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The Duel on the Beach, Part III: In Film!

The Duel between Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) and Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone) in Captain Blood, 1935. Original publicity still. Author’s collection.

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. It’s worth reading both 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.

Douglas Fairbanks and Fencing Master Fred Cavens rehearsing the duel on the beach for The Black Pirate, 1926. Fairbanks can be seen getting hit accidentally in the outtakes. Reproduced from “Douglas Fairbanks ‘The Black Pirate’ High Style on the High Seas” by film historian Rudy Behlmer in American Cinematographer April 1992.

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.”

Errol Flynn injured on the set of one of the ships in the finale of Against All Flags. This is not the swordplay injury he received from Anthony Quinn during the filming of the finale: Quinn’s sword ran through Flynn’s doublet and nearly put out his eye, at least according to Flynn in his autobiography. Original publicity still. Author’s collection.

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:

It may be a fool’s errand to attempt to illustrate tempo via static illustrations, but I’m going to give it a shot. Here is a time thrust, or “timing” via a disengage from tierce to quarte. Hand tempo primarily, in other words. From The English Fencing-Master by Henry Blackwell, 1702, in the Corble Collection. Henry is the father or uncle of early American fencing master Edward Blackwell whose book, A Compleat System of Fencing, was published in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1734.

“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.

Here, the swordsman on the left is making a “forced thrust in carte,” or, in modern Italo-Hungarian fencing language, a bind thrust in four, forcing the line open. But it’s the footwork we’re going to focus on. From the positions of the two adversaries, the one on the left appears to have attacked on his opponent’s advance, by surprise, that is, in foot tempo, leaving him disordered and unable to retreat out of distance. “A Forc’d Thrust in Cart” by Marcellus Laroon, from The Art of Defence, circa late 1680s to 1700. British Museum.

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.

A classic epee en garde dating to the 1930s. Drop the point two inches and you have Flynn’s own garde as described above! Unfortunately, cinematic swordplay is often anachronistic. Although a rare fencer might have held the hand suppinated in sixte as here, pronated in tierce was more common by far. Most fencers in 17th and 18th century period films use a sixte en garde with the point elevated as in foil fencing, rather than the far more correct quarte or tierce. From R. A. Lidstone, The Art of Fencing, 1930. Author’s library.

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.

Fred Cavens working with Tyrone Power on the set of The Mark of Zorro. Original publicity still, 1940. Author’s collection.

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

The challenge leading up to the duel on the beach in To Have and to Hold. Paramount, 1922. From a copy of the photoplay edition in the author’s library.

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.

Fisherman’s Island today. US Fish and Wildlife Service photograph.

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

“A Fight Among Pirates.” The beginning of the duel between Captain Levasseur on the left and Captain Peter Blood on the right. Arcade card postcard, 1925 by Ex. Sup. Co. The series of postcards was produced from publicity stills of the film but the publisher does not acknowledge this anywhere on the cards. Author’s collection.

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.

The duel itself. Peter Blood appears to have parried octave although seconde would have been far more common at the time. We hope Captain Blood is about to riposte. From the 1924 film program for the Astor Theatre. Author’s collection.

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.

Two duelists stripped down for the fight, one of them barefoot. Although the right swordsman has parried and thrust per the title, he has also made a pass (crossed over with his rear leg) while using his left hand to control his adversary’s weapon arm. “A Parry and Thrust in Tierce” by Marcellus Laroon, from The Art of Defence, circa late 1680s to 1700. British Museum.

Historically-speaking, such duelists may have stripped off coats, sword-belts or baldrics, and, in the case of Peter Blood, periwig, 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.

Captain Blood in a rather undignified Peter Pan pose in the aftermath of his victory over Levasseur. “How Pirates Settle an Argument.” Arcade card postcard, 1925 by Ex. Sup. Co. The series of postcards includes a pirate poem on the address side. Author’s collection.

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. 🙂

Detail from a chart of the Virgin Islands from English and Danish Surveys, 1794. Spanish National Library (BNE).

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.

The Black Pirate, 1926

The duel on the beach in The Black Pirate. The pirate captain played by Anders Randolf is on the left, with the Black Pirate played by Douglas Fairbanks on the right. At this distance, with the Black Pirate’s weapons non-threatening, the pirate captain could easily run him through. Publicity still. Author’s collection.

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 Black Pirate set at Pickford-Fairbanks Studio located at Santa Monica Blvd. and Formosa Ave. in West Hollywood. The duel on the beach was filmed on this set and not, as some occasionally surmise, on Santa Catalina Island. The studio location changed hands over the years, becoming the Samuel Goldwyn Studio then Warner Hollywood Studios. Today the sound stage location, still in use for filming, is known at The Lot. Photo reproduced from “Douglas Fairbanks ‘The Black Pirate’–High Style on the High Seas” part one by film historian and connoisseur of swashbucklers Rudy Behlmer in American Cinematographer April 1992.

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 fantasy, 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.

An expensive billboard at a Kansas theater advertising The Black Pirate. The film was a swashbuckling tour de force.

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.

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.

Title and facing page with photographs from the film program Douglas Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” by Lotta Woods, published by Longacre Press, New York for United Artists. Author’s collection.

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.

Blu-ray screen captures from the Kino International release. The duel would clearly influence that in Captain Blood nine years later. The movie was filmed in two-color Technicolor, thus its narrow range of color. Its palette and antiqued look was intended to emulate that of the Old Masters, Rembrandt in particular. The color red was reserved for greatest effect, blood on a sword for example.

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.

From the US film program. Author’s collection.

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.

Oriented in line with the map above: “A description of ye sea coast from the pt of Garachine to chame” by William Hack (or Hacke), based on the Spanish derrotero captured in 1680 aboard the Rosario in the South Sea by the buccaneers under Bartholomew Sharp. This copy was presented to King James II. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

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.

Isla Chepillo. The island is slightly more than a mile long and has a beach popular with surfers. Google Maps screen capture.

Captain Blood, 1935

Original publicity still. Author’s collection.

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

Those sexy mythical pirate boots! Or, as a UK journalist called them, fetish-wear. Original lobby card. Author’s collection.

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

Original publicity still. Author’s collection.

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.

Modern Basse Terre on Tortuga, home port of the buccaneers during the 1660s. From the excellent Archeologie de la Piraterie website.

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.

No capable rapier, smallsword, or modern fencer would fail to take advantage of Reeve’s wide parry, with the tip pointing off and away to Neverland. Original publicity still. Author’s collection.

