MOVIES, The Adventures of Robin Hood
Comments 61

A Lesson in Three Sword Fights

Change of tone from the whole “WW1 Mystery Letter” question – to which I’m sure we will be returning anon – to the simpler but still baffling question – even if you can’t get Basil Rathbone why do you replace him with Henry Daniell?

In case you don’t follow the purport of the question, check this vid out.

First you’ll see Flynn’s two epic encounters with RazzleDazzle (as someone called him in the comments today, and which I think is just perfect), in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); and then you’ll see good ole’ Henry step in to take Baz’s place in The Sea Hawk (1940) (you can also watch the final two if you like,but they aren’t needed for the point and they will just show you a depressingly decaying Flynn speeding towards his early death).

The Sword Fights of Errol Flynn from Russ McClay on Vimeo.

So, did you watch the Sea Hawk fight?

Painful isn’t it.

Ok, there are big shadows and ok, there is table-tossing, but you just know Errol could win this one blindfold, in a bag. It’s like watching Robin Hood go up against an out of shape realtor.

All you’re thinking is…where the hell is Basil Rathbone?

And that’s a good question. The Sea Hawk was made just two years after The Adventures of Robin Hood and is obviously Robin Hood II. Produced by the same studio, with one of the same directors (Curtiz), same composer (Korngold) doing the (same?) score, and most of the cast from the Robin Hood rep company, including Una O’Connor, Claude Rains and Montagu Love. Yet two of the most essential principals have been replaced – Olivia de Havilland by the colorless Brenda Marshal and Rathbone by the wildly miscast Daniell.


According to the IMDB de Havilland was tired of doing costume epics and refused the offer of The Sea Hawk, which might be true.

But what about Rathbone? It seems inconceivable they planned this movie without intending to offer him the part of the fencing-bad-guy. I mean no one, even in Hollywood could have been that dumb, right?


So what happened? Was he offered and turned it down? Was he busy elsewhere? Does anyone know anything about that?

And with the whole of Hollywood to choose from are we to believe Warner Bros seriously couldn’t find anyone better to replace the Baz than Henry Daniell? They couldn’t find someone who could act and look plausible as an athletic swordsman? Who wouldn’t lumber about like a wounded hippo and be so inept he had to be doubled for almost the entire fight?

I wonder, is the fact they considered Daniell to be a good enough replacement, even though he was so obviously not Rathbone’s equal in looks, physicality, swordmanship or onscreen charisma, some sort of indication of how chronically Hollywood underestimated the Baz? Were they sort of selectively blind? Did Jack Warner et al look at those two actors – Daniell and Rathbone – and those three sword fights and not really see any difference?

Gosh if that was true it might start to explain a few things mightn’t it.


  1. Brendan Carroll says

    I think that Henry Daniell was cast because SEA HAWK was a kind of re-run of ELISABETH & ESSEX (same sets, director, period, composer etc) and the part of Lord Wolfingham was almost identical to that of the scheming Robert Cecil, which Daniell had played in ESSEX. Of course, nobody had given thoght to the swordplay element required in SEA HAWK…..

    As for Olivia de Havilland, she told me in interview that when she was offered the role of Dona Maria in Sea Hawk (basically a supporting part ) she refused and went on suspension, which is why Brenda Marshall got the part.


  2. Cletus Dody says

    I think Errol was a way better swordsman than Basil. Basil may have been trained but Errol had more natural style.


  3. roesbette says

    TCM ran The Adventures of Robin Hood this afternoon…My idea of heaven! The two sexiest guys on earth battling with each other.


    • Did read somewhere Rathbone was British Army Fencing Champ in WWI.And Power’s mother was fencing instructor.Daniell may have been a buddy to Baz,but in looks,not even close and his voice is irritating.And so jowly!Baz very disciplined,considered fencing an Art and spoke affectionately of it.I also think him very modest,except when praising the Mrs,which was probably to defend home territory.


