirate books: for many publishers, the main purpose of images in a book is to get readers to buy it. The image of the “Jolly Roger,” whether accurate or not, is the perfect lure.”
The two most similar written descriptions of historical black pirate flags circa 1715 to 1730 to Rackam’s purported flag are “this flag was a black cloth in the middle of which was depicted a cadaver [skeleton] and scattered bones and crossed sabers” (I’ve translated this from French), and “The Ship hoisted a Black Flagg at the Main-Top-Mast-Head, with Deaths Head and a Cutlass in it…” Neither were hoisted by Rackham. The former is the only reference I’ve found to crossed swords among the many eyewitness descriptions of pirate flags.
Soon after I posted this blog, my friend Antón Viejo Alonso mentioned to me that conquistador, traitor, sociopath, and murderer Lope de Aguirre is said to have had three identical flags made in 1561, each with a black field with red crossed swords, the colors representing the blood he shed and the “lamentations and mourning” he caused. Whether this may have influenced Leip’s illustrator is unknown. Many flag designs appear to be parallel developments independent of previous or current similar flags, and not descendant, although clearly many also fall into the latter category. Black flags, and mortuary symbols on flags, have been around since antiquity, and have been used on land as well as sea. Aguirre’s flags were described by Friar Pedro Simón (1574 – circa 1628). The English translation of his work is entitled The Expedition of Pedro de Ursúa & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1861). A modern reprint is also available.
The modern “Calico Jack” flag of skull and crossed swords is a popular one in pirate films and among pirate fans. I myself own versions in both black and red, but I don’t represent them to be authentic. It’s an easy flag to imagine, substituting crossbones for crossed swords. I can even imagine myself creating it today or three centuries ago, or even today, given my interest in piracy and swordplay.
The “Calico Jack” flag has been used in several films, and a possible, even likely inspiration for its use in pirate movies, including the Disney franchise, is the flag flown aboard the pirate ship Wicked Wench in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Disneyland theme park. In fact, the design is also used early on in the ride in the form of a talking skull, with crossed cutlasses beneath it, providing safety and other information to visitors.
Very likely, the ride’s designers selected the design from the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main (1961) discussed above, although it is possible the Captain Blood film flag was also part of the inspiration. In fact, the entire ship-attacking-fort scene in the attraction was copied from the similar scene in the film. Notably, the attacking Spanish ship in the novel the film was based upon is described as red-sided, just as is the Wicked Wench in the attraction. (Carrying the hypothesis further, is the name Wicked Wench a bit of a joke on the Arabella–the name of Captain Blood’s ship–and the very proper English lady whose name it was? This would be in keeping with the piratical sense of humor of the attraction’s designers.)
All of this suggests that the Wicked Wench was the first fictional, and for that matter, non-fictional as well, ship to fly the “Calico Jack” Jolly Roger–although arguably the Arabella of the film Captain Blood did so in its original form. It’s entirely possible therefore that all subsequent film pirate ships flying the flag may have been inspired in part by the flag flown by the Wicked Wench, which was in turn inspired by the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main, and ultimately by the film.
(Historical note: buccaneer ships, one of which the Wicked Wench was originally depicted as, rather than as the pirate ship which would become the Black Pearl, did not fly black flags with skull and bones–only those of later pirates did.)
In Swashbuckler (1976), a version of the flag with ensanguined cutlasses is shown flying at the masthead of the Blarney Cock in the film, and flying in a odd arrangement at its stern in the movie poster and other marketing materials. The film stars Robert Shaw, Genevieve Bujold, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle, Beau Bridges, Geoffrey Holder, Avery Schreiber, and, in an early role, Angelica Huston:
Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau) flew a version in Pirates! (1986) aboard the captured Spanish galleon Neptune:
Morgan Adams flew it aboard the Morning Star in Cutthroat Island (1995); “Hoist the colors!” she orders at the beginning of the battle with Dog Brown’s Reaper. The flag flown from the Morning Star was slightly modified from the original 20th century illustration, although the popular “original” was used on posters and other promotional materials. The film, although it bombed at the box office (odd that a blockbuster is a film that makes lots of money, yet a blockbuster is also a very large bomb…), has a great soundtrack, plenty of comic book pirate action, and Geena Davis did a better job portraying a pirate captain than many men have in films.
It was flown aboard the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) at the beginning of the film when Elizabeth Swann imagines she sees the ship in the distance as she holds up a cursed Aztec coin, probably because this was the flag originally flown aboard the Wicked Wench, which was via a certain revisionism converted from a buccaneer ship to the former name of the Black Pearl.
It was flown again aboard the Black Pearl it in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) during the “Hoist the colors!” scene–again, a badass female pirate gives the order–and in the engagement following:
The “Calico Jack” skull and crossed swords also appears in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) on the main-topsail of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, now commanded by Capt. Barbossa. The sails are of wine red or burgundy velvet with yellow-gold tassels, probably an homage to or inspired by the reputed sails of some the wealthiest Cilician pirates in antiquity. Some even captured Julius Caesar, who, after ransoming himself, had the pirates captured and put to death.
That said, author George MacDonald Fraser in his comic novel The Pyrates (1984 US edition) described the sails of the Grenouille Frénétique (the Frantic Frog), commanded by Happy Dan Pew, as having “velvet sails…fringed with silk tassels in frightful taste…” In fact, Barbossa’s “bon vivant and gourmet” image in Dead Men Tell No Tales might well have been inspired by Fraser’s description of Happy Dan Pew.
The “Calico Jack” flag is depicted also in the Starz Black Sails series at the very end of the final season. I was the historical consultant for all four seasons, and for reasons of both history and legal liability I traced the origin of the purported Calico Jack flag for the producers. The writers wanted to use the flag because it was already popularly attributed to Rackham, the set designers wanted something that looked authentic, and the lawyers wanted to be sure there was no copyright or trademark infringement.
A version was used in Lego Scooby-Doo! Blowout Beach Bash (Warner Bros., 2017). Scooby-Doo has always been fond of pirates, or at least ghost pirates and fake pirates…
Such an icon is the flag that it shows up in modified but immediately recognizable form, here in the BBC’s Doctor Who episode, “Legend of the Sea Devils” (2022):
Navy SEALs sometimes wear a “Calico Jack” flag patch on their field uniforms. Often the flag’s skull has an eye patch, a variant based most probably on choice of vendor. If my memory is correct–for the record, I’m a former Navy SEAL–its use began in the very late 80s when “real world” VBSS operations (board and search operations) were put to use. I might be mistaken, however. Pirate flag patches weren’t yet a fad in the Teams I served in (ST-3, SDVT-1) in the 80s. Certainly the “Calico Jack” patch remains in use today by Navy SEALs. Luminox, maker of a watch used by Navy SEALs, even has, or had, a special limited edition (375 watches only, I think) Navy SEAL watch with a Rackam skull and crossed swords on its face, although notably not the most common design of the flag, at least on one version. (See below, I couldn’t get captions to work on the tiled images.) Other military special operations units have been spotted wearing the flag patch, or one similar, too.
[Self-Promotion Alert!] The “Calico Jack” flag is also on the cover of The Golden Age of Piracy. Again for the record, the publisher chose the cover. I had no real input, although I’ve no problem with it. It certainly stands out and gets attention, and that’s what dust jackets are supposed to do. It slipped my mind when I first drafted this blog post that the Polish edition also uses the “Calico Jack” flag. (Sorry, Maciej Studencki, for missing this the first time around!)
If you’re looking for more details on pirate flags–accurate details, that is–you can read the book above or Ed Fox’s Jolly Rogers, the True History of Pirate Flags (author given as E. T. Fox). Or better yet, both. 🙂
If you’re looking to fly the flag, try eBay, lots of vendors carry it. It’s also available in red, and in design variations as well. There’s also a “weathered” version in red, but I’ve only seen it available so far at one ebay vendor and a few non-eBay vendors. Plus there are patches, stickers, T-shirts, rings, cufflinks, and more. If you want to fly the flag regularly, plan to pay a little more for sturdier nylon and construction; in particular, look for fabric that’s fade-resistant (all flags fade eventually). If you want to make your own authentically, you’ll need wool bunting or, in a pinch, silk.
When buying, remember, black means “good quarter if you surrender now,” which in practice means “surrender now and we might not murder, torture, or abuse you much,” and red means “no quarter, we’re going to kill you all.” Perhaps the best description of the meaning of the red flag of no quarter comes not from my books, or any other book on piracy, but from Les Aventures de Tintin: Le Secret de la Licorne (Casterman, 1946; reprints in many languages; in English, The Secret of the Unicorn). Enjoy! Don’t read French? “Tonnerre de tonnerre de Brest!” It’s never too late to start learning another language! Or, buy the English version. It’s a fun read, and there’s a sequel too.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021-2022. First posted June 18, 2021. Last updated May 12, 2022.