Rage of the Buccaneers (Gordon, il Pirata Nero), 1961

Publicity still showing a Howard Pyle-like setting. I’d like to criticize the duelists for coming to close, but it happens often even with experienced fencers–and it’s helpful for medium and close shots, not to mention publicity stills.

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.

Evocative Italian poster for the original film.

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.

Screen capture from a poor resolution pan and scan DVD release, probably made from a video tape release. The original film is widescreen.

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.

Swashbuckler, 1976

Original Swashbuckler publicity still. Author’s collection.

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.

A classic description of a classic pirate myth. DVD screen capture.

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.

Genevieve Bujold attacks furiously–but in invitation, as beginners often do, and often fatally for themselves were the swords real. Original Swashbuckler publicity still. Author’s collection.

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.

Original Swashbuckler publicity still. Author’s collection.

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).

Colorful at least, and a beach setting common to the Caribbean in general. DVD screen captures.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2007

Blu-ray screen capture.

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.

Blu-ray screen captures.

Final Remarks…

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. 🙂

For Mike Tuñez in particular. 🙂

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 25 Auguste 2021.

Sport Epee Humor–in 1914! And a Bit on Tactics as Well…

Humorous epee images by famous French poster artist and illustrator René Prejelan. 1914.

As can be seen from the illustration, not much has changed!

But a little history first before I translate the captions. Modern sport epee is the direct descendant of a form of dueling swordplay created largely by Jules Jacob in the 1870s. Jacob, recognizing that foil as it was practiced at the time had become largely useless for actual combat, took what was essentially smallsword technique, along with what useful dueling practice that could be derived from classical foil fencing, itself descended from smallsword practice in both of its forms (for the duel and for “school play”), and created a dueling technique focused on longer distance and attacks and counter-attacks to the arm. Thus the epee de combat or dueling sword, as it was usually termed, was born. Or, as some described it, there were now both the modern school (epee) and the classical (foil).

By focusing on longer distance and attacks to the arm, this new technique had the quite useful advantage of minimizing the likelihood of killing one’s adversary. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which law and society might look the other way if someone were killed in a duel, were long past. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, dueling was not only unlawful but a duelist who killed his adversary (duelists were nearly always male, thus the masculine pronoun) was almost certain to be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, military officers sometimes excepted thanks to the rather insular world of military law and command. In fact, one early epee master noted that no sword was better designed to avoid killing one’s adversary!

Within a decade or two, though, a sport version of dueling swordplay was introduced and soon rivalled the foil, at least in France and Great Britain. This new fencing weapon, based as it was on the duel as devised for gentlemen, was paradoxically democratic. Only pools in which all fencers fenced each other to determine the winner–the potentially best duelist–would suffice! We can thank early epeeists for the pool system that was, sadly, largely done away with a couple decades ago except for early seeding rounds, replaced by our direct elimination system that in the early twentieth century was denounced as anathema. “A lottery!” detractors cried.

Athleticism in the form of leaps and bounds–a common criticism of modern epee by “classical” fencers–was present in epee fencing even in 1901. Detail from an illustration of the “First Annual Epee Tournament of L’Epee Club in Gray’s Inn Garden,” London, 1901. Author’s collection.

And indeed [digression warning!] the direct elimination system is a lottery, or at least a half-lottery in which the two best fencers in a tournament often meet before the final, leaving the gold medal bout often rather dull. The excuse for the elimination of the pool system was cheating, and in fact there often were fencers who threw bouts for countrymen or even for money once they had won enough bouts to ascend to the next round. The real reason, though, was the IOC’s desire to have a competition that would lead to a final of two rather than six or eight. This is more dramatic, or so goes the reasoning. But, as I warned, I digress!

Early sport epeeists attempted to emulate the duel as much as possible. Unfortunately, with sport epee came the advent of the “poolist”–the fencer for whom technique unsuitable to the duel, gamesmanship in other words, was all that mattered. With stiff blades that would stop an adversary’s advancing arm, coupled with an emphasis on counter-attacks, angular ones in particular, the poolist used technique that in a duel would be suicidal. The French governing body, composed largely of foilists with a disdain for practitioners of the dueling sword, quickly sided with the sport fencers against epeeists promoting a purely dueling form of swordplay.

“Pig sticking” at close quarters at an epee tournament in 1901! The director of combat (today, the “referee”) is correctly calling a halt… Detail from an illustration of the “First Annual Epee Tournament of L’Epee Club in Gray’s Inn Garden,” London, 1901. Author’s collection.

The reality is that counter-attacks to the body are unlikely to stop a fully developed attack: the blade will usually pass into and even through the body rather than arrest it, making a double touch, possibly fatal, likely, unless the counter-attack has been coupled with stout opposition or a displacement. Worse, angular counter-attacks to the arm will almost never stop a fully developed attack with a real sword: here again there is the near certainty of a double touch, except in this case the attacker receives a wound to the arm while the counter-attacker receives a possibly mortal thrust to the body.

Notably, most of the best duelists with the epee were not the best sport fencers. Dueling required a sang-froid which sport fencing did not and does not.

So, on to the translations! Reading left to right from the top:

The power and the grace. These are typical forms seen even today. Grace on the left was a common style based on counter-attacking with a straight arm. Seldom seen anymore, its finest practitioners were always very difficult to deal with. My old friend Elias Katsaros, who’s also an artist and recently retired Greek iconographer who took 2nd at the Greek nationals in the early 1960s, is easily the best I’ve ever seen in this style. He used to give nationally-ranked epeeists fits long after he had abandoned serious competition. We still fence occasionally, French grips only (with fine Prieur leather-palmed and -fingered gloves), and he’s as difficult a swordsman to defeat today as he was when I first fenced him in 1979.

The [punny] parry of “cocsyxte.” “Pouce!” here means “Truce!”

The flèche. Yes, the flying or “Polish” flèche has been around for a long time, probably centuries. I have references to two forms of flèche from the late 17th to early 18th century, in fact.

M. Brandanloeil, Judge: “If you’ve passed your opponent, Monsieur, don’t fart!”

The offensive and the defensive. Again, two types still seen today.

