The basis for the action movie was formed from a variety of sources all of which pre-dated the invention of cinema. It is there in the swashbuckling stories of novelists like Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, or the heroics of Odysseus and Hercules in Greek Mythology.
In folklore, there is Robin Hood, William Tell and other characters designed to right the wrongs visited upon the oppressed.
The Silent Era
There was no sound until 1927 so films were reliant on a combination of camera angles, performance and editing. Cue cards occasionally revealed a snippet of dialogue or an explanatory description of the plot, but filmmakers had to keep the attention of the audience by letting the images speak for themselves.
It may surprise viewers unfamiliar with the silent era and put off by the lack of sound to see how quick these films move, how full of life and energy the performers are. Some of the early talkies look staid in comparison, as if the discovery of sound meant there was no need for movement any more, both in terms of direction and performance.
Another influence is the Western. Cinema was born while the legends of the Wild West still lived. Wyatt Earp even ended up working as an advisor to filmmakers in Hollywood. All the elements of the action film are present; the good guy versus the bad in a contest decided by violence, either for the protection of the innocent, or for revenge.
Douglas Fairbanks – The Original Action Hero
Fairbanks tends to be overshadowed by his swashbuckling predecessor Errol Flynn these days, even though his influence on movies far outweighs his fellow Robin Hood. Together with director Fred Niblo he created the first great action movie, The Mark of Zorro (1920).
Everybody who has followed after Fairbanks owes him a debt of gratitude. Especially in the action genre where his swashbuckling spirit can be seen to have influenced the likes of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power while his inventive stunt-work should be appreciated by fans of Jackie Chan.