Category: Swashbuckler

Highlander (1986)

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Sean Connery plays a Scottish Spaniard and Christopher Lambert a French sounding Scot in cult classic Highlander

Director: Russell Mulcahy

Cast: Christopher Lambert (Connor MacLeod), Sean Connery (Juan Sanchez-Villalobos Ramirez), Clancy Brown (The Kurgan), Roxanne Hart (Brenda Wyatt), Beatie Edney (Heather MacLeod), Alan North (Lt Frank Morgan), Jon Polito (Detective Walter Bedsoe), Shelia Gish (Rachel Ellenstein)

“There can be only one!”. It’s a neat, simple idea and lies at the heart of a cult science-fiction film crammed with them. There is a lot to chuckle at in Highlander. From the air of cheesy cheapness to the Accent Olympics (A Belgian plays a Scot. The world’s most famous Scotsman plays a Spaniard. Brits play Americans. An American plays an Ancient Eastern Barbarian.) But Highlander had huge impact – and was revived countless of times since – because there’s a kind of magic (see what I did there?) to this sci-fi fantasy about immortals struggling over centuries to emerge as the winner of a secret-but-deadly competition. There are so many intriguing ideas and possibilities here, you could make hundreds of adventures in this world (and they have) and still have new areas to explore. The film bombed on its first release in America (look at the poster – is it any wonder? How awful is that?) but it’s had a huge afterlife.

Our hero is Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) who takes part in a lethal sword fight in the car park of Madison Square Gardens in 1985. Turns our Connor was born in the early 1500s, part of a Scottish tribe and was slain by immortal warrior The Kurgan (Clancy Brown). Discovering to his amazement – and his tribe’s horror – that he makes a full recovery from a mortal wound, MacLeod was exiled. He is found and mentored by Ramirez (Sean Connery) who informs him that they are both immortals, destined to join all other immortals in a competition from which there can be only one survivor. The competition will culminate in “The Gathering”, with the winner being given “The Prize”, a mystic power. Turns out 1985’s New York is the scene of the Gathering – and MacLeod and the Kurgan are destined to be the last men standing in the competition.

Perhaps the big thing that makes Highlander such a success is it becomes clear that everyone involved in it seemed to have a whale of a time. Queen were commissioned to write one song for the film: they wrote an album. Mulcahy, Lambert and other members of the cast and crew chipped in their own money to film extra scenes between MacLeod and his adopted daughter. Connery was at his jovial best on the five days he spent filming (Ramirez was to be the only character other than Bond he played twice, in the terrible sequel). All this investment off-camera pays-off in a film frequently rough and ready but also intriguing and enjoyable.

Sure, it’s no masterpiece. It’s very much of its time, with a distinctive 80s vibe and in many ways only scratches the surface of its potential: I’d have loved to see more of MacLeod during the ages, and other Immortals he had interacted with. (We get a confrontation in World War II and a comic duel in Georgian England, where MacLeod repeatedly survives deadly sword thrusts). Our nemesis, the Kurgan, is a frequently overblown and ridiculous character (for all the energy Clancy Brown plays him with) who isn’t quite interesting enough. Lambert is a slightly wooden performer (he learned English for the role – learning it with a Scottish accent was a tough task). Many of the sword fights (with the exception of the final duel) are high-school-play in their hack-and-slash simplicity.

But it doesn’t really matter too much, because Mulcahy shoots the hell out of the picture. Working with a tiny budget, he still manages to give every scene something distinctive to see and an edge in its delivery. The film frequently punches above its weight in its set pieces and with the surprisingly gritty action. Mulcahy has a great eye for the seedy underbelly of New York, just as he does for the Highlands of Scotland. He also handles the romance surprisingly well – both MacLeod’s wife in 16th century Scotland and his love interest in modern New York (including a surprisingly tender love scene) are engaging and complement each other (no mean trick).

Also, the idea is absolute solid gold, and for all that it’s sometimes buried in a cheesy 80s Euro-actioner, Mulcahy still gives the entire thing a sort of mystic force. The tragedy of someone living centuries – watching everyone they love grow old and die around them – is very affectingly done. The different personalities and backgrounds of the immortals are striking and the hints dropped about their involvement in past events intriguing. The concept of immortals growing stronger from beheading other immortals is intriguing and adds a fascinating subtext to every conversation between two of them. The Game itself has an ancient-legend sort of strength, the entire film’s concept having all the revisitable interest of a popular children’s story or a classic slice of mythology.

It looks handsome, and while the actual plot is often predictable and straight-forward, the richness of the backstories and the history carries real impact. Connery is great in a neat cameo – one of his first “mentor” roles (he’s only in it for about 15 minutes, but lifts the entire enterprise with his charisma). The Queen soundtrack is a knockout. Sure, some moments – such as Lambert all too obviously lifted on wires – look as cheap as they probably were, but the entire film is made with a burst of energy and a feeling of enjoyment and love that you have to have a hard heart not to care for it a little bit.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Harrison Ford goes in search for treasure in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (René Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr Marcus Brody), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Major Gobler), Alfred Molina (Satipo)

Indiana Jones is now one of the most beloved – and instantly recognisable – film characters ever created. So, it’s strange to think that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released to such little fanfare. That soon changed when the film came out. In some cinemas it was so popular it played for the whole year. It became a box-office smash, turned Harrison Ford into Hollywood’s leading movie star for the next 20 years, and made Steven Spielberg Hollywood’s leading director. And it did all that because I’m not sure there is a more entertaining, tightly made, funny, thrilling and (at times) scary adventure film out there. Spielberg and producer George Lucas may have wanted to make a film that aped B-movie adventure serials – but they ended up reinventing an entire genre.

It’s 1936 and the Nazis are in search of occult relics. Their latest target is the Ark of the Covenant, which Hitler believes will make his armies invincible. What chance is there of stopping him finding it? Well obviously the US government must put its trust in Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), one of the world’s leading archaeologists who also (fortunately) is pretty handy in a fight. Not only that, but his ex-girlfriend Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen), daughter of his former mentor, holds one of the keys to finding the Ark. Indy and Marian end up on an adventure that crosses continents, taking on the ruthless Nazis and mixing with profound mysteries that man is not meant to know.

Hollywood wasn’t happy about Spielberg making the film. His previous film – the war comedy 1941 – had bombed, losing millions. The studio was insistent with producer George Lucas: if he wanted to see his dream of making an old-fashioned B-movie with his friend Spielberg come true, then he would need to stick tightly to a budget. After all, Spielberg had a reputation for delivering films overtime and overbudget. Our heroes stuck to this deal – and Spielberg has said it was a blessing, as it forced him to keep the film lean, tight and, above all, free of indulgence. Spielberg’s direction is perfect, so good in fact that he set the template for nearly all big-budget directing (in terms of tone, pace, mood and tempo) to come. Every action film since owes something in its DNA to Raiders.

