Swashbuckler is not dead: On Guard, 1997
Two days ago I had to suffer through some pretty asinine observation about swashbuckler fiction, by a lady that claimed that swashbucklers, being sad violent misogynistic poorly written drivel without a decent female character, had fizzed out and died, and good riddance.
The Three Musketteers? Gone and forgotten, with all the rest of the rubbish that poor hapless hack Dumas published.
To which I begged to differ, of course, but my opinions did not carry – apparently – enough weight in that refined circle.
For sure, I find it hard to believe that someone would pronounce the swashbuckler genre dead while at the same time enthusing about the Pirates of the Carribean franchise.
But that’s fantasy
… was the dismissive remark.
In a desperate attempt at defending the genre – which I happen to love – I finally summoned a movie, one of my all-time faves, based on a swashbuckler novel that represents the perfect defensive argument. It’s a story set in Paris and in France at large, and it’s about a hunchback…
Directed in 1997 by French master of adventure Philippe de Broca, Le Bossu (literally, “the Hunchback”) was distributed in English as On Guard.
The movie is based on a novel by the same name, written in 1858 by Paul Fèval, that was with Dumas pére one of the noble fathers of European swashbuckler. He also wrote Gothic horror and mystery.
Fèval was published by Hetzel – the same publisher of Jules Verne, and some of his works, including the six volumes of Le Bossu can be found (in French) on the Project Gutenberg pages.
The story is set between 1699 and 1717, and it hinges on the unlikely friendship between the Duke of Nevers and a man called Henri de Lagardére, a former mountebank raised in the streets of Paris, that the duke knights as a sign of his appreciation: Lagardére can read, while the Duke is illiterate. When the Duke is killed with all of his wife’s family, Lagardére saves his friend’s daughter and vows revenge – with the trademark, defiant cry of “If you won’t come to Lagardére, Lagardére will come for you!”1. It takes almost two decades, but then all the pieces fall in the right places, and Lagardére comes to those that did not accept his challenge.
The story was filmed in 1913, in 1925, in 1934, in 1944, in 1955, in 1959 and in 1997, and brought to TV in 1967 and in 2003.
The 1997 version is the best known and the best overall, thanks to a stellar cast that includes Daniel Auteuil (who won a Lumiere Award as best actor), Fabrice Luchini in the role of the slimy bad guy Gonzague, Marie Gillain as the sword-wielding daughter of the Duke, himself portrayed by Vincent Perez (who won the Cobourg Film Festival Award as Best Actor). Philipp Noiret plays the role of King Philippe of Orleans with gusto.
The original trailer is actually a lot better than the one used for international distribution.
The actual plot is a complicated – as befits the genre – story of revenge and derring-do, covering the full range between comedy, romantic adventure, drama.
Let’s steal the summary from IMDB:
The Comte de Gonzague schemes against his cousin, the Duc de Nevers, even though he is the Duke’s heir and will inherit his estates. The Count has kept secret the existence of the Duke’s bastard, recently born. When the Duke learns of his child, he journeys to wed the mother, a baron’s daughter, in her father’s isolated chateau. The occupants of the castle are surprised and murdered by the Count and his men. The only ones to escape are the Duke’s friend, the skilled swordsman Lagardère, and the infant, a girl, now the rightful heiress to the Duke’s vast fortune. The Count believes the pair to have drowned, when in fact they have been concealed by a travelling troupe of Italian players. Twenty years pass. The Count has discovered that the two survive and seeks to have them slain. But Lagardère gains the confidence of the Count, and employment as his bookkeeper, through his clever disguise as a hunch-back…
Hunchbacks are said to bring good fortune, and Gonzague is a superstitious, spineless bastard – and his superstition will be the key to his undoing.
The deception is at the same time portrayed as comedic and as highly suspenseful, and tension builds up to the final confrontation.
The movie looks like a million – and indeed won a Cesar for the costumes (the only Cesar award out of nine nominations).
On Guard features some of the best swordplay ever brought to the screen – dynamic, realistic, furious and lethal, beautifully choreographed. The “Nevers Attack”, the secret technique that the Duke taught his friend Lagardére and Lagardére taught to his friend’s daughter Aurore, is one of the funniest and most lethal fictional pieces of swordplay that ever made it to screen.
Quite obviously a prestige production, much of the film’s action was shot in some beautiful locations between Provence, the Alps and Paris.
In a single stroke, On Guard defuses all of the spurious criticism I mentioned opening this post:
. it features a strong female character, as young Aurore is a smart girl that can hold her own with a sword.
. it is not misogynistic, as female characters (Aurore,her mother, the women of the traveling troupe of actors) have a central role in the development of the plot, and are treated with respect.
. violence is highly stylized and, plot-wise, it is no substitute for smarts.
. it is not poorly written – the script captures the rhythm and the humor of the novel’s dialogues. Indeed, the comedic elements blend perfectly with the revenge drama and the action set-pieces, as a further proof of the overall quality of the writing.
. It is, as a standard-bearer for the swashbuckler genre, well alive, considering how often the story was adapted for the screen.
. and the novel was never out of print since 1858!
Oh, and it is not fantasy.
It is realistic – well, as realistic as a swashbuckler story can be – and it is a solid historical narrative.
It even became a series of novels, when Féval’s son wrote a number of other novels featuring Henri de Lagardére, and his son, and the son of dArtagnan – because swashbucklers die hard and reproduce.
As it is probably evident from this piece, On Guard is one of my favorite adventure/historical movies. Together with the old Richard Lester movies about the Musketeers, and with a now almost forgotten pirate movie called, of all things, Swashbuckler2, it represents to me the gold standard of the modern swashbuckler film. A reasonably good copy can be found on Youtube, but a high-quality, restored DVD version is also available, and it is worth every cent of the price of admission.
Check it out.
The swashbuckler genre is alive and well.