The swashbuckler has often been unfairly regarded as intellectually disreputable, but at its best (Film Forum’s 36-movie retro includes most of the classics and a few rarities), it is the most elegant of screen genres. The greatest hero of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks was the founding star who set the standard—never before had one actor been almost totally associated with a genre. He was a pioneer producer, who not only appeared in his films but often scripted them as well. No matter the credited director, Fairbanks was the major creative force, bringing vitality and physicality to his roles. In Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro (1920), Doug’s first feature-length costume drama, set in old California, his masked avenger is the prototype of future generations’ comic-strip heroes. In Niblo’s The Three Musketeers (1921), he’s an incomparable d’Artagnan, the archetypal romantic hero who was the model for Errol Flynn in the ’30s and Tyrone Power in the ’40s. In the sequel, Allan Dwan’s shadowy The Iron Mask (1929), he rejoins the musketeers and the four friends even sleep in the same wide bed. But it’s a graver picture, and a poignant one, in which Fairbanks bids farewell to his swashbuckling career.
In 1935, the unknown Errol Flynn usurped the genre throne and became a major star in Michael Curtiz’s lavish saga of the Spanish Main, Captain Blood. Curtiz is to the swashbuckler what John Ford is to the western. The rambunctious 1938 masterpiece The Adventures of Robin Hood (co-directed with William Keighley) is Hollywood’s definitive example of the genre in the sound era. In Curtiz’s The Sea Hawk (1940), with its tremendous battle sequences, the director’s talent is at its zenith. Flynn is an Elizabethan buccaneer resolved to get the Spanish Armada before it invades England. The injection of contemporary politics is fascinating—in a radical departure from the Rafael Sabatini novel, devoted leftist screenwriter Howard Koch ( Casablanca) turns Sabatini’s 16th-century Spanish villains into historical stand-ins for nasty Nazis.