Originally I’d intended to write a post entitled, “Whither Modern Fencing?” and illustrate it with some of my favorite inspirational fencing images. However, the likelihood of the subject turning into a lengthy near-rant was too strong, particularly if the draft of the first few paragraphs was any indication, so in the end I’ve decided to let the images speak for themselves. The accompanying commentary may be read or ignored according the reader’s inclination. Enjoy.
1. Untitled by Aaron Siskend, from “The Most Crowded Block”
Quite possibly my favorite swordplay image other than personal ones of friends and family fencing, and if not my most favorite, then surely one of my top three. The swashbuckling adventure of youth, exactly what swordplay should always be at any age!
The lure of fencing is to fight with swords, not to participate in mere sport, at least not for most of us drawn to fencing. We want to fight one-on-one for honor, for romance, for the clash of steel-on-steel. We want to sword-fight for fun, for adventure, and, importantly, for the “All for one and one for all!” camaraderie fencing in the right circumstances can bring. These days, the purely sport mentality of too many fencing coaches, administrators, and parents often misses this fundamental truth. To paraphrase my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, “Fencing is not sport: fencing is swordplay!”*
At the end of a lecture I gave in 2020, or perhaps the year before–has it been that long?–on the history and practice of modern Western swordplay for a local continuing education program whose students were mostly retired persons, several came up afterward and, pointing to the photograph above which was still showing on the projection screen, excitedly and animatedly agreed that it conveyed exactly how they felt about fencing, even to depicting how they themselves had played at “sword-fighting” in their childhoods.
For what it’s worth, during the practical sessions on the two following weekends, these retirees proved to be some of the most apt pupils I’ve ever had, learning far more quickly and easily than much younger students. Many had wanted to learn to fence since they were kids but had never had the opportunity. Life can make dreams difficult to come true, but this is no reason to stop dreaming, much less stop trying to make them come true.
And if you can do nothing else, improvise some swords and let your inner swashbuckler take over, no matter your age!
2. Douglas Fairbanks Fencing With Kids on the Set of The Three Musketeers
Evocative not only of the silent film era swashbuckler, but also of children’s fascination with swashbuckling heroes, then and now. Who of these children would not today still tell the story of he once fenced with Fairbanks as d’Artagnan! Fairbanks created the modern swashbuckler film genre, with its over-the-top tongue-in-cheek antics, best described–other than by viewing!–in the following New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.”
A perfect description of our four-year-old, almost five now, son, too. 🙂
I still recall my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, telling me how Fairbanks and his entourage came to watch the Hungarians in the final round of the saber fencing at the 1932 Olympic Games, and saw Gyorgi Piller (one of my fencing “grandfathers,” in fact) win the gold. A few days before the Hungarians had been invited to Picfair, the famous eighteen acre estate he shared with his wife, Mary Pickford, for a large Olympic Games dinner party which featured two hundred invited guests including Charlie Chaplan, Clark Gable, and Constance Bennett.
3. The Duel Between Peter Blood & the Villain Levasseur in Captain Blood, 1935
What a difficult choice from among the wonderful publicity stills of this duel! It remains my favorite film swordfight by far: it’s from the best film version of my favorite novel of youth (and still one of my favorite books, so much so that we’re publishing an annotated edition): it’s a pirate duel on the beach; it’s for the hand of one’s beloved (although not so in the novel); the villain, Basil Rathbone, deserved to be run through for his gaudy French accent (nothing personal, Rathbone, you’re one of my favorite villains and Sherlocks, and you actually could fence well); the duel is wonderfully choreographed; and even the accompanying music is great, although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was upset that he didn’t have time to compose it himself, and was forced to use Liszt’s Prometheus at the last minute. Last, Three Arch Bay near Laguna Beach, California, here made up to look like a Caribbean island, reminds me fondly of my many days spent on Southern California beaches in my youth and as a young Navy SEAL officer.
It is films like these, and novels like those written by Rafael Sabatini and his like (Sabatini wrote Captain Blood: His Odyssey) that inspired many of us to become fencers. They also inspired a number of true swashbuckling swordsmen and swordswomen of real-life adventure, the majority of whom from the early to mid-twentieth century have already passed away, and there are sadly far too few replacements.
Just as sad, the number of true swashbuckling fencer-writers is severely diminished. Even so, I’m happy to see a few today who are following in their adventurous footsteps. “Books are good enough in their own way but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his excellent essay of advice on life, “An Apology for Idlers.” Likewise with movies and television too. Why not “take a walk on the wild side” and pick up both pen and sword as you head out the door for real adventure?
I’ve even written three of a planned five blog posts on The Duel on the Beach, greatly inspired by this duel and the one in Rafael Sabatini’s novel, The Black Swan. Here’s the first of the series: “The Duel on the Beach, Part I: In Fiction.”
4. Famed Fencing Master Fred Cavens Training Binnie Barnes for The Spanish Main
One of the last great pirate swashbucklers before the genre descended into B-movie purgatory (arguably almost elevated again to A-level status by the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, although the overweening element of fantasy disqualifies the films in my opinion), The Spanish Main’s best swordplay was not that of the star, Paul Henreid as Capt. Laurent Van Horn (combining the names of two real Dutch buccaneers, Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Vanhorn who actually fought a duel on Isla Sacrificios), but of his adversary Paul Emery as Capt. Mario du Billar, and equally that of Binnie Barnes as the anachronistic Anne Bonney. To this day I recall the first time I saw a passata soto: Binnie Barnes executed one in this film.
Fencing master Fred Cavens and his contemporaries, along with those who followed, gave us the film swordfights that have imprinted themselves indelibly on our swashbuckling psyches. Although swordswomen were in the minority, and still are, in swashbuckling films (actual history itself unfortunately tends to preclude sword-armed women except in rare circumstances), their were several worthy ones in this era, and often their swordplay was as good, or better than, the best of the male actors: Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters all did superbly creditable fencing scenes. Reportedly, Bebe Daniels was a masterful swordswoman in Senorita (1927) playing a Zorro-like character, but only two prints of the film exist and apparently neither has been digitally transferred. Not surprisingly, Cavens trained all four of these women actor-fencers and choreographed their swordfights.
And Fred, or formally, Frédéric Adolphe, Cavens? He set the standard for sword choreography in film, largely unmatched these days although through the first decade of the 21st century his descendants followed worthily in his footsteps (or rather, footwork?). And for a fact there are sword choreographers and fight directors today who can arrange exciting swordfights that evoke a sense of the reality of swordplay–if only their directors would let them.
5. The Climactic Duel in The Spanish Main
I honestly can’t claim that this image from The Spanish Main (see image and notes above) is one of my absolute favorites, but it perfectly illustrates more than one swashbuckling trope, and, more important to me, I recall complaining excitedly to one of my fencing masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, when I was nineteen years old that John Emery on the left above (though doubtless I didn’t recall his name at the time) was a much better swordsman than Paul Henreid on the right–but he had to lose! It bothered me as a fencer that a skilled swordsman must ignore so many tempo opportunities with which to skewer–to pink, to use the 17th century expression–his adversary. But scripts are scripts for a reason and far more “winners” of Hollywood duels were inferior fencers as compared to their adversaries. I’ve been unable to find anything out about where Emery learned to fence, unfortunately.
The tropes? There’s the swooning or near-swooning heroine watching two men duel to the death, although not always over her; the swordfight in the dungeon (similar tropes are the duel on the beach already noted in this post, and the swordfight in the tavern); and, above all, the duel to the death between hero and villain, often but not always at the climax.
Readers will notice one thing in common with many of these images: the fencers are often in an en garde position with swords crossed, or more correctly, with blades engaged. Inaccurately, fencers are often in a modern sixte guard rather than the much more historically accurate tierce, a reflection of their modern training. Notably, John Emery is en garde in tierce, not the usual modern sixte as his adversary is, although Emery’s tierce is probably that of saber, not historical smallsword. But no matter, it’s surprisingly correct for a genre swashbuckler.
6. Maureen O’Hara Engaging the Cardinal’s Guards in At Sword’s Point
Yet again, a difficult choice among a number of swashbuckling film stills of Maureen O’Hara, one of classic Hollywood’s greats. Here she comes en garde against several of the Cardinal’s Guards. She does a credible job taking a fencing lesson early in the film, and holds her own with the male lead, Hungarian-born Cornel Wilde who was not only a US National Champion in saber fencing, but also was selected to the US Olympic Fencing Team–until he chose to take a stage role instead!
Here O’Hara fences in riding boots, that costume accessory–“fetishwear,” a UK journalist described it–so alluring to painters, writers, and costume designers of swashbuckling flare. Here at least it’s historically accurate, for she had been riding. But if her boots are as stiff as those of the cavalry, she won’t be able to move well. In fact, cavalrymen dismounted in action would often abandon their boots in order to make their escape afoot, for the boots hindered running to an extreme degree.
