A martial artist looks at swordfighting in the movies

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.

61 thoughts on “A martial artist looks at swordfighting in the movies

  1. 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,

    Has there ever been a filmed or televised version of the Three Musketeers in which the characters used the proper weapons of their namesakes, i.e. muskets?

    • >Has there ever been a filmed or televised version of the Three Musketeers in which the characters used the proper weapons of their namesakes, i.e. muskets?

      Not that I know of. But that’s not actually strange. The Musketeers never used their muskets as much as you’d expect if you try to mentally bin them with a modern rifleman.

      The difference is down to the unreliability of pre-percussion-cap firearms. They were prone to ignition failures in damp weather. Then, too, the King’s Musketeers were a quasi-ceremonial palace guard; occasions to use muskets would seldom occur in the normal course of their duties.

      There are hints in the history that those muskets were as much prestige signifiers (they had been gifted by the King himself) as they were expected to be practical weapons.

      • It’s been many decades since I read the novel in translation, but I’m pretty sure I remember noting at the time I finished the first book that the “Musketeers” didn’t actually use their muskets, at least for any of the interesting action or plot of the story. They only came up in the Siege of La Rochelle setting as I very vaguely recall.

      • Then, too, the King’s Musketeers were a quasi-ceremonial palace guard; occasions to use muskets would seldom occur in the normal course of their duties.

        In addition to the somewhat finicky “flintlock” operating mode, most muskets have a very reliable “whack upside the head with the butt” operating mode. If one’s job requires carrying a ceremonial musket, I would expect unceremonial head-whacking would be at least somewhat frequent.

        • Or fix the bayonet, and use it as a serviceable, if slightly cumbersome, spear. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen spear fighting depicted particularly well in a movie. Certainly not memorably, at any rate.

          • You can’t fix bayonets you don’t have. Granted, a plug(-into-the-barrel) bayonet wouldn’t be an out-and-out anachronism in 1625, but they weren’t remotely standard for decades, and socketed bayonets weren’t adopted until around 1700.

          • There’s been some memorable spear work in Troy, and Game of Thrones, and a very few others. Can’t say how accurate it was, save that it wasn’t obviously wrong.

            But Steven is right about the timeline for bayonets. For an early 17th century King’s Musketeer, the options are A: shoot foe with musket (once, p~0.8), B: buttstroke foe with musket, C: draw rapier. And I’m assuming there was a well-developed martial technique for B, but wondering how much of it has survived to the present.

            • >And I’m assuming there was a well-developed martial technique for [buttstroke foe with musket], but wondering how much of it has survived to the present.

              It’s actually very unlikely that anybody trained at this in period. If an enemy is closing range enough that you might butt-stroke him, you’re better off drawing your sword immediately, because it’s at least as dangerous to him as a musket butt and you may well not have time to change weapons once engaged. I sure as hell wouldn’t try it.

              Note that the military musket wasn’t a rifle – it wasn’t thought of as an aimed-fire weapon to be used against individuals. It was a mass-fire weapon to be used in formation against enemy formations. So the idea of clubbing it to engage an individual wouldn’t necessarily even have been within the envelope of a Musketeer’s thinking unless he was disarmed and desperate.

            • >There’s been some memorable spear work in Troy, and Game of Thrones, and a very few others. Can’t say how accurate it was, save that it wasn’t obviously wrong.

              Nobody else can say, either. There are no surviving manuals of arms for spear analogous to Western fechtbooks or the Asian sources on sword. Art and literary accounts of period combat yield little.

              The best we can do is train with weapons constructed like period spears and notice what their affordances are. I’ve not done much of this; of all the major Western weapons spear is my weakest – the closest thing to it that I’m competent at is the short (5′-6′) glaive, a bladed polearm similar to a Japanese naginata. But I have observed people who are way better with spear than I am.

              Based on this, I’m going to say the movie depictions of spear fighting in formation are pretty accurate. But the few instances of individual fighting with spears are generally way off. Solo spear has to be very dynamic, lots of footwork, lots of feints and jabbing, seldom committing with a full thrust except as a finishing strike. One if the reasons I haven’t put more time into it is that I’m not agile enough to play that game well.

    • Would you expect to see good skilled rifle use inDrunken Knife Fights of Some American Riflemen?

      What soldiers get up to in their time off is not necessarily going to be the same as what they do out in the field under discipline.

      Yeah, the title doesn’t explicitly mention that. But there are in fact four of the Three Musketeers, and whether three or four, there are too few of them to be engaged in regular military operations.

    • Large, heavy, one-shot-a-minute muskets work okay when fired en masse, or from ambush. In a short-range, small group melee, they’re poorly-balanced bludgeons.

  2. I’m mildly surprised Errol Flynn is cited as an example of a traditional fencer when he is the namesake of “Flynning”, minimally choreographed chops designed not to strike the opponent if he fails to parry. That’s also essentially what Prowse and Guinness were doing A New Hope. I’d been under the impression that Flynn’s style was essentially choreography all the way down; it’s interesting that it had a basis in an actual fighting style.

    • >I’d been under the impression that Flynn’s style was essentially choreography all the way down; it’s interesting that it had a basis in an actual fighting style.

      It did. You can see it in that final lunge, which has “theatrical training in French high-line” written all over it in letters of fire. Mind you, I don’t know where or when he picked that up; it’s possible that he never formally trained in fencing but was imitating what he’d seen other actors of his time do. But if so it was a pretty damned good imitation.

      Flynning isn’t necessarily stupid or lazy, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean you don’t know what you’re doing. It may just mean you’re pretty sure the other guy doesn’t know what he’s doing and are trying to minimize the risk that you’ll injure him.

      UPDATE: Relevant point, now that I think about it: Rathbone is very clearly the better swordsman of the two. Even if Flynn picked up his technique by osmosis, I’d bet my eyeteeth that Rathbone had training.

      • I can find plenty of documentation for him being a capable and “talented” fencer but couldn’t find out where he learned. (Possibly boot camp in Scotland, possibly at school)

        I remember hearing a long time ago that he was actually an olympic fencer but the only (unsupported by documentation) reference I can find suggests he was a “competitive fencer but didn’t really take to it”. On the other hand, apparently Cornell Wilde (who I don’t think I have never seen) did qualify as an Olympic fencer (1936 Sabre) but quit the team to take a role in the theater.

        • Well, in its other common use “Olympic fencer” means “trained in Olympic-style fencing”.

          In that use it doesn’t imply competing in the Olympic games as such.

      • Flynning isn’t actually stupid or lazy, and it doesn’t even mean you don’t know what you’re doing. It may just mean you’re pretty sure the other guy doesn’t know what he’s doing and are trying to minimize the risk that you’ll injure him.

        It’s not just the risk you’ll injure the other guy – the director wants a fight sequence of a certain duration for dramatic reasons. Even if the other guy is comparably talanted to you, expecting that you can make honest attempts to strike each other for two minutes without either of you accidentally succeeding seems unreasonable. A hit you land may not injure him, especially using prop weapons, but the audience will be left without an explanation as to why the blow left no evidence of injury while a similar one is scheduled to kill him