M-G-M’s swashbuckling adventure film “Quentin Durward” is one of those films that plays much better now than when it was first released in 1955. At the time it was perceived as just another swashbuckler in a year glutted with costume adventure films.
But viewed today, it seems to me a witty and knowing take on the adventure film genre. Its makers appear to realize that the heyday of movies about noble heroes and daring deeds was coming to an end. “Quentin Durward” plays like a swashbuckling riff on old age, the end of chivalry and aging heroes, much as movies like “Ride the High Country” (1962) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969) foretold the eventual demise of the western, with its heroes out of time and place in a new mechanical age.
I’ve never read the original novel by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1823, so I don’t know if the novel also discusses the end of chivalry and the notion of heroism as an anachronism. But the movie version is rife with such allusions.
The story opens proper with this title card:
“Our story begins in Scotland in 1465 – when Knighthood was a drooping blossom – but the Scot, as usual, was poor in naught but cash.”
Right there we realize we’re not in for a traditional adventure film.
Quentin Durward (Robert Taylor) is a Scottish knight sent to France by his elderly uncle to ascertain the worth of the Countess Isabelle (Kay Kendall), who, being “the richest and most beautiful woman in Europe”, has no shortage of suitors.
Upon arriving in France, and always in need of a loan from the Scottish ambassador to France, Durward becomes involved in all sorts of court intrigue, tied to King Louis XI (Robert Morley, a wonderful performance), and the machinations of Count William De le Mack (Duncan Lamont).
Durward and Isabelle fall in love with each other, but Durward, bound to oath to his uncle, won’t act on the love. At one point, he refers to himself as obsolete and suggests that the way he was raised – to be proud, praise God, defend the weak, be loyal to his family and always true to his word – are values no longer celebrated.
De le Mack makes several attempts to kidnap Isabelle, embarrass the King and steal the kingdom. Durward fights the Count every step of the way, culminating in one of the most inventively staged action scenes in any swashbuckler, with Durward and the Count swinging on ropes and slashing at each other in a burning bell tower.
M-G-M, star Robert Taylor and director Richard Thorpe boasted a real winner in their first swashbuckling adventure film, “Ivanhoe” (1952), also based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott. “Ivanhoe” was one of the rare swashbucklers to earn a Best Picture nomination, and where “Ivanhoe” takes matters very seriously, “Quentin Durward” is much lighter on its feet.
In addition to the casting of Robert Taylor in the title role, other factors make one think M-G-M was deliberately aping “Ivanhoe” in hopes of another success. .
“Ivanhoe” concludes with a terrific axe and mace combat scene between Taylor and George Sanders. Though composer Miklos Rozsa provided one of his best scores to “Ivanhoe” he kept this scene unscored, save for the steady tattoo of nearby drummers, who never vary their rhythm as two men try to kill each other in front of them. It's very effective.
In “Quentin Durward”, the fight in the burning bell tower is also left unscored by composer Bronisalu Kaper. He no doubt felt the ringing of the bells, the fires and the falling timbers were enough of a soundtrack and didn’t need any musical embellishment. (The other great M-G-M swashbuckler of the 1950s, “Scaramouche” (1952), has its famous five-minute-plus dueling scene unscored as well. People who think older movies were always over scored would do well to watch these scenes.)
To take advantage of post-war tax laws, with host counties insisting movie companies shoot on location to free up collected monies, “Ivanhoe” and “Quentin Durward” were filmed on location, “Ivanhoe” in England and “Quentin Durward” in England and France. No studio back lots here, and “Quentin Durward” includes plenty of stunning visuals shot on location at Bodian Castle in England; Chateau de Chamford, Chateau de Chenoceaux and Chateau de Maitenon, all in France.
To compete with television, the new rage of Cinemascope and other wide-screen processes had the studios turning out scads of adventure and costume epics. By the mid-1950s, audiences had been swamped by swashbuckling spectacles, much like today with the seemingly endless comic book and science fiction movies in a typical summer (and often beyond) movie season.
Moviegoers in 1955 alone saw “Moonfleet” (Stewart Granger), “The Purple Mask” (Tony Curtis), “The King’s Thief” (Edmund Purdom) and “The Warriors” (Errol Flynn).
The preceding year saw Robert Taylor don armor again in the Arthurian “Knights of the Round Table”, along with “Prince Valiant” (Robert Wagner), ”The Black Knight” (Alan Ladd) and “The Black Shield of Falworth” (Tony Curtis again).
No wonder Danny Kaye saw fit to spoof the genre with his wonderful “The Court Jester” (1956). He certainly had plenty of material to work with.
When “Quentin Durward” was released in 1955, the reviews were indifferent, to say the least. The New York Times said, “It is difficult to take this picture as anything but a massive masquerade.”
I can see where audiences by 1955 were tired of the genre and unknowingly overlooked “Quentin Durward” and its self-referential qualities. But there’s a gentle grace to “Quentin Durward”, a movie wise about itself, and seems to be aware that, in a decade of Brando and Dean, tales of chivalrous knights saving damsels in distress would be seen as corny and horribly out-of-date.
Kay Kendall makes a marvelous Isabelle, annoyed by all the attentions of unwanted suitors. She takes to Durward, saying he’s the first man she’s seen at the palace who isn’t a thousand years old.
The Countess Isabelle was originally offered to Grace Kelly, who turned it down, saying: “All the man can duel and fight, but all I’d do would be to wear 35 different costumes, look pretty and frightened….the stage directions on every page of the script say ‘She clutches her jewel box and flees.’ I just thought I’d be bored.”
Robert Taylor didn’t like making swashbucklers – he called them “iron jockstrap” roles. He much preferred making westerns. But he makes a fine, chivalrous hero and wears costumes like he was born in them. As Tony Thomas wrote in his book, :The Great Adventure Films (Citadel Press, 1976) about the swashbuckling Taylor, “…in all of them, Taylor performed with dignity and with a really credible heroic bearing – his deep American voice lessening the medieval image just a little.”
Seen today away from its 1955 competition, “Quentin Durward” surprises and amuses with its wit and candor about growing old and being born “perhaps a few minutes too late”, as Durward ruefully observes (rare for a swashbuckling hero to show such self-reflection).
But thanks to its on-location shooting, Kaper’s lovely music score, exciting action scenes, and witty screenplay, “Quentin Durward” is one of the most durable and winning entries in the swashbuckling sweepstakes. I was very pleased to re-acquaint myself with it.