O’Hara also thrusts and parries in the 1952 film with Errol Flynn, Against All Flags, really a B-level pirate flick but still fun and still better than most of the B pirate genre. Women running around with swords, women as pirate captains, women as erstwhile musketeers is nothing new in fiction or film, although some would have us believe this today. If anything, the older films–Against All Flags, The Spanish Main, At Sword’s Point, Anne of the Indies, among others–have more redoubtable women sword-adventurers than many films do these days (although some video games have rectified this in that medium). Admittedly, though, there is an unfortunate tendency for the sword-bearing female lead to either give it all up for love, and by implication, marriage, or to die unrequited so that the male protagonist can marry his true love, naturally non-sword-wielding and often demure and largely obedient to her husband-lord-and-master. I prefer independent sword-wielding women myself. I married one, after all.
7. Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies, 1951
One of a pair of well-posed publicity stills showcasing Jean Peters engaged against Blackbeard the Pirate. It’s a favorite of mine, one of three common poses in images like this: blades crossed, or one adversary attacking while one parries, or one adversary running the other through. I’m torn between the two, the other showing Peters running Blackbeard through. But this one shows her spirit better, I think.
Jean Peters, known not only for her films but, in popular star worship and gossip, for her marriage to Howard Hughes, for which she left her short but notable acting career behind, plays Anne Providence, really Anne Bonny, or at least Anne Bonny as imagined in the popular mind. I remain both astounded and bored senseless with the mindlessness with which novelists, playwriters, and filmmakers continue to elevate Anne Bonny over Mary Read, assuming anything Charles Johnson wrote about them is actually true, for most of what he wrote about the two women cannot be verified. But even if partly true, why runaway girlfriend Anne Bonny over the martial Mary Read? Anne Bonny as described by Charles Johnson’s account makes her a dilettante along for a brief piratical ride. But, if the account has any merit, Mary Read had been a soldier and fighting seaman in disguise as a man. Yet it’s Bonny who gets all the attention, which says much about what readers and viewers are interested in. A few more details on the subject can be found in The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.
The film, in spite of its many pirate clichés and bad Hollywood history, is still quite enjoyable and often more serious than the usual pirate film. But it’s the swordplay I enjoy most, brief as it is, or perhaps second most–the fierce female pirate captain remains a favorite. Peters is as good as any of her male contemporaries when fencing Blackbeard with sharps in a tavern duel, more or less, a common trope albeit probably not one in reality. Brawling in taverns, sure, even murder in taverns, but dueling was typically conducted outdoors and out of sight.
Her duel is one of the better film affrays with swords, even if Blackbeard is stoutly barrel-chested rather than tall and lean as he was in reality, and even if both adversaries are wearing those damn Hollywood boots. Peters carries off her swordplay with élan and well-focused cold-blooded anger, which can actually be quite useful for a fencer. Hot blooded anger often has poor results, but cold blooded fury can lead to victory.
As an aside regarding Howard Hughes, Disney’s film The Rocketeer portrays a Howard Hughes-like character, along with a swashbuckling actor-swordsman based on Errol Flynn and unfounded rumors that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
8. D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in the Eponymous Film, 1974
Yes, I know it’s not an image of swordplay per se, but it perfectly captures not only the camaraderie of fencers but also the moment these musketeers bond immediately prior to their fictionally famous combat against the Cardinal’s Guards. This 1973-74 film ranks high among the best, in my opinion, of The Three Musketeers and related films. It and its second part, The Four Musketeers, both starring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, et al, rank among the finest and is hands-down my favorite. I saw them when they first arrived in theaters in Los Angeles, well, Northridge to be precise, in a twin theater in the local mall. And nothing excited me more than at the end of the first to see a teaser for the continuation! (It’s not a true sequel, the film was cut into two parts due to length, for which the actors rightfully sought and got more money.)
York was perfect at the young swashbuckler d’Artagnan. Reed was probably playing himself as Athos, a perfect fit. Chamberlain was, I believe, starring in a Shakespeare play (Richard III?) I saw in the sixth grade in Seattle a half century ago, although it might have been his understudy. (“It’s Dr. Kildare!” the girls, and probably a teacher or two, gushed as we stood in line.) Decades later I saw him starring in Spamalot. (“Run away! Run away!” I still joke from the film to beginning fencers when teaching them that the retreat is their first line of defense after a good en garde.) Frank Finlay as Porthos was far too short (the character, based on Dumas’s father, was a giant) but certainly had the right attitude, and Raquel Welch was surprisingly good as Constance. Faye Dunaway was perfectly alluring, cold, and frightening as Milady de Winter. And the Cardinal? Like Reed, I imagine Charlton Heston was playing a bit of himself in the role, and flawlessly. Last, the swordplay, if often inauthentic (novelist and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser admitted this to me in a letter) was well-choreographed by William Hobbs and perfectly suited the mood of the film. Yes, Hobbs was perfectly capable of historically accurate choreography, just watch The Duellists, it’s the gold standard.
The 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Walter Abel and Paul Lucas, is also quite creditable. The aforenoted notable Fred Cavens choreographed the swordplay, with a young Ralph Faulkner doubling some scenes. Faulkner would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading fencing choreographers, largely succeeding the retiring Cavens. Faulkner was still teaching in Los Angeles in the late 70s when I first learned to fence: in his 90s, I believe, his legs and eyesight failing, he taught admirable lessons from a chair, and was the inspiration and early master of at least one Hollywood fencer-choreographer gentleman I’m acquainted with. Sadly, I never was able to get away to get a lesson from Faulkner, if only to say I’d had one.
The 1939 comedy-drama version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes (previously noted in The Spanish Main), and the Ritz Brothers is quite good as well, the Ritz faction providing laughs even while staying true to the core of the story. There were laughs in the 1973-1974 version by director Richard Lester and novelist-screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser as well, although these two films cannot be classified as comedies. I have great fondness for Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 version (see photo above), given its role in helping create the modern Musketeer genre, and similarly for the 1948 overwhelmingly much too bright Technicolor with almost gaudy stage costumes version starring Gene Kelly, mostly because it was played at the Pacific Coast NCAA fencing banquet in Los Angeles in 1978, in old school fashion with a 16mm projector set up in the room.
I still to this day can’t bring myself to watch most, perhaps all, of the modern film and TV versions, spoiled as most are by a juvenile brat pack mentality or by hyper-exaggerated melodrama, not to mention their steampunk- and video game-inspired costumes. (Will swashbuckling costume designers ever return to historical accuracy, not that it’s often been a priority anyway?) And, frankly, the swordplay is usually terrible as well, both in authenticity and, worse perhaps, basic choreography.
While on the subject, I should add the two most notable film versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, given that Cyrano is a cadet in a guards company, much akin to the musketeers of the King and Cardinal (in fact, there are even a series of novels by Paul Feval fils placing Cyrano and d’Artagnan together): the 1950 version starring Jose Ferrer (in English) and the 1990 version, which I first saw in a small theater in La Jolla, California, starring Gerard Depardieu (in French). Both are outstanding versions of the play, each with its own style. I might prefer the French version just a touch more than English, but it’s a difficult choice to make.
One day I want to watch the play from a box, as Cyrano does in the play. And like Cyrano, I’ll be sorely tempted to call down to the stage if the acting is bad, although this was in fact just a pretext for the large-nosed swordsman. A duel on the stage and grounds immediately afterward would complete the daydream. For fans of the play or films based on it, try Cyrano, My Love (Cyrano, Mon Amour), its a comedy in the vein of Shakespeare in Love (that is, not historically accurate but enjoyable to watch) about Edmond Rostand writing his famous play. As of the original date of this post, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Also check out Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah: the swordplay, of tennis racquet versus golf club, in well-choreographed and enjoyable.
9. Obi-Wan Kenobi Versus Darth Vader in Star Wars, 1977
I first saw this film in the summer I graduated from high school. I’d seen the full page color ads in the Sunday LA Times entertainment section, and was already well-enticed. A substitute teacher saw it the week it was out and his description, something to effect of “Entertaining if lightweight, generally pretty cool” only increased my desire to see it. And it did not disappoint, at least not to a seventeen-soon to be eighteen-year-old romantic adventurer in the making.
I don’t recall where I saw it the first time, either in San Diego, California or Huntsville, Alabama. I saw it once or twice again that fall of 1977 at the long-since demolished Plitt Twin Theaters in Century City, LA, with its, for the time, state of the art sound system: you could hear the sounds of Vader’s ship above as it docked, just as the defending soldiers look up in the film. Already fans in the theater had lightsabers that lit up slowly from hilt to tip as in the film, which gives some idea of the effect on pop culture the film was already having. I was entranced with the film! It was, and remains, escapism at its best.