Raiders is far more entertaining – and brilliant – than it has any right to be. It’s effectively a series of set-pieces, threaded together by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan into a plot. Kasdan’s dialogue though was spot-on – like the film, lean, tight and perfectly focused. With exceptional brevity and focus it brilliantly creates a small core of characters, and then gives them room to bounce off each other. Its dialogue is quotable, fun and punchy. He – with Lucas and Spielberg – also crafts a central character who is flawed but deeply likeable, and a heroine who is independent and dynamic. The script is a big part of the reason why the film is a success – it makes us care deeply for the characters as they get involved in the death-defying stunts and action set pieces that make up a lot of the film.

And we don’t follow any character more than Indy himself. Thank God Tom Selleck had to withdraw at the last minute. George Lucas had resisted casting Harrison Ford as he was worried about the overlap with Han Solo. But the part fits Ford like a glove. Sure, it comes from the same wheel-house as Solo – although Indy is more taciturn, intellectual and a degree less cocksure than Solo, more a man reluctantly forced into danger than a swaggering pirate – but Ford’s skill is faultless. Ford has an everyday quality to him, and he brings a world-weary tiredness to Indiana. He has the confident grin, but he’s just as likely to see that switch to concerned desperation (there is a perfect moment of this in the opening sequence, when the vine he is grasping on a cliff top suddenly works loose). He may be a bit of a rogue (not averse to shooting a swordsman) but he’s also a good man, with the street smarts of a ruffian, who is frequently exasperated by the errors of his sidekicks. This is the sort of man that men want to be and women want to be with – an impossibly difficult trick to pull off.

We relate to Indy because he’s vulnerable. He’s an underdog. The outstanding opening sequence – basically a little mini-movie in itself – showcases this. As Indy heads into a hidden temple for an idol (dodging spiders, bottomless pits, arrows from walls and most famously a huge boulder – a stunt Ford did for real) we get his entire character showcased. He’s astute, resourceful, trusting (sometimes too trusting) and ingenious. But he also takes a hell of a physical pounding, gets scared and above all goes through huge danger only to end up empty-handed. And of course, we find out he can cope with all this, but definitely not snakes (is there a better action set-piece punch line than “Grow a little backbone, will ya!”). It sets the tone for the rest of the film – in fact with the first five minutes alone, Raiders is already better than 99% of all other adventure films.

But then this is a director working at the top of his game. All the elements come together perfectly here: Spielberg always knows when to keep the tempo up, cuts the action superbly and also presents us with a brilliant mixture of tension, excitement and awe. He and Lucas brilliantly understand the power of images – there is a reason why a rolling boulder has become part of cinema’s language. The design of Raiders (one of its five Oscars) is absolutely perfect. Nothing like these temples could really have existed in real life – but as an evocation of 1930s adventure serials they are perfect. Mix that in with that brilliant sound design (those whip cracks for staters) and John Williams’ majestic score (from the classic Indy march to the haunting strains that tie in with the Ark) and this film is a masterclass for affecting the senses.

Then those set-pieces are told with just the right balance between thrills and wit. Again, Harrison Ford is a big part of this: he’s never smug, his trademark furrowed brow suggesting stress as much as his grin communicates relief at surviving. The truck chase – which sees Indy move from horse to truck, to under a speeding truck to back in the driving seat, half the time with a bullet in his arm – is a masterclass in thrills and superb editing. It’s such damn good fun that the film even gets away with a nonsensical beat where a car-load of Nazis is pushed off a huge cliff (the first and last indication that we are anywhere near a cliff in the whole scene!). Just like the opening sequence our hero’s combination of ingenuity, never-say-die determination and vulnerability is what makes it compelling (the Williams score also plays a huge part in building both the excitement and the triumph).

The whole film is a series of triumphant set-pieces. Spielberg also tinges the film with just enough darkness as well. The Nepal gun battle carries a real sense of danger, Indy’s fight with a tough Nazi air mechanic culminates in a quite gruesome death (although the fight beforehand has plenty of wit to it, as Indy is hopelessly outmatched physically by this giant). That’s all before the film’s famous closing sequence as the Ark finally opens up to reveal the power of God – bad news for the assembled Nazis crowded around it. The face-melting horror (and it’s hard to imagine any action adventure film doing something this horrific today) is impossible to forget, brilliantly executed and carries just the right amount of dread.

The darkness though is counter-balanced throughout by sly wit and a sense of fun. Wonderful jokes – from Major Toht’s nunchucks that become a coat hanger to an exhausted Indy responding to Marian’s kisses by falling asleep – pepper the script. The cast are fabulously chosen. Karen Allen is perfect as the independent Marian. Paul Freeman is chillingly austere and charmingly amoral as Indy’s rival Belloq. Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody is excellent as an older, wiser version of Indy very different from the comic buffoon he would become. The same can also be said for John Rhys-Davies Falstaffian but shrewd and loyal Sallah.

Raiders of the Lost Ark sees every element come together perfectly. Spielberg’s direction – the film did come in on time and on budget, going on to be the biggest success of its year – is completely perfect. Ford creates a character who from his first appearance is iconic (the zoom to introduce him is a wonderful tip of the hat to John Wayne’s classic entrance in Stagecoach – continuing the homages, the final shot is also a lovely nod to Citizen Kane). Every action set piece is a brilliant mix of thrills, danger, triumph and even a touch of horror (be it gruesome deaths or dreadful beasts). It’s a film that can not fail to entertain, raise a smile – and still have you hiding behind the sofa at points. Lucas and Spielberg wanted to make a film that would remind them of the adventures of our childhood. They were so successful that their film ended up defining the childhoods of millions of us.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

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Harry Hamlin takes on monsters in Clash of the Titans

Director: Desmond Davis

Cast: Harry Hamlin (Perseus), Judi Bowker (Andromeda), Burgess Meredith (Ammon), Maggie Smith (Thetis), Sian Phillips (Cassiopeia), Claire Bloom (Hera), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite), Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Susan Fleetwood (Athena), Tim Pigott-Smith (Thallo), Jack Gwillim (Poseidon), Neil McCarthy (Calibos), Donald Houston (Acrisius), Flora Robson, Freda Jackson, Anna Manahan (Stygian Witches)

It’s almost impossible not to have a soft spot in your heart for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion magic. The best of Harryhausen – and for me surely that’s his superb Jason and the Argonauts – has a magic that few other films can match. A magic born of awe at the technical skill and patience needed to bring it to the screen and the boundless imagination behind them. For all that they are no more real than the CGI of today, there is an emotional connection you can form with watching something where you know each frame was painstakingly hand-made, that you can’t quite feel for the scope of a computer-born Marvel world. Clash of the Titans was the last hurrah for Harryhausen. It’s far from perfect, and even in 1981 it looked dated and almost a relic from another era – but it still carries enough entertainment value.

