Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Swashbuckling TV

Heroism with sword, bow or pistol

Main image of Swashbuckling TV

The swashbuckler arrived on British television as a result of the American film studios' backlash against the growth of television. In the early 1950s, when the new leisure activity of television was depleting the numbers in cinema attendance in Britain and America, the studios put their efforts into the type of screen product that television could not yet provide on the same scale and with the same grandeur. Alongside such large-scale biblical epics as Quo Vadis (US, 1951), The Robe (US, 1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (US, 1954) were the colourful, lavish swashbucklers, many of which were produced in Britain (partly because American film company earnings were 'frozen' by the government).

Among the UK-based productions during this period, using mainly British cast and crew, MGM British Studios produced Ivanhoe (d. Richard Thorpe, 1952) and Knights of the Round Table (d. Richard Thorpe, 1953); Warner Bros. produced Captain Horatio Hornblower (d. Raoul Walsh, 1951) and The Master of Ballantrae (d. William Keighley, 1953); and Walt Disney produced The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (d. Ken Annakin, 1952), The Sword and the Rose (d. Annakin, 1953) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (d. Harold French, 1954).

This renewed interest in the swashbuckler - creating the third cycle of the cinema genre, after the Douglas Fairbanks period of 1920-1929 and the Errol Flynn period of 1935-1941 - was taken up by producer Hannah Weinstein's Sapphire Films for television in 1955 with The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV). The series, notching up some 143 episodes by 1959, became an outstanding success both in Britain and America.

The considerable financial gains to be made from this small-screen resurgence of the swashbuckler did not go unnoticed by other television producers. Competing with Sapphire's following series - The Buccaneers, 1956-57, and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, 1956-57 - in this now hectic market were Harry Alan Towers' The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel (ITV, 1956), ITC's The Count of Monte Cristo (ITV, 1956) and George King's Gay Cavalier (ITV, 1957).

These mid-1950s series were by no means the first attempts to introduce the swashbuckler to television. Hal Roach Studios produced pilot episodes for Tales of Robin Hood in 1951 and The Sword of D'Artagnan in 1952, while the Danziger brothers proposed an Arabian Nights-themed Ali Baba series in 1956. Other producers continued with pilots for such prospective series as Captain Kidd (1956), the Musketeers-like The Sword (1957), Prince Valiant (1957), The Gaucho (1957), The Fox (1957), set in pre-Revolutionary 18th France, and The Highwayman (1958).

It is interesting to note that while it was the American studios' renewal of the genre that helped develop the first British television cycle - the genre has since seen periodic revivals, from Arthur of the Britons (ITV, 1972) and Warrior Queen (ITV, 1978) through Richard Carpenter's Dick Turpin (ITV, 1979-82) and Robin of Sherwood (ITV, 1984-86) to Sharpe (ITV, 1993-97) and the more recent Hornblower (ITV, 1998-2003) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (BBC, 1999-2000) - the home-grown series' cultural heritage stems in part from the rampant costume melodramas ('bodice-rippers') produced by Britain's Gainsborough Studios between 1943 (and Leslie Arliss's The Man in Grey) and 1947 (Bernard Knowles' Jassy).

The characteristic Gainsborough milieu of dark and dangerous gypsies, sadistic aristocrats and midnight highwaymen (and highwaywomen), and its economically-minded company of filmmakers, found a suitable home some ten years later with the television swashbucklers. Former Gainsbourgh directors Arliss, Knowles, Arthur Crabtree and writers Doreen Montgomery and Brock Williams brought a welcome atmosphere of gothic melodrama (albeit sanitised) to these series; as did pre-Hammer horror fame directors Terence Fisher and Don Chaffey.

An additional element of interest was the work contributed by writers blacklisted by the American industry for 'Un-American' activities (Communists or leftist sympathisers). Mainly under producer Weinstein's aegis, such 'outlawed' talent as Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Jr., Ian McLellan Hunter, Arnold Perl, Adrian Scott, and various others (behind 'front' names), instilled a certain intellectual value to most of these righter-of-wrongs series, as well as similar productions by other producers.

