When Swords Flew

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In a key lobby card from the set, Robin Hood stares down Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the middle of a duel for the ages.

I was prompted to think about the duel scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood by an email Tom Hodgins sent just this morning. In it he says:

“…years ago I mentioned on your Errol and Olivia blog that there is a moment in the Robin Hood duel where a sword fumble by Rathbone can still be seen in the film. Ralph Dawson edited it so beautifully that the eye can’t really catch anything, but, by pausing and freeze framing the image you can clearly see it. The only reason I made this discovery is because one day I thought I saw a slight blur on the film at that point, so I stopped my DVD to check it out. Voila—a boner by Basil that’s been on the film since its release without anyone having noticed it. (At least, I’ve never heard of anyone else having written about it). I’m sending you a couple of snapshots of the fumble taken on my computer off the DVD, just in case you never saw it for yourself. Basil, I’m sure, would not be pleased.”

I remember Tom mentioning this but never did think to follow up until the new prompting this morning. With Flynn lying under the candelabra, Rathbone says, “Do you know any prayers, my friend?” and Flynn responds, “I’ll say one for you!” and his next swing with the sword, as he’s lying flat on his back, is so ferocious that it catches Rathbone unaware and knocks the blade from his hand. It’s not supposed to, but that thing goes flying—which I didn’t notice in nine theatrical viewings of the picture and dozens more on the small screen. It’s only a few frames, literally like a quarter of a second, but it’s there with the sword tumbling high in the air end over end.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In Tom’s freeze frame, Rathbone’s sword has been knocked from his hand by an over-eager Flynn and is tumbling in the air–something NOT choreographed as part of the action. As can be seen, candles did not fare well in this encounter.

In general it proves how difficult the swordfights were to choreograph and how long it took and how exhausting for the actors, director, DP, and crew. Rudy Behlmer used some of the Rathbone color home movies to lead us through an examination of the filming of this duel scene in the bonus feature, Welcome to Sherwood, included as bonus material in the Robin Hood deluxe DVD package released years back.

We have all seen some fantastic cinematic duels, and for me this one is near the top of the list, with its terrific flow as the duelists fight their way out of frame to hack and slash in shadow and then re-emerge into view, still going at it furiously. They’re not fighting with foils but with heavy swords, their occasional, resonant clanking serving as reminders that these weapons are lethal.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

As per another lobby card from the original set, the duel begins in the Great Hall.

In The Mark of Zorro there’s a fantastic moment when Esteban (Rathbone again) demonstrates his prowess with a blade to Zorro (Ty Power) by deftly slicing off a candle with a flick of his wrist. Then Zorro does the same and seems to miss because the candle is still sitting in place, but then he reaches out and lifts the sliced top off the remaining bottom and smiles innocently. Well, there’s no such gentlemanly foreplay in Robin Hood—when those big candles get hacked by the swinging swords, wax flies in all directions. In general, candles take a lot of abuse in the Robin Hood duel; not only are they hacked up by both combatants, but candelabras are tipped over and a candle is hurled as a missile by Robin at one point.

Wasn’t Basil Rathbone something? When the duel scene was shot, he was 45 years of age (17 years older than Flynn) and a heavy smoker, yet easily up to the rigors of shooting that scene. Two years later at 47 he nearly topped it in The Mark of Zorro. There’s a moment at the end of the Robin Hood duel that makes me frightened in retrospect for the safety of Mr. Rathbone and others in the cast, and that occurs after Sir Guy has been defeated and Robin hurries to the dungeon where he knocks the hand of the jailor holding the keys to Marian’s cell so hard that he bends his blade. He doesn’t bend it a little; he bends it a lot, demonstrating—what are we—78 years later how explosive Flynn was as a physical presence in his action pictures, and how wary stars and bit players alike would have been at the moment the director called, “Action!” and the film started to move in the magazine. That was when the money was spent, and when Errol would have been ready to make it look good, come what may for the other guy—as when he used muscle on the shot that Tom Hodgins pointed out, and Rathbone’s sword went flying. I know I’ve mentioned how Christopher Lee used to boast that Flynn nearly took off a finger shooting a duel scene during production of an episode of The Errol Flynn Theater, “and I have the scar to prove it,” Lee sniffed in an on-camera interview.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Basil Rathbone fights Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro. This duel was just as furious and just as lethal an encounter, but confined to a much smaller space. In both, Rathbone displayed fine fencing form.

