Those of you who have followed my work for a while may have picked up on one of my habits.
Namely, when I can’t find anything else more interesting to review, I dig up a big, dumb Italian adventure flick from the 50s and 60s. Maybe it’s because I’m guaranteed to see a bunch of mooks get flung around. Maybe it’s because I like watching evil queens prepare love potions for smiling barbarians. Or maybe it’s because the first episode of MST3k I ever saw was Hercules Against the Moon Men. Anyhow, I’ve gone back to that particular well to recover today’s film, The Devil’s Cavaliers.
The opening credits play over shots of dudes galloping across the countryside: a few of these shots repeat themselves. This is supposed to be southern France in the 1550s, but looks like it’s undergone a dry spell. Once the credits end, we get the first line of the movie: “Hey Captain, look there!” Shades of the beginning of Hamlet! A guy in black (the captain) sets off on horse-pursuit of somebody else whose horse reared up and whinnied. That’s a crime, I guess. The second rider falls off and is revealed to be a woman in a shot that contains the glissando harp that tells you she’s beautiful.
She’s Louise and he’s Richard Stiller (unusual surname for a Frenchman) and they’re in love. Or at least Louise is, all dreamy and stuff. Richard’s got the expression of a coach giving a postgame conference. Louise is traveling with Baroness Elaine (Fairchild?) who’s come to visit from court, “where she knew the queen’s magician, Nostradamus, and apparently he taught her a few of his secrets: she actually predicted your return!”
Elaine called Richard the jack of spades upon meeting him.
RICHARD: My lady has trumped the jack. But may I ask, why the jack of spades?
ELAINE: The sun of Spain has given that shade to your features, my cavalier, and every time I read the cards, you always come out between two hearts.
Awwww yeahhh, we’re gonna have some Hercules-quality dialogue here. (And Richard is no darker than Elaine.) The actress who played Elaine, Gianna Maria Canale, may look vaguely familiar to fans of doofy adventure films (e.g. me): she was the Amazon queen in the Steve Reeves Hercules.
Their banter is interrupted by a group of dudes who ride in and accuse Richard of being a brigand, kicking off our first sword fight: guys wielding fencing swords on horseback attack Richard, who fights back with his sword at head-level. I’ve seen a lot of fencing scenes in movies, and I’ve seen a lot of horseback fights in movies, but I’ve never seen a horseback-fencing scene before, and for good reason: the riders just go around in circles and the women stand in the middle, as confused as I was. Fencing seems like it would just forfeit all the advantages of being on horseback. You’d prefer to just ride in and spear your opponent before they can get away. Likewise, fencing is all about fancy footwork, which is in short supply among horses. Then again, this film had a pair of fencing masters coordinating the fight scenes named Andrea and Franco Fantasia. And I’m not prepared to doubt a guy with a name like Franco Fantasia.
The Baroness orders Richmond, the captain of the guard, to knock it off and apologize. (The voice that says “apologies accepted” is completely weird.)
Our hero, who seems to be self-conscious about his teeth, and our heroine, whose hat angle is midway between “jaunty” and “rakish.”
Richard’s headed home to rebuild his house, which was somehow destroyed. He’s been away for a while:
LOUISE: Do you need to say that it was my influence that brought you back to the land of your childhood?
RICHARD: I’m out of practice with madrigals. I was a little clumsy.
Try inserting that line into the suggestion box next time you go to an improv show.
They’ll be headed to the palace for a ball tomorrow. Cut to Richard’s castle, which looks very medieval and totally inappropriate for the 1550s. Richard is a mercenary at heart and doesn’t want to settle down, so he wants to sell the castle to the king and go off adventuring. The king would want to buy the land because “heresy is spreading rapidly.” Presumably he’s talking about the Huguenots, the Calvinists who were a few years away from launching a protracted civil war.
Richard’s traveling with a retinue of his former soldiers. For some reason, one of the guys in Richard’s retinue doesn’t hear very well and it’s a joke. Anyway, off to the tavern. Richard’s been smiling more around his dude friends and the tavern people than he was around his girlfriend. Maybe he just can’t be tied down. Richard gets a super awkward line about his father:
RICHARD: Is it possible at your age that life hasn’t taught you that it’s useless to waste tears on a dead and buried past?
He gives the tavern keeper a gift of the tavern to show us that he’s the good guy, and there’s a round of totally unconvincing laughter that runs just a little too long.
Cut to a four-piece ensemble in front of a tapestry. I thought for a moment that the tavern had really splurged on entertainment, but no, this is the palace. The two sets aren’t different enough from each other visually to tell the difference. There’s some of that fancy cultured dancing going on, one of them quadrilles or some shit that I would know if I wasn’t a yokel from the sticks.
Richard says he hates the dances, but he smiles through them anyway. (The incessantly-smiling hero is another element borrowed from Hercules.) Elaine is here, dancing with the duke. The duke is not a fan of Richard and Louise getting together.
DUKE: They may have grown up together. They may be no more than childhood playmates. But this is a little game I don’t like at all!
Our villains, Elaine and the duke.
The duke is dismayed because he is, in his words, “a jealous man. Louise’s absurd flirting upsets [his] plans and a strange childhood friend returned home at a most inopportune moment could easily become a serious obstacle.” I guess he wants to marry her, but I’m not sure if it’s out of lust for power or lust for… lust. As the courtly dance continues, Elaine echoes my thoughts:
ELAINE: This ball is on the verge of becoming extremely boring.
Elaine and Richmond are competing for opportunities to take out Richard. They agree to give Richmond first crack. Meanwhile (do you always hear this word in your head in Allison Pregler’s voice when it leads off a sentence?), as Louise speaks of how entranced she is by the wonderful evening, she gazes off into space, looking kind of like the portrait of the Queen on the back of a Canadian quarter. Richard pitches woo for a while and then a guy with a mustache (repeated viewings, plus IMDB, convince me that this guy’s name is Duneil) purposefully bumps into him. When mustache guy says Richard should watch his feet, Richard gives an ever-so-pithy reply:
RICHARD: From the looks of you, I should put at least one of them in a certain part of your anatomy… the presence of a lady forbids my naming precisely.
I know what he’s getting at, but it’s funnier to imagine he’s referring to the pisshole. Anyhow, it’s time for a duel, which breaks up the party as everyone heads outside to watch. And this one is going to be a treat, because Duneil is portrayed by the one, the only… Franco M. F. Fantasia.
Signore Fantasia is not amused.
Some guy tells Louise she shouldn’t have invited Richard because he’s a vagabond, but she thinks he’s the hero she’s been waiting for. The fight kicks off in the garden, in front of a pool. Franco M. F. Fantasia is pretty damned quick. Some of his best moved are parried when Richard is off-screen. Sadly, there’s no music in this scene, just crickets. And the fight scenery is pretty dull. Nobody watches swashbuckling sword fights just for the swordplay: they want to see people slash candelabras and slide down bannisters and swing from chandeliers and trade quips. They at least attempt the latter, but the quips here have lost something in translation:
DUNEIL: I hope you have a piece of land left where your friends can bury you!
RICHARD: They won’t bury you! They’ll leave your body for crow’s meat!
Not exactly “you fight like a cow” territory, here. It’s also disappointing that the dubbing team isn’t reading the lines like they’re in the midst of a fight: nobody’s out of breath.
Did you guess that Duneil would be going in the pool? You guessed correctly. The whole fight runs about two and a half minutes, and while students of stage fighting might enjoy it, it’s not thrilling enough to keep the general audience engaged.
The next day, Richard and Louise are out chilling in the countryside, wearing their Sunday best, as you do. The music is a bit too loud here as Louise suspects that Richard’s just running away from his soldierly responsibilities (which haven’t been defined as of yet—I thought he was a mercenary captain). Louise wants him to find adventure closer to home by overthrowing the Duke. Richard demurs.
RICHARD: You’re expecting your St. George… and you find only a tired soldier.
But he was just talking about how much he loved adventure! On the other hand, I guess it’s more fun to have a daring adventure in a faraway land than in your hometown. I’d much rather carry out a secret spy mission in Vienna than in Dubuque.
This lasts right up until Louise mentions that they’re trying to promise her to the Duke as a bride, which gets Richard to flinch. Louise wants to beat the Duke with his own weapon—scheming—and she says she has Elaine on her side. This may not end well for her. This whole conversation takes place while they’re standing dead still in front of a waterfall, facing away from it. Perhaps there’s something even more scenic behind the camera, like, I dunno, the Chrysler Building standing atop Mount Fuji.
You’d think Louise would be impressed by this, right? See her next line.
LOUISE: What do you think you’ve solved by doing that?
If I heard that after kissing a woman, I would probably be so embarrassed that I would go stand in the waterfall and wait for it to carry me to a merciful death. Some dude rides up—I can’t tell who it is at this distance—and it seems it’s bad news because Louise expects an argument and Richard wants to go help in whatever useless way he can. Nope, she’s going along.
