Tyrone Power was one of the great leading men of Hollywood’s golden age — especially when he wielded a sword.
Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958) was one of the great leading men of Hollywood’s golden age. Handsome and athletic, he was as swoon-worthy in a light romantic comedy or musical as he was playing a soldier or Wild West outlaw. But Power’s most memorable movie moments came when he wielded a sword.
Swashbucklers were a big box office draw in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Audiences flocked to movies that featured their favorite handsome actors sword fighting on a pirate ship, atop a perilous cliff, or behind the black mask of the great Zorro — and Power always gave audiences a thrill. As director Henry King noted, “People always seem to remember Ty with sword in hand, although he once told me he wanted to be a character actor. He actually was quite good — among the best swordsmen in films.”
In memory of Tyrone Power, here are five of his greatest swashbuckling roles.
1. The Mark of Zorro. Power was already a star when he portrayed Zorro in 1940 — movies like “Lloyd’s of London” and “Jesse James” had helped him make a big splash — but it was “The Mark of Zorro” that gave him his reputation as a true swashbuckler. Based on the original Zorro tale, “The Curse of Capistrano,” the film was a remake of a 1920 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks. The movie’s climactic sword fight pits Power’s Zorro against the villainous Captain Esteban Pasquale, played by another masterful swordsman, Basil Rathbone. “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera,” Rathbone said. “Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”
A note on the lasting influence of “The Mark of Zorro”: the DC Comics backstory for Batman places young Bruce Wayne at the movies with his parents on the night they are killed, prompting his career in vigilante justice. The movie? “The Mark of Zorro.”
2. The Black Swan. Power’s next movie after “The Mark of Zorro” put a sword back in his hand — this time, on a pirate ship. His Captain Jamie Waring is a plundering rogue who we can’t help but love (remind anyone of Captain Jack Sparrow?) and Maureen O’Hara is the delightful heroine. The movie won an Oscar for best cinematography.
3. Captain from Castile. This historical epic placed Power in 16th century Mexico, playing a Spanish caballero in the days when Hernán Cortés explored Mexico and brought down the Aztec Empire. Sword in hand, Power’s Pedro de Vargas fights for the powerless until he himself is wrongfully imprisoned. Filmed on location in Michoacán, the movie featured scenes of the then-active volcano Parícutin, which made filming difficult and expensive, as the ash cloud it produced interfered with lighting. Critic Jonathan Yardley said the film included “enough swashbuckling action to keep the Three Musketeers busy for years.”
4. Prince of Foxes. A decade after his first swashbuckler, Power and his sword were still much in demand. “Prince of Foxes” cast him as a nobleman working under the real-life prince Cesare Borgia, played by Orson Welles. The setting — Italy in the year 1500 — made swordplay a given, and the plot had Power’s nobleman spearheading a revolt against the tyrannical Borgia. Its reference to the swordsman as a fox calls to mind Power’s earlier hit, “The Mark of Zorro.” “Zorro” is the Spanish word for “fox,” and it’s an apt description of the quick and stealthy grace needed to excel at swordplay.
5. Solomon and Sheba. One final great swashbuckler was planned for Power in 1958: the Biblical epic “Solomon and Sheba.” Power was to star as King Solomon, defending Israel against Sheba and Egypt. Filming began and Power completed many of his scenes. But on Nov. 15, 1958, as he was filming a sword fighting scene with George Sanders, Power began to feel ill. Later, he complained of pain in his arm and abdomen. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died of a heart attack. He was only 44 years old. The film was recast with Yul Brynner in the role of King Solomon, and most of Power’s scenes were reshot. However a close viewing of “Solomon and Sheba” reveals a few places where Power lives on. Most notably, a scene in the middle of the duel — the last scene Power ever shot — still features the swashbuckling great. It’s a fitting final tribute to the skill that helped make Tyrone Power famous.