All this said, as enjoyable as the film was and is (and to hell with Lucas for not releasing the original version on Blu-ray, but instead the updated version with awful added special effects), I’ve never regarded it as anything more than what it really is: a space opera, which is nothing more than a Western set in outer space. It’s the updated version of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials–Westerns in space–from the 1930s I watched as TV reruns when I was around eleven years old. The science of Star Wars is bad, the tactics are ludicrous (suicidal on all sides), the dialogue in any other setting often silly or even cringeworthy. Didn’t Harrison Ford tell Lucas something to the effect of, “You can write this sh*t but you can’t say it!”? Still, I suppose it’s better than the modern dull suburban party conversation, as a journalist acquaintance put it, that passes for dialogue in costume TV and film these days (and in too many historical novels too).
So, not for me arguments over canon, which is in any case nonsense given how popular films and sequels are written (on the fly, to maximize profit, and to some degree to satisfy or gratify egos), or whether which sequels are great and which terrible, or misogynistic whining about any of the versions celebrating women. I’m a fan of strong women, therefore of the last three of the series, not to mention that our five-year-old sees his mother as the sword-fighting Rey. I could add a rant here about sexism in action films and their audiences, but there are plenty of writers who’ve already done it better.
I could also rant at length about the idea of the “hero’s journey” given that I find it unrealistic: the ideal Joseph Campbell gives us, and which influenced Star Wars, or so I hear, gives us villains as well as true heroes. Further, in my experience this is not how heroes and heroism are made. The hero’s journey is a device of fiction, not fact. It may make for good storytelling, but it also helps prop up autocrats of all sorts, including the worst of them. After all, to their supporters they’re heroes whose hero’s journey validates their autocracy and other misdeeds.
But back to swordplay! In the film it’s pure well-choreographed Hollywood, but no matter: the swords and swordplay are flawed fantasy that match the film well. And the idea of the old master facing his student is something of a trope too, but it’s done well in this film, if not quite so in the sequels, even given the mystical silliness of the Force. For me, I was soon introduced to someone who might be a real Jedi master, in the form of my first fencing master whose adventures and escapades could rival those of Obi-Wan Kenobi–and Dr. Zold’s were real. Likewise those of my second fencing master, Dr. Hamori. Mysticism and magic swords are always appealing but it’s long study, practical ability, and character, plus a good dose of good Fortune, that really make the difference in swordplay, and for that matter, life.
Today, modern “Olympic” fencing in the US and France, and probably other places, have showcased “lightsaber” fencing to some degree, primarily as a recruiting lure. Modern fencing, as noted above, has forgotten why most fencers want to fence. Star Wars and its fans have not. Modern fencing needs a strong return to its swashbuckling roots, although I’m cynical about the prospect. I don’t like the term “Olympic fencing” but it’s apt, for the FIE (the international governing body), not to mention USA Fencing, will do almost anything to keep fencing in the Olympic Games, even if it means turning fencing into little more than a game of audience-friendly tag. If fencing or any sport can’t draw an audience–pay the bills–it’s out. And the governing bodies are unwilling at any cost to lose the cachet–and money–that being an Olympic sport brings, sadly.
The best that can be said of the swordplay of the Star Wars franchise is that it’s exciting to watch and, importantly, inspires swashbucklers as once the old costume historical swashbucklers did (and still do for those who watch them). For this alone it can be forgiven its flaws.
10. The Duel on the Cliffs in The Princess Bride
There’s no need to describe this image, nor even the accompanying dialogue, so well is this film known among romantics and swordplay enthusiasts. I doubt any of the hundreds of beginning fencers I’ve taught in more than twenty years have not recognized any reference I’ve made to the film. (And for that matter, to Monty Python and the Hold Grail, too.)
No, the dialogue references to fencing masters don’t actually reflect the swordplay of the moment, and yes, it’s all entirely Hollywood fencing. But it’s beautiful Hollywood cinematic swordplay! Perfect for a fantasy film. I’m still hopeful to see–even influence or have control over–historically accurate swordplay in remakes of some of my favorite films, but such accuracy is not required for all films.
As for fencing left-handed? (If you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the film you’re probably an unlikely exception, but to help you out, the dialogue associated with the film above refers to left-handed fencing. “I’m not left-handed either…”) There are a number of reasons to learn to fence with the off or non-dominant hand. Foremost, it helps keep the body balanced. Fencing is a notoriously one-sided sport, with obvious imbalances in strength and flexibility that develop within a year or two. Spending a third to half of one’s time fencing opposite-handed will prevent this, for the most part. Second, it helps “rewire” your nervous system, creating new pathways. A more balanced body and mind, in other words. Third, if your dominant hand or arm is injured, you can easily switch to the other side while healing, short-term or long-term. Last, if you ever become a fencing teacher, it will enable you to give lessons with either hand to the benefit of your students. The downside? It limits your practice with your dominant hand, with which most fencers prefer. And it may take a few years before you become near-equally proficient with your non-dominant hand/side.
Most importantly, you can join the ranks–indeed, the trope–of ambidextrous fencers! I’ve only known one truly ambidextrous fencer (Dr. Ted Cotton of Loyola University in New Orleans, he’d wear two gloves and choose which hand to fence with based on which might prove stronger against his adversary at the time), and only a few who could fence nearly as well with the offhand as with the dominant.
11. Swordplay in Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme
There’s probably far more choreographed swordplay in the theater than in film, simply due to volume, but we seldom recall theatrical swordplay the way we do film swordplay, no matter how well done–and often it’s quite excellent. Like the theater itself, theatrical swordplay tends to be highly stylized, with larger, slower actions the audience can follow.
A few years ago when my wife and I visited my old master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, in Budapest, he took us to an outdoor performance of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Margit Island. Subtitles–or rather, overtitles?–were in Hungarian, although most Hungarians in the audience probably spoke English. That said, Shakespeare is difficult for most native speakers, and usually frustratingly obscure to English as a second language (or third or fourth) speakers. Only Americans seem to hold the arrogant position that one need ever know only one language. We were a bit disappointed in the duel in the final act, for it was over far too quickly. Perhaps as fencers we expected more, perhaps we were conditioned by the Laurence Olivier film version to expect more. Still, it was an enjoyable evening. By chance we also ran into Kristina Nagy, a noted HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer, during intermission. Only a day or so before she had shown us around the famous fencing salle at Semmelweis University.
The image above, illustrating the fencing scene (Act III, scene 3) between M. Jourdain and Nicole the maid in a nineteenth century production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme (1670) is a favorite of mine not because it illustrates stage swordplay, but because it captures Molière’s satire on swordplay (and of course, the bourgeoisie) in general. A few lessons do not a fencer make, much less a combat swordsman or swordswoman capable of effective swordplay in duel or battle. Further, arrogance can lead to defeat, can even be fatal were the swords sharp. Here, M. Jourdain is easily hit by Nicole. I’ve seen a lot of fencers fall victim to the “magic sword” fallacy: a few small victories and they forget that fencing requires patience and focus always. You can’t just walk out and wave your sword around and expect it alone to hit your adversary or achieve your victories just because you believe you’re more skilled. “But I’m better than he is!” is one plaintive excuse I’ve often heard from losers, along with, “But I take so many lessons a week from so and so!” (FYI, you don’t need that many lessons.)
In fencing as in warfare arrogance can be fatal. A single mistake is enough. An old SEAL Master Chief I worked with at SEAL Team THREE used to say that, “Even a toothless old man sitting in an outhouse and armed only with an old muzzleloader can still kill you if you’re not careful.” And that “ignorant” with a sword? Beware, for he or she is likely to ignore all the conventions you’ve been taught to expect–and hit you in spite of all your lessons, skill, and previous successes.
Francisco de Quevedo has a similar hilarious scene in his picaresque novel Historia de la Vida del Buscón, Llamado Don Pablos, in which a student of La Verdadera Destreza (The True Art: Baroque swordplay insufferably infused with geometric circles and other esoterica unnecessary to the teaching of swordplay but much beloved by those seeking “secret knowledge”), with his angles and arcs, is comically defeated by a soldier lacking in the true art. Quevedo himself, one of Spain’s greatest literary icons and treasures, was a proponent of the Destreza Común, or common swordplay. Quevedo once humiliated Don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez, the leading master at the time of the school of La Verdadera Destreza, in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat.
An end note on the play: many years ago I would disparage the patronizing use of “Bourgeois” by social elites, including in the play which is nonetheless quite funny. I found the attitude offensive: I don’t believe in social castes, including the nobility de facto or merely perceived. Today, after decades of dealing with certain elements of the middle and upper middle class–many of whose members are socially elitist, the American bourgeois, so to speak–, I’m much less sympathetic, equal now to my antipathy toward all social elites and social climbers. That you’re the “Director of Pomposity at Such and Such Corporation” has no bearing on how I’ll regard your behavior or your teenager as a fencing student, nor will it make your teenager a better fencer–or you a better person. There is a positive side to such bourgeois behavior, however: the comic relief is never-ending. Or, put another way, a wonderful font of material for a writer.