The offensive caricature is of the “croucher” who primarily uses angular attacks and counter-attacks to the arm, usually as the opponent attacks or upon the opponent’s preparation. The technique would be foolish with real swords for it would not typically halt the attack. The croucher is still around, although he (I’ve rarely, perhaps never, seen women using the technique, although I’ve seen some use low angular attacks as part of a broader technical range) is less common than when I first learned to fence forty-three years ago. It is most often a style of epeeists without much formal training or those who lack the focus to be taught formally. Second intention via a false attack to draw the angular attack or counter-attack, followed by a parry-riposte or bind thrust in octave, or a powerful beat in seconde followed by a high thrust with fleche, have usually worked well for me against crouchers, as has a fleche in tempo, often made as a second intention action, to the body as the croucher withdraws his arm after a failed attack or counter-attack. I’ve had less success with counter-time (a counter-attack against a counter-attack) due to the severe angulation crouchers use, and their extensive experience against counter-time.

Fencers tend to forget that the common counters to a technique often don’t work against fencers who are expert in the technique. Many times, for example, I’ve heard fencers claim that so and so has a strong quarte, therefore a feint to quarte and disengage to sixte is the solution, only to find themselves hit anyway–because the adversary is quite familiar from experience with this solution. Similarly, attempts in epee to use compound binds made in opposite directions against an expert straight-arm counter-attacker often don’t work because, again, the adversary is quite familiar with these obvious tactics from experience. In many cases, it’s what they want you to do!

The defensive form depicted is commonly adopted by very tall fencers who generally counter-attack with body displacements and long retreats. This technique is a bit more suitable to dueling as well, provided the fencer immediately follows his or her counter-attack with a quick retreat and a parry. Unfortunately, many practitioners of this style simply remise rather than parry, which would, again, often lead to a double-touch in the case of real swords.

More fencing history and technique posts to follow… 🙂

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted December 21, 2020. Last updated December 30, 2020.

The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan

“The Duel on the Beach” by N. C. Wyeth. The painting was used for the 1931 magazine illustration of the same name, for the dust jacket of the 1932 US edition, and also the frontispiece of some editions as well. Christie’s.

Perhaps the only swashbuckling novel whose narrative arc rests entirely upon the near-certainty of a duel at the climax, Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan epitomizes the duel on the beach: a desert isle and a ship careened; a pair of expert swordsmen who hate each other; a damsel’s safety, even her life, depending upon the outcome; an audience of pirates as Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth painted at their finest; and, above all, at atmosphere of tropical romance amidst danger.

Famed novelist George MacDonald Fraser, in his introduction to Captain Blood: His Odyssey (Akadine, 1998), referred to The Black Swan as “an almost domestic story of the buccaneers.” The only other novel to come close to such “domesticity” is Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier–but it has no climactic duel.

Let me note right now that (1) this blog post is not a review–I thoroughly enjoy the novel, it’s one of my favorite “summer” reads, especially at the beach–but more of an abridged annotation. Further (2), this post is divided in two sections: background and annotations, so to speak, regarding the novel itself, followed by a detailed dissection of a singular technique employed in the duel itself.

N. C. Wyeth magazine illustration for “The Duel on the Beach” in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Author’s collection.

The first section has some spoilers, but not so many as might ruin the first-time reading of the novel. Even so, if you haven’t read the book, you might still to choose to read it now and then return here. And then re-read the novel, it’s certainly enjoyable enough to deserve a second time around.

However, if you haven’t yet read the novel, PLEASE DON’T READ THE SECOND PART ON THE DUEL ITSELF! Read the novel, then return. I’ll place a second warning just prior, just in case. Reading Part One of this Duel on the Beach series is also helpful but not required.

Background & Annotations

The Black Swan was based on a short story, likely written simultaneous ly with the novel itself, by Rafael Sabatini, called “The Duel on the Beach,” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Sabatini’s short stories, excerpts, and “pre-novels” were published widely in both “men’s” and “women’s” magazines. “The Brethren of the Main,” upon which Captain Blood: His Odyssey was based, was serialized in Adventure magazine, for example, for a largely male audience.

Opening paragraphs of “The Duel on the Beach” in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Whether due to haste, various revision and summarizing, or merely the condition of an early draft, the story lacks some of the eloquence of the novel. Author’s collection.

The Famous Wyeth Painting

The novel is often closely associated with N. C. Wyeth’s famous painting, shown above and below, used on its US dust jacket. Secondarily, and unfortunately, it is often also associated with the 1942 film of the same name, which takes such extraordinary liberties with the novel as to be the same story almost in name only. The film deserves little if any further discussion here.

Wyeth’s painting evokes the action of the climactic duel, if not entirely accurately. The close parrying of hero Charles de Bernis and the animal-like aggressiveness of villain Tom Leach are graphically represented, but the actual technique of both depicted fencers leaves something to be desired for expert swordsmen. It’s more representative or symbolic than accurate, although–as I will be the first to point out–one could argue that the swordsman on the left may have just made a close, shortened parry as he stepped forward into an attack. But no matter, at least not for now.

More importantly, a couple of principal characters, whom we would expect to be in the painting, Major Sands in particular, are missing. Further, it is difficult to tell the color of the clothing of de Bernis on the left–is it the “violet taffetas with its deep cuffs reversed in black and the buttonholes richly laced with silver” (and apparently with claret breeches) which Sabatini early on confuses with a suit of pale blue taffetas worn by this “tall, slim, vigorous figure of a man”? De Bernis, for what it’s worth, wore the violet at the duel.

The dust jacket of the first US edition. Author’s collection.

Still, the woman in the painting might be Priscilla Harradine, the love interest, wearing “lettuce” green as she does at all times, duel included, in The Black Swan other than in the opening scene, although the bright orange doesn’t fit. Further, the woman in the painting has the correct “golden” hair, and pirate Tom Leach, on the right, wears the scarlet breeches of his faded scarlet suit, as in the novel, including at the time of the duel.

Still, it’s not as accurate a representation of the novel’s duel as we would expect from a commissioned painting, even though most dust jacket and frontispiece art is often inaccurate.

And there’s a reason for this: the painting was commissioned neither for the 1931 story nor the 1932 novel. Rather, it was commissioned in the mid-1920s by Carl Fisher, a wealthy American entrepreneur. N. C. Wyeth completed the painting in 1926. Two of Fisher’s friends are depicted as pirates watching the duel, one of whom is John Oliver La Gorce of The National Geographic Society (more details here) and into whose hands the painting passed, and from his eventually to the Society.