  4. roesbette says

    I think that’s just a rumor, like the story of his alleged knighthood. Apparently, he did learn fencing for his stage roles and was quite adept by the time he came to film.


    • AnnaPindurka says

      I don’t think so. Fencing was part of a theatre actor’s training and he just kept it up later too. I seem to remember reading somewhere that he would practise for an hour every day when they were in Hollywood.


      • I read he stiil practised fencing in Central Park when they moved to Ny.I think i read in at least 4 different books comments Fred Cavens and his son Albert made about Basil and his fencing abilities.They were all pretty good.I think it was another passion of his .Right up there with dogs,writing.reading and music.I think, from his book alone,i got the strong feeiling he would rather have been something else.A writer or musician instead of or besides an actor.


    • Cherryice says

      Fred Cavens said he’d have been a terrible real-life fencer because he had been trained to look good rather than win competitions. He said Olympic fencers generally look awful but are deadly dangerous. He said Basil was the best screen-fencer he ever trained though.


  5. Hainault says

    What a lithe an beautiful mover Basil was. Does anyone else get the impression he was incredible in bed?


  6. griselda duncan-kyle says

    it’s very sexy that Rathbone and Errol look all hot and dishevelled in the Robin Hood fight. They must have really been hot too, and sweaty.


  7. Katoodlel Lolly says

    Ok, BelovedBasil just impresses me more and more. His sword fights are not good. They are GREAT!
    I just found out from imdb that Henry Daniell couldn’t fence. The climactic duel had to be filmed using a double and skillful inter-cutting. WOW! I thought that the sea hawk fight scene was laughable compared to Bazzie’s, and now to think that they even had a swordmen/double fighting Errol Flynn in the sea hawk, makes me appreciate the Baz all the more. BTW, I think the only reason they chose Henry Daniell, was because, he, like Rathbone, was always playing the suave villain, right? Thanks for reading.


    • MichaelD says

      As with most of the Warner’s swashbuckling films of the 30’s, I believe that Fred Caverns (or perhaps Ralph Faulkner) was the fight choreographer/sword master on ‘The Sea Hawk’ and definitely doubled for Henry Daniell. Caverns and his son Albert also doubled Basil and Ty Power in longshots on ‘The Mark of Zorro’.


      • lissamylissa says

        Rathbone wasn’t doubled in Zorro, but Power was extensively because he was a bad swordsman and poor athlete. In Robin Hood neither Rathbone nor Flynn had doubling apart from in the falls and the most risky stuff. Flynn and Rathbone were both such athletes they were amazing duellists.


        • MichaelD says

          Agree about Power. The overly undercranked sword fight with Ty and George Sanders at the end of ‘The Black Swan’ marred an otherwise exciting finale to that film. In fact one forum commentator described Power “as looking like a wind up toy” in his onscreen sword duals. Very apt.


  8. MarySue says

    Baz was one of the the HOTTEST sword fighters ever. He puts sex in it. I don’t know how, but he does.


  9. rosebette says

    The Mad Doctor, much as folks on this site enjoy it, is really a “programmer”, almost a “B” picture. So, it would be a career mistake if Baz turned down a juicy role in The Sea Hawk to do that one.


    • I had better explain for the benefit of non-slash fiction fans that “Barrol” refers to the imaginary homoerotic pairing of Basil Rathbone & Errol Flynn. πŸ˜€


  10. rosebette says

    Shooting for The Sea Hawk started Feb. 1, 1940. This is according to the introductory material by Rudy Behlmer for the screenplay of The Sea Hawk. Basil was originally wanted for the part, but it doesn’t say why the role went to the second choice. Regarding the fencing scenes, there is a great deal in Behlmer’s intro about how those scenes were a headache, that Daniell had actually been taken off Romeo and Juliet, or given a lesser role due to inability to fence, He quotes production unit manager on The Sea Hawk as saying “Mr. Daniell is absolutely helpless and his closeups in the duel will be mostly from the elbows up.” BTW, I have books of the screenplays for The Sea Hawk and Robin Hood, which were published by the U of Wiconsin in the early 80s. Sorry, I’m not parting with either of ’em.

