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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!
*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 February 5, 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.