#436: The Adventures of Quentin Durward
Initial release: 1955
Director: Richard Thorpe
In this era of blockbusters and mega-franchises it seems like the concept of thematically-linked but otherwise unrelated films has gone away. John Frankenheimer’s “Paranoia Trilogy” (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and Seconds) is perhaps the pinnacle of the form, but we also have John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and the inimitable In The Mouths Of Madness), as well as two trilogies of war films, one by Italian director Roberto Rossolini (Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany, Year Zero) and the other by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds.)
Into this esteemed tradition — indeed, predating most of them, save Rossolini’s films — is Richard Thorpe’s unofficial trilogy of medieval dramas, all starring Robert Taylor. Starting with 1952’s Ivanhoe and then 1953’s Knights of the Round Table, the trilogy as a whole seems to be about the beginning, middle, and end of an era (though not quite in that order.) Europe spent a thousand years growing, changing and burning since the fall of the western Roman Empire, beginning with kings out of legend, through a long period of unrest, and now, at the tail end of the 15th century, it seems the age of knights and chivalry must come to an end.
Which brings us to The Adventures of Quentin Durward, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward. In short: Quentin Durward is a broke Scottish knight, who still believes in things like honor and chivalry in an age of backbiting and intrigue. He is given an opportunity to put himself in good standing: Go to France and convince a wealthy noblewoman to marry his aging uncle in the name of politics.
It doesn’t quite work out that way.
Getting in the way is, well, politics, in this case the feud between King Louis XI and his cousin the Duke of Burgundy; lurking in the shadows is a sinister brigand by the name Count William de La Marck who leads an army of cutthroats.
It doesn’t help that said noblewoman, Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy, is uninterested in being married off, and indeed prefers to marry whoever she wants. As it turns out, that eventually turns out to be Quentin, who’s rugged good looks and antiquated code of honor are quite attractive.
Robert Taylor is a swashbuckler like none other; while he didn’t get much chance to show off his athletic talents in Ivanhoe or Knights of the Round Table, he’s got it on full display here as he swings, jumps, climbs and generally buckles a lot of swash in the name of honor (which may or may not overlap with protecting Isabelle.) One great scene is when he infiltrates a castle by swinging along the walls by vine; a Romani man who spies for both sides and whom Quentin made friends with provides a distraction by imitating animal noises in the night.
It’s worth mentioning just how funny the script is. With how snappy the dialogue is, jokes come fast and often, and are often quite subtle, such as an exchange in the same scene where Quentin asks his Romani friend if he happened to know the castle, to which the man replies, “Yes sir, like the back of your hand.”
(I say Romani, but it’s safe to say a film from 1955 isn’t going to use that particular word, fair warning.)
There’s also a lot of hash about it being the end of an era; indeed, gunplay makes a regular appearance here, with guards and brigands freely shooting anything that moves; Quentin, old-schooler that he is, makes do with a sword. But the film is careful not to be too adoring of a bygone era, as a joke about the “good old days” is met with snark from Isabelle about how women were treated like shit. (For 1955 this is bold.)
While Richard Thorpe’s movies may not have made the kind of splash as some of their contemporaries, I find them to be compelling films nevertheless, an interesting snapshot of what counted for an action movie in the early 1950s; they also serve as a showcase for Robert Taylor’s acting abilities. But if I had to pick between the three of them, I would go so far as to say that Quentin Durward is the best.