Ominous gong and drumroll at the castle, where Elaine and the duke are trying to cut a deal. Elaine thinks the duke’s pride will be the death of him. Seems she tried to use a love potion to make Louise fall for the duke:
ELAINE: The potion that is able to put out the flame of love has not yet been invented.
Their ultimate goal is to overthrow the king. I guess they’re Huguenots. Elaine doesn’t like the duke, but she thinks the duke can take out the king, and she’s going to avenge herself on the king because it seems the king is not a good guy. Elaine promises to deal with Richard in her way, and the duke decides that this is a good time to get flirty.
DUKE: But in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt you to make an effort to be a little kinder to me…
Elaine leans way the hell back when he says this. and shoots him down.
Back at the tavern, Richard’s doing some paperwork (with the only guy who’s faking a French accent) when Giselle, Louise’s handmaid, comes in to buy supplies for Louise’s engagement ceremony. Even after she’s said, several times, that Louise is getting engaged, Richard acts like he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Maybe he took a few polearms to the head. Giselle straight up says that Louise is marrying the duke, and that Louise is preparing for the wedding. Richard’s response?
RICHARD: I don’t understand why you’re being so mysterious!
They’re going back to the palace together, plus one of Richard’s hangers-on, apparently because he has the (understandable) hots for Giselle.
I challenged braid enthusiast Jill Bearup to tackle this hairstyle.
Giselle and Louise meet in a garden and Giselle says she’s got a plan: if the guitarist stops playing, run like hell. Now off to talk to Richard again for a while, after they just did that a few minutes ago. There wasn’t really an engagement, this was just an attempt to lure Richard to the palace to make out. But now the duke sees that Richard is here, and he’s got Franco Fantasia with him who’s looking for revenge!
Louise’s plan is to “denounce [the duke’s] dissolute ways before all the nobles of the province,” with Elaine helping her. Richard puts on a goofy grin as he complains that nobody trusts Elaine. That’s her plan, and she’s sticking to it. Once she leaves, Franco Fantasia meets him with two guys who have to be German, based on their clothes. A three-on-one fight begins, with the two Germans acting in concert sometimes, and other times applying the one-ninja-at-a-time rule. Again, there’s very little use of the scenery.
After Louise sees the fight, Franco draws first blood, and we get our first swashbuckling dirty trick: Richard grabs some foliage, throws it in Franco’s face, and runs. Somehow, they didn’t have him surrounded, and he runs to Louise. Which is weird, because the camera angles used implied that Franco was between Louise and Richard, but somehow Richard ran offscreen in the other direction and wound up with Louise. Louise sneaks him into the palace.
Elaine is unhappy to learn what happened:
ELAINE: What is the thing you have done now? And I’m really astonished at you!
Elaine’s learned that Richard is in the castle (somehow) and clues in the guards. But she doesn’t want their help, because she has a plan.
A kid named Henri arrives to meet with the duke. He’s Louise’s brother, and he’s prepared to help the duke court her. He’s even providing a bit of love advice.
HENRI: As a rule, young girls of her age are fond of the unexpected, monsigneur.
Women readers: how would you react to your brother saying this about you?
After some more talkity-talk scenes that don’t really add anything to the plot, Giselle shows up at the tavern and tells Richard’s posse that Richard is a prisoner in the castle and needs rescuing. Then, back at the castle, Elaine cleans up Richard’s wounds and plots with Louise and Richard to escape tomorrow. She then reports tomorrow’s escape attempt to Richmond, who’s going to try and capture Richard with the help of… Franco Fantasia. Again. Elaine is not impressed.
ELAINE: If there’s absolutely no one else available whom you can use.
Despite being a grand schemer and a master of deception, Elaine is awfully loose-lipped about her disdain for the duke in this scene. She calls him a “blusterer” and a “mediocrity,” and she thinks it’s time that the duke get deposed and replaced with a man who can really inspire the people. You know, like Richard.
RICHMOND: You are ambitious.
ELAINE: I know what I’m doing.
She distracts Fantasia, then invites Richard back to her room, where she offers him some wine. If you’ve seen a Hercules film, you know what happens next.
RICHARD: This wine is full of fire. What kind of vineyard could have produced the grapes for such a powerful wine?
He’s knocked out as Giselle reports to Louise that Richard is toast. Louise heads out to do… whatever (sadly, she’s not getting in a sword fight). Henri is waiting in Richard’s room and delivers the most wooden line reads of the whole script as he insinuates that bad things are going on. He busts into Elaine’s room, reveals them in what kinda looks like flagrante delicto but not really, and… shoots Elaine? I don’t understand this at all. Elaine dies, a victim of “a dream that was too great for [her],” and now we have sword fight #3.