After reaching its peak during 1956-1957, ITC's William Tell (ITV, 1958-59), the US/UK co-production Ivanhoe (ITV, 1958-59), ABC/ATV's Sir Francis Drake (ITV, 1961-62), and the Danzigers' Richard the Lionheart (ITV, 1962-63) brought to a close the cycle of filmed television swashbucklers. Its time had passed - much like the concurrent phase of US television Westerns - when the general interest of television audiences shifted to the revitalised genre of the police and detective drama.

It is important to note, however, that the filmed costume adventure series mentioned above were of course not the only period action-drama seen on British television during the 1950s and 1960s. A wealth of television swashbuckling adventures was produced by BBC Television, based on 'classic' works, and presented in six (or more) serialised parts, usually transmitted live.

There was, for instance, Robin Hood (BBC, 1953), with Patrick Troughton as the medieval hero; Clementina (BBC, 1954), about the stirring 18th century adventurer Charles Wogan, The Splendid Spur (BBC, 1960); set during the English Civil War; and Lorna Doone (BBC, 1963), from the novel by R.D. Blackmore. All were notable and well-received productions.

Even so, it was the works of three of the greatest storytellers of historical adventure - Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson - that were the most handsomely produced (for their time) by the BBC. Scott's 18th century north of the border adventures, Redgauntlet (BBC, 1959) and Rob Roy (BBC, 1961), captured perfectly the essence of the outlaw hero. The development of the (literary) swashbuckler structure set by Scott was further enhanced by the works of Alexandre Dumas (père), beginning with adaptations of The Three Musketeers (BBC, 1954; 1966-67) and Further Adventures of the Musketeers (BBC, 1967), supplemented by The Black Tulip (BBC, 1956) and The Count of Monte Cristo (BBC, 1964). Inevitably, it was the prolific swashbuckling romances of Robert Louis Stevenson that received the most BBC attention. Stevenson's vibrant adventures ranged from the pirates of Treasure Island (BBC, 1951) and the Wars of the Roses with The Black Arrow (BBC, 1951; 1958) to the Jacobean Rebellion background of Kidnapped (BBC, 1952; 1956; 1963) and The Master of Ballantrae (BBC, 1962).

It was all unabashed hokum, of course, but with no lack of vigour, youthful spirit, sense of wonder, or regard for historical accuracy. For its time, the swashbuckler was a colourful addition to the early evening TV schedules. Like the American TV Western, the British TV swashbuckler exists now only as an occasional event.

Tise Vahimagi

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)

Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)

Hugely popular series that gave a ratings boost to the early ITV

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The (1956-57)

Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The (1956-57)

Arthurian swashbuckler starring later Dr Who companion William Russell

Thumbnail image of Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1955)

Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1955)

Marius Goring plays the mysterious saviour of French aristocrats

Thumbnail image of Buccaneers, The (1956-57)

Buccaneers, The (1956-57)

Pirate action-adventure starring Robert Shaw

Thumbnail image of Gay Cavalier (1957)

Gay Cavalier (1957)

English Civil War swashbuckler featuring a dandy highwayman

Thumbnail image of Ivanhoe (1958)

Ivanhoe (1958)

Sir Walter Scott's hero made flesh by the young Roger Moore

Thumbnail image of Richard the Lionheart (1961-65)

Richard the Lionheart (1961-65)

Adventure series featuring the exploits of the Crusader King

Thumbnail image of Sir Francis Drake (1961-62)

Sir Francis Drake (1961-62)

The exploits of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite adventurer

Thumbnail image of Sword of Freedom (1958-61)

Sword of Freedom (1958-61)

Artist-swordsman del Monte takes on the Medicis in Renaissance Florence

Thumbnail image of William Tell (1958-59)

William Tell (1958-59)

Adventures of the legendary hero in 14th Century Switzerland

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Weinstein, Hannah (1912-1984)

Weinstein, Hannah (1912-1984)

Producer, Executive