We’re back in the mythology of ancient Greece. As a boy, Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his mother are sent out to sea to drown by his Grandfather King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston), jealous of her love from Perseus’ father, the God Zeus (Laurence Olivier). Zeus orders Argos destroyed by the Titan sea monster the Kraken. Years later Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) of Joppa is due to marry Calibos (Neil McCarthy), son of the Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith). But Calibos is cursed by Zeus, turned into a monster for his crimes. Andromeda is cursed by Thetis to only marry a man who can answer a riddle (set every night by Calibos). Perseus – using gifts from Zeus – discovers the answer to the riddle, confronts Calibos, cuts off his hand and is set to marry Andromeda.

But when Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) claims her daughter is more beautiful than any of the Gods, Thetis condemns the Andromeda to be consumed by the Kraken, or the city to be destroyed. To stop this, Perseus – with the quiet help of Zeus and his winged horse Pegasus – must travel across Greece to obtain the head of Medusa, who turns all who look upon her to stone.

Well, in case you were in any doubts (and I really struggled to write those last couple of paragraphs), one of Clash of the Titans main faults is that it’s plot is a mess (a combination of several Greek myths into one story) and lacks either a clear narrative thrust or a clear villain. It’s without focus, flabby and has so many sub-clauses in its structure, you either need to concentrate or just switch off and take it on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s summed up by the meaningless title which – for all Flora Robson’s Stygian witch shrieks “a titan against a titan!” mid-way through the film – barely relates to the plot.

The film also suffers from an over-abundance of characters (Gods, Kings, warriors, monsters) many of them only vaguely outlined. But with so much going on (and so much plot to cover in the slight running time) it all pulls focus from our two leads. Harry Hamlin’s Perseus is a dull, uncharismatic figure who it’s hard to get interested in. Judi Bowker fares a little better as Andromeda, but her brief moments of proactivity are only byways before she becomes a damsel in distress, chained to a rock. Neil McCarthy as nominal villain Calibos is undermined by only getting to play the character in close-up (in all other shots he’s all too obviously replaced by a tailed stop-motion monster), and in any case the character is barely given any decent motivation or background.

It doesn’t help these underpowered leads that there are a host of famous actors picking up pay cheques around them. Laurence Olivier made no secret of the fact that a large cheque (and only a week’s shooting time) was what bought him on board as Zeus (although the part is a good fit for his grandeur). Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress signed up for similar reasons. Maggie Smith (who was married to the screenwriter) seemingly did the film as a well-paid favour. Burgess Meredith repackages his role from Rocky as a poet turned advisor to Perseus. I will say Tim Pigott-Smith does a decent turn as the head of Joppa’s royal guard. But these are paper-thin characters, given what life they have by the actors rather than the script.

But Clash of the Titans is all about those Harryhausen set-pieces, with everything else just over-complicated filler to get us from place-to-place. Desmond Davis’ uninspired and flat direction doesn’t help, with the action too often presented in basic medium shot and frequently over-lit – a lighting set-up that doesn’t help to make the effects look particularly convincing. The film feels confusingly pitched, part a kids film, part an appeal to nostalgic adults. Neither seems to particularly work, and the film ends up looking rather uninspired.

This was the last hurrah for this sort of stop-motion. Star Wars had reset the table completely for adventure films like this. Clash of the Titans feels like a feeble attempt to address this challenge – right down to the irritating robotic owl Bubo, a clear rip-off of R2-D2 right down to his bouncing movement and dialogue of beeps. The film goes for making things as big as possible – the gigantic kraken, the huge scorpions – but everything in it looks a little tired.

Davis’ uninspired direction and the film’s flatness doesn’t help – or its general air of fusty, dusty oldness. If Jason and the Argonauts has all the charge and energy of a young man’s film (from its sharp direction, pacey plot, neatly drawn characters and Herrmann’s score), this really feels like a middle-aged Dad trying to be hip. The Kraken’s destruction of Argos seems to consist of little more than a few toppling pillars. The beast is slow, cumbersome and takes forever to do anything. An extended sequence where our heroes fight a two-headed dog is both dull and laughable. The only classic piece of stop-motion here is Medusa. Surely no coincidence that this is the most atmospherically shot sequence, with lighting that helps to hide the joins between stop-motion and reality in a way the rest of the film ruthlessly exposes.

Clash of the Titans is a film you can feel a nostalgia for – but really it’s actually rather naff. It’s badly plotted – surely the story could have been told in a cleaner way than this confused mess. Too many actors either phone it in, or fail to deliver the charisma needed (Todd Armstrong in Jason is no Olivier, but at least he had a matinee idol robustness Hamlin lacks). It’s limply directed. Worst of all, too much of the stop-motion looks a little silly – the film failing to cover up the cracks and too frequently exposing the joins rather than disguising them. Show this one to someone first, and you’ll never get them back to watch the best of Harryhausen. While I always enjoy it – for nostalgia if nothing else – its a cult classic, but no classic.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Errol Flynn hits the spot in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patrick Knowles (Will Scarlet), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale (Little John), Herbert Mundin (Much, the Miller’s Son), Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham), Una O’Connor (Bess), Ian Hunter (King Richard)

Has a more enjoyable film ever been made? The Adventures of Robin Hood is such a glorious technicolour treat it’s pretty much an archetype of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reportedly the only film in history that had exactly no changes made to it after preview screenings (so much did the audience lap it up), it’s been entertaining people pretty much non-stop since 1938. Never mind its influence on Robin Hood legend – almost every Robin Hood based film or show recycles elements of the plot here – it’s pretty much built up a picture of what a classic Hollywood Olde Medieval England epic is.

It’s Medieval England at the time of the Crusades (actual history is of course no-one’s concern). King Richard’s wicked brother, the greedy Prince John (Claude Rains) is plotting to seize the throne while bis brother languishes in an Austrian dungeon. Up go the taxes – especially on those pesky Saxons who still fill England’s lands, under the yoke of their Norman rulers. Who can stand in the way of John – and his arrogantly ruthless right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)? Only the Lincoln-green coated Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the most upstandingly, thigh-slappingly, decent chap you could imagine. Taking the name Robin Hood, he takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and builds up a group of like-minded fellows who resolve to rob from the rich, give to the poor and protect the realm for Richard. But things get complicated when Robin falls in love with brave and whipper-smart Maid Maran (Olivia de Havilland) – especially as she is the intended of non-other than the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne…

Looking like an explosion in a technicolour workshop, The Adventures of Robin Hood is fast-paced, crammed with rollicking action, packed with good lines and played with a knowing wink by a cast of actors clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a prime slice of entertainment, and it succeeds completely. It’s hard to imagine someone not finding something to enjoy here. Sword fights and chases? Check. Romance and flirtation? Check. Some cheeky gags and a hero thumbing his nose at authority? Check. Villains to hiss and heroes to cheer? You better believe it. I don’t think there is a single type in Hollywood history where the cocktail of action and entertainment was mixed better.