Now, in a good swashbuckling film, the environment has to come into play during a fight. This fight takes place in a room full of furnishings. I want to see the drapes thrown on a guy’s face, or somebody get whacked with a candelabra. But it’s just sword fighting here. One table is kicked over, but otherwise, bupkis. Richard ends the fight by turning Franco’s sword on himself. Meanwhile, Louise traipses off unnoticed.
The escape day-for-night is so dark that you can hardly see a thing except Richard’s white shirt. Thankfully, the only thing they do here is have Richard horsejack a dude and ride away.
Richard rides into the tavern the next day and tells his sidekicks (one of whom is doing a really awful Danny Kaye impression) to barricade the door to make it more defensible. You may remember that Richard also owns a castle, which is a structure that is generally well-suited for defense. Perhaps the plan is to wait for the guards to besiege the castle, then burst out of the tavern and attack them from behind.
No, actually. It seems that the guards knock down the barricade without much effort, only for the tavern denizens to vanish. Here begins a reprise of the horse chase from the intro, with chase music that isn’t so bad, really: the short bursts of percussion remind me of the chase music from Planet of the Apes. But it doesn’t match the tempo of the chase. The music is faster and more energetic than the horses are.
When our heroes arrive at a place with a gate that they want to go to (it’s a convent), they can’t get it open in time, and we have another patently absurd horse-fencing scene. There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement not to stab anybody’s horse. Richard gets to try out a one-liner:
RICHARD: I surrender only to God, and he’s not on your side!
The nuns just stand around watching the carnage, wherein Richard finds himself occasionally getting the worst of a one-on-one fight for the first time in the movie. Eventually the Mother Superior drops in to figure out if they want to give Richard & co. sanctuary, but she needs to know if they’re heretics. The nuns get the first decent joke:
NUN 1: We’ve heard them say their prayers.
NUN 2: In their own way, but with great devotion, Reverend Mother.
The comic relief guys get subjected to a CCD exam by the nuns as they fight with their backs to the wall. That’s enough to get the good guys admitted and the bad guys somehow get the gates shut in their face, even though Richard was very clearly behind some of those bad guys just a shot ago.
It’s OK to get in a fight in front of a convent now and then, as long as you don’t make it a habit. *RIM SHOT*
The next scene is at court, where Henri and Louise are on trial for murdering Elaine. Henri’s defense is that he tried to kill Richard instead, but it seems that killing a baroness is a strict liability offense and doesn’t require proof of motive. The duke won’t reveal the deal with Henri to kill Richard, so it seems that Henri is dead meat.
LOUISE: You have never known how to select your friends.
At the convent, the men are welcome to stay as long as they’re in danger, but they’re going to have to work for it. Exciting scenes of swashbuckling minor construction work follow! Laugh (or not) as the guy who wants to be Danny Kaye and who has no trouble going to war, for crying out loud, tries to get out of building a dove pen!
Louise and Giselle have a stitch-and-bitch party. Louise is convinced that the duke will offer her a pardon in exchange for marriage. She’s lost her faith in Richard at this point because of Elaine’s tomfoolery, and boldly proclaims, “I want only to die.” (Her line read doesn’t sound all that sad to me, but whatever.)
The duke shows up, as predicted, and demonstrates his inability to flirt.
DUKE: It is your obstinate attitude that exasperates me. Despite all my excesses, I think I am less inhuman than you are.
He has no choice, you see, he has to put somebody to death for killing Elaine or else the king will be mad. And once she gives him a chance, she’ll start to love him eventually (as so many heavyset men with unflattering haircuts and beards have said over the years).
It’s time to break out of the convent, but it’s surrounded by enemy soldiers. Richard asks the mother superior about a disguise. Meanwhile, Richmond explains that the duke needs to do something grand and showy to convince the provincials that the duke is worthy to be king.
Richard’s bold plan is to put on a guard outfit and ride right up to Richmond’s castle. He didn’t even shave his mustache! Admit it, you were expecting him to disguise himself as a nun.
”I mean, I, of course, am a master of disguise. But he, on the other hand, looks like a dink.”—Die Fledermaus
The duke is going to have a grand and showy tournament to demonstrate how great he is. (Or rather, a “tourney.” This is a dubbing decision to cover for the Italian “torneo.” I wonder if George R.R. Martin insists on “tourney” because he’s trying to emulate the atmosphere of low-budget Italian films, or whether he’s iffy on the spelling of “tournament.”) He’ll face Henri in a joust: if Henri loses, Henri is guilty. (So we can now place the time of the film: it’s between 1555, when Nostradamus went to Paris, and July 10, 1559, when France held its last jousting tournament—a tournament that killed King Henri II.) Henri’s never jousted before (the Henri in this movie, not King Henri), so this may not end well for him (but it didn’t end well for King Henri either). The duke claims the weapons will be totally safe.
