Category Archives: Douglas Fairbanks

From "A Modern Musketeer": Douglas Fairbanks does handstands on the edge of the Grand Canyon while Marjorie Daw looks on agahst

Swashathon! A Modern Musketeer (1917)

This post is part of the Swashathon! A Blogathon of Swashbuckling Adventure, hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently. Read the other adventure-filled posts in this event HERE.

In their 1953 bio, Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer, Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks state that her uncle’s fascination with all things swashbuckling went way back:

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers had been in the back of his mind ever since he could remember. He once admitted that his ideal had always been D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, and that character had not only influenced every picture he had made but Doug had consciously or subconsciously lived the role all his life.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 175

Intertitle from "A Modern Musketeer" - D'Artagnan, that famous swash-buckling gallant!

Intertitle from “A Modern Musketeer” – D’Artagnan, that famous swash-buckling gallant!

And so the release in 1917 of A Modern Musketeer was Douglas’ first attempt to portray his boyhood role-model, and adapt it to then-modern times, too. Doug addresses this in one of the first intertitles in the movie:

Using the then-familiar technique of interpolating several plot lines into one movie, A Modern Musketeer, begins with a costume scene throw-back to the times of D’Artagnan, in France of the 1600s. By inserting this scene into a modern story, Douglas could test audiences reception to the idea of a larger, much more expensive, costume drama, an idea he would bring to fruition just four years later in the ground-breaking United Artists’ production The Three Musketeers. By inserting this prelude of chivalrous D’Artagnan and his swashbuckling swordplay at the behest of a damsel in distress, it also provided Doug with an excuse to show off his latest fencing skills, just one of the many sports Douglas excelled at.

A Modern Musketeer was the sixth film that Douglas produced under his family-run company, Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation.

The Fairbanks brothers were a smooth-working team. Douglas acting and supervising the writing, directing and shooting of his films, Robert [co-author Letitia Fairbanks’ father] handling all the intricate construction problems, and Jack managing the business end made an efficient trio.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 152.

A Modern Musketeer also contained what was becoming a theme in Douglas’ productions: larger-than-life sets, in this case: the Grand Canyon. It may not appear to be a big deal to us now, because we’ve all seen the Grand Canyon a gazillion times in photos and movies, if we haven’t had the thrill of seeing the Canyon for ourselves., But in 1917 not many people knew what that Grand Canyon looked like. A Modern Musketeer offered expansive, exotic vistas to match Fairbanks’ boundless energy.

When reviewing cinema history, it’s obvious that Douglas was at the forefront of development of what was then cutting-edge movie techniques. It was the start of filming on-location and it was A Big Thing. Audiences were enthralled at the scenery that was carefully framed by cinematographer Hugh McClung. They were excited to see the Navajos, their dress and dances – it was all part of the exciting West that many had heard about, and the movies brought it all to them, wherever they lived in America!  No other generation prior had had these types of breath-taking, vicarious experiences that motion pictures, in the skillful hands of a Fairbanks’ production, offered.

Because Fairbanks’ movies were amongst the first movies ever made, they lead the way for what is now a 100+ year old medium of artistic and visual-literature expression, so that the stereotypes of that day have unfortunately now indelibly stuck in our minds. The portrayal of native peoples in A Modern Musketeer largely casts them as either the villain — Navajo Chief Chin-de-dah – or extras.

From "A Modern Musketeer": Chin-De-Dah meets Ned Thacker at the edge of the Grand Canyon

From “A Modern Musketeer”: Chin-De-Dah meets Ned Thacker at the edge of the Grand Canyon

But there are villainous white men, too, and the Navajo as a people are respectfully shown in their native dress, and their dances and culture were preserved on film, at a time when they were shunned in all other parts of American “society.” In the end evaluation, none of us can avoid being raised within the prejudices of our time, and looking back 100 years later, films show the cracks in society that still plague us till today.

From "A Modern Musketeer": Douglas Fairbanks with Navajo boy.  Douglas loved children and had great times with them on the set.

From “A Modern Musketeer”: Douglas Fairbanks with Navajo boy. Douglas loved children and had great times with them on the set.

I do have to say that the native boy who looks to be about 3 or 4 years old, that Douglas’ character dandles on his knee in the opening sequences of the YouTube clip (above) is having the time of his life! Look at him as Douglas sets him down, shakes his hand, and bids him goodbye – that kid is mugging for the camera and is a delight.

In all, A Modern Musketeer represents Fairbanks’ first attempt to blend his beloved childhood hero of D’Artagnan, and show the same principles of chivalry still have room for application in today’s society. And that’s something we all might consider, even in the 21st century: showing a little chivalry and kindness to all in our world, while helping the less fortunate. Just as applicable now, as then.

Closing with an intertitle:

From "A Modern Musketeer": What a high-fallutin' fellow!

From “A Modern Musketeer”: What a high-fallutin’ fellow!