The Art of the Duel

All fans of swashbucklers are familiar with the work of Fred Cavens, whether they recognize the name or not. Cavens created a graceful, balletic style of fight choreography that resulted in the memorable duel on the staircase of Nottingham Castle between Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The dizzying back-and-forth swordplay between Flynn and the villainous Henry Daniell in “The Sea Hawk” was also Cavens’ work. Cavens was the go-to fight choreographer of the 1930s and 1940s working his magic on films as diverse as “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Mark of Zorro.” Probably the apotheosis of his art was the extended swordfight between Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer in the 1952 re-make of “Scaramouche.” The antagonists battled across balcony boxes, the backs of theater seats and staircases. They swung from chandeliers, they lunged and leapt. This duel has rightly been likened to a dance number with rapiers.

Now I want to present a name perhaps even more obscure than that of Fred Cavens. William Hobbs worked in a later period when films had become a little more raw. Hobbs developed a tougher, more muscular choreography in which antagonists use their elbows and knees–they don’t dance, they fight dirty. Hobbs worked the medieval period in Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” and John Boorman’s “Excalibur.” He dropped armor and broadswords in favor of daggers and rapiers for Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” and its sequel “The Four Musketeers.” There is a terrible realism to these duels–the characters pant and sweat, they slip and fall. They battle each other to exhaustion and the victories, when they come, are finally pyrrhic ones. (When Michael York’s D’Artagnan finally triumphs over Christopher Lee’s Rochfort it’s not a question of skill–the younger man has simply exhausted the older one.) Fred Cavens’ brother Albert occasionally worked as a stunt double for less-adept stars, but I don’t think that Fred ever appeared on camera. William Hobbs, on the other hand, had a splendid, ready-made role as Hagen, Lord Durward, the greatest swordsman of his day, now stalking the countryside as a vampire in the Hammer film “Captain Kronos–Vampire Hunter.” Hobbs engaged in a thrilling climactic duel-to-the-death with Horst Jansen’s sword-wielding hero Kronos, proving himself to be a truly nasty adversary.

The next you enjoy a classic swashbuckler film–thing about the men who engineered those duels. (Hint: the directors didn’t do it!)

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