The film has two credited directors. William Keighley was the original, who shot the material in the film shot on location. It’s Keighley who helped tee up the atmosphere, and to get the actors to relax into the style of the thing. Crucial sequences showing the characters meeting (including the encounter with Little John) and a large chunk of the middle-act archery contest were Keighley’s work. So, we have him to thank for working in a competition that includes an arrow piecing straight through the middle of another (a stunt put together with a bit of clever wire work and some genuinely gifted archery skills). However, Keighley was less accomplished at shooting action. And to be honest you can see it, during the sequence where Robin and his Merry Men take hostage Gisborne and the Sheriff. It’s fine, but there is a reason why it’s also not a scene anyone particularly remembers from the film. When the shoot returned to Hollywood for the interiors, a new director was sought out to handle the rest – which included all the big fight scenes.

The man they called on was one of the masters of the studio system, Michael Curtiz. A director famed for his dictatorial approach to film-making (hilariously Flynn agreed to the film on condition that it wouldn’t be directed by Curtiz, the relationship between the two having collapsed during earlier collaborations), what Curtiz could do that Keighley couldn’t was add a really visual scale to the action. And it worked a treat – because Curtiz gifted us two of the greatest, instantly recognisible, action showpieces in Hollywood history. Both epic sword fights in Nottingham Castle are down to him, his camera employing crane, tracking and long shots to add an epic quality. He was also full of cool ideas – it’s him we have to thank for a portion of the closing sword fight being shown through shadow play.

It’s the pace as well that Curtiz really understand. Compare the careful, single shot, used by Keighley for the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John. Now admittedly the stakes are lower. But then watch the immediacy and dynamism of Curtiz’s camera moves while Robin fights for his life in Nottingham against dozens of guards, or duels with Sir Guy. The energy – and above all the pace and speed – of these scenes help make them gripping. And it wasn’t just the action. Curtiz bought a romantic jolt of energy to the interplay between Maid Marion and Robin, framing a key scene with a romantic intimacy on the edge of a window sill. While Keighley laid the ground work, it’s arguably Curtiz’ work that makes the film what it is.

Well that and the actors. Errol Flynn was perfectly cast as Robin Hood, the part a wonderful fit for his ability to mix charm with just a hint of rogueish sexuality and cheek. Combine that with his athleticism – some of the stunts he carries out in this film are eye-openingly intense – and you’ve got the man you pretty much cemented the public impression of who Robin Hood was. It’s beyond bizarre to imagine the original choice of actor – James Cagney – playing the role.

Flynn also of course has winning chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland uses her great skill to make Maid Marian far more than just a damsel in distress. She’s proactive, plugged in and defiant, convinced of the need for justice and more alert to dangers and opportunities than almost anyone else in the film.

Both of these two go up against one of the finest arrays of baddies I think film has ever seen. Rains is arrogant, aloof and ever-so-slightly camp as the superior Prince John. Rathbone is scowlingly austere and deliciously pleased-with-himself as Sir Guy. And for the chuckles we have the bumbingly cowardly Sheriff, played with comic delight by Melville Cooper. All three of these actors combine perfectly, offering a marvellous troika of villains, each a mirror image of different facets of Flynn’s hero.

It makes for a gloriously entertaining film, all washed down with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s marvellous symphonic score, the bombast and romantic sweep of the music perfectly counterbalancing the action on screen. Still the greatest of all Robin Hood films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining no matter when you watch it.

The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas has a whale of a time as one of The Vikings

Director: Richard Fleischer

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Einar), Tony Curtiz (Eric), Ernest Borgnine (Ragnar Lodbrok), Janet Leigh (Morgana), James Donald (Egbert), Alexander Knox (Father Godwin), Maxine Audley (Enid), Frank Thring (Aella of Northumbria), Eileen Way (Kitala), Dandy Nichols (Bridget), Edric Conner (Sandpiper), Orson Welles (Narrator)

There’s a big market for stories about Vikings. Perhaps there is something attractive in our more staid world for a “noble savage” culture, with warriors romantically travelling far and wide. Perhaps a race of brave warriors just seems rather cool. Either way, despite their reputation for ravishing and raiding, Vikings often get a decent deal from films, usually positioned as a race of anti-heroes. That’s definitely what we get from Richard Fleischer’s enjoyable swashbuckler, which has a nodding acquaintance with history.

After the King of Northumbria is killed by fearsome Viking Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine), his queen is raped by Ragnar. Northumbria name a new King, the corrupt Aella (Frank Thring), while the queen sends her baby son (who she knows is Ragnar’s son) to Italy for his protection. Jump forward twenty odd years and, wouldn’t you know it, that young boy turns up as Eric (Tony Curtis) a slave of Ragnar’s, loathed by his unknown half-brother Einar (Kirk Doouglas), Ragnar’s son. The only person who knows who Eric is, is exiled Northumbrian load Egbert (James Donald). Things get even more complex when Aella’s intended Morgana (Janet Leigh) is kidnapped in a raid, and both Eric and Einar fall in love with her….

The Vikings is a great deal of fun, its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek. The plot veers from scene-to-scene from being too dense (various complexities around the rightful king of Northumbria get so confusing the film eventually abandons them) too being shunted off to the sides in favour of the action. But then it’s more about broad, brightly coloured action (very handsomely filmed by Jack Cardiff) with its stars having a good time fighting and shouting.

It’s interesting watching the film as almost a dry run for Spartacus, where Douglas and Curtis would re-unite. Here the film revolves around a rivalry between the two that turns into an alliance of mutual self-interest. Douglas clearly has a whale of a time playing a semi-baddie with depth, his Einar a typical “Viking’s Viking” who drinks hard, fights hard and wants a life of adventure on the high seas. But he’s also got a strange sense of nobility about home and – even though he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape her – he seems to fall genuinely in love with Morgana. Even his eventual comeuppance comes from a moment of decency. It makes for a villain more complex than normal, while Douglas roars through the movie.

Curtis is left with the duller part as the noble son-of-a-king. Looking rather too pampered for a life of serfdom, Curtis feels like a slightly too modern, New Yorkish presence for period pieces (Spartacus would use his pampered prissiness to better effect) but he charges into the sword swinging, high romance of the story with relish, while also shining during Eric’s several moments of brave principle. Morgana, very well played by his real-life wife Janet Leigh, sees a character who could have been a victimised love-interest turn into an independent and strong-minded woman, brave enough to take a stand on the things she believes in.

But the film’s real interest is in the world of the Vikings. There has been some very impressive historical research into their culture and shipping, while the battles and scenes of drunken merriment are well staged and carry a lot of boozy buzz. Most of the cast enter into relish, following Douglas and Ernest Borgnine’s lead (Borgnine, playing Douglas’ father, was at best a few months older) with plenty of shouting, ale swallowing and axe throwing. While the film’s score makes a number of odd choices – this really needed a Goldsmith or Morricone rather than the odd mix we get here – Fleischer’s direction is crisp and adept and keeps things charging forward.

