Swashbuckler or swasher is a term that developed in the 16th century to describe rough, noisy and boastful swordsmen. It is based on a fighting style using a side-sword with a buckler in the off-hand, which was filled with much "swashing and making a noise on the buckler".
Today the term "swashbuckler" has changed, and refers to both a type of fictitious character and to a fiction genre, especially in the world of film.
The word "swashbuckler", in the modern sense, generally describes a fearless romantic archetype, a fictitious, adventurous, sword-wielding, male character who seeks to win the heart of a beautiful lady while rescuing society from the clutches of a dastardly villain. A classic swashbuckler exhibits exceptional courage and swordfighting skill, a strong sense of honor and justice, a chivalric romantic sense, and the capacity for wit, style, and resourcefulness under pressure. Such characters include The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood, Zorro. There have also been a few female swashbucklers, such as Maureen O'Hara in the film Against All Flags and Tessie Santiago in the short-lived Queen of Swords television series.
Actors famous for their portrayals of swashbucklers include Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Burt Lancaster, and (arguably) Basil Rathbone, an extremely skilled fencer who often played villains.
"Swashbuckler" also denotes a fiction and film genre that is characterized by dazzling swordplay, an adventurous and romantic plot, a historic setting, and black-and-white heroes and villains. This genre traces its origins to the chivalry tales of Medieval Europe, such as Robin Hood and the King Arthur legends. Among its most famous works are The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Scaramouche, Ivanhoe, Cyrano de Bergerac, and a large number of pirate stories. Authors who specialized in swashbuckler fiction include Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, the Baroness Orczy, Sir Walter Scott, Johnston McCulley, and Edmond Rostand.
Stylized, jaunty, and wildly entertaining, swashbucklers are one of the most flamboyant Hollywood film genres, the opposite of cinema verite and modern realistic filmmaking. They first became popular during the heyday of actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who became world famous for his cocky and charismatic portrayals of heroes such as d'Artagnan and Zorro. The genre subsequently attracted large audiences who loved the escapist adventure, historic romance, and exciting athleticism.
During the 1960s, as popular culture became more cynical and morally ambiguous, the plots and morality of swashbuckling heroes were interpreted to be simplistic and quaint. Nonetheless, the romantic appeal of the swashbuckler still endures; contemporary examples include Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Mask of Zorro.
Notable swashbucklers from literature and other media include: