Douglas Fairbanks


”It does not matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight. Your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one, by dancing around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors! “

(From “Things you need to know about the movies.”)

We’ve all seen swashbuckler movies where this happens and nobody complains. We know Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power are going to overcome however many baddies are in front of them.

FRED CAVENS (1882- 1962) was the Belgian fencing expert who made all the stars look good, giving them the illusion of expertise.

He taught the heroes and the villains, he arranged sword fights in all sorts of situations – over tables, up and down stairs, hanging from chandeliers, onboard pirate ships.

Starting with Douglas Fairbanks, Fred Cavens choreographed duelling scenes just as a dance director would prepare a big musical production number.


Cavens had arranged the foil play on  French comedian Max Linder’s THE THREE MUST GET THERES” in 1922.(Linder played ‘Dart-in-again’ !) The film is on Amazon and I look forward to seeing it.

Douglas Fairbanks had found that sword fights were great box-office and he did all his own stunts. He didn’t bother much about orchestrating the fights, but realised the value of Cavens’ work.

For Fairbanks, Cavens worked on DON Q, SON OF ZORRO, THE IRON MASK and THE BLACK PIRATE.

(“The Black Pirate” is famous for that amazing stunt by Fairbanks when he slices down the ship’s sale with his cutlass.)

Love that little car in front of the cinema!


Robert Donat, Fred Cavens.THE  COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.

One of Cavens’ on screen appearances in “The  Count of Monte Cristo”. Although of short stature, Cavens  often doubled for the stars.




Fred Cavens tutors Errol Flynn.


Fred Cavens, Errol Flynn.


Paul Lukas, Director Rowland V. Lee, Walter Abel. THE THREE  MUSKETEERS (1935).


Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore. ROMÉO AND JULIET

The only time the best swordsman in Hollywood won a duel!

Rathbone (as Tybalt) fights and kills Mercutio (Barrymore).

Cavens said Rathbone could have been a competitive fencer. Rathbone  was a trained and enthusiastic amateur fencer.


In rehearsal, Fred Cavens and Basil Rathbone.




The famous fight scene between Rathbone and Flynn.THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.


The dancing shadows of Flynn  and Rathbone.


Tyrone Power. THE BLACK SWAN.


Tyrone Power and guess who in “The Black Swan”!



Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone.

Ah, poor Basil. He bites the dust again. This duel in The Mark of Zorro was considered one of the finest swordplay in Hollywood. Power, in some shots, was doubled by Fred Cavens’ son, Albert.



Fred Cavens (on left) rehearses with his son Albert. “The Mark of Zorro”.



Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Akim Tamiroff. THE CORSICAN BROTHERS

It seemed only natural that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. would  follow in his father’s footsteps. And he did well.

Cavens doubled for Akim Tamiroff in the fight scenes.



Alan Hale Jr. Maureen O’Hara, Cornel Wilde, Dan O’Herlihy. AT SWORD’S POINT.

Cornel Wilde qualified for the American fencing team in the 1936 Olympics, but left the team before the olympics. He could use either hand when fencing.


Cavens with Maureen O’Hara.



Another shot of Fred Cavens battling Louis Hayward in FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD.



Maureen O’Hara, Errol Flynn. AGAINST ALL FLAGS.


Maureen O’Hara.




Jean Peters in ANNE OF THE INDIES.


Yvonne De Carlo looks more menacing than Philip Friend in BUCCANEER’S GIRL.



Guy Williams as Zorro, Fred Cavens.

Fred Cavens was the fencing master for the TV series, ZORRO (1957-1961).

So a career spanning 4 decades. As Jeffrey Richards said, ”Fred Cavens created moments of screen magic.”



Quote from Albert Cavens: All movements ,instead of  being as small as possible  as in competitive fencing, must be large but nevertheless correct. Magnified is the word. 

The routine should contain the most spectacular attacks and parries…..the duel should be a fight and not a fencing exhibition and should disregard at times classically correct guards and lunges.”


Cavens did not always get a screen acknowledgment for his work but he was on the credits for “The  Three Musketeers (1935), “Man In the Iron Mask”(1939) and “Cyrano De Bergerac”.(1950).


Definitions  of ‘Swashbuckler’:  Swash – the noise of a sword striking a buckler (a small round shield)……. A swaggering adventurer …a genre of Hollywood film.


Robert Montgomery.

Robert Montgomery ,  who never swashbuckled but was  apparently an excellent fencer.


For the 1936 book, “The fundamentals of Foil Fencing” by Joseph Vince, Cornel Wilde provided the illustrations. I couldn’t find any of them unfortunately.


Cavens didn’t work on SCARAMOUCHE. Anyone care to guess who is fencing with Stewart Granger in the above photo!




For a full history of swashbuckling on the screen, Jeffrey Richards’s 1977 book is a must read.


En guard!

11 responses »

  1. John Dehner is the man shown with Stewart Granger— He often played villains later, and was Paladin in the Radio version of Have Gun WIll Travel.

  2. It is indeed! An actor I always watch out for but I didn’t know about this role, or that he was the radio Paladin.

    • You can be forgiven for not knowing about the radio version of Have Gun… it was the only show which was a TV show first, and a radio show second–in the very last days of radio dramas. Dehner had a great voice.

  3. Great post. It’s easy to forget the importance of people like Cavens in making the movies so polished and memorable. It’s good to see this kind of tribute.

  4. Interesting post! Have always enjoyed the swashbuckling movies of the 40s and 50s. I found these movies entertaining and have gone back to view them time and again. My all time favourite is Scaramouche!. Best regards.

  5. Vienna, this is a wonderful and so very much deserved tribute to Fred Cavens, who must be credited as a master sword choreographer, whose masterful contributions to so many swashbuckler movies are magnificent . Fred Cavens remains an influence upon the swashbuckler movies to this very day. Of course, it always helps when you have a master fencer like Basil Rathbone to work with. For once I would have liked Basil to have won one.

  6. Actually, the greatest fencer ever to appear in a Hollywood film was not Cornell Wilde, but Olympic and World Champion, Aldo Nadi, who unfortunately did not fence in his two film appearances, but instead played heavies, most notably getting shot to death by Humphrey Bogart in the WWII espionage-drama TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT.

  7. Thanks for info. I see from IMDB that Nadi was fencing coordinator on The Mississippi Gambler and was a fencing double in Frenchman’s Creek.

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