The politics at the Northumbrian court gets a bit forgotten about, with Alan Thring turning Aella into a sneering, unprincipled villain who barely gets much of a look-in. However, the savage punishments that Aella meets out to his rivals – and his ruthless condemnation of anyone seen as being against him – makes a neat contrast with the Vikings who, for all their blood-curdling violence, do at least have some sort of nominal sense of justice and some willingness to compromise.

But the film’s heart is in the action. Douglas, acting as producer, jumped at the chance to take on as many of the stunts as possible – including famously walking across the oars of a Viking longboat while it is at sea (he nearly falls in twice, but it has the sort of excitement of seeing the star doing something for real that you still get with Tom Cruise). He and Curtis eagerly take part in assorted sword battles, while balancing a love/hate relationship (well probably mostly hate) that keeps the film powering forward. All in it makes for some really enjoyable B-movie shenanigans.

Robin Hood (2010)

Russell Crowe takes aim as Robin Hood

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Russell Crowe (Robin Longstride), Cate Blanchett (Marian Locksley), William Hurt (William Marshal), Mark Strong (Sir Godfrey), Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Oscar Isaac (Prince John), Danny Huston (King Richard), Eileen Atkins (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Max von Sydow (Sir Walter Locksley), Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet), Alan Doyle (Allan A’Dale), Matthew Macfadyen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Lea Seydoux (Isabella), Douglas Hodge (Sir Robert Locksley)

When this film was developed, it was a CSI style medieval romp called Nottingham. Russell Crowe was cast as the film’s hero – an ahead-of-his-time Sheriff of Nottingham, busting crimes in Olde England and dealing with rogue thief (with good press) Robin Hood. Yes that really was the original idea. Mind you, it would at least have been more original than what we ended up with after Scott and Crowe had a bit of a rethink.

So here we are: Robin Hood: Origins (as it might as well have been called). Russell Crowe is Robin Longstride, on his way back from the crusades as an archer in the army of King Richard (Danny Huston) army. When Richard is killed at a siege in France (it was one last siege before home – what are the odds!), the messengers carrying the news back to France are ambushed and killed by wicked Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). Robin finds the bodies and assumes the identity of Sir Robert Locksley, travelling to England to tell Prince John (Oscar Isaac) the news of his succession – then returning to Nottingham with his friends, where Robert’s father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow) asks him to continue pretending to be Robin for dull tax reasons – and soon feelings develop between Robin and Sir Robert’s widow Marian (Cate Blanchett). But John is intent on farming the land for taxes, and Sir Godfrey is in cahoots with the French to conquer England.

Robin Hood is a semi-decent, watchable enough retread of a story so totally and utterly familiar that even the things it rejigs end up feeling familiar. In fact, to be honest you sit watching it and wondering why on earth anyone really wanted to make it. Scott brings nothing original and different to it, and the film looks like a less visually interesting retread of Kingdom of Heaven. Plot wise it’s empty. What’s the point of it all? It slowly shows us all the pieces of the Robin Hood myth coming together, so best guess is that it was intended to be the first of a series (there seems to have been no interest or demand for a sequel of any sort). 

And then we’ve got Russell Crowe. Leaving aside everything else, Crowe looks about 10 years too old for the part. He delivers some sort of regional accent that meanders from Ireland to Yorkshire in its broadness, a laughable stumble around the country. Crowe does his slightly intense, sub-Gladiator mumbles and stares at the camera and attempts to suggest a deep rooted nobility, but actually comes across a bit more like a snoozing actor awaiting a pay-cheque.

Cate Blanchett does her best, lending her prestige to the whole thing in an attempt to make it land with some dignity (she of course does the opening and closing narration, which struggles to add some sort of grandeur to the whole flimsy thing). She’s saddled with a Maid Marian who is granted various “action” moments, but still has to be saved by Robin and face possible rape from a leering Frenchman (at least she saves herself from that one). 

It also doesn’t help either actor that their romance plays out in the dull middle third of the film, where the plot grinds to a halt as we deal with Sir Walter (Max von Sydow almost literally acting blindfolded) using Robin as some sort of tax dodge scheme. The film is overloaded with characters, all of whom are separated at this point and struggling manfully to make their disconnected plotlines interesting: so we get John dealing with the pressures of office, Sir Godfrey scheming and looting, William Marshal trying to find a middle ground, Robin and Marian falling in love – it’s a mess. On top of this a get a ludicrous reworking of the Magna Carta as some Medieval version of the Communist Manifesto (it’s written by Robin’s executed dad no less, giving him a bizarre “painful backstory” to overcome). None of these plots really come together, and so little time is spent with each of them that they all end up getting quite boring.

The film culminates in a totally ridiculous battle scene on a beach, as Sir Godfrey’s French allies arrive on the shores of medieval England in some sort Saving Private Ryan landing craft. The tactics of this landing and the battle that ensues are complete nonsense. Every single character rocks up at this battle, which should feel like all the plot threads coming together but instead feels like poor script-writing. When Marian turns up, disguised as a man (how very Eowyn), leading a group of warrior children (I’m not joking) who feel yanked from the pages of Lord of the Flies, it’s just the crowning turd on this nonsense.

And all this fuss to defeat Sir Godfrey? Why cast Mark Strong and give him such a nothing part? Sir Godfrey is a deeply unintimidating villain. Everything he does goes wrong. He is bested in combat no less than three times in the film (once by a flipping blind man!). His motivations are never even slightly touched upon. He has less than one scene with John, the man who he is supposed to be manipulating. He runs away at the drop of a hat and Robin gets the drop on him twice on the film. He’s neither interesting, scary or feels like a challenging adversary or worthy opponent.

But then nothing in this film is particularly interesting. The set-up of the merry men around Robin (they seem more like an ageing band of mates on tour by the way than folk looking to rob from the rich and give to the poor) is painfully similar to dozens of other film, particularly in the Little-John-and-Robin-fight-then-become-brothers routine. Crikey even Prince of Thieves shook up the formula by making Will Scarlet Robin’s brother. Scott is going through the motions, like it was one he was committed to so needed to see through to the end despite having long-since lost interest. It’s not a terrible movie really, just a really, really, really average one with a completely miscast lead and nothing you haven’t seen before.

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Guy Pearce and Jim Caviezel as friends turned foes in The Count of Monte Cristo

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Cast: Jim Caviezel (Edmond Dantès), Guy Pearce (Fernand Mondego), Dagmara Dominczyk (Mercedès Mondego), Luis Guzmán (Jacopo), Richard Harris (Abbè Faria), James Frain (JF Villefort), Michael Wincott (Armand Dorleac), Henry Cavill (Albert Mondego), Albie Woodington (Danglers), JB Blanc (Luigi Vampa), Alex Norton (Napoleon Bonaparte), Patrick Godfrey (Morrell), Freddie Jones (Colonel Villefort), Helen McCrory (Valentina Villefort)

Alexander Dumas’ novels are beasts. The Count of Monte Cristo is a real mountain of a book, a sprawling story of adventure and revenge. Kevin Reynolds’ film had a near impossible task to turn this into a film – most have gone down the route of adapting the book into a TV series – but triumphantly succeeds by locating in it a very clear, very filmic narrative.