12, 13, 14, & 14a. Three by Howard Pyle
Here I simply couldn’t choose only one of Howard Pyle’s famous paintings of swordplay, so well do they depict swordplay not only in the popular mind, but often in the my mind of fencers themselves. For those of us who grew up on swashbucklers, they evoke how we see ourselves. Pyle’s influence on swashbuckling film, including pirate films, is enormous. His iconic images are imitated even today.
The scenes are similar: one adversary lunging, the other parrying, easily the most evocative of fencing actions, and easily posed, even if fencers seldom look so good. Spectators are inevitably in the background, although many duels were fought without witnesses in the late 17th century. We imagine the Dominican friar kept largely quiet during the duel in the first image (in fact, he tried to stab John Blumer in the back after the duel), likewise the gentlemen in the second which has a rather unusual arrangement for the era, more typical of duels in the late 19th century in Pyle’s era. Would pirates have kept silent during a duel? We don’t know, in spite of all my research into the subject of piracy. The only similar duel was between the aforementioned Dutchmen and was over so quickly that it’s unlikely anyone had to time to say much of anything. We do know that in the late 17th and early 18th century some public duels, particularly among soldiers, had noisy spectators: some chided Donald McBane for retreating so much. His retort was to imagine what they’d do in his place.
Until recently, anything more than polite applause from spectators, and silence from fencing masters or coaches, was mandatory in fencing. Today it’s often noisily noisome. Spectator comments are distracting to both fencers, as for that matter is coaching, not to mention that coaching also informs the adversary, not just the coach’s student, and flies in the face of the tradition that fencing should be a single combat between fencers alone.
Of course, fencers remain forbidden to talk to each other during a fencing bout, although often they do in fiction and film, and should–at least if the dialogue is well-written!
The story accompanying the first image does have fairly detailed swordplay, as does the third. The first, “In the Second April,” is apparently set in the late 18th century although the historical allusions the author tosses about are eclectic and often anachronistic or fanciful. The story opens with a reference to a 1670 treaty as if it has just been signed, then transitions to references to George Guelph, who might be George I, II, or III. John Bulmer–the Duke of Ormskirk–claims to have studied under late 18th century fencing master Angelo, then tells his adversary that he is clearly of the school of Boisrobert, strong in attack but weak in parry. (A possible inspiration for the exchange in The Princess Bride?) Boisrobert (also Bois-Robert) and Berthelot are two fencing masters named by Alexandre Dumas in Sylvandire, a romance set during the reign of Louis XIV, and also in Le Chevalier d’Harmental (co-authored with Auguste Maquet) set in 1718. In the latter romance a character is recommended to change fencing masters, giving up Berthelot for Boisrobert, with accompanying advice on giving ground when necessary and parrying in time, suggesting an emphasis, French school-wise, on parrying. James Branch Cabell more or less reversed the teaching of the fencing masters. Boisrobert and Berthelot appear in no records of fencing masters I have reviewed.
15. The Duel on the Beach by N. C. Wyeth
Perhaps the most evocative image of imagined pirate swordplay, in particular the duel on the beach. Given that I’ve already written an extensive blog post about this image and the story and book it illustrates (The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan), I’ll keep my comments short. So much a favorite of mine is it, that I’ve a copy on canvas nicely framed. The image above is taken from the short story that soon afterward was turned into the novel The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. The painting was not commissioned for the story, however.
In spite of its historical inaccuracies, I can’t imagine a more romantic image of swordplay!
Now, on to a few historical images…
16. A Pass in Tierce, with the Unarmed Hand Used for Opposition, Late 17th Century
I’m including a sample or a few of my favorite historical fencing images, although again there are far too many to post them all. Up first is perhaps my most favorite, or at least is tied for the top three, that of a pass made while thrusting in tierce while using the unarmed hand to oppose the adversary’s blade. The thrust was probably preceded by a bind in tierce. The reality of swordplay is that the unarmed hand should be brought into play to minimize the possibility of an “exchanged thrust” or double touch, notwithstanding the argument of many masters of the past two to three centuries that the sword alone is sufficient to both attack and defend. But enough of technical issues.
Beyond its swashbuckling imagery, I particularly like that the fencer on the left is black, for black fencers were far more common than is generally known. I even wrote an article for American Fencing magazine on the subject some years ago, “The Black Fencer in Western Swordplay (Spring, 2011).” The scarf on the black fencer’s head is typical of a gentleman when not wearing a wig, and not, as some have suggested, an indication in this instance of piracy or African culture. The fencer on the right is a fop, easily discovered by the comb fashionably tucked in his wig, and perhaps by the two pigtails of his wig as well. Both men have discarded their scabbards in order to fence more unencumbered, although their rencontre is clearly hasty enough that they have not discarded their coats. Or perhaps they hope their coats will prove a bit of protection against thrusts. Certainly it was advised to keep one’s coat on when engaged with an adversary armed with a cutting sword.
The image is one of a number in a series by Marcellus Laroon, a Dutch artist in London who was proud of the scars he bore from his own dueling. He’s best know for an exceptional series of detailed images of the working London poor, The Cries of London.
17. A Duel Somewhere in France, by Louis François du Bouchet circa 1670.
For two or more decades this classic swashbuckling image churned quietly in my fencing subconscious until one day recently I realized, as I was rereading The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, that it quite probably inspired the scene for the duel on the beach in the finale. I even wrote a blog post about it, “The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.”
The drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. Bouchet is best known for his Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893).
If nothing else, the image provides the wishful swashbuckler with hours of inspiration in swordplay, including imagining exactly what the two swordsmen are doing. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the extreme position of the sword-hand of the swordsman on the right strongly suggest an attempted angulation (cavé) after being parried, although the hand in supination (quarte) would be more common and more functional in most cases, although a bit slower going from full pronation to full supination. Of course, we assume they’re swordsmen: perhaps one is a pre-Mlle. La Maupin, the famed opera singer and duelist…
18. The Fencing Master, late 17th Century
Although as little as ten percent of a fencer’s development might be laid at the feet of the fencing master (this point was originally made to me by noted fencing master Kaj Czarnecki in 1980), it is a critical ten percent that lays the foundation for everything else, including independence on the strip, and, ideally, in life. Many of my fondest fencing memories are of lessons in which I was taught not only technique, but also tempo, tactics, strategy, patience, perseverance, focus, and strength of will. Lessons from my masters, Dr. Francis Zold and Dr. Eugene Hamori, also advanced my already romantic swashbuckling inclinations. Rafael Sabatini captured the romance of the fencing lesson in Scaramouche (1921):
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte… Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce… Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes… O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
It’s little different today, at least in traditional clubs and salles.
The French fencing master above is wearing a padded (with horsehair, probably) leather plastron to prevent bruising from repeated thrusts. One may fence for hours with scarce a bruise, but a student hitting the same spot repeatedly during the same exercise will bruise even the thickest skin eventually, often sooner than later. His shirt is tied at his waist, outside of his breeches rather than being tucked inside, probably so the shirt doesn’t ride up. Both hands are gloved, possibly for giving lessons with either hand, but certainly for protecting the off-hand when using it to parry or oppose. His shoes are of a sort used by fencers and masters for at least two and a half centuries: the toe of the lead shoe is open to prevent jamming or bruising the toes or toenails when lunging (a problem even today if shoes are ill-fitting and the floor has a good grip). Likewise the thick short socks worn over the stockings are to prevent blisters and other injuries to the feet. In the master’s pocket is a handkerchief, its use obvious. His wig, or possibly hair, is tied at the nape of the neck to keep it out of the way. Hats were often worn while fencing indoors, and were formally doffed and donned as part of the salute. Note that sword saluting was a practice only of the fencing salle, not of the duel, or at least not among the French and those who followed their practices.
19. A German Salle d’Escrime
An 18th century exhibition in a German fencing salle. It captures much of the allure of swordplay, and more than hints at the sound of blade on blade. My blood has always quickened with excitement at that sound, especially when heard from a distance. There is no other like it! The entire atmosphere of a fencing club is electric. In fact, parry strongly enough or get hit hard enough on your mask, and you’ll even smell ozone.
