What Yakima Canutt was to classic stunt work in Hollywood for some 60 years, Ralph Faulkner was to sword fight choreography for almost a like number of years. Faulkner came west from Texas in his mid twenties to try his hand in the movies. Some of his first roles were as President Woodrow Wilson in silent bio/drama flag-wavers about American entrance into World War I. Faulkner's athleticism already tagged him for some stunt work, but while working in the silent movie The Man from Glengarry (1922), filming a river sequence on logs, Faulkner slipped on one and severely injured a knee. With his modest movie career in jeopardy and a real chance of becoming an invalid, Faulkner turned to a regime of knee-related exercises as therapy. He settled on a rowing apparatus and the practice of swordplay, fencing (which uses three practice swords of progressively heavier gage and different technique: foil, epee, and sabre).
Fencing became a passion; so much so in fact, that he entered international competition, winning the World Amateur Sabre Championship (1928) and becoming a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team that year and for the 1932 Games. In the meantime (1923 to 1925 and then 1933) he had already been doing some movie stunt and fencing choreography. But by 1935 the perfect vehicle came along with a seminal opportunity for him to bring his fencing expertise into the movies on a larger scale. This was the first sound version of Dumas's The Three Musketeers (1935). He was hired as the captain of Cardinal Richelieu's guards, Jussac, and at various points in the movie as five other swordplay stunt extras. In each case he ended up on his face dispatched, but more significantly he was hired as the fencing choreographer. Though this version of the classic tale is normally given short shrift, it is enthusiastic all the more rousing for the realistic dueling that Faulkner coordinated. The movie is worth just his great courtyard scene of nearly one hundred musketeers in synchronized fencing exercises one-on-one before the king.
The popularity of producing swashbucklers (usually based on historical novels) that had started with silent movies moved into its watershed years with Hollywood sound. That same year of 1935 Faulkner moved into stunt double duty as well as fencing coordinator for the first sword-wielding blockbuster, Captain Blood (1935). This was the movie that rocketed unknown Australian actor 'Errol Flynn' to romantic stardom. And Faulkner had good material to work with. Veteran Basil Rathbone was a good fencer already, and Flynn, though new to the school of fence, was athletic and a quick learner. Under Faulkner's choreography Rathbone and Flynn made the swordplay look good. For the next two decades Faulkner's movie list as fencing double and choreographer reads as a history of Hollywood's golden years of adventure yarns with the likes of: Anthony Adverse (1936), If I Were King (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Thief of Baghdad (1940), and The Corsican Brothers (1941).
But fencing choreography like stunt work in general was highly competitive (and still is), and various production leads had their favorites. In fact it was not out of the ordinary-and no doubt cheaper--to simply have the senior stuntman act as coordinator, as the case of Fred Cavens (who also worked with Faulkner) for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). But you get what you pay for. The background swordplay in that classic is sometimes amateurish. Once again it is the skill of Rathbone and the verve of Flynn that makes their crossing swords look good in the final swordplay free-for-all. No coordinator as such worked in Flynn's last Warner Brothers swashbuckler, the oft uneven epic, Adventures of Don Juan (1948), but somebody decided that using a watered down version of Faulkner's mass musketeer fencing exercise of 1935 would be effective as overseen by Don Juan before the Spanish king and queen in the confines of the courtroom-just not the same. By the way, Flynn's stunt double was Jock Mahoney - Sally Fields dad. Faulkner's only comparable rival was the much younger Belgium fencing expert Jean Heremans whose work is best seen in the 'Gene Kelly' remake of The Three Musketeers (1948) and the two 1952 swashbucklers for `Stewart Granger', the remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) and Scaramouche (1952). Ironically he was given his first credit as fencing coordinator on the classic first version of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) because Faulkner was so busy doing most of the coordinating and fencing in this movie.
In several movies Faulkner doubled both dueling stars. In Adverse for the early duel at the inn, he took turns for the more expert fencing moves as both Don Luis and Denis Moore. In Zenda, Faulkner worked as fencing double and as a fencing featured extra. Though Ronald Colman did his fair share of saber fencing in Zenda, at one point after an injury, Faulkner had to fence briefly with himself-in the final cut of the movie - as both Colman and his own character, one of Rupert of Henzau's henchmen, to finish their duel in the dungeon. By 1938 Faulkner was usually credited-rather than not always credited previously (a problem for most stuntmen) - as fight choreographer. That title would vary to fencing master, fencing choreographer - at least in one instance as 'director of sword-play'. He was once again dueling with Flynn in Sea Hawk, doubling for 'Henry Daniel'. And in Corsican Brothers he worked again with 'Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.' (from Zenda). Fairbanks was another good fencer. And he and Faulkner did the lion share of the exhausting finale duel - the longest ever shot - and that in unbearable 100+ temperatures.
Although in a duplicate costume, it is easy to pick out when Faulkner took over the fencing. In all his screen swordplay he always kept a straight-backed and classic fencing posture rather than the forward slouch of his star opponents. In working with Cornel Wilde in the forgettable The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), Faulkner was pleased to meet his match. Wilde had been an intercollegiate fencing champion. By the mid 50s the glory days of swashbuckling had run its course, though Faulkner even enjoyed-actually one of his favorites though uncredited--doing the coordinating and doubling for the farcical romp _Court Jester, The (1956)_ with Danny Kaye and an elder Rathbone. Into the 1960s swordplay was out of sync with the movies, though he did the popular sword-and-sandal epic Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The sword was back in the 70s and 80s. But it was always good fencing that Faulkner wanted regardless of the medium. His style graced over 100 films, TV work, and stage plays. He started a theatrical school called Falcon Studios (and this writer remembers a friend in 1978 who decided he should take a few lessons from Faulkner just to say that he had!). Faulkner believed that any staged swordplay should be done right with practice choreography-and the proper period weapons. He always made it look good-and that personal crusade continued up until Ralph Faulkner passed on in 1987.