I was reminded, earlier today, that one of the interesting side effects of knowing something about hand-to-hand and contact-weapons-based martial arts makes a big difference in how you see movies.
Most people don’t have that knowledge. So today I’m going to write about the quality of sword choreography in movies, and how that has changed over time, from the point of view of someone who is an experienced multi-style martial artist in both sword and empty hand. I think this illuminates a larger story about the place of martial arts in popular Western culture.
The first thing to know is this: with only rare exceptions, any Western swordfighting you see in older movies is going to be seriously anachronistic. It’s almost all derived from French high-line fencing, which is also the basis for Olympic sport fencing. French high-line is a very late style, not actually fully developed until early 1800s, that is adapted for very light thrusting weapons. These are not at all typical of the swords in use over most of recorded history.
In particular, the real-life inspirations for the Three Musketeers, in the 1620s, didn’t fight anything like their movie versions. They used rapiers – thrusting swords – all right, but their weapons were quite a bit longer and heavier than a 19th-century smallsword. Correspondingly, the tempo of a fight had to be slower, with more pauses as the fighters watched for an opening (a weakness in stance or balance, or a momentary loss of concentration). Normal guard position was lower and covered more of center line, not the point-it-straight-at-you of high line. You find all this out pretty quickly if you actually train with these weapons.
The thing is, real Three Musketeers fencing is less flashy and dramatic-looking than French high-line. So for decades there was never any real incentive for moviemakers to do the authentic thing. Even if there had been, audiences conditioned by those decades of of high-line would have thought it looked wrong!
A lot of swordfighting in medieval-period movies is even less appropriate if you know what the affordances of period weapons were. The classic Errol Flynn vs. Basil Rathbone duel scene from the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, for example. They’re using light versions of medieval swords that are reasonably period for the late 1100s, but the footwork and stances and tempo are all French high line, albeit disguised with a bunch of stagey slashing moves. And Rathbone gets finished off with an epée (smallsword) thrust executed in perfect form.
It was perfect form because back in those days acting schools taught their students how to fence. It was considered good for strength, grace, and deportment; besides, one might need it for the odd Shakespeare production. French high-line because in the U.S. and Europe that was what there were instructors for; today’s Western sword revival was still most of a century in the future.
This scene exemplifies why I find the ubiquitousness of French high-line so annoying. It’s because that form, adapted for light thrusting weapons, produces a movement language that doesn’t fit heavier weapons designed to slash and chop as well as thrust. If you’re looking with a swordsman’s eye you can see this in that Robin Hood fight. Yes, the choreographer can paste in big sweeping cuts, and they did, but they look too much like exactly what they are – theatrical flourishes disconnected from the part that is actually fighting technique. When Flynn finishes with his genuine fencer’s lunge (not a period move) he looks both competent and relieved, as though he’s glad to be done with the flummery that preceded it.
At least Flynn and Rathbone had some idea what they were doing. After their time teaching actors to fence went out of fashion and the quality of cinematic sword choreography nosedived. The fights during the brief vogue for sword-and-sandal movies, 1958 to 1965 or so, were particularly awful. Not quite as bad, but all too representative, was the 1973 Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, a gigantic snoozefest populated with slapdash, perfunctory swordfights that were on the whole so devoid of interest and authenticity that even liberal display of Raquel Welch’s figure could not salvage the mess. When matters began to improve again in the 1980s the impetus came from Asian martial-arts movies.
I cannot, however, pass by that period without noting one moment of excellence; The Princess Bride (1987). Yes, this is classic stagy Hollywood high-line, consciously referring back to precedents including the Flynn/Rathbone scene from fifty years earlier – but in this context there’s no sense of anachronism because the movie is so cheerfully vague about its time period. The swords are basket-hilted rapiers in an ornate Italo-French style that could date from 1550 to their last gasp in the Napoleonic Wars. The actors use them with joy and vigor – Elwes and Patinkin learned to fence (both left- and right-handed) for the film and other than the somersaults their fight scene was entirely them, not stunt doubles. It’s a bright, lovely contrast with the awfulness of most Hollywood sword choreography of the time and, I think, part of the reason the movie has become a cult classic.
The Star Wars movies make an interesting study in how Asian sword influenced the movies. In the first one, Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) the bladework was embarrassingly bad. I knew it was off even then, though I couldn’t yet use a sword myself; now I find it unwatchable, a sort of awful parody of Japanese sword as composed by someone who had no idea how kendo or kenjutsu form actually works, performed by equally clueless actors and stuntmen.
But by Return of the Jedi (1983) things were changing. Asian martial arts in general and Asian martial arts movies in particular were both rapidly being assimilated into Western pop culture at the time. Audiences, actors, and filmmakers were becoming more clued in about what real Asian sword looked like. For The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi Lucas hired an actual swordmaster (the same one who would later choreograph the fight in The Princess Bride) and the difference really showed. While those fight scenes are not great, they at least achieve competence and a nod towards what are actually reasonable moves for the implied handling characteristics of the weapons.
Even while faux-Asian sword was getting better fast, cinematic Western sword stayed stuck in its well-worn Hollywood groove until nearly the end of the 20th century. An early harbinger of change was the Antonio Banderas Zorro movie in 1998; that had some actual historically-correct Spanish sword in it, albeit only briefly in the training scenes with the fights mostly written in French high-line moves as per usual.
By the time Peter Jackson made The Fellowship of the Rings (2001) standards were rising. Jackson spent the money to have visibly different sword styles devised for the various races of Middle Earth and then hired every martial artist in New Zealand to film the fight scenes with. You could see what the historical antecedents of the styles were, and they were properly matched to the weapons. Aragorn and the Men of Gondor used two-hand double-edge longswords with Anglo-German moves; Orcs used short curved sabres with a Central European chopping guard; elves used longer single-edge blades with a very slight curve and moves as related to Japanese katana form as their swords. Blessedly, no French high-line cliches obtruded anywhere! Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn didn’t just learn to swordfight, he refused to use the light aluminum sword he’d been issued for the fight scenes and worked the full-weight steel one that went with his costume.
In Will and Captain Jack’s fight near the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the footwork is French high line but the sword technique looks pretty correct for the late 1600s-early-1700s milieu; those weapons are being used cut-and-thrust, and the cuts don’t look pasted in but are fully integrated into the movement language. They threaten each other with high-line French guards, but there’s no fencer’s lunge in sight. While there is acrobatic stunt-work, the moves are tighter and more martial, more efficient, than an old-school Hollywood fight. A swordsman can watch this without thinking “…stupid.”
Both waves of improvement were, I think, driven by rising popular interest in the weapons. Today’s HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) revival began in the 1990s and was starting to get traction when The Fellowship of the Rings was storyboarded in 1997. I myself started training in 2005 and it would undoubtedly have been sooner if I hadn’t been busy being Mr. Famous Guy between 1997 and 2004. Western sword revival was in the air, perhaps as a belated reaction to the huge popularity Asian arts had gained 20 years earlier. And it still is.
Accordingly, I think we can expect cinematic sword to generally get better – more martially accurate, more historically sound – in the future. There’s sustained demand for that now. More people in audiences who know how to parse what they’ll looking at, and more actors for which Elwes and Patinkin and Mortensen set a benchmark for knowing what you’re doing. And that is a good thing.