Some suggestions have been made that Sabatini may have written the duel scene to somewhat correspond to the painting. This is entirely possible, but I don’t think it is necessarily so except in broad strokes, as we’ll see momentarily, and also later in the discussion of the duel itself. The trope of pirate duels on the beach leads all of them to look much alike, in other words, thanks in large part to Howard Pyle. (See Part One for other examples.)

“The Duel on the Beach” by N. C. Wyeth for Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924).The five-minute duel (a long duel, in fact) between William Cary and Don Guzman Maria Magdalena Sotomayor de Soto takes place on the bank of the River Torridge near Bideford, England, probably where the river widens into an estuary. Credit: Menconi+Schoelkopf, New York (the painting is apparently for sale).

The positions of the swordsmen in the “Duel on the Beach” painting are almost identical to those in an earlier N. C. Wyeth work shown immediately above, also named, or at least captioned, “The Duel on the Beach.” Wyeth painted it for Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), a swashbuckling romance of Elizabethan privateering.

Howard Pyle, “The Duel Between John Blumer and Cazaio,” from part one of “In the Second April,” Harper’s Monthly, April 1907. This painting by N. C. Wyeth’s teacher shows a similar position between swordsmen–one attacking via a lunge, the other parrying in the high outside line–although how much influence this paining may have had on Wyeth’s works is unknown. This arrangement of attacker and defender is common in illustrations and sculptures of fencers.

I strongly suspect Wyeth’s later “generic pirate sword-fight on the beach” painting that become the cover of The Black Swan was originally intended, at least in part, to suggest the duel in Captain Blood: His Odyssey. The clothing of the figure on the left might even be the “black with silver lace” of Captain Peter Blood.

Wyeth’s dust jacket and frontispiece for Captain Blood: His Odyssey, shown below, bolster my argument, as do the two single lines describing the duel in it [SPOILER ALERT]:

“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”

N. C. Wyeth’s illustration for Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922). Author’s collection.

Even so, again there are details lacking that we would expect: the buccaneers are not divided into two groups representing the two crews (Blood’s and Levasseur’s); Cahusac and the pearls-before-swine do not figure prominently among the spectators; Governor d’Ogeron’s son is missing; two ships rather than one show up in the background (the Arabella was anchored out of sight); and most importantly, Mademoiselle d’Ogeron and her lustrous black hair is missing–as already noted, the woman in the painting has blond hair.

Even more to the point (pun half-intended), perhaps Sabatini re-clothed his hero from sky blue to violet to match the painting–and then he and his editor forgot to correct all instances. It wouldn’t be the first time harried writers and editors have let errors go uncorrected.

Thus, at best, in spite of my best hopes and desires, the painting may have merely been inspired to suggest the duel in Captain Blood. The original “Duel on the Beach” painting, by the way, an oil on canvas 48 by 60 inches, was sold at auction by Christie’s in 2012 for $1,082,500.

The Duelists: Charles de Bernis & Tom Leach

Dust jacket for the 1932 Hutchinson UK edition of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. Sadly, the cover artist is not listed anywhere in the text that I could find. Major Sands, in the rust-colored coat at the left, is incorrectly depicted with a black, rather than golden, periwig. Note the eye patch, a pirate trope with some basis in reality (but not for improving eyesight!) Author’s collection.

The novel’s hero is Charles de Bernis, former buccaneer and close companion of Henry Morgan. Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia, author of Romantic Prince: Seeking Sabatini and Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, considers the character to be ultimately an iteration of Captain Peter Blood, probably Sabatini’s favorite of all those he created.

De Bernis is more or less a French gentleman, if a bit of a fortune hunter or adventurer originally, which all flibustiers by definition were. And indeed a fair number of flibustier leaders were gentlemen, most notably Michel, sieur de Grammont, who played so commanding a role in many of the great French buccaneering actions of the 1680s.

Barring the boots Sabatini and so many authors of his era dress buccaneers in–a trope or myth, there were no horses to ride aboard ship, thus no need for boots of “fine black Cordovan leather,” nor any evidence that seamen, including buccaneers, wore them–Charles de Bernis in real life would have otherwise dressed much as the author described him.

“Habit de Cavallier” by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean, ca. 1675 to 1683. French National Library.

It image above is a near-perfect fit for Charles de Bernis. Please note that the cavalier is wearing “stirrup hose,” not boots. Stirrup hose was variously popular from the 1650s in the Netherlands to as late as the 1680s in parts of Spanish America. In France, it seemed largely, if not entirely, out-of-style circa 1680, and de Bernis likely no longer wore it.

Sword-belts were also common by this time, although many gentlemen did still wear baldrics as Sabatini’s hero does, of purple leather stiff with silver bullion. That said, eyewitness images of 1680s buccaneers (they do exist, I discuss them here) shows sword-belts, not baldrics. But this is a mere quibble.

So perfect is this illustration that I suggested it to Firelock Games (likely with the fictional Charles de Bernis in the back of my mind), and Miami artist Peter Diesen Hosfeld then used it as the basis for the French flibustier commander for its tabletop war game Blood & Plunder.

French flibustier commander for Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games. From the rule book. Drawing by Peter Diesen Hosfeld.

Popular illustrations and covers for the novel are rarely accurate, although this one for the 1976 Ballantine Books mass market paperback (the first I read, in fact), comes closer than most, and could have taken its inspiration from the author’s description along with images such as the one above:

Ballantine Books mass market paperback cover, March 1976. The artist is not listed.

As for red-suited Tom Leach, the villain, there are two likely 1680s candidates for his real inspiration, both of whom Sabatini, an avid researcher, was probably aware of, given that their exploits are well-documented in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies.

The first candidate is Joseph Banister, an indebted English sea captain turned pirate who slipped away at night with his 36-gun Golden Fleece, a former merchantman, under the cannon of the forts at Port Royal, Jamaica, escaping with little damage due to his surprise escape. But his piratical adventure would be relatively short-lived.

In June 1686 while careening his ship at Samana Bay, Hispaniola he was discovered by the pirate hunters HMS Falcon and HMS Drake. The men-of-war expended nearly all of their powder pounding the pirate ship to pieces. Banister’s temporary shore batteries (which [SPOILER ALERT] Tom Leach should have erected at the Albuquerque Keys) returned fire but failed to stop the men-of-war.

1680s French illustration of an English merchantman similar to the Golden Fleece. It might mount as many as 30-odd guns, probably between 300 and 400 tons. From the chart, “Plan geometrique du fort à faire à la Pointe de sable de Caps-terre de l’isle de St. Christophle” by Marc Payen, 1682. French National Library.