Multiple weapons are at play in the image: long- or great sword, smallsword, sword and dagger, German dusack, halberd, and quarterstaff. Given the directors or marshals (aka referees in modern fencing parlance), it is clearly a competition. The boxes and grandstands are filled with spectators, and there’s even a drummer, probably to assist with announcements such as the beginning and ending of bouts. Notably, there are no fencing masks, which would not come into regular use until the 19th century. Some of the participants are taking refreshment. Such a display today is more akin to a HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), sometimes known as WMA (Western Martial Arts, whose name cynics claim was created by North Americans so they wouldn’t feel left out) tournament, with its broad variety of historical weapons, even if the greatest focus is on the longsword. Frankly, although HEMA is still sorting itself out (and learning that a lot of things, competitions and judging, for example, are not as easy as its members originally thought, and that the theoretical and practical foundations of modern fencing are actually quite sound), its participants seem to be having a lot more fun than many modern fencers who tend to take themselves and their sport far too seriously. O parents! Why must you spoil swordplay for your children! Perhaps that’s the key: parents seem largely absent from HEMA, at least by comparison to modern Olympic fencing…
20. A Family of Fencers
A family, certainly, the likely father holding a rapier or transitional rapier, the boy holding a dagger or toy sword, the mother holding a set of keys. Does she fence too? I hope so. As much as I love fencing and teaching fencing, I’ve probably had as much or more fun fencing for fun with my four children over many years, particularly when they’re little and fully embrace the swashbuckling fun of swordplay. And my wife? The best bouts I’ve ever fenced were with her. One went eleven minutes of intense fencing before the first touch (she got it). Club members stopped fencing to watch! The FIE be damned: fencing doesn’t need a touch or more per minute to be interesting.* It just needs bouts consisting of focused fencing that leads to moments of furious fencing. How many touches are scored is immaterial. The anticipation of touches alone is far more alluring to audiences than attempts to force fencers to score quickly. Ah, “what fools these mortals be!” Or certainly some of them.
*A relatively new rule penalizes fencers during direct elimination bouts if a touch isn’t made within each minute. The rule is almost universally loathed. It was created to force fencers to be more aggressive, epee fencers especially, on the theory that aggressive fencing is more likely to draw the audience fencing needs to remain an Olympic sport. Frankly, the IOC is ruining sports and sport. Think the IOC isn’t all about money? Just take a look at its attitude toward the Tokyo Olympic Games during the pandemic, last summer and at present. Why do sports put up with this? Money, prestige, and, to paraphrase Casanova, most people are feckless when push comes to shove.
21. Women Gladiators, 17th Century
A painting I enjoy because it shows women gladiators, or duelists, or fencers (depending on the interpretation), and because my wife and I saw it in the Prado, an art museum that should not be missed by anyone visiting Madrid. Women have fenced and otherwise fought with swords not only for centuries, but likely millennia. Surely Atalanta, or at least the women who inspired her creation, fought with a sword at times on the voyage of the Argo!
What the painting depicts remains up for debate. Early interpretations suggest a rendering of the famous 1552 duel in Naples between Isabella de Carazi and Diambra de Petinella. Later analysis suggests this to be unlikely. Another theory is that the painting is an allegory of the conflict between Spain and Naples. Another theory is that it is an allegory of “Counter-Reformation feminine virtue over courtly vice.” The Prado considers it most likely that the work was part of series of paintings depicting scenes of the ancient world. Women gladiators were relatively common in ancient Rome, after all. The Prado has a second 17th century painting with the same title, Combate de Mujeres, attributed to Andrea Vaccaro, for the the History of Rome series for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.
22. Sport Epee a Century or So Ago
Another image I’ve done a blog post on, so I’ll likewise keep my comments short. Why one of my favorites? Because it shows that little actually ever changes in fencing or in life. Criticisms of modern fencing notwithstanding, epee of more than a century ago looked a lot like it does today. And the drawings–caricatures–are so accurate they make me laugh. “Plus ça change…” See “Sport Epee Humor” for more details and translations, including comments that might otherwise go here.
23. Le Duel Guillou-Lacroix, 1914
Dueling, the origin and foundation of modern competitive fencing (even if modern fencing is in the process of forgetting this) and the inspiration for most stage and film sword combat, not to mention much of our swashbuckling dreams, is really, or was really, an absurd practice that proved little more that the courage to engage in single combat. A critic once pointed out that the most common soldier in combat faced more dangers and proved to be of far greater courage. Nonetheless the practice of dueling persisted for centuries and the romance of dueling still persists.
In reality most fencers never fought a duel even when the practice was prevalent, epee duels were often fought by men with little or no fencing experience, and most of the best duelists were not the best sport or “salle” fencers. Still, dueling still attracted a fair number of skilled swordsmen, and occasionally swordswomen, even among those considered rational and well-aware that the practice was ultimately a perverse one, my first fencing master included.
The photograph above is by far my favorite among images of real dueling. The tension is clear: these men are fighting with weapons capable of killing, even if they hope to avoid that end and settle the affair with a minor or wound or two, as epee fencing was largely designed to do. Both men are skilled fencers, yet, as is common in photographs of actual fencing, they don’t have the look of posed images of fencing technique.
The duelists are Robert Guillot (left) and René Lacroix, and the reason for the combat a “polemique de presse“–an opinion piece that attacked an individual or institution. Such writings were in fact the most common source of duels in the early twentieth century. This encounter was one of those almost joyously celebrated in the press: expert swordsmen; a large audience; famous fencers and fencing dignitaries in attendance, assisting, and officiating; and a lengthy duel exhibiting “sang-froid” and expert technique. One expert fencer in attendance claimed it was one of the most beautiful duels he had ever seen.
The duel lasted five reprises or periods, each apparently directed by a different directeur de combat. By the end of the third reprise, M. Lacroix had twice wounded M. Guillot in the arm. Even so, M. Guillot continued for two more reprises until, unable to hold his epee anymore, an end was called by the attending doctors. The technique of the duel was classic: counter-attacks, doublés, envelopments, esquives du bras, beat attacks, straight attacks, dérobements, and conventional parry-ripostes. If M. Guillot persisted in his low guard, it’s not surprising he was hit twice in the arm.
Most nobly, the duelists, in a practice that continues among a few of us in sport fencing today, used their left hands to point out their adversaries near misses where the point put a hole in the shirt or brushed the skin. Many fencers I find will not do this today, fearing to give their adversary any advantage. But it’s a noble practice indeed to point out how close your adversary came to hitting you, as it helps their fencing. “Plaqué!” one should shout when the adversary’s point hits flat, meaning, “Almost! You hit flat! Adjust your point control! Next time you’ll hit me!”
In many ways this duel epitomizes what many of us would like to see return in modern fencing: a wide variety of technique, a “hit and not get hit” mentality, and a strong sense of honor and fair play. In fact, most modern epee touches are double touches, even if the machine indicates only a single; the other touch is simply “late” but would in reality still make a wound. The tendency to turn swordplay into a game of tag rather than of “hitting and not getting hit” has been the bane of fencing for millennia.
24. New Orleans Nostalgia
I debated whether to include any personal images in this post, but in the end decided that a few are appropriate. If I regret not posting any in particular, it’s group photographs showing the strong camaraderie of fencing over more than four decades. Some of my best friends and best times have been associated with fencing. But group photographs in the context of this blog might be less meaningful except to those in them, so I’ve somewhat sadly omitted the images.
The photograph above is one of my favorites for several reasons beyond that it’s an early image of me as a fencer. (O vanity, O vanity!) Cool old school uniforms were still around, including the classic “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” high thread count canvas jacket with silver buttons I’m wearing, and the leather and canvas glove as well. The former are no longer authorized for wear (a blade might slip between the buttons, the authorities say) and the latter are no longer made, although Prieur still makes a beautiful leather finger-and-palm glove of exceptional quality, and also an all leather coaching glove of similar quality. The mask the fencer on the right is wearing is an old school three weapon mask. Similar masks today are worn only by some fencing teachers and HEMA fencers. The extra leather on the mask above is there to absorb saber cuts. It’s been replaced today by synthetic materials. Three-weapon fencers were common back then, and by that I mean three-weapon fencers who could fence one weapon exceptionally well and the other two very well. A rare thing today, indeed.
I also love the photo because it illustrates how unique en garde positions are: to this day I can recognize each of the fencers by their en gardes alone.
Further, a couple things are missing from the photograph, and I wish they were missing today: obnoxious parent spectators and strip-coaching coaches. With the emphasis on youth fencing today has come the parent spectator, often annoying, too often distracting. And with coaching now permitted during fencing, at least in the US, has come the loud-mouth ego-centric coach driven to make his or her presence known. ANY form of coaching during a bout was illegal back then, and coaches–more often than not they were legitimate fencing masters–had better things to do than hold their students’ hands. In fact, those two gentlemen on the strip? They would have adamantly refused any assistance even were it legal.
Still, I remain hopeful! Tournaments in which the modern fencing-as-business, win-at-all-costs to keep the parents’ checks coming coaches, not to mention “fencing parents,” are absent run quite smoothly, there is little if any coaching–everyone wants to win or lose on their own merits and fortune–and fencing’s roots, of swordplay for swordplay’s sake, for one-on-one competition without outside assistance, remain intact.
As for the city in which the photo above was taken? There is no place in the US more romantic than New Orleans to fence.