    If anyone has info on the shooting schedule of Zorro, that would be helpful and perhaps explain why Rathbone wasn’t chosen.

    Like Claude Rains, Rathbone was not a “contract player,” and he was also on the expensive side. Warners treated their “contract players” like slaves, which is why Cagney, Davis, and others would refuse roles and go on suspension. Finally, Olivia deHavilland won against them.


    • Basil was originally wanted for the part, but it doesn’t say why the role went to the second choice.

      I’m glad to know they weren’t dumb enough to not even offer it to the Baz. But still baffled as to why they went straight from Rathbone to The Worst Fencer in the Universe. Surely there had to be someone intermediate available? Vincent Price? Carradine? Even Lionel Atwill would at least have had charisma and what he lacked in athleticism he’d have made up for in pebble glasses, false arms, scars and wild leeering. πŸ˜€


  11. Fred Singer says

    I always assumed Rathbone was a Warners contract player at the time and had been put on suspension or something (they alway were on suspension at Warners it seems). I just assumed he and Livvy were both out of favour at the time. But having been reading more I realise Rathbone was never under contract with Warner Brothers at all. I think that’s cause for another question – why ever not? You would have thought JL would have wanted to ensure the pairing of Flynn and Rathbone after The Adventures of RH wouldn’t you.

    As to the question posed by the Blogmaster. I’m afraid I currently have no answer. if someone could look up the production dates it might reveal some conflict of timing. But I agree Rathbone must surely have been given first refusal on Wolfingham (terrible name).


    • MichaelD says

      I’m sure I heard on a DVD commentary that Basil was actually under contract to MGM from either the very late 1930’s/early 40’s right through 1946 and they loaned him out, particularly to Universal for the Sherlock Holmes series. I have always found it strange because his MGM films of the period, were lackluster at best. Consider, ‘The Mad Doctor’, ‘Fingers at the Window’ and ‘Bathing Beauty’ are all not worthy of his talent. What the heck is Basil doing in an Esther Williams musical!?!
      He is very memorable in Paramount’s ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ though.
      Great actor with charisma to burn!


  12. rosebette says

    I watched The Sea Hawk for the umpteenth time a couple of weeks ago, and while in production values, it is far superior to Captain Blood, it lacks in two areas — Basil and Olivia. Henry Daniell is a great villain, but not much of a swordsman. Perhaps Basil was tied up making Mark of Zorro, which has a far superior duel? And Zorro is just Robin Hood with a mask in a Southern California locale. I actually think Esteban in Zorro is a much better role, anyway, kind of sexy, too, with all that verbal “swordplay” about “firm blades”.

    Errol was my first old movie star crush, and I was devastated when I saw his later movies and his deterioration. At the age when Basil was still doing great duels, Errol was appearing on TV game shows barely coherent and looking as if he was near death. It broke my heart.


    • Esteban was also sexy in those white pants! I agree with you about Errol. It’s tragic how he aged. An excellent example of the effects of drugs and alcohol on the body!


      • Odette says

        Oooh yes, did you vote for those tight pants? Tip for the girls – watch this movie in HD or Bluray and use freeze frame! I think you all know what I’m getting at.


        • rosebette says

          Shame on you! But then, there’s a thread on TCM call George Brent’s rear where many of us rated various actor’s derriere’s, and I rated Ty’s and Baz’s in that scene very highly. That BluRay stuff is dangerous. My brother got a BluRay of Robin Hood and all he could talk about was how now he knew that Olivia didn’t wear a bra under that white dress, so the DVD was worth every penny.


  13. Molly says

    Eew, see what you mean about Flynn going downhill fast. And yeah, why wasn’t Razzle in Sea Hawk?


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