Around the time that I turned 10, I was on a quixotic quest: finding a sport in which I did not feel like a clumsy giraffe. My height was well-suited for basketball and volleyball, but I never took to them. Mastery of the games’ mechanics was beyond my elementary-school patience and, being of a capricious nature, I abandoned these athletic pursuits for artistic ones. It was not until my freshman year of college when the desire to do something physical once more reared its head. Why? Because I was presented with the opportunity to do something of which I, as a child who loved swash-buckling, had longed dreamed: Fencing.
As I learned the basics of swordplay, I began to see myself less as a graceless stork, and more as a nimble combatant, whose height gave her a greater reach and deeper lunge than her opponents. My instructors were patient as they led us through our drills, but when I clashed with them during practice matches, they did not hold back (actually I’m sure they did, it just REALLY did not feel like it). They would spring forward with disarming (pun intended) speed, and always five moves ahead of their students. At the end of my first year, I felt like a Jedi padawan, with much to learn, but with a new-found confidence in myself that would serve me well as I began adult-ing.
Inspired by my enthusiastic reports, my father found a fencing salon back east, and he and I would spar with each other during breaks. I remember one occasion where the snow blanketed our yard, gleaming as white as our fencing uniforms, our breath visible as it puffed out from the mesh of our masks. Thanks to my father, who had first shown me classic movies like Scaramouche (1952), movies that kick-started my imagination and a desire for thrilling heroics, I had found a zeal for swordplay that eventually overwhelmed my reluctance towards physical recreation.
As summarized on the film’s IMDb page: “In France during the late 18th Century, a man sets out to avenge the death of his friend at the hands of a master swordsman.”
When I first watched Scaramouche, I suspect that a lot of the historical context went over my head. Set in France, the movie (and the novel on which it is based) deals with issues of class, family, honor, and revolutionary politics. However, what most enthralled me were the colors, costumes, comedy, and of course, the climatic duel between the heroic Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) and the suave, yet sinister, Noel, Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer). The sequence is reportedly the longest fencing duel ever filmed, and lasts nearly eight breathtaking minutes. The fencers pursue each other through an opulent theater, from the balcony boxes, to the lobby, through the main seats, backstage, and finally on to the stage itself. According to TCM, Granger and Ferrer spent eight weeks preparing for the sequence, which features 87 different individual sword passes and 28 stunts. The scene is still thrilling to watch over six decades later, having been conceived by the great Hollywood sword master, Fred Cavens, who was also responsible for Cyrano de Bergerac’s poetic parries, Zorro’s daring-duels, and the famous staircase sequence between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
However, even upon laying down their arms, the characters of Scaramouche are delightful. The film opens with a description of our hero, and is probably one my favorite quotations in all of literature: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” This is Moreau, a man who slips easily from the parlors of French nobility, to the boards of the playhouse, to the rooms of the fencing salon, and finally into the chambers of politics. Granger cuts a dashing, romantic figure, and is a worthy successor to Flynn and Fairbanks. His Moreau is forever laughing, but when he loses his cheeky grin, we know he is in earnest. He is a rogue, but one who cares deeply about his friends, which is why we believe in his vengeance against the foppish, yet fatal, Marquis de Maynes. As our villain, Ferrer is the ice to Moreau’s fire; the Marquis is cold and calculating, often dressed in white in contrast to the other characters’ more vibrant hues. Ferrer’s measured baritone never rises at any point during the film, which speaks to the total control the Marquis believes he wields over everyone and everything. In short, he is the perfect French aristocrat, and an ideal foil for Moreau, who grows from a disinterested wastrel to a champion of the common man.
The women in Moreau’s life are also worthy of note. Janet Leigh is Aline de Gavrillac, the sweet and charming young noblewoman with whom Moreau falls in love with at first sight. Although an initial misunderstanding causes him to turn away from her, he still vows to be the custodian of her happiness (Moreau is equal parts scoundrel and chivalry). She will reenter his story later, of course, but after meeting Aline, we are then introduced to Lenore (Eleanor Parker) whose temper is as fiery as her auburn tresses. I unabashedly love Lenore; she is clever, complex, and not one to stand for Moreau’s emotional irresponsibility. And while it is clear that she loves and supports him, she does not let him get away with anything. What makes this a worthwhile film, however, is when these two women combine forces to protect the stubborn swordsman they both love. Rather than setting them up as cat-scratching rivals, the film instead has them use their wiles and wits to keep Moreau from rushing headfirst into a fight that he is not yet prepared to win. Moreover, even at the film’s conclusion, when Andre has made his romantic choice, there is no “loser,” and we are teased with the possibility of an even happier ending for one of these lovely ladies.
In closing, here is what Scaramouche has to offer:
- To (lovingly) borrow from The Princess Bride: “Fencing, fighting, revenge, chases, escapes, true love…” but seriously, if you want to see an example of terrific classic Hollywood fight choreography, this film has got you covered, and then some
- In my opinion, a swashbuckling adventurer is only made better by his villain, and Mel Ferrer’s Marquis is an excellent adversary
- Two strong female characters who play off each other in ways that are collaborative rather than competitive. They each have their own virtues (and vices), and are worth celebrating
Head’s Up: If you feel like tackling French revolutionary politics in cinema, this is a good place to start. While Moreau and the Marquis are presented as “spoiled rich” vs. “salt of the earth,” in truth, it is more “arrogant aristocrat” versus “true noble;” there are nuances to both. The catalyst for Moreau’s transformation is an unjust death, but it is largely bloodless. The same can be said for the duels that follow: minimal blood is shown. Finally, during one scene of Lenore and Moreau’s “tempestuous” relationship, there are a couple blows with a frying pan traded between them, but it is played for laughs rather than drama. However, this could be used as a teaching moment: no matter how angry you are, weaponizing cookware is a big no-no.
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”