In 1815, Edmond Dantès (Jim Caviezel) and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) are young men serving on a merchant ship, who wash up on Elba where Napoleon (Alex Norton) is in exile. Tricked into taking a letter for Napoleon back to France, Dantès is betrayed by Mondego, who desires Dantès’ fiancée Mercedès (Dagmara Dominczyk) and resents his own envy for the far poorer Dantès. The corrupt magistrate Villefort (James Frain) colludes to protect his own family’s secrets, and Dantès is locked up in the dreaded Chateau d’If for 15 years, during which time he meets fellow prisoner Abbè Faria (Richard Harris) who teaches him politics, mathematics, philosophy and sword-fighting. Faria shares with Dantès the secret of the vast treasure he hid on the island of Monte Cristo – treasure Dantès dreams of using for his revenge.

This is actually a fairly nifty adaptation of a huge novel into something cinematic. Almost every change made to the original book ends up working extremely well – and adds an immediately understandable dramatic tension to it. I’d actually go so far as to say this might be a masterpiece of cinematic adaptation. The decision to make Dantès and Mondego childhood friends and rivals instantly adds a real frisson of betrayal to Mondego’s actions, as well as adding a very personal element to the revenge portion of the narrative. The simplification of the other “betrayers” also works extremely well, while the careful links throughout back to Dantès’ upbringing never let us forget the roots he has come from.

The script is also packed full of fun interjections. The idea of the chess piece, which Dantès and Mondego pass from one to the other, becomes laced with symbolism, while the changing of Jacopo into a sort of Brooklyn pirate works extremely well (Guizmán gets some of the best lines, but also gets to show a touching loyalty and concern for Dantès). On top of which, the pushing to the fore of the swashbuckling sword-fighting excitement sets us up for a cracking final sword fight between our two friends-turned-enemies. 

Reynolds also shoots the film extremely well with a host of interesting angles and framing devices showing how Dantès position and confidence change throughout the story. The film’s climactic sword fight is brilliantly staged and the film charges forward with a real momentum (there are of course no sword fights in the book!). 

Particularly well handled through is the sequence that is (in many ways) most faithful to the original book – Dantès’ time in the Chateau d’If. What I love in this sequence is that it’s a perfect combination of stuff from the book, Karate Kid style training, and some good old-fashioned warm character building. It’s also got two terrific performances from Michael Wincott as an almost comically dry sadistic guard and Richard Harris as the imprisoned Abbè Faria, the quintessential wise-old-mentor (the relationship between Faria and Dantès is beautifully judged).

The film perfectly balances its sense of fun and adventure with a very real-feeling story of a man who has to learn there is more to life than revenge. The plot that Dantès puts together probably isn’t the most complex piece of chicanery you are ever going to see, but it doesn’t really matter because the focus is the fun of the journey, and the thrill of someone being a few steps ahead of everyone else. 

Jim Caviezel is very good as Dantès, just the right blend of forthright moral strength and simmering resentment (few actors do stoic suffering better than Cavizel). There is a really nice questioning throughout the film of Dantès’ motives and whether revenge is really worth the candle, which adds a lovely depth to Cavizel’s performance.

But the film probably gets waltzed off by Guy Peace (who turned down the role of Dantès because he thought Mondego was more fun) who gets to campily simmer, sulk and fume at the edge of every scene. Mondego is brilliantly reinvented as a fearsomely proud, selfish, hedonistic aristocrat with a major inferiority complex, who takes everything from Dantès and still isn’t happy at the end of it. But Pearce has a whale of a time with his cruelty and resentment, and it’s a great reminder of how much he is (as an actor) in love with make-up, Mondego being scruffy, slightly pock-marked and increasingly bad of tooth.

He’s a villain you can scowl at and he’s a perfect counter-point for a hero whose emotional distance is designed to make him at times a difficult man to invest in. The film’s expansion of their personal relationship in its early section works really well, setting up the innate inequalities between them (wealth on one side, bravery and decency on the other) during the film’s cheeky and amusing opening sequence on Elba with Napoleon.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an extremely well structured, hugely entertaining adventure film. It’s very much like a 1930s swashbuckler, and every scene has some delightful moment that you’ll love. There are some very good performances in here as well, working with a very good conversion of this doorstop of a book into a film. Skilfully directed, interestingly shot, well acted – it’s a gem that’s far too overlooked.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

The Argonauts take on dreadful monsters in Jason and the Argonauts. You gotta love it.

Director: Don Chaffey

Cast: Todd Armstrong (Jason), Nancy Kovack (Medea), Gary Raymond (Arcastus), Laurence Naismith (Argus), Niall MacGinnis (Zeus), Michael Gwynn (Hermes), Douglas Wilmer (Pelias), Jack Gwillim (King Aeëtes), Honor Blackman (Hera), John Cairney (Hylas), Patrick Troughton (Phineus), Nigel Green (Hercules)

Watching this film it’s impossible not to get swept up in childish glee. It’s one of the most gloriously entertaining, wonderfully imaginative and brilliantly enjoyable films ever made. Watch this at the right age and it’s got you for life. Its best remembered of course for its wonderful Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects – but to be honest the whole film is a brilliantly assembled package from start to finish, full of thrills and spills. I love it, I’ll always love it, and it’s got to be one of the best adventure stories ever filmed. Not much point writing more is there? But I guess I will.

The plot hews fairly closely (give and take) to the mythology. Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) seizes the Kingdom of Thessaly. Terrified of a prophecy that says a child of King Aristo of Thessaly will take the throne from him, he kills Aristo’s daughter at the temple of Hera (Honor Blackman). Outraged, Hera becomes the protector of Aristo’s surviving son Jason (Todd Armstrong), and 20 years later he returns. Jason needs to prove himself if he is to re-take the throne, and decides to find the legendary Golden Fleece in the distant land of Colchius. He builds the greatest ship ever – the Argus – and holds games to find the finest crew in Greece. But danger awaits!

If any film is associated the most with Ray Harryhausen, it’s this one. So it’s almost a shock to realise he didn’t direct it, and that the monster moments are carefully placed only at key moments – and that a lot of the rest of the film relies on human action. Jason and the Argonauts is so good because all these elements are brilliantly put together and superbly staged, with an old-school, boys-own adventurousness. How can you not enjoy this film?

The Harryhausen effects are astonishingly good, and their stop-motion brilliance have a grounded reality to them. The staggering copper monster Talos is fabulous – grinding joints, groaning weight and size. The shrieking harpies that plague Patrick Troughton’s put-upon Phineas have an unpleasant, grasping dirtiness to them. The Hydra guarding the fleece is a rattlesnake-like vicious beast. All brilliant. I love them all – just sequences to dream of.

