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Legal Download: Swashbucklers on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, prepare for rapier wit and cutlasses supreme with our list of swashbuckler movies.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Swashbucklers

This week’s Legal Download is all about swashbucklers, that perennially popular genre dedicated to sword-fighting men who don’t just laugh in the face of danger — they punch it right in the face. Swashbucklers traffic in big, manly spectacle but they still play surprisingly well at home on your computer or, preferably, your HDTV. At their core, swashbucklers are basically movie comfort food for dudes: Deep down, we know the hero will vanquish the villain and win the damsel’s heart, and that’s exactly how we like it. We don’t necessarily want to be challenged; we just want to be entertained, and given just enough of a glimmer of hope to imagine that someday, with a little practice, we could be half as cool as Errol Flynn. So en garde, movie lovers: Here are five swashbucklers to watch at home right now.

On iTunes
SOLOMON KANE (2009)
Directed by Michael J. Bassett
$9.99 to rent

Pulp novelist Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of the sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian, but his creations went well beyond the world’s most beloved Cimmerian. In 1928, in the pages of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, Howard created Solomon Kane, a Puritan from the sixteenth century who traveled the world on an endless fight against evildoers. Some 80 years later, Kane’s exploits were brought to the big screen by director Michael J. Bassett with star James Purefoy (Rome). Though the film premiered in Europe in 2009 to surprisingly good reviews, it never got a theatrical release stateside. Thanks to VOD, American audiences are finally getting a chance to check it out. Purefoy’s Kane has abandoned his violent ways in an attempt to redeem his lost soul. Thankfully, the whole “Gandhi the Swashbuckler” attitude doesn’t last for too long, and eventually Kane picks up his sword once again to rescue a woman from an evil sorcerer.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
$2.99 to rent, $3.99 to rent in HD; $9.99 to purchase

There are many great swashbuckler movies, but Michael Curtiz’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, starring Errol Flynn, might be the very greatest. For one thing, the sword fights, particularly the final duel between Robin (Flynn) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), still hold up more than 70 years later — it doesn’t hurt that Curtiz’s long takes and careful camera placement keep all of the action clear; something that sadly can’t be said about the modern world of shaky-cam action. In a rightfully famous shot, Robin and Gisbourne parry and thrust right off the screen but their fight continues, projected as enormous shadows on a nearby column, lending their encounter the air of a mythic battle of the ages. Flynn is so perfect as Robin Hood — sly, charming, roguish — it’s hard to believe he wasn’t Warner Bros.’ first choice for the part: They wanted James Cagney, of all people, to play the famous archer who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Thank goodness someone threw a grapefruit in the face of that idea.

On Netflix
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Free for streaming plan members

The silent cinema of a century ago was undeniably crude compared to our modern movies, but sometimes crudeness has its place. Douglas Fairbanks — whose perpetually smiling face deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of swashbuckling heroes — didn’t have digitally erasable safety wires or green screens to help him perform his remarkably athletic stunts. When you see him climb a silk scarf to a balcony 30 feet off the ground, there’s no trickery there, which lends his movies a palpable adrenaline rush that many contemporary swashbucklers lack. In THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, from master studio director Raoul Walsh, Fairbanks plays the titular hero who plots to become a prince in order to win a beautiful princess’s heart. The film was famously remade in 1940 by Michael Powell, but the original film still packs a mighty wallop, just as Fairbanks intended, and it’s suitably epic — well over two and a half hours and shot on a budget of more than $2 million 1920s dollars — for a story based on One Thousand and One Nights.

On Amazon
THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998)
Directed by Martin Campbell
$2.99 to rent; $9.99 to purchase

In between his two terrific James Bond films — GOLDENEYE and CASINO ROYALE — Martin Campbell directed this delightful swashbuckler in the tradition of Fairbanks (who made two Zorro movies of his own, THE MARK OF ZORRO and DON Q, SON OF ZORRO). Here, the mask passes between two men: Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) and Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a thief who wants revenge against the man who murdered de la Vega’s wife and kidnapped his daughter Elena. As an adult, Elena is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the role that made her a star — in the scene where Banderas playfully undresses her with his sword skills, it’s exceedingly easy to see why. Campbell’s film — which, by the way, was co-written by the men who went on to pen the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, another fine swashbuckling series — has just the right mix of high-stakes action and carefree derring do, and Banderas, Hopkins and Zeta-Jones all have terrific chemistry. This movie is pure fun.

On Vudu
THE THREE MUSKETEERS (2011)
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
$3.99 to rent, $4.99 to rent in HD; $17.99 to purchase, $22.99 to purchase

There are, of course, other far more critically respected cinematic adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ famous adventure novel about Athos, Porthos, Aramis and their young charge D’Artagnan, but the most recent version, directed in eye-popping 3D by termite artist supreme Paul W.S. Anderson, is far better than its reputation. True, the plot — about the Musketeers’ quest to stop a blackmail plot against the queen while fighting off a monstrous battleship (designed by Leonardo da Vinci, naturally) — is absurd. But Anderson handles it all with a knowing wink, never letting a frivolous thing like logic get in the way of a good stunt sequence, of which there are many. The fights look great in two or three dimensions, and the cast, led by Logan Lerman, Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson and Luke Evans, look like they’re having a blast — as do Milla Jovovich as the traitorous Milady de Winter and Orlando Bloom as the treacherous Duke of Buckingham, both making very strong arguments for why they deserve to get cast as villains more often.

Photo credit: SOLOMON KANE official site