25. A Fencing Lesson in New Orleans
Certainly a favorite of mine: my wife taking a lesson from my–and in many ways, now her–fencing master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, during a visit to New Orleans a few years ago. For me, it was an opportunity to watch and learn, and also to be critiqued and learn as I gave lessons under observation. In fact, after a long lesson from him, Dr. Hamori had my wife take a lesson from me under his watchful eye. No independent study can ever teach as well as such hands-on instruction and practice under the eye of a great teacher.
I was taught by example and by direct lesson that the fencing master’s ultimate purpose is, beyond instilling mere fencing skill, to set the student free: to endow the student with the ability think and act independently under pressure. Unfortunately, today too many modern “coaches” have abandoned this noble duty, instead binding students to themselves to the point that many are unable to fence skillfully without their coaches at their sides. Whiplash might even be the most common fencing injury today, so quickly do some fencers’ heads snap to look at their coaches after each touch. Modern fencing was originally based on the idea of single combat in a duel, in which assistance was forbidden and spectators and fencing masters were expected to remain silent. Not so today in sport fencing where bouts often seem to be as much a duel between coaches’ egos as between two fencers, to quote Dr. Hamori.
Much of the fault lies with the governing bodies and their ready acquiescence to coaches and parents, the former often engaging in loud antics designed to reassure the latter that they’re getting their money’s worth, and of course, to ensure that those checks keep coming. USA Fencing, for example, in recent years has actively promoted coaching during bouts, as noted above, in spite of the obvious problems–interference with referees and fencers, &c–this would create, not to mention that it’s against the rules in international competitions, and was until recently in US competitions. This forced USA Fencing recently to issue a Code of Conduct for Coaches, but without acknowledging its significant role in the problem, of course, nor even with a hint of irony. But codes of conduct work only as well as they are (1) taken sincerely to heart, and (2) strictly enforced.
Traditionally, a fencing teacher acquired teaching skill either through a university-level fencing master’s program or via a formal or informal apprenticeship under an accredited fencing master, usually with some years experience as a successful fencing student and competitor as a prerequisite. Fencing-teachers-to-be were typically selected for their combination of fencing and teaching aptitudes. I’ve known more than one Olympic fencing medalist who has admitted to me that he was a terrible fencing teacher and wanted little to do with the practice. Such honesty is unusual these days.
This traditional teaching-training format is often truncated or even ignored today; anyone can call themselves a coach, after all, and many do in spite of their lack of education or ability. And where it was once considered worse than rude to give unsolicited advice, and if solicited, to give advice beyond one’s understanding, such is commonplace now, although accounts from past centuries suggest it’s always been something of an issue, given human nature and the foolish arrogance and insecurity it often produces. Doubtless the Internet’s culture of “know little or nothing experts” and “my opinion is as good as anyone’s” has bled into this area today.
Even so, worldwide the traditional form of training fencing teachers, up to and including masters, still runs strong, and in the US the United States Fencing Coaches Association is doing what it can to support this important method, although it to is under siege, in part by apathy, in part by the logistics of time and money, in part by the ascendancy of “the coach” rather than “the maestro.” Now to answer the question that must be popping up in some readers’ minds: how did I learn to teach fencing? I was mentored for twenty years by Dr. Eugene Hamori, my second fencing master, after I’d been a fencer for twenty-one. I teach much as he did and also a bit as my first master did, although doubtless less skillfully, in a style derived from Italo Santelli, his proteges László Szabó and Lajos Csiszar, and from Gyorgi Piller via László Borsody. It’s a heritage to proud of.
26. Singlestick Without Jackets!
Practicing singlestick at full speed with a very old friend! For protection we wear only masks (we don’t really want our heads broken), gloves, and light elbow pads (mostly to avoid chipping the humerus or ulna). Why so little protection? Because, even if we do our best to limit ourselves to light and moderate blows, we’ll still often get hit hard enough not to want to get hit. It’s a good way of training, of trying to hit and not get hit. We prefer singlesticks even though some of the modern synthetic backswords are better training weapons, because this was the traditional method of training for backsword and broadsword in the 17th and 18th centuries. Oddly, many practitioners today of smallsword and backsword use replica weapons, albeit blunted, rather than period foils or singlesticks even though this was not the practice in the era of these arms. In other words, their “authentic” practice is inauthentic.
Modern fencers could learn much from practicing with less protection, in particular about not getting hit. Some masters in past decades, and probably some today, had some or all students take lessons without jackets. Some fencing teachers object to this, because it’s useless unless you hit the student when he or she makes a mistake. But that’s the point! These old masters did hit the student who made an egregious error. And they hit hard! And the students remembered it! Such students make few errors. Still, although the practice has merit if not abused, at least for some fencers, it is generally considered unsafe at full speed by many Olympic style fencing teachers today. I’ve only used it regularly with one student, a former member of the Polish national epee squad (his master was Bohdan Andrzejewski, the 1969 Epee World Champion) who had always received his lessons without a jacket, and insisted I give him lessons this way. He made the fewest errors of any student I’ve ever had. I’ve also decades ago seen noted epee master Kaj Czarnecki, who recently passed away, hit unjacketed Army pentathletes hard on the breastbone if they flèched without taking the blade or having a full tempo over their adversary. They didn’t make many mistakes either.
The practice does have its limitations: some of us with thick skin or heads will soon start slipping into bad habits as our concern over hard hits diminishes. For a similar reason did we, when I was a Navy SEAL, train 80 to 90 percent with live rounds. They’re not only more realistic training for real combat, but they make you pay attention in a way non-lethal training cannot. Similarly, old masters training students for duels often had the students remove their shirts. The master, whose epee had a point d’arrêt with one or more sharp prongs, would hit the student if he made an egregious error. One fencer, training for a duel, set up a practice sword, sharp-pointed, and practiced his beats and binds against it so that he would lose his fear of a naked point, something sport fencing had never conditioned him to.
Amusingly, a few of the boldest fencers with a heavy saber or backsword I’ve ever met melted into timidity when asked to fence without their heavy fencing jackets. A couple declined to participate. Another said he was cold and put a fairly heavy street jacket on, then ignobly proceeded to fence against those wearing only T-shirts. Protection against hard blows is necessary for regular practice, but it also inspires an unrealistic forwardness–aggressive attacks that hit hard while ignoring the possibility of getting hit–in some fencers.
I also recall an old fencer whom I knew for decades, Joe Dabbs, who told me about traveling with, I think, the Swedish CISM (military) Fencing Team through Europe back in the 60s. While practicing with the French Team, I think it was, two of the French fencers had a disagreement. Their coach or officer ordered them to strip to their jockstraps and put on fencing masks and gloves. Then, armed with fencing sabers, they fought a “duel” of sorts. I’ve seen what a skilled fencer can do with a saber through a fencing jacket (a nasty welt from shoulder to gut that dropped the recipient to the piste). I can imagine what one could do to bare skin. Hopefully the two French “duelists” made friends again over a bottle or two of wine or one of brandy afterward.
27 & 28. Fencing Before & During the Pandemic
One of fencing’s great joys is fencing with friends and family. I’m still fencing with a friend I first fenced in 1979, and my wife and I have had some of our best bouts fencing each other over the past dozen or more years. It usually takes five or more minutes for the first scored touch between my wife and me–we disregard competitive fencing limits on time for our bouts–and once it took eleven minutes. My old Greek friend Elias Katsaros, just noted, and I now fence each other fun, with French grips and in true “hit and not get hit” form, seeking clean, clear single touches as if we were dueling. We also often go a few minutes without a single touch, often also drawing spectators, so focused and active is the fencing: I with my beats and binds, he with his straight-arm counter-attacks and occasional coups de chat. No score is kept, nor necessary.
The pandemic put a stop to much of this for a year. Yet the year off was a sabbatical of sorts, a time to review theory and teaching methods, redevelop and renew footwork, update fencing equipment, rediscover old swashbuckling novels, write letters and send books to old fencing friends, and more. I’ve written already (“Of Sacrifices Great and Small”) that fencers should not bemoan the year off: fencers have for millennia had to absent themselves from swordplay for reasons of national or international crisis, war and pestilence predominant among them. Fencers I know in Europe and Latin America seem to have handled this better than fencers in the US have on average, surely for cultural reasons.
A few years ago while visiting my fencing master and old friend in New Orleans, I mentioned that getting some of our students to try competition was somewhat difficult. I don’t push competition on those who aren’t interested, but competing occasionally is good for the fencing soul, at least during the early years. “No, Ben,” he replied with a friendly sternness. “Fencing is foremost about friendship and camaraderie. If they want to compete, fine. If not, fine. Let them enjoy fencing and fencing friendships first.” This advice came from an Olympic gold medalist and one of the last of the the thirty-odd Hungarian fencers who for half a century won almost every major saber medal in the world. I see fewer and fewer clubs these days with this traditional sense of camaraderie and, frankly, great parties, we had “back in the day,” but enough of us are still around to carry on the tradition. And do.
