We all must find a calling in life, but not the skilled fighter Henri Lagardère, the protagonist of this 1997 movie, On Guard.
Indeed, raised as an orphan under the protective wing of two great masters of arms, this ambitious boy aspires to become nothing less than the greatest swordsman on earth.
So he trains tirelessly and loses no opportunity to catch the attention of Duke Philippe of Nevers, so skillful he can face many men with an infallible technique he calls Nevers Attack, inevitably smashing everyone’s skulls.
Lagardère is not as lucky and wealthy, so he agrees to participate in an assault for a fee, but when he realizes that Nevers is the victim, he regrets his unseemly decision.
Nevers is impressed by his stubbornness and loyalty, so he hires him as his personal guard, and together, they set out on a journey to Caylus Castle, where he will marry his beloved Blanche, who just delivered their child.
The joy does not last long because after the wedding, a handful of assassins mercilessly kill all the guests and eventually Nevers as well, surprised by his treacherous cousin Philippe of Gonzaga, who stabs him in the back.
Fortunately, Lagardère successfully rescues the child, actually a girl, Aurore; escaping along with a group of wandering artists and holding the title of Knight his master had invested him with before his death, as well the knowledge of the deadly Nevers Attack.
Years pass, and the child grows up as a beautiful girl, knowing nothing about her family but believing Lagardère to be her father.
However, Aurore’s life is still in danger because she could inherit all of Gonzaga’s wealth, so Lagardère must return to the city to avenge Nevers and save the girl toward whom he has more than paternal feelings.
Old-time cinema chronicling the old-time world
On Guard is a rock solid swashbuckler movie as they once made them, not surprisingly by a veteran like Philippe de Broca, for which 1997 was also one of the last pieces in his lengthy filmography.
So we have a pleasant, light-hearted vibe, even in the bloodiest moments of murder and betrayal, with a constant cheerfulness and romanticism toward an era still at the dawn of the social movements that would lead to the French Revolution.
The noblemen in this story pass the time between lavish receptions, rich banquets, and beautiful madams in bulging dresses while downstairs warriors engage in duels of honor to sod their male pride.
Fortunately, there is also plenty of action with fearless sworders single-handedly facing off against entire armies of enemies, chases, and full-speed rides across mountains and plains, but without all the (often silly) hormonal muscle that was typical, however, of American action cinema in the same period.
Don’t think, however, that the choreographies of the many duels are not meticulously full of detail because, indeed, this style delivers precisely that simplicity that is always functional to the audience’s enjoyment, without the need for dramatic slow motion or intrusive special effects.
Equally exciting is the plot the director co-writes with colleagues Jérôme Tonnerre and Jean Cosmos: a storyline that never stands still (perhaps even too much so) between constant setting changes, palace intrigue with disguised vendettas, and, of course, love and the desire for justice.
This story unfolds among many colorful French locations with the exaggerated costumes of the nobility against the rags of the poor, exalting the honor of chivalry that was coming to an end with the new finance and the greedy speculations of the elite who, for once, lose and succumb against the simple people.
The sunny faces of French cinema
Besides the solid, experienced director, we have an excellent cast entire of familiar faces and others new (for that era) so beloved by French cinema audiences.
Above all, the enthusiasm of Daniel Auteuil, still young but already with many movies on his resume, is enhancing the role of a funny little folk hero who becomes an unlikely yet tenacious and invincible knight.
He also shows good athleticism in the many action sequences; we will see even more of his comic side when he disguises himself as a hunchback and becomes the sidekick of the slimy Count Philippe of Gonzaga.
Gonzaga is practically the story’s central villain, played by a formidable Fabrice Luchini, who hides a character’s weakness to compensate for it with his thirst for money and power.
A delusion of conquering and possessing comes to a head with his mad scheme by trying to cheat finance to cover his debts and buy a large slice of land in Indiana.
For this, he kills and robs his cousin of his property: Duke Philippe, the fearless but honest nobleman who invests the protagonist as a knight, finding a battle-brother as good as him to whom he teaches his secrets.
It is a role that Vincent Pérez plays with irony, not forgetting a bit of arrogance but without becoming obnoxious, although perhaps I would have liked to have seen more depth to the love story with Claire Nebout, whom we then see again fortunately in the last part of the grand finale.
Finally, there is she, the young Aurore who shines with beauty like the sun and life, played by the fantastic and vital Marie Gillain, a magnificent young actress whom we would later see again in the dark thriller Ni pour ni contre.