But the highlight is of course the skeletons’ battle. Oh wow. This sequence still holds up so well. It took Harryhausen years in the making and planning, but really paid off. The skeletons are terrifying in their cold-eyed ferocity. For skulls, Harryhausen gives their faces a lot of expressiveness. I just love this sequence – it speaks to the child in all of us. And there is something extra magical from knowing that the sequence was put together frame-by-frame and the live action shots carefully choreographed to match-up with it. Not for nothing did Tom Hanks namecheck this film when presenting Harryhausen with an honorary Oscar. 

These sequences really work though because the film has a wonderful Sunday-morning-serial briskness to it. Pacily directed by Don Chaffrey, the film motors so swiftly through its plot that you are surprised to find it’s only about an hour and a half. Its story structure is not always perfect: apart from Jason and Arcastus most of the rest of the Argonauts are so briefly introduced (despite the recruitment Olympics montage at the start) you’ll find them hard to tell apart. The arc of the story is often a little messy, and iIn fact it’s easy to forget the film ends on a cliffhanger (the sequel was never made) and that Douglas Wilmer’s sinister Pelias is totally forgotten after the first half an hour. But it’s so well done it doesn’t matter. 

But Chaffey keeps the events moving forward so well, the tone so perfectly balanced between heroics, gods debating and thigh slapping jokiness that the film’s tone and momentum never slackens, with the Harryhausen monster sequences as exciting tent-poles in the film’s action. A lot of this feeling is carried across from Bernard Herrmann’s excellent score, a hummable mixture of bombast and slightly eerie mysticism that reflects and compliments the action throughout.

The film is extremely well-made and put together. The Gods as these gigantic figures living in Olympus (Jason is not a lot bigger than the chess pieces they use to guide the wars of the humanity) are great fun: Niall MacGinnis is a very 1960s idea of Zeus (the gods would be hot younger guys today, not tubby Brits), but gives it a headmasterly briskness. Honor Blackman is very good as a proud but caring Hera – the use of the Argus’ headpiece as her voicepiece works really well. It’s quite something that all this interference from the Gods never feels silly at all.

Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovacks are, to be honest, pretty wooden as the leads but that seems to be what the film needs. Armstrong does a very neat line in middle-distance staring. Gary Raymond has a lot more fun as a scheming Arcastus. The film also manages to shuffle some perceptions: Nigel Green’s Hercules is more of a roisterer than the great warrior (and, with his meat-headed over-confidence, causes more problem for the Argonauts than most). Other performances are perfect adventure-story ham: Jack Gwillim chews the scenery outrageously as King Aeëtes, which kind of matches up with the overblown hyper-reality of the skeleton fight.

Talking about this film, it’s hard not to treat it as a sequence of scenes that I really love. But every scene in it has something. I love the moment where Hylas proves his worth via clever stone-skimming. The approach to the clashing rocks – and the intervention of Poseidon to hold the rocks apart – is brilliant. Hermes’ disguise being unveiled. Hercules doing something decent by staying behind on an island to look for a missing Hylas. All those brilliant Harryhausen sequences.

There is something about this film that is just endlessly and constantly entertaining. No matter your age, it’s a film for every single generation of children (young and old!) to enjoy. It’s simply marvellous, and Chaffey and Harryhausen deliver it wonderfully. Every scene is exciting, the pace never slackens, the special effects are brilliant. But on top of that, it’s a brilliantly put together, well directed, beautifully scored film. It’s exciting, it’s gripping, it’s wonderfully entertaining. I’m gutted they never made that sequel (although since Jason and Medea’s story is literally all down-hill from here, it’s probably just as well).

Rob Roy (1995)

Tim Roth and John Hurt are the villainous aristocrats taking advantage of Liam Neeson’s honour in Rob Roy

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Cast: Liam Neeson (Rob Roy MacGregor), Jessica Lange (Mary MacGregor), John Hurt (Marquess of Montrose), Tim Roth (Archibald Cunningham), Eric Stoltz (Alan MacDonald), Andrew Kier (Duke of Argyll), Brian Cox (Killearn), Brian McCardie (Alasdair MacGregor), Gilbert Martin (Guthrie), Ewan Stewart (Coll), Jason Flemyng (Gregor), David Hayman (Tam Sibbalt), Shirley Henderson (Morag)

In the mid-1990s there was one of those bizarre Hollywood coincidences that saw two similarly filmed Scottish-based dramas head into production at the same time: Braveheart and Rob Roy. Braveheart stole the headlines, and the Oscars, and turned William Wallace from a footnote in history into an icon of Scottish independence. However, it’s arguable that the over-looked Rob Roy is the better, richer, more involving film.

In 1713, Rob Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) is the Chief of the Clan MacGregor, in a loving marriage to Mary (Jessica Lange), and supports his clan through protecting the cattle of the gentry. Knowing that this is not enough to help their poverty, Rob borrows £1,000 from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) to start a cattle trading business. However, on collecting the money, his friend Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) is murdered by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), a foppish playboy and ruthless fencer, who is staying with Montrose and wants the money to clear his debts. Montrose demands Rob falsely testifies that his rival the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir) is a Jacobite in return for forgetting the debt – when he refuses, he is named an outlaw and a rebel.

Rob Roy works so damn well because it is thrillingly told, well-scripted, shot with a romantic sweep in some terrific Scottish locations and uniformly excellently acted. It’s perfectly constructed as a classic melodrama, because the heroes are pretty much completely upright, admirable and inspiring (without ever being tiresome or sanctimonious), while the villains are intriguingly shifty and vile, running the gamut from cowardly opportunist to vicious sociopath. Chuck this in with a tightly focused plot, and it works extremely well.

Liam Neeson is perfect casting as the upright Rob. Few people do nobility and decency better than Neeson, and Rob is just about the most stand-up guy you can imagine. You can totally understand why every one of his clan seems to worship the ground he walks on. Neeson’s classical physicality and stance totally sell him as the ultimate highlander, while his kindly eyes and gentle manner make him an obvious fit as an inspiring leader. 

Caton-Jones directs the action with zip, even if the film does perhaps go on a fraction too long. He sets Rob’s decency and honour at the centre of the film, and brilliantly builds the thematic story around the shifting world where old-school honour and decency is being left aside for the more ruthless realpolitik of Montrose. Rob’s old-school decency makes him the kind of hero figure you see in a traditional Western – and Caton-Jones is clearly inspired by the scope and sweep of John Ford Westerns, making excellent use of the mist and the hills. 

The Scottish highlands are our wild plains, the traditional values are those of the homestead – and the communities Rob protects are presented with a warmth and glow that is never galling. A lot of this is due to Jessica Lange’s excellent performance as Mary, a woman of warmth, tenderness but also hard-hearted realism mixed with a sharp strength of will. Lange (and her lilting accent is quite lovely to listen too) handles the events that occur to her as the wife of a rebel with a dignity, but also a fierce rage just below the surface. If Rob is defending honour, she represents it.