I’m tempted to say that Flynn just didn’t have self-discipline in any regard except maybe for tennis. Archival film footage shows he was an awfully good tennis player and, as any weekend hacker knows, tennis is all about discipline. And when you watch the Robin Hood duel scene and the extra footage as described by Rudy Behlmer, you see that the swordfights were meticulously shot over a course of days and through all those movements with exposed sword tips, Flynn must have had discipline there too or Rathbone and so many others would be dead or blinded for life. But they lived to act on, so Errol must have been doing something right. You can cite for me all the instances where Fred and Al Cavens were doubling for Errol and Basil but there’s still a heck of a lot of Flynn-Rathbone footage visible in the Robin Hood duel, so these two must be given the credit they deserve for making it look lethal from beginning to end.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Thanks to the vision of Mike Curtiz, the combatants duel in shadow for a time, only to reemerge in frame still fighting with fury.

The near-impossibility of shooting this duel scene is demonstrated when, in the middle of the duel, Robin moves aside and Sir Guy flies past him and off the winding stone stairway. Sir Guy’s sword flies far off as dictated by physics and lands a good 25 or 30 feet away, but in the next shot, it’s magically laying on the floor under Robin’s feet so he can kick it back to Sir Guy in an admirable display of sportsmanship. So, let’s think about that moment on Stage 1 (or wherever it was) in January 1938 after Curtiz called “Cut” and they assessed what had just been captured on film. There must have been 40 people who saw the sword go to a spot where it would be impossible to retrieve unless Robin spent 15 seconds walking down the stairs, picking up the sword, and returning it to Sir Guy after he had collected himself up off the floor and dusted himself off. Talk about sapping dramatic tension! So what was that moment like, and what led to the decision to cheat through it the way they did? Was the stunt man doubling Rathbone the key player? Did he say, “If I have to do that fall again, it’s going to cost you another $500,” which prompted Mike to decide that yes the sword flew off but print it anyway and we’ll cheat. Was it a safety thing where the stunt man said, if I’m falling this way, then I’m making sure the sword goes that way so I don’t impale myself. Actually, that’s more likely and could explain why there isn’t a memo to or from Hal Wallis about this situation—it was a safety thing and you either X the fall out of the script in red pencil, or you cheat. All of which speaks to the incredible challenge of staging a fight like this.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The iconic promotion still. A few seconds after telling Robin Hood, “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often, my friend,” he will lunge and go head-first off the steps. His sword will fly far off camera.

I will never forget standing in front of the edit booths under Jack Warner’s window on the Warner lot, thinking about all that used to go on in those rooms, all the sweat and missed meals and midnight oil burning brightly as deadlines neared. Can you imagine the pressure of cutting film by hand on 1937 equipment when the final still needed to be processed and prints run in whatever, 36 or even 24 hours? I’ve never counted the individual shots in the Robin Hood duel scene but each one had to be spliced into a continuous flow in the work print—down to the right frame. There was no iMovie or Avid or Premiere Pro back then; there were just a lot of men and women working themselves into an early grave slicing film stock on crude machines under the scrutiny of bosses like Hal Wallis and Mike Curtiz. All I can say when I think about those poor people is, yikes. Oh, and, they’re not paying you enough.

So that’s what came to mind this morning when I saw Tom’s two frames from the DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I’m probably not the only one who missed this remnant of a flub and I smile thinking about Ralph Dawson in his little room in the dark in Burbank thinking about how to make the frames work with what came next. In the foreground is Flynn squirming out from under the candelabra, which is critical to show, and in the background the sword is flying when it’s not supposed to be. But Dawson made the right decision, because the classic remains a classic, and it took the eagle eyes of Tom Hodgins and the luxury of frame-by-frame DVD stop motion to spot the goof.


  1. Wonderful writeup, Robert.

    Some of my very favourite moments in the movies are while watching the clashing of swords or foils that took place in the best of the swashbucklers, Flynn’s Robin Hood, Power’s Zorro and the 1952 Scaramouche coming to mind, in particular.

    You’ll notice that Basil Rathbone was in two of those three contests (perhaps I should make mention here of his wonderful swordsman still on display – now, incredibly, in his 60s – against Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, as well).

    But, yes, I often pondered what a great athlete Rathbone was in those contests, a man in his middle 40s more than holding his own in those climactic sword/foil encounters with youngsters like Flynn and Power. Basil always looked back upon those screen accomplishments with great pride, with more pleasure, I suspect, than he did about being been stereotyped as the Baker Street sleuth.

