America’s First Action Hero: Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks was America’s first action hero. He invented the role with his 1921 silent film, The Mark of Zorro, an experimental movie that was so successful he embarked on a string of similar productions: in 1921, The Three Musketeers; in 1922, Robin Hood; in 1924, The Thief of Bagdad; in 1925, Don Q: Son of Zorro; and in 1926, The Black Pirate. He swashbuckled his way through these films, swinging from chandeliers, leaping from castle walls, fighting furiously with whips, swords, knives . . . and all while romancing the fair maiden. Watch this three-minute clip for an example of his acrobatic, action-packed adventures. His stunts seem somewhat cliche-ish today, but that’s only because everyone copied him and turned his innovative stunts into cliches. Note the delightful way he mixes humor with his stunts.

And speaking of special effects, watch this one-minute clip at the end of the Thief of Bagdad and see what wowed audiences in the Roaring Twenties. 

Interestingly, his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., carried on Dad’s legacy with similarly dashing roles. He was very popular, although he never gained the unprecedented level of international fame and adoration that his father had.