But the real strength the film has is its villains. It has three very different but terrific antagonists, each of them brilliantly brought to life by three very good actors. John Hurt brings Montrose a brilliant sense of slightly perverted corruption, the arrogant insouciance of a man who works out there is more going on than he is being told, but not caring so long as he can turn it to his advantage. Brian Cox is excellent as the cowardly, greedy, shallow and bullying land property manager, snivelling and timid beneath his bluster. 

The real swagger through comes from Tim Roth, who is quite superb as the flamboyant sadist and sociopath Archibald Cunningham. Roth marches off with the film, pitching it just right as a man who presents (and lives) a performance to the entire world: a foppish playboy who seems light and disposable, but is in fact a ruthless, dangerous man with no principles and a horrifying capacity for violence. The character has enough humanity to prevent him from becoming a caricature – he’s bitter at being a bastard, he has a strange affection for his mother. He’s aware that he’s the baddie – he just doesn’t care. In fact he loves it. He invites people to underestimate him – and takes a sadistic delight in proving them wrong. He’s a perfect dark reflection to Rob.

The film introduces him demonstrating his terrifying skill with a sword in a sporting duel: and you don’t need a PhD in storytelling to guess that the film is heading towards a second, closing sword duel between our noble hero and his sadistic opposite. When it comes, it’s a belter of a sword fight, brilliantly choreographed, that sums up the whole movie: Rob fights with a broadsword (and the film demonstrates how exhausting swinging one of those can be) and depends on directness and fairness. Cunningham fights with a rapier, is quick, indirect and gleefully delights in inflicting a number of glancing wounds. It’s one of the best sword fights (and uses of combat to communicate character) on film – and it’s engrossing.

Rob Roy is easily overlooked – but it’s a fine film, full of memorable moments and above all stuffed with terrific performances. Caton-Jones shoots the film very well, and works brilliantly with the actors. You’ll remember them all – and you’ll invest in their stories. Yes it is a little too long, and yes sometimes it’s a little too in love with the romance of the highlands – but it’s a smashing, exciting and engrossing film and you’ll certainly find plenty in it to enjoy: not least Roth’s showboating menace.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Antonio Banderas buckles his swash as Zorro

Director: Martin Campbell

Cast: Antonio Banderas (Alejandro Murrieta/Zorro), Anthony Hopkins (Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro), Catherine Zeta Jones (Elena Montero), Stuart Wilson (Don Rafael Montero), Matt Letscher (Captain Harrison Love), Tony Amendola (Don Luiz), Pedro Armendáriz Jnr (Don Pedro), LQ Jones (Three Fingered Jack), Julieta Rosen (Esperanza De La Vega), Maury Chaykin (Prison Warden)

Zorro is a classic, musketeers/Robin Hood style hero from the old school. A dashing, duelling nobleman who battles the cruel rich to save the struggling poor. It’s the formula of a thousand post-war B-movies. The great thing about that formula is the sense of fun around them is already there – a decent film can capture it. And The Mask of Zorro manages to be lot more than just a decent film.

In 1821, as the Spanish leave California, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) sets a trap to defeat his arch-nemesis Zorro (Anthony Hopkins). Knowing his real identity is Don Diego de la Vega, Montero throws de la Vega into prison after accidentally killing his wife (the woman they both loved) and kidnapping de la Vega’s daughter to raise as his own. Twenty years later, de la Vega escapes just as Montero returns to California to steal its resources. De la Vega teams up with Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a young bandit hungry for revenge. Taking him under his wing, he trains him as the new Zorro – though both have conflicted feelings when de la Vega’s daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) arrives, knowing nothing of her true heritage.

Few films have captured the magic, Errol Flynn-style thrills of old-school Hollywood swashbuckling as well as The Mask of Zorro. Characters swoop and tumble, and swords swish and clash. It sounds odd to say, but the sound design for the sword fights is amazing, each clash has a metallic, ringing clarity that sounds incredibly cool. Match that with the fact that all five of the principals have clearly spent their time in sword school, and you’ve got pure, sword-clashing entertainment.

The plot also keeps things simple. The story is a fairly straight forward heroic revenge drama, with more than a touch of The Count of Monte Cristo (de la Vega’s prison escape is pure Dumas, while Murrieta disguising himself as a rich don to destroy his enemies from within is straight out of Cristo’s playbook). We also have (in another Monte Cristo touch) the Pygmalion mentor-pupil relationship, with de la Vega tutoring Murrieta not only in sword play, but also the manners of a gentleman. The villain’s plot is not exactly clearly explained (it has something to do with stealing Mexican gold to buy California from the Mexicans) but fortunately (a) the film doesn’t really spend too much time worrying about it and (b) since the plot involves enslavement and ruthless murder, it hardly matters anyway as their villainous credentials are very well established.

As the young Zorro, Banderas (at the height of his roguish charm) is very fine, giving it just the right balance of cocksure confidence and playful exuberance. He also weights the character with a genuine love for his murdered brother, which expands as the film progresses into a sincere empathy for the poor and downtrodden. He also has great chemistry with Zeta-Jones (basically establishing her career here) – they meet in no less than three guises, and with each the romantic spark is exceptional. The famous foreplay sword-fight scene (culminating with Murrieta using precise strokes to remove Elena’s top) works because their sword fight is not only playful, but their romantic interest and mutual respect is clear.

Anthony Hopkins also relishes the chance to take an action role (it’s quite something to think he was nearly 60 at the time of filming). Sure, not all the stunts are him of course – and he had to have a generous application of fake tan to give him a Spanish appearance – but the performance works because Hopkins gives it a perfect playful charm, while never losing the sight of the pain under de la Vega’s surface. He gives a lot of weight to what could otherwise have been a straight “mentor role”.

Campbell directs all this with a brisk, old-school simplicity – the film has a true 1930s swashbuckling feel to it. It’s not exactly the last word in exciting film making, but it doesn’t have to be. The important thing Campbell understands here is keeping the pace up, and presenting us with something fun or exciting (or both) every scene. So whether it is a decent gag, a piece of cool looking sleight of hand (de la Vega using a whip to extinguish candles from a distance) or the clash of swords, something always keeps you entertained.

When you match that with some performances you’ve got a great piece of Sunday afternoon entertainment. It’s possibly a bit too long, and Wilson’s Rafael (while in some ways an interesting, conflicted character) is never really allowed the space to become an effective counterpoint to the heroes. But despite that, it offers more than enough entertainment, excitement and fun. It’s got a decent, fun script with plenty of good lines, and by keeping the focus on a small core cast it really allows us to bond with those characters. It lacks a certain undefinable quality that makes it a beloved film, but it has enough to make it a welcome guest whenever it comes round.