Monday, June 2, 2008


In real life, Basil Rathbone was an expert fencer. So were two of his fellow actors—Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. I remember once reading somewhere that Rathbone was, in real life, the best fencer of the three.

Ironic if true, because whenever Rathbone faced off against Flynn or Power in a movie, he was playing the villain and was obligated to lose. But he could take comfort in the knowledge that he had participated in three of the best choreographed, most entertaining sword fights in movie history.

The first time was 1935, in one of the best swashbucklers ever filmed: Captain Blood. Errol Flynn plays the title role of Peter Blood, a physician-turned-slave-turned-pirate. Rathbone is a secondary villain of sorts—the ruthless French pirate Lavasseur, with who Blood makes an unwise alliance.

The alliance comes to an end when the two buccaneers rather understandably duel each other over possession of Olivia de Havilland. The fight, taking place on the beach of a deserted island, is one of the highlights of this excellent film.

Flynn and Rathbone crossed swords three years later in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn, of course, is perfect as Robin. (Along with Peter Blood, it was one of the two roles he was born to play.) Rathbone, this time, is the primary villain—Sir Guy of Gisborne.

This energetic and beautifully photographed version of the Robin Hood legend ends with a battle for control of a castle (and, incidentally, of England). Robin and Sir Guy end up separated from the battle, going at it with broadswords up and down the stairs leading to the dungeon (where the endlessly put-upon Olivia de Havilland was being held prisoner). The fighting style, employing modern fencing techniques, may have been anarchistic, but the fairy-tale ambiance of the film did not require realism and—as in Captain Blood—the duel is one of the most memorable scenes in a movie already stuffed full of classic moments.

My favorite Rathbone sword fight comes in The Mark of Zorro, made in 1940. Tyrone Power, playing the titular hero, is his opponent this time around. Rathbone is the cruel Captain Pasquele, who works for the despotic governor.

Interestingly, Power is in the role of Zorro’s wimpy “secret identity,” Don Diego, when the fight takes place. The moments leading up to the sword duel are fantastic, with Power and Rathbone trading perfectly written dialogue before going at it. (Such as Rathbone spitting out “Quiet, you popinjay! I’ve no reason for letting you live, either!” Power’s reply was in a voice tinged with quiet boredom: “What a pleasant coincidence. I feel exactly the same way about you.”) The fight, set in the governor’s office, makes use of both the skills of the actors and the geography of the set to give us a flawless and exhilarating action sequence.

So there you have it. Poor Basil Rathbone gets killed as a Frenchman, then as an Englishman, then as a Spaniard. He might have been able to take either Flynn or Power in real life, but the requirements of storytelling sent a blade through his villainous heart whenever the cameras were rolling.


  1. Rathbone is quoted as saying, "Tyrone Power could duel Errol Flynn into a cocked hat." He considered Power a formidable adversary!

  2. Thanks for supplying the qoute. That is an interesting bit of information.

  3. I believe Rathbone was either on the Olympic team or he was an alternate.


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