His ship lost, Banister and a few of his crew set sail with the French flibustier crew of a nearby flibot (the French term for a small flute) of one hundred tons and six guns. Parting soon afterward aboard a captured sloop, Banister was soon run to ground by the Royal Navy and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Drake in sight of Port Royal, Jamaica in 1687.

As a noteworthy aside, the flibustiers Banister briefly consorted with soon set sail for the South Sea (the Pacific coast of South America), plundering until 1693 and leaving behind a journal of their escapades. In 1688, while attacking Acaponeta, Mexico, these French pirates unfurled a red flag of no quarter–the pavillon rouge, the pavillon sans quartier–of special interest: the red flag bore a white skill with crossbones beneath, the only instance of the skull and bones being flown by late seventeenth century buccaneers or flibustiers. It is possible, even likely, though, that it was flown at other times as well.

Red flag of no quarter with skull and crossbones, designed by Firelock Games for Blood & Plunder.

However, no matter his piracies, Banister was nowhere near the villain that Tom Leach is. Leach murdered captured crews, but not so Banister. But there was a 1680s pirate villain who was a closer match to Leach in villainy: Jean Hamlin.

In desperate need of extra time for numerous projects, I’ll cheat and quote, with some paraphrase and revision, from the original draft of The Buccaneer’s Realm (Potomac Books, 2009):

In 1683 Hamlin, a Frenchman commanding two sloops, captured the merchantman La Trompeuse (The Deceiver) from a French Huguenot, conman, and thief named Paine, and embarked on a piratical rampage. He next captured an English ship, informed the crew he was a pirate–not, mind you, a buccaneer or flibustier–, tortured some of the crew, impressed some, plundered the ship, and let her go. He soon captured several other English vessels, then sailed to the Guinea Coast and captured eleven slavers and three boats, plundering them all.

At Cape St. John the pirates divided the spoil, and, quarreling, separated into two companies, part remaining with Hamlin, part choosing to serve under an Englishman named Morgan (no relation to Sir Henry and probably a false name). Hamlin’s usual tactic was to fly an English Jack and commission pendant as if he were an English man-of-war, come alongside as if seeking a salute, and fire a broadside. Indeed, Hamlin’s strategy and tactics were identical to those of the early eighteenth century Anglo-American pirates who flew the black flag: attack weaker merchantmen, preferably by ruse. Most significantly, Hamlin and his crew referred to themselves openly as pirates, not buccaneers, filibusters, or “privateers.”

The 1680s Cadiz Merchant, one of the ships Edward Barlow, whose seafaring journal is a principal source of information on 17th century life at sea. The Centaur, plundered by fictional pirate Tom Leach with Charles de Bernis aboard, would be similar. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Hamlin was noted for torturing prisoners and otherwise brutalizing them, and for cutting men down “left and right” when he boarded ships. The violence often seemed in retaliation for any resistance.

Throughout his piracies he was protected by the corrupt Danish governor of St. Thomas, although after one return to St. Thomas, the HMS Francis entered the harbor and burned his ship in spite of being fired upon by the Danish fort. Some of Hamlin’s ship-less crew volunteered to serve Captain Le Sage, others Captain Yanky (Jan Willems). Soon enough, the governor of St. Thomas sold Hamlin a sloop with which he captured a Dutch frigate of thirty-six guns, renamed her La Nouvelle Trompeuse (the New Deceiver), manned it with sixty of his old crew and sixty new men, and continued his depredations.

Reportedly, the ship was outfitted in New England, a colony well-noted for its Protestant piety and hypocritical support of piracy. Hamlin captured a Portuguese ship and carried her into St. Thomas where he forced some of her Dutch crew to serve with him, even as the governor of St. Thomas forced some of the captured crew to draw lots and hanged the losers. Hamlin, who can rightly be called the first of the true pirates of the Golden Age–only the black flag was missing–, was never captured.

Make Hamlin an Englishman, and we almost have Tom Leach.

The Swords: The “Rapier” aka The Smallsword

In the novel, the duel is fought with rapiers. This is mildly problematic, as by this time the true rapier was still carried only Iberians–Spaniards and Portuguese–and by some Italians in areas under Spanish rule. The smallsword, with its shorter, lighter blade and smaller hilt, was the common dueling sword among gentlemen and those so pretending.

French-hilted smallsword, 1680s, with a hollow (three sided) Colichemarde blade. The verdigris color on the shells is mere reflection, not the actual color which is silver. Author’s photograph.
A close-up of the hilt. This form, with two quillons but no knuckle guard, was very common in the 1670s and 1680s, and was still seen for some decades afterward, although the smallsword with knuckle guard would soon become far more common. The rings of the hilt are still large enough to put a forefinger through, although the practice was frowned upon by many masters of the French school. On the other hand, it was a characteristic of the Spanish and Italian schools, and given the number of admonitions against in the French, it was probably often seen in it as well.

However, word usage comes to our rescue: Sabatini’s “rapier” remained in use in the British Isles as a word for smallsword. In fact, the English tended to refer to the Spanish rapier as a “spado,” from espada.

Although the cutlass was the common sword of late 17th century mariners, there are a few accounts of those who carried smallswords. Given that Charles de Bernis is something of a gentleman, and Tom Leach prides himself on his swordplay, we can imagine the duel, historically and realistically, as Sabatini described it.

Italian-made Spanish cup-hilted or taza-hilted rapier and parrying dagger with chiseled steel hilts, 1650 to 1675. This form of hilt showed up circa 1625 and remained in use well into the eighteenth century in Iberia, although a Spanish variant of the smallsword began to show up in the late 17th century and became common in the 18th with the succession of a Bourbon king. Swords like this are commonly what Hollywood has inaccurately placed in the hands of film pirates, often with modern epee fencing blades instead of rapier blades. The hilt is larger and therefore shows up better on screen, and further, the audience has to some degree come to expect it (and frankly, costume designers often don’t seem know the difference). The impression is only correct for Spaniards, Portuguese, and some Italians. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[BRIEF SPOILER ALERT!] Charles de Bernis prepares for the duel by secretly practicing with the pompous Major Sands. In the book, the men use their real swords for practice, each with a pear-shaped wooden tip added to blunt the weapons. This is historically inaccurate, and almost certainly Sabatini, with his experience of fencing, knew this, but went with a simple plot device instead to keep the narrative clean and simple.

