One of the greatest films made about fencing, and a must for all Flynnianados, is the 1990s French film, ‘Le Bossu’. I always give the French credit when it’s due, because it hardly ever is.
Based on the 1858 historical novel, Le Bossu by Paul Feval, set in 18th Century France, there are two adaptations. The first was made in 1959, with Jean Marais, Andre Bourvil, and Sabina Selman.
But the film to which I refer is the second, superior adaption of 1997, starring Daniel Auteil, Marie Gillain and Vincent Perez. (See film poster, below.)
Above right, Auteil and Perez (Perez is wearing the splendid red tricorn).
The plot concerns a swordsman, Henri Lagardere (Auteil), who challenges the Duke de Nevers (Vincent Perez) to a friendly duel in the hope of discovering the secret of the lethal ‘Nevers Attack.’ The opening scene is set in France’s premier fencing academy and is one of the most exhilarating and diverting beginnings to a film since Errol unbuckled his swash.
The two men become friends and the Duke teaches Lagardere his fencing manoeuvre. Soon after, Nevers marries his pregnant mistress, Blanche, but, on the day of the wedding is murdered by his evil cousin, the Comte de Gonzague.
(The Comte is a villain to rival Basil Rathbone in sheer malice, and is played to the hilt, as it were, by Fabrice Luchini, who adds his own dash of sexual perversion.)
As the Duke dies in his friend’s arms, he makes Lagardere swear to avenge him and to care for his infant child, who, to the latter’s consternation turns out to be a girl, Aurore.
Errol would have loved this film, for it incorporates so many of the elements of his best swashbucklers – a period setting, witty dialogue, good old fashioned villains, beautiful and aristocratic maidens and the perpetual fight for justice in a world ruled by the rich and high-born.
There is also a touching romance – between Aurore, as she grows into a beautiful young woman, and a wary Lagardere. Played by the classically lovely Marie Gillain, here is a heroine in the spirit of Livvie, who can use a sword almost as deftly as the hero.
(Marie Gillain as Aurore, pictures 1 and 3, and Olivia on the set of ‘Captain Blood’, picture 2.)
‘Le Bossu,’ which means ‘the hunchback’, (I won’t spoil the film by explaining how the plot turns) had its name changed to ‘On Guard’, when it was released in America. Don’t ask me why. There may have been a hunchback protest, as Monsieur le Comte has a bit of a thing for them. Perhaps hunchbacks are le vice Francaise? I know they are not le vice Anglais, because the French always claimed that was spanking. Neither are they le vice Allemande, which the French said was buggery.
Nonetheless, The New York Times praised the movie’s ‘unabashed gusto’ and another prominent critic calls it ‘one of the best swashbucklers in movie history.’ Auteil’s performance is ‘simply wonderful’… ‘his compact build and the precision he has always brought to his physical movements make him particularly suited to the elegant brio of the fencing scenes.’
I first saw ‘Le Bossu’ when it was released in the UK and I revisit it again and again, as I do, though not as much, of course, ‘Captain Blood.’ It has a similar joyousness about it, leavened by tragedy, and Auteil, in my view, is one of the most engaging and complex actors of his generation.
It’s a shame he doesn’t look like Errol, but he has a sex appeal that is all his own. And you know what they say about men with large noses.
Here is a taster….enjoy!