Richard’s infiltration plan has a fun shot in which the camera sits in the middle of a spiral staircase and follows him around. He’s immediately recognized when he gets to the top. Shoulda shaved the mustache. When you have a brief scuffle in a swashbuckling movie next to a staircase, you gotta throw somebody down the staircase, right? But it doesn’t happen here.
At Louise’s apartment, Giselle wants to stop the tournament (or “tournée,” as she calls it). Louise thinks it’s no use. Then, just out of the blue, Richard bounds right in and Giselle matter-of-factly greets him. Louise is still sore about the whole arms-of-Elaine thing and isn’t prepared to escape with him, and it’s time for a one-on-three sword fight as the guards burst in. This doesn’t last long, as a guard threatens to kill Louise unless Richard drops his sword. He complies.
Henri walks in after the guards and Richard leave (maybe they nodded to each other in the hallway). Henri thinks he can take out the duke at the tournament. Now Louise wants to escape, and she sends Giselle off to the tavern to get the guys to do… something.
Cut to a girl doing a belly dance at a feast. You know, a belly dance of the kind that was so popular in France in the 1550s (or, rather, of the kind that no proper Hercules movie could be without). The dance is interrupted when Richmond tells the duke that Richard is in the dungeon. As they leave, a group of hitherto unidentified noblemen complain that more men are siding with the duke these days and that they’ll probably lose the tournament.
In the dungeon, Richard notes how unusually laconic the torturer is: “men in your profession usually ask a thousand questions.” The torturer explains his system: if he sees a red hanky in the window, Richard dies slowly. If it’s a white hanky, “we’ll pass the evening playing cards.” The arbitrary nature of early modern justice must have driven this guy nuts, but his work-a-day attitude towards his job makes him the funniest character in the film.
The duke is going to taunt Louise by explaining the hanky code (not that kind of hanky code) and letting her know that she only gets the white one if she agrees to marry the duke. She takes the deal, and Richard will get to go to the wedding.
Meanwhile, the rest of the soldiers escape the convent on a rope that’s been tied to a tree. It’s too dark to see, but the plan is successful. Giselle seduces a guard (“from my window, you can see everything”) and much as you suspected, Richmond reveals that the lances for the tournament are real, but disguised to look like wood.
Time to bust into the castle and save Richard. There’s a great moment where our heroes find themselves at the business end of an arquebus and hit the deck in unison, but the fight is otherwise undistinguished as they dispatch their opponents quickly and get right to Richard. They’re set upon by guards again upon leaving the cell, and this fight turns into a real scrum, complete with flipped tables and (finally) a guy getting thrown down the stairs.
The only way out is through the roof, which Richmond is patrolling with more goons. This fight has great energy, but it’s shot from so many different angles that it’s hard to tell where the characters are in relation to each other. And Danny Kaye guy keeps acting as ineffective comic relief right up until he gets a Chaplinesque kick in the ass. Rather hilariously, the sidekicks form a circus-style human tower to leap over the wall and unlock the gate from the outside.
Quickly, men! Climb the wall, then hop onto your unicycles and speed away!
Richmond and Richard get a climactic sword fight on the stairs. At least, it would have been climactic if we’d seen Richmond’s swordfighting skills at any previous point in the film: even just a quick scene to establish him as a dangerous opponent. Team Circus gets the gate open, and Richard wins his fight with a really disappointing finisher: he jumps over a short obstacle, and when Richmond follows, Richmond leaps right into his enemy’s sword.
RICHARD: To the tournament, men!
The things that make a peplum movie entertaining are bizarre dialogue, good looking people wearing very little clothing, and goofy fight scenes. This film has one out of three: the dialogue is appropriately silly, but the 16th century setting means that everyone’s covered up, and the fights leave too many buckles un-swashed.
The Good: I’m going to need to find an excuse to say “Is it possible at your age that life hasn’t taught you that it’s useless to waste tears on a dead and buried past?” more often. Some real athleticism from the sidekicks in the fights. Loved the jailer.
The Bad: Sword fights on horseback are really awkward. Utter lack of characterization among secondary characters makes them easy to confuse with each other. Scenery rarely changes, making the adventure seem less grand.
Watch It If: You’re a swordplay addict or a peplum completist.