When Douglas Fairbanks starred in The Mark of Zorro in 1920, it was the template for what was eventually recognised as the swashbuckling movie. Many more would follow and the audiences lapped them up, writes Tom McParland.


When the American song The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill (1882) was published, the sentimental objects weren’t the bridge or the mill but the fact that they were rustic, old and unwanted, and would never be used again.

Around the end of the 19th century there were dozens of mill songs published: The Old Mill, Old Stone Mill, Grist Mill, Old Saw, Brown, Red, Mossy and Water Mills. These mawkish outpourings reflected an industrialised generation yearning for imagined simpler times and loves that never were. Akin to weeping buckets over an unknown deceased aunt who’d left you everything.

A similar female fashion for romantic novels typified the 1880-1890’s. They were usually set in a sanitised Regency age when blooming passion flowers were impulsively overcome by the power of swarthy heroes.

“Pray, unhand me sire, else I shall swoon!” the heroine would beseech. Even though praying was the last thing on the mutual agenda. Like songs, hundreds of these trashy novels were avidly consumed. But few, unlike Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles and R. C Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, are known today.

It’s heartwarming to read that in 1842’s Hannibal Missouri, long before movies were heard of, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and his friends were doing what schoolboys in the 1950’s did. Trying a cat for murder or re-enacting scenes from Alexandre Dumas’ novels The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo.

It’s unlikely that Tom or his one-schoolroom hick friends would’ve tackled Dumas’ respective 750 and 1,100 page novels. More likely they remembered the swashbuckling bits that interested them from serialised magazines – as we did with movies – then extemporised those in their play.

Unlike movies, child play is unstructured. No children ever announce that they’re going to enact a scene from the 18th century. Or warn whoever played Cap’n Hook to be careful not to use the wrong hand in the loo. If they did it wouldn’t be play, the most vital of all skills children learn: That of pretending to be (job interview) or being someone else (bride).

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own (issue 5591)