Ralph Faulkner, my fencing master, known to all as The Boss, was a man of extremes. He began his adult life as a forest ranger, and then abruptly switched to acting. But injuring his left knee severely in 1921, while making a film about lumberjacks, The Man from Glengarry, he was faced with being an invalid for the rest of his life. But not one to give up easily, he began looking for some sort of therapy to strengthen his damaged leg.
First, Faulkner moved from the east coast to the west for the warmer climate. He then joined the Los Angeles Athletic Club for its numerous strenuous possibilities. After eliminating one exercise regimen after another, Faulkner finally hit on fencing. "Fencing gave me the precise therapy I needed, working my injured knee with just the right amount of pressure and tension, and it was fascinating besides. Fencing passes the highest intellectual test of any sport known. Fencing has been called a game of physical chess, and it was that for me."
Training for fifty hours a week, Faulkner not only restored his knee, but also ended up with a new direction in life. Entering the world of organized fencing, he soon rose to the top of the U.S. fencing ranks, garnering numerous titles and awards. Faulkner said of his fencing experience: "At first, I fenced only in Southern California. But, In time, I worked with most of the great fencers in the world. Lucien Gaudin, Cornick, Glichai, Ducret, Puliti, Cattiau. Gaudin was probably the greatest fencer who ever lived." His crowning achievements to his competitive career were making the 1928 and 1932 U.S. Olympic teams.
His observations about competition: “I didn't train in any special way for big events. I fenced the same way for everything, and I just entered everything in sight. I fenced and fenced and fenced. That's how you get to be good. Some people said I thought too much when I fenced. The argument was that thinking slows you down. But that was my way. And I could never see how it slowed me down. It did make me more pliable, more adaptable in my fencing, which was a big advantage, as far as I was concerned. And I held my own against the best in the world. I saw great fencers, American and European, whose approach was to work themselves into a frenzy before each bout, literally hating their opponent. I could never do that. My goal was to observe my opponents, and to then use what I saw against them. I believe that anger only blinds a fencer to his opportunities."
Maestro Faulkner eventually took his expertise with swords back into the theatrical world, becoming a professional film fencing master. In movies like The Three Musketeers (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Sea Hawk (1940), and The Court Jester (1956), he acquired the title, Fencing Master to the Stars.”
Of film fencing, Faulkner explained: “Film work always kept me on my toes. In a way, it was every bit as challenging as getting out there on the fencing strip. I must say, I brought my own strong idea into what I was doing. I gave my actors a solid foundation in fencing basics before we ever worked on routines. That way, they understood what they were doing, and why they were doing it. And because they understood what was going on, they could put more intent into what they were attempting in front of the camera, and still retain safety. It wasn't just two people clanging swords together. I did my best to display a knowledge of swordplay in the movie duels I directed."
He added: "Staging a film duel was no simple task. Planning often took weeks. And shooting, for various reasons sometimes took months. We were very careful. It didn’t behoove you to forget an action, because someone might get his ears lopped off if you did”
But even as Faulkner found a lucrative niche home in the movie world of swashbuckler films, he was equally at home teaching the sport of fencing. Over the years, many of his students went on to win national championships and compete on Olympic teams. Sewell Shurtz, Polly Craus, and Janice-Lee York were among his brightest and most successful pupils.
Even as movie jobs became few and far between, Ralph Faulkner continued to teach his beloved fencing at his school, Falcon Studios. He never retired, continuing to teach until a few weeks before his death in 1987. He was 95 when he died.
The fencing master summed up his view of his life in fencing in one of his latter interviews: “I’ll just go on teaching. I’ve done it for over fifty years. That’s what I do. Everyone gets a private contact lesson with me. I may have three students in an evening or thirty. It doesn’t matter. I take pride in that. Some people might say I’m old, that I’ve done enough. But I think as long as you are alive, you just keep doing what you do best. When you stop doing that, you’re as good as dead.”