Seventeenth century fencing foils with crown guard composed of narrow iron bars. From Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670.

Read sword blades were never intended for practice with blade or target contact. They are tempered differently than practice blades, the latter of which are designed to flex many times before breaking, as well as to flex in order to take up some of the energy when hitting.

Real blades are usually much stiffer in order to maximize penetration–a too flexible blade might not penetrate thick clothing, cartilage, or otherwise deeply enough to cause a serious wound. Further, the use of real sword blades for practice will severely nick the sharp edges (if sharpened–not all smallsword blades were, but the nicks will still eventually damage the integrity of the blade) and significantly increase the risk of breaking a blade. In other words, such practice will ruin a fighting sword blade.

Another style of foil with smallsword-like shells instead of a crown, a form, along with similar foils with a crossbar, common to the “German” smallsword schools. From The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700.

Practice swords called foils were used instead of real thrusting swords, and there were several styles in use at the time. The French “crowned” style was prominent in many schools. Pierre, the servant of Charles de Bernis, could easily have hidden the foils beforehand, making the scene more historically accurate. Hopefully the island was large enough, or the pirates busy enough, not to hear the clash of steel on steel–it travels far and there is no other sound quite like it.

De Bernis practicing with Major Sands. The images in this series have been reproduced in numerous Spanish language editions. Here I’ve scanned it from the 1947 Buenos Aires edition published by Editorial Molino Argentina. The artist is not named.

The Dueling Ground: Maldita Key

The duel and much of the rising conflict leading to it takes place on the northernmost of the two Cayos de Albuquerque while Tom Leach’s pirate ship the Black Swan is being careened there. The islands do exist, although their geography doesn’t entirely match that described in the novel, which for reasons of plot must take certain liberties. It might also have been quite difficult for the author to get accurate details of these small out-of-the-way keys.

There is, however, plenty of beach for dueling on the real island.

Located off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Belize south of Santa Catalina (Providencia, Old Providence) and San Andres Islands (roughly twenty-five miles SSW of the latter), the two small principal Albuquerque keys are actually part of Colombia (with a small military presence on the north key). The keys are ringed with reefs: technically, the islands are part of an atoll with a large lagoon at its center. Some old English charts list them as the S.S.W. Keys. The keys are roughly 250 to 300 yards apart, and Cayo de Norte is perhaps 200 yards across. Passage to its anchorages is difficult. Both keys are covered in coconut palms.

The Cayos de Albuqueque shown on a Spanish chart, “Carta Particular de la Costa de Mosquitos,” 1764. Spanish National Library.
Satellite image of the Cayos de Albuquerque. The two principal keys are clearly seen on the eastern side of the lagoon. The image clearly shows the dangerous coral reefs fringing the keys.

Cayo del Norte, where the action takes place, is named Maldita Key in the novel, meaning cursed or damned, probably a name of Sabatini’s creation given that I’ve not found the name referenced anywhere else. This isn’t the only time he invents or changes a place name. Similarly, Sabatini has imagined the island as larger, with higher elevations in places than the roughly 7 feet maximum elevation of the real island, and with a hidden pool of fresh water large enough to swim in.

Having once lived on Old Providence Island until the Spanish sacked it and forced the interloping settlers from it, buccaneer Charles de Bernis would have been familiar with the keys to the south.

Cayo del Norte in the Cayos de Albuquerques. The beach at the upper left appears to be the only possible careenage on the island. Photo credit: Expedición Seaflower.

The Duel Itself

LAST WARNING! SPOILER ALERTS! If you haven’t yet read the novel, you should stop, read The Black Swan, and then return.

The duel as described by Sabatini is about as well-written as a sword duel can be: exciting, well-paced, and largely rooted in reality. As such, I’m not going to comment further except to discuss and dissect the singular unconventional technique used by Charles de Bernis to kill his adversary.

Several years ago in a long-running conversation with Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia as she prepared her second volume, Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, we had numerous discussions about swordplay in his novels. One point of discussion was what the de Bernis technique might actually have been.

Illustration by Lyle Justis for “The Duel on the Beach” by Rafael Sabatini. Pirates are boarding the Centaur.

I was never satisfied with the answer, discussed below, I gave her. Then one recent evening, while rereading the duel as part of some research into my annotations for Captain Blood, the answer struck me. I realized I had been mistaken in every analysis I’ve done on the duel, and knew immediately what de Bernis had done—and where Sabatini almost certainly found his inspiration. It was right under my nose all along, a purloined technique lying literally in plain sight for two decades or more, but my mind had categorized it such that I had not yet made the connection. Please excuse my excitement and fencing vanity as I make my argument.

For what it’s worth, this separate blog on The Black Swan was inspired by a recent long e-letter to Ruth Heredia on the subject.

Illustration by Lyle Justis for “The Duel on the Beach” by Rafael Sabatini. The aftermath of the duel.

The pertinent details: at the end of the duel, Leach makes a sudden and sneaky (sudden and sneaky are expected in swordplay) long low lunge in the “Italian” style, snake-like, with one hand supporting him, to slip under the guard of de Bernis. This was in fact both a French and Italian technique in the late 17th century, although by Rafael Sabatini’s era it was largely confined to the Italian and was generally considered as such. Sabatini notes in the novel that no “direct” parry could deflect this attack once fully launched. While this may not be entirely true (see below and also the note at the end of this blog), a very low attack like this is quite difficult to parry, making an esquive (see also the discussion below) of some sort highly useful in defending against it.

Further, an attack made with the body and hand so low can only have as its torso target the lower abdomen or the groin, making it a ruthless, dishonorable attack when this is the intended, as opposed to accidental target–an attack suitable to Tom Leach’s venomous character.

As Leach lunges, de Bernis disappears from the line of attack. “Pivoting slightly to the left, he averted his body by making in his turn a lunging movement outward upon the left knee.” It was a “queer, unacademic movement” that “had placed him low upon his opponent’s flank.” De Bernis then passed his sword through Leach.

We require six conditions for the answer:

  1. A pivoting movement that averts the body.
  2. It must outward upon the LEFT knee (we assume almost assuredly that de Bernis is a right-hander).
  3. It must be a “queer, unacademic movment.”
  4. It must place him low upon his opponent’s flank.
  5. It must put de Bernis in position to pass his blade “side to side” through Leach.
  6. It must require TWO tempos, one for the pivoting movement, and one for the thrust into Leach’s flank.

