East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Ten lessons from swashbucklers and adventure movies


This post is part of the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, a good opportunity to see movies in a different way, and learn something from them.
Soplease direct your browsers to the Speakeasy and the Silver Screenings blogs for a full list of the blogs involved and the various topics of this crash-course in learning stuff – for better or for worse – from movies.


And then check out what’s coming, because here on Karavansara we’ll discuss

Ten lessons from swashbucklers and adventure movies

What else would you expect?

Adventure movies, swashbuckler adventures, cloak & dagger flicks, horse operas, Arabian Nights fantasies… they always had a very bad press. Juvenile entertainment, adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies, cheap thrills.
And yet, my generation did learn quite some lessons from those movies.
And just like rock’n’roll was our sentimental education, adventure movies were our survival school.
And let’s play a game: I won’t use photos or videos, but quotes to illustrate my points; can you catch all the quotes, without using Google?
Missed some quote? Use the comments!

Lesson 1 – It’s OK to be vulnerable

Henry “Indiana” Jones: It’s not the years, baby. It’s the mileage.

This is something we are losing, and there’s an excellent bit of interview from Max Landis on the subject (you find it on Youtube): our movie heroes are either utterly damaged or absolutely impervious to anything.
But it wasn’t always like that. Heroes in classic adventure and swashbuckler movies were flawed humans, and they were capable of overcoming their flaws.

Lesson 2 – … but on the other hand…

Maj. Horace Holly: It’s the age of the mind that’s important, not the body.

One thing that often baffles me is how movies today seem to be peopled only by young people. Anyone that even vaguely resembles middle-age is relegated to the role of support, comedy relief or, indeed, the bad guy.
The young viewers need characters they can identify with, they tell me.
But when I was a kid I identified with older characters portrayed by Johnny Weissmuller, Peter Cushing, Doug McClure, David Niven… – it did not stump my development, and I did not grow up to be such a bad person, if I do say so myself.
And now that I’m no longer a young man, it feels good to know that Horace Holly was right.

Lesson 3 – Know your worth …

John Robie: You’re here in Europe to buy a husband.
Frances Stevens: The man I want doesn’t have a price.
John Robie: That eliminates me.

Lesson 4 – … and never sell yourself short.

Jack T. Colton: My minimum price for taking a stranded lady to a telephone is 400 dollars.
Joan Wilder: Will you take 375 in traveler’s checks?
Jack T. Colton: American Express?
Joan Wilder: Of course.
Jack T. Colton: You’ve got a deal.

Old fashioned adventure stories featured heroes that were usually pretty honest in presenting themselves to the world.

Lesson 5 – The dame is not for saving

Evie: Which one of you boys would like the honour of loaning me an airplane.
RAF Officer: The RAF would be proud to loan Miss Tozer an aircraft.
Evie: [Blows him a kiss] I’ll have it back in two weeks!
RAF Officer: Oh wait a minute, I thought you meant just for the night. Sorry.
Evie: Anyone Else?
Evie: No more heroes? So long boys.

Contrary to general belief, a steady diet of adventure yarns usually builds a solid respect for the female half of the population. Damsels in distress certainly abound, but most ladies of adventure movies are fully capable of holding their own. And that’s just fine.

Lesson 6 – The world is full of wonders

Abu: Where are we now ?
Genie: Above the roof… of the world
Abu: Has the world got a roof ?
Genie: Of course. Supported by seven pillars, and the seven pillars are set on the shoulders of a genie whose strength is beyond thought, and the genie stands on an eagle, and the eagle on a bull, and the bull on a fish, and the fish swims in the sea of eternity…

Adventure movies provided generations of movie-goers with fantastic vistas. Some were the extraordinary work of gifted matte painters and special effects designers, but a lot were actual places, peopled with actual people. Movies helped us remember that not everything was the plain drab place where we lived.

Lesson 7 – Smarts trumps Brute Force

Shiwan Khan: Your mind is like an open book to me!
Lamont Cranston: Then learn how to read!

The best adventures are those in which wits and smarts are more important that brute force. Even the most muscular of the heroes of the movies, people that routinely wrestled crocodiles or went through colossal brawls, always showed also an ability for thought.
Mindless entertainment it was not.

Lesson 8 – You can be a decent guy and still play dirty if you must, but playing fair is better

Athos: I fight just as well with my left hand. If you find that this places you at a disadvantage, I do apologize.

While not above using a few dirty tricks (there’s a whole catalog of them in Prisoner of Zenda, in the Rudolph/Rupert swordfight), the problem with playing by the same rules as the bad guys you end up being like them. It’s not just a matter of winning. It’s the way in which you win, that counts.

Lesson 9 – The next adventure is going to be the best

Robert Conway: George, didn’t you ever want to know what’s on the other side of the mountain?

There is that idea, which I like a lot, that adventure is a way of life.
Better still, that adventure is found in the way you look at your life.
And there’s always something great beyond the horizon.
Isn’t that grand?

Lesson 10 – Don’t be mean.

Buckaroo Banzai: Hey, hey, hey, hey-now. Don’t be mean; we don’t have to be mean, cuz, remember, no matter where you go, there you are.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

11 thoughts on “Ten lessons from swashbucklers and adventure movies

  1. These are terrific lessons, and I completely agree with your conclusions.

    The lesson that resonated the most with me was the first one, about being a vulnerable and flawed person. I just can’t identify with heroes/heroines who aren’t stumped by anything and can shoot/punch their way out of any situation. What is the point in that? I want to see how a character overcomes and/or solves a problem.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon with this terrific overview of action movies! (I think I guessed only half the quotes!)


  2. So many memories conjured from your enjoyable article. A swashbuckler of any variety can be so very satisfying.


  3. any blog entry that has the courage to quote Buckaroo Banzai gets my vote for a great blog entry.


  4. The dame is not for saving: yes, yes, yes! This a lesson every person needs to learn, even women themselves! Very cool that you added the quotes to exemplify.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂


  5. Pingback: Did this guy ever see a movie? | Karavansara

  6. Dear Davide,

    I was just wondering if you know whether or not you’ll be able to participate in the “Singing Sweethearts Blogathon.” If you find that you will be able to participate, please let me know so I can put you down on the roster! I believe my sister, Tiffany mentioned it to you in a previous comment, and I would like very much to know if you will be able to participate.

    If you need any suggestions, I would be glad to give some. Since you may write about movies which Jeanette and Nelson made separately, as well as the ones they made together, there are quite a few films from which to choose.

    Please let me know if you can participate. The blogathon is drawing near, and I have few participants, so I would greatly appreciate a contribution from you.

    Many thanks and good wishes!


    Rebekah Brannan


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.