    The pity of it is that we only have so many screen duels, unfortunately, and Basil was in only six of them (including Captain Blood and two fairly brief skirmishes in Romeo and Juliet).

    When it comes to screen swashbucklers, Flynn’s Sea Hawk is one of my favourites despite its flaws (funny how the flaws that bug you the most are in films you love the most). But one of the biggest flaws of that film, in my opinion, was that Basil Rathbone had not been cast as the villainous Lord Wolfingham, rather than that pen pusher Henry Daniell.

    It’s a particular loss, of course, in the film’s climactic duel between Flynn and Daniell or, should I say, Flynn’s double much of the time and Daniell’s double all the time. There they are crashing through windows in doors and moving along castle halls, big shadows up on the wall once again, thanks to Mike Curtiz and Sol Polito, all a little too derivative of the Robin Hood duel, I suppose.

    But no Basil Rathbone! And when he’s so sorely needed!

    I have a theory, and, of course, it can never been proven whether it’s correct or not, that the Sea Hawk duel might well have been another classic if Rathbone had participated in it. Because I strongly suspect that if he had, Flynn, being the competitor that he was, would not have allowed himself to be doubled if he knew that it was Basil doing all his stunt work once again (or most of it anyway).

    It would have been Flynn Vs. Rathbone, Part III. I guess that’s the thing about seeing a great piece of choreography like the Robin Hood duel. As thrilling as it is to see that kind of action (even upon repeat viewings), you can never get enough of it. Thus, here I am bemoaning the fact that we didn’t get a chance at a sword clashing rematch between the same two actors two years later when Flynn became an Elizabethan privateer on screen.

    Ah, well, in a variation on what Bogie said to Bergman, “We’ll always have Robin Hood.”

  2. The duel in Robin Hood is the top as far as I’m concerned, with Mark of Zorro a close second. I’m always amazed when I watch it (and more amazed at the home movies) and see these are real men fighting with real weapons, not CGI created avatars. The Adventures of Robin Hood is also one of the most perfectly edited movies. Those 102 minutes fly by, unlike the bloated “action” spectacles that now drag on for nearly 3 hours.

    1. Robin Hood is such a perfect film that the couple of odd moments really hit you. There’s that super-awkward exchange of full-on extreme closeups in the love scene. I can’t believe Curtiz did that and on every single viewing of the picture in my mind I hear, “CLANNNG!” And the odd way Prince John, Sir Guy, and the Bishop skulk around when Marian overhears them–that was bizarre. And the magic sword that flies away and then comes back…they’re all tiny little odd moments in a mesmerizing motion picture that really does fly by.

      1. …….But oh, how I love those extreme closeups. Maybe not great editing, but two of the most attractive faces on screen ,,,,ever.
        Actually, in that scene where Guy, the Bishop, and Prince John are plotting, there’s this great shot that is actually through the fireplace. Probably one of those scenes Warners would complain about being “too artistic” rather than focused on getting things moving.

  3. Thanks so much for the great article. But remember, Rathbone was in shape — all his life, really — because fencing was his sport; he practiced several times a week every week. He didn’t need to get in shape for a film because he was in shape. He also played with the Hollywood Cricket Club, along with Sir C. Aubrey Smith, Boris Karloff, and H.B.Warner.
    In one of the documentaries in one of the Errol Flynn box sets, a fencing expert says Flynn’s skills increased visibly after the fight in Captain Blood, where he really didn’t know what he was doing. After all, he was only 25 years old; he could learn anything he needed to learn. He was a very bright guy.
    Basil Rathbone himself said that the best fencer he ever worked with was Danny Kaye!

    1. Welcome, Linda. Yes, I hadn’t thought about that in a long time–Rathbone the Hollywood athlete. He was a remarkable actor and personality. I’m still waiting for the definitive Rathbone biography. As for Danny Kaye, I’m not surprised because of the agility a dancer could bring to the sport of fencing.

      1. Really fun article! That Errol keeps going and going.

        Can I recommend again a documentary called Reclaiming the Blade? It’s long, with a lot of geeky,crafty details, but the first part is about Hollywood and there’s a short montage of the best swordfights throughout Hollywood history. Also, an interview with a famous trainer, whose mentor was Flynn’s trainer — sorry, that’s not the right word — lots of Viggo Mortensen, a history of swords, and a look at martial arts around the world. I loved this documentary. Plus some Star Wars trivia which I will not reveal to you.

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