As already noted, I was never satisfied with any conclusion I’ve come to. Of course, it could be that Sabatini left his description somewhat vague on purpose, and I’ve considered this as a possibility. However, my best guess was some form of intagliata, a term used by some nineteenth century Italian masters for an “inside” lunge off the line. In other words, if you’re a right-hander, you lunge toward the left, or inside, removing your body from the direct line of attack or riposte and placing yourself upon your adversary’s flank.

The intagliata as illustrated in Trattato Elementare Teorico-Pratico di Scherma: Opera Riginale
by Cesare Enrichetti, 1871. the fencer on the right has lunged off the line to the left in order to avoid his adversary’s blade.
The intagliata in action. Rarely is technique in action as perfectly formed as it is in posed photographs or line drawings. From Fencing by R. A. Lidstone, 1952.

The intagliata is a member of a group of techniques known in French as esquives, or in English, dodgings or body displacements for lack of a more elegant word. The two principal esquives are the inquartata and the passata soto, both of which are primarily used as counter-attacks in a single tempo, designed to avoid the adversary’s attack while simultaneously thrusting, preferably in opposition (closing the line to prevent the adversary from hitting) or with bind (pressure on the adversary’s blade to prevent it from hitting) and removing the body from the line of attack.

They may also be used in two tempos, parrying and displacing in the first tempo, and riposting in the second. Single tempo counter-attacks without esquive often result in double hits, even when opposition is attempted, for the fencer often fails to predict the correct line or uses inadequate opposition. Body displacement increases the protection. It’s a backup, in other words.

Other esquives include the cartoccio or forward lunge while lowering the upper body; the rassemblement or very old school “slipping” as it was called; the “pass” or crossover forward bringing the rear foot forward in front of the lead foot; the simple backward lean; the various leaps or voltes to the side noted by some late 17th and early 18th century masters (seldom used now due to the narrowness of the fencing strip); and the lunge to the outside (to the right for a right-hander) off the line.

Illustrations of the duel in The Black Swan are never accurate, at least of those I’ve seen. From the 1947 Buenos Aires edition published by Editorial Molino Argentina. The artist is not named.

I considered and even tested all of these. None entirely met the conditions. In particular, none were considered then as un-academic, although it could be argued that the leaps to the side are considered so today and likewise in Sabatini’s era. But the leaps met few of the other conditions. Compounding the problem was Sabatini’s use of the word “outward” which I, with nearly 45 years fencing and studying swordplay past and present, and 25 teaching both, took at first to mean “outside,” which in fencing terms means, for a right-hander, to the right. In fact, Sabatini appears to have meant the word conventionally–outward rather than inward. One problem solved!

Yet the major problem still remained. In the 1935 film version of Captain Blood there is one option depicted, probably drawn from an interpretation of The Black Swan is my guess—a volt to the left with the leading right foot, followed by the rear—but this too is actually an academic movement, a form of intagliata, again really nothing more than “lunging off the line.”

I remained distracted by the question: what other possible, conceivable two tempo movement—a pivot and lunging movement outward upon the left knee, followed by a thrust, probably via a lunge—would fit? What esquive could it be if not an intagliata? What might work yet be unorthodox? Importantly, what might be documented—not imaginary—in this category? In other words, how did Sabatini develop this scene, what was his inspiration?

I think almost certainly right here:

“Duel tussen twee mannen met degens,” from “Diverses figures” by Louis François du Bouchet. Rijksmuseum.

On the right a swordsman has made a very long low lunge. His hand is not on the ground as it commonly was, but this is immaterial. On the left is a swordsman slightly off the line, bending inward slightly, WITH HIS LEFT (REAR) LEG BENT IN A SOMEWHAT LUNGING MANNER.

This left fencer’s position appears bothersome to fencers not well-versed in fencing history (most aren’t, in fact). What does it depict? It might well be just a lean backward onto the rear leg to avoid a sudden low attack, or a failed retreat—the 17th century French school advocated keeping most weight on the rear foot, forcing most retreats to be made by crossing over, front foot moving first to the rear, passing the rear foot en route. Or, it might be something more conventional, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

What’s important is what Rafael Sabatini might have thought it was!

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it depicts a fencer who has just pivoted off the line slightly in a lunging fashion in order to avoid a long low attack, as described by Sabatini. If so, to execute this, de Bernis need, as described, only pivot slightly to the left on the right or lead foot as he simultaneously leans back into a lunge on the left leg. This places him out of the direct line of attack and also out of range—and he has a tempo to do this as the low attack is made.

Detail from the image above, showing an attempt to parry with the foible or middle against the forte of of the attacking blade.

In fact, the parry shown in the detail above is a natural one against a long low attack, and would help protect de Bernis as he made his next movement, by providing some opposition–but it would almost certainly not have stopped the attack, or at least such conclusion might be drawn from the image. The exceptionally low attack might easily “force” most parries.

In other words, parrying with the hand held at the usual height of the en garde position makes it difficult to apply forte (the strong third of the blade nearest the hilt) against the middle or, preferably, foible (weak third of the blade at the tip end), so necessary for an effective parry. In the detail above, the foible or middle of the parrying blade has been applied against the forte of the attacking blade, rendering the parry largely useless. It is likely that Sabatini’s statement to the effect that there is no direct parry that can stop such an attack once fully launched was inspired in part by this image. (See the technical note at the end of this blog for more detail, including on at least one unconventional parry that can deflect such an attack.)

But let us return to the unusual esquive. Because Leach is now subsequently off-balance—for a full second, fortunately—de Bernis has a second tempo in which to run him through, almost certainly with a conventional lunge. In fact, such long low lunges have a distinct disadvantage: they’re slow to recover from conventionally, that is, to the rear, leaving the fencer in danger. Likewise, if the fencer recovers forward, he (or she) may be at dangerously close distance. As well, poor balance is typical of this long lunge although there are some rare fencers who can manage it well, at least on hard floors.

The ultra-long low lunge, albeit with a thrust made in the high rather than low line. This lunge would eventually come to be considered an Italian technique. In this image the lunge is actually made to the rear as a counter-attack (the Italian passata soto). From Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670.

Importantly, does the technique of Charles de Bernis work?

I’ve tested it–and it does! It is also historical, it is also unorthodox—and its imagination by Sabatini from the drawing, brilliant. It would only require that the fencer using be familiar with lunging with his left leg—having experience fencing left-handed, in other words, would help. And a fair number of fencers, although probably not a majority, did practice at times with the off-hand.