29. Raising a Swashbuckler!
So, you want to raise a swashbuckler? Or as likely, have no choice? Well, there is a tried and true method. Start them early on fencing lessons, surely? Nay! Not at all!
Rather, let them run and jump and climb and swing from ropes from their earliest years! Play games with them: tag, chase, and hide-and-seek! Let them throw and catch balls, right and left-handed–practice both! And catch coins and marbles for dexterity. Let them climb stairs and walk on balance beams–and fence on balance beams! (Or at least such as you and they safely can.) Encourage them to play (safely) with sticks, the most natural of pretend swords. They’ll need little encouragement except for safety!
Let them play in forts and treehouses, and imagine them as pirate ships and spaceships! Using a foam sword, teach them the Princess Bride sword trick of tossing a sword into the air with a foot and catching it in the hand. It’s actually an ancient trick, but one that even a three-year-old (our son above proved it) can learn to do well–and especially, have fun doing it. And swordfight with them using the same safe swords! Let them experiment, let them leap and spin and try out all the sword techniques they’ve seen on TV and in film–it won’t hurt them at all.
Fencing lessons? Wait until they’re at least ten. Although children can be taught to fence earlier than ten, it must be done carefully, slowly, and most importantly, it must be fun! Not, as is common, merely as part of a process that’s little more than a cash cow to fund a fencing business. If your child does start before the age of ten, make sure the program is one that emphasizes rudimentary fencing skills, exercises, games, and, especially, fun, and is taught by a kind and gentle teacher.
And competition, if they’re interested? Wait until they’re at least thirteen or fourteen with a year of instruction and practice behind them and limited expectations their first year. And parents, listen well: leave those wagging fingers, stern looks, and shouting at home. A child’s love of fencing, not to mention the development of fencing skill, is easily lost if competition is introduced too early or overemphasized. “Yes, you often are,” I once told a huffy, quite arrogant, and visibly annoyed helicopter parent in answer to her question, “Oh… So parents are the problem?” We never saw her again, and we lost no sleep over this.
Equally important, encourage your children to read anything they please. And while they’re at it, introduce a few books of adventure with swords: Dumas, Sabatini, Cervantes and their many descendants down to the present. Every culture has a form of noble courageous swashbuckling trickster adventure, often sword-in-hand. Let your children discover it!
And while you’re at it, take a look once more at the first photograph in this blog: it’s what fencing is all about, after all.
*What he actually said to me in 1977 was, “Fencing is neither art nor science: fencing is fencing!”
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. All rights reserved by the creators of the personal photographic images above: written permission is required before any use. Blog first posted May 20, 2021. Last updated July 8, 2021.
We may have only seen the ship-to-ship action coming alongside “board and board” in but a single film, and certainly in no more than two or three, but the Hollywood image of “Boarders away!” is indelibly impressed on our swashbuckling psyches.
I’m not going to go into the details of coming alongside, nor many of the actual boarding action afterward, which in Hollywood films the latter is usually composed of “cutlass-sharpening hack-and-slash” action. Plus, I’m lazy, or rather, in a hurry to complete longer more detailed blog posts, making this one a bit of a placeholder as I finish the remaining three “Duel on the Beach” posts. For more detail on how boarding actions actually happened, see The Sea Rover’s Practice (and also the associated pdf of additional information and comments).
I will note the two most outstanding parts of the image. First, for reasons of simplifying the image for audience, not to mention of shooting it and for the powerful graphic image it makes, Hollywood usually shoots the scene in only one fashion: the two ships are perfectly lined up broadside to broadside, as in the images above and in the one below. However, in reality this was not the most common method. Ideally, the boarding vessel put its forecastle at the waist (basically, the center) of the ship to be boarded. This was to facilitate boarding by sending boarders aboard at the lowest part of the attacked ship. Plus, the main shrouds were located here, and this was by far the safest place to board an enemy ship.
And no, there was no swinging from one ship to another!
The usual variety of ship boarding arrangements is depicted below, with forecastle to amidships (no. 1) the most common.
The second point to make is that boarding was generally undertaken only after the enemy’s fire was suppressed and, if possible, its decks cleared. Often, an attacked vessel’s crew would retreat to closed quarters (behind fortified bulkheads and below locked hatches) and fight from a fortified position rather than on the open decks. The point is this: boarders standing on the gunwales as the ships come alongside, as Hollywood has it, would be cut down by a hail of musketry, swivel gun fire, and great guns (as cannons are known as sea) loaded with small shot!
So, what might these boarding actions actually have looked like? Well, a minority may have looked somewhat like those above, albeit without men exposed on the rails until boarders were actually “away.”
In the painting above, three ships are yardarm-to-yardarm, with boarders attacking. All three ships are evenly alongside, as in the Hollywood images above. It is impossible to tell from the painting (accounts of the battle might provide the answer) which two ships came alongside first. A second Dutch man-of-war has come alongside in support of the first. Ideally, such support was provided by boarding across the deck of the allied vessel, but this, as the painting illustrates, was not always possible. To the right is another pair of ships equally alongside. In all these cases, boarding appears to have been intended: the sprit and sprit-topsail yards have been brought alongside the bowsprit and sprit-topmast respectively in preparation for boarding.
In the illustration above, the boarding action is more typical, if atypically backwards: facing opposite directions, that is. But the ships have their heads ideally placed amidships. This and the painting above are two of the few mid- to late seventeenth images actually showing boarders in action.
Above is the classical, preferred method of boarding: ship’s had to the waist. The off-side ship has boarded the near, and boarders on the gangway from the quarterdeck to the forecastle (a common feature of many Dutch ships of this era) are attacking defenders in the waist below.
So, as with everything Hollywood, there’s usually a bit of truth at its core, but distorted for reasons of practicality of illustration, or ignorance, or sometimes even mere laziness. Even so, if nothing else, the Hollywood images do evoke the reality, at least from a distance!
And now, for fun: boarding in the manner of The Sea Hawk photo above would work only with Toons as shown below… 🙂
*The title quote is from Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, screenplay by Casey Robinson (Warner Bros., 1935).
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted January 25, 2021. Last updated August 15, 2021.
A brief and definitely eclectic list of cinematic nautical, piratical, or generally swashbuckling Hallowe’enish romance and adventure while I try to finish part three of The Duel on the Beach. Enjoy!
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
A widow, a sea captain’s ghost, a haunted house, and true love–one of the great films of fantasy intersecting reality. Starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1947, based on the novel by R. A. Dick.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman in the modern era: lost wandering souls, ancient sins, excellent insight into human nature, with spellbinding action and story, plus true love. An outstanding, elegant, sophisticated film starring Ava Gardner and James Mason. The New York Times has a short but updated review on a new digital transfer here.
The Spirit is Willing
Nautical in the sense of a sea captain’s ghost, not to mention those of his wife and mistress, the cellar ghost scenes in this comedy of sex, mores, and manners frightened me into nightmares for weeks when I was eight or nine years old, humor notwithstanding. Paramount Pictures, 1967. Starring, among others, Syd Caesar and Vera Miles. Based on the novel The Visitors by Nathaniel Benchley.
Lighthearted, lightweight, fun, much more enjoyable than The Spirit is Willing (and rated G too), and with the coolest old pirate house ever filmed even if it was probably only paint-on-glass. Starring Peter Ustinov, Dean Jones, and the ever enchanting, ever captivating, down-to-earth Suzanne Pleshette. Based on the novel by Ben Stahl.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Not as much a true pirate swashbuckler as it is swashbuckling pirate ghost story with a host of other fantasy nonsense added as well, in spite of its inspiration from the Disney ride depicting buccaneers sacking a hapless Spanish town. Declares Captain Barbossa to his captive and captivating Elizabeth Swann: “You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner… you’re in one!” Starring Johnny Depp, Kiera Knightley, et al. Walt Disney Pictures, 2003.
The Black Castle
By no means a great film, yet still an enjoyable diversion, with swordplay (albeit mediocre), a dark castle, a Green Man tavern, evil villains including a one-eyed swordsman, alligators in the dungeon (why not?), coffins with living occupants, and, naturally, a fair maid in distress. Starring Boris Karloff, film swashbuckler Richard Greene, Lon Chaney, and Paula Corday. Universal, 1952.
The Brotherhood of the Wolf
Last, the only film on the list truly bordering on twenty-first century modern horror in style, but with a cross-genre historical costume swashbuckling cape and sword twist. Based on the true story, never solved, of the Beast of Gévaudan. In this telling, the chevalier de Fronsac and his Iroquois friend Mani (a specialist in Eastern martial arts no less) investigate tales of the beast on behalf of the King. I’m not usually a fan of Eastern martial arts anachronistically slapped onto Western martial arts in period films set in Europe or the UK, but it more or less works this time–and it’s fantasy, after all. Starring Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, Émilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, and Vincent Cassel. Canal+, 2001.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First published October 15, 2020.