In fact, if the technique were deliberate, it would fall into the category of “secret thrusts,” which were nothing more than legitimate, if unorthodox, technique that was known to but a few fencers and was useful only in rare circumstances. And once it’s found useful, the unorthodox becomes the orthodox, in everything, not only in fencing.

The inspiring drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. The small collection of his drawings is well-known to historians of seventeenth century France. More importantly, there are some thirteen volumes of his memoirs, dating from 1681 to 1712, first published in the late 19th century: Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893). Sabatini would doubtless have run across these volumes of memoirs of the French court in his researches, and from them his drawings, if not otherwise. I’ve found copies of the swordplay image in both the British Museum and Rijksmusem.

So, there we have it! Or do we? I think almost certainly this is Sabatini’s inspiration. But does the drawing actually represent what the author described?

The duel in the film version, between George Sanders on the left and Tyrone Power on the right–on the deck of a ship. An island romance was clearly not dramatic enough. Warner Bros., 1942. Author’s collection.

Almost certainly not.

The two images below are from Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The first shows the long lunge in use, or at least promoted (it requires great flexibility), at the time, although not as long as the extreme lunges above, along with the en garde. The second also shows the common French en garde of the 1660s and 1670s, with most of the weight on the rear leg and the lead leg almost straight.

Vestiges of this en garde remain in some of the French schools today. A few years ago, although Olympic gold medalist Dr. Eugene Hamori had been mentoring me as a fencing teacher for two decades, he had not given me a fencing lesson since 1981. As I came en garde very upright, almost leaning back, a position I’d picked up from years of giving fencing lessons, he immediately said, “That’s a beautiful French guard, Ben. Now lean forward a little bit, like a Hungarian.”

We find this unbalanced French en garde not only in de la Touche’s work, but in other images as well, as shown below. The guard does have the advantage of keeping the body well back and even permitting one to lean back even farther–the first commandment of swordplay is (or should be) to hit and, especially, to not get hit. But the guard has the disadvantage of limiting mobility, including a slower attack (but then, that’s not what the French school was most noted for anyway at the time).

Most French schools would soon place less extreme emphasis on this heavy rear foot position, although it would remain in use to a lesser degree for another century.

“Parallelle lijnen trekken door een gegeven punt met onderaan schermende mannen.” From Pratique de la géometrie, sur le papier et sur le terrain. Avec un nouvel ordre et une méthode particulière by Sébastien Leclerc. Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1669. Rijksmuseum.

So there’s an end on it, yes? Sabatini’s inspiration and its reality?

Or is there more?

In my experience there always is. Below, from Alfieri, here’s a swordsman leaning backward, weight on his rear leg, to avoid a thrust while thrusting in turn. It doesn’t take much to imagine the addition of a small lunging movement off the line with the rear leg. In this case, though, the fencer on the right has made a single tempo movement, thrusting as he simultaneously evades an adversary who has rashly ventured too close, or has been tricked into doing so. Tom Leach provides no such opportunity. 🙂

From L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, 1653.

Still, I think we have Sabatini’s original source above in the du Bouchet drawing, and therefore the “queer, un-academic” technique of Charles de Bernis as well.

However, the most useful lesson, at least fencing-wise, from the novel may be the admonition derived from the following lines:

“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”

In this time of pandemic, fencers may improve their footwork, increase their flexibility and strength, study strategy and tactics, and so forth. But it takes free fencing–practice with an adversary–to maintain the most important components of fencing speed: the sense of tempo and the ability to react without hesitation. Without these, raw speed is worth next to nothing sword-in-hand.

Next up in the series: the duel on the beach in film!

Technical End Note on Parrying Leach’s Low Attack: Arguably there are five parries that might possibly deflect Leach’s blade: septime, octave, seconde, quinte (low quarte), all by different names in the 1680s and some not really even in much use at all; and a largely unfamiliar vertical parry made straight down, noted in some of the old Italian schools, and in particular by Alfred Hutton in his famous fencing text, Cold Steel. He describes the parry as being effective against an upward vertical cut toward the “fork” aka the groin.

Such vertical and other below the waist cuts are the reason, by the way, that the modern saber target is limited to the body from the waist up. This is due to the Italians who made the rules more than a century ago, intending by them to protect their manhood. Yet the myth of the saber target “being limited to above the waist due to the saber being a cavalry weapon, and you wouldn’t want to hurt the horse,” persists in spite of being arrant nonsense. In fact, the modern “Olympic” saber derives from the light dueling saber of the nineteenth century, and it was used in duels afoot. As for not hitting the horse or below the waist? Such blows were commonly permitted in duels among many various schools and peoples, and always in warfare.

Below the waist attacks, especially to the knee, have long been common with cutting weapons, but somewhat less so with thrusting weapons, at least when the legs are target (the area below the ribs is in fact an excellent target with real thrusting weapons), due to the fact that a thrust to the legs is rarely incapacitating, unlike a cut, and leaves the attacker’s head and torso wide open for a possibly fatal counter thrust. Thrusts to the groin, besides generally being considered dishonorable when intentional, may easily miss and slip between the legs, leaving the attacker open as just noted. In my experience, fencers hit in the groin by thrusting weapons are usually at fault, having parried late or insufficiently, or used a yielding parry incorrectly, and in both cases thereby carrying the attacking blade to the groin.

This vertical downward hard beat-parry is used unknowingly by some epee fencers today, at least among those who know how to use beats and beat parries (many these days can’t use them effectively), who if asked would probably define it as an incomplete seconde. I use it and find it highly effective against hard-driven low attacks.

In order for any of the first four of these parries to be effective against a low thrust, the parrying hand must be lowered significantly in order to bring forte to foible, making for a slow parry. If the parry is begun after the attack has developed, instead of at its initiation, often by anticipating it, it will likely prove ineffective.

However the last parry described, if correctly timed and made with a powerful beat with the middle of the blade on the attacker’s foible or middle, can be highly effective against such attacks, capable of being forced only with great difficulty. Even so, Sabatini is correct when he writes that such a low powerful attack is not easily parried, at least not conventionally.

Hutton notes that septime is also effective against low vertical upward cuts. I have not found this to be the case with low thrusts made by lighyer weapons such as the foil, epee, and smallsword, but he is surely correct in the case of cuts with the cavalry saber, or even the nineteenth century dueling saber, with their heavier blades.

Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First published 10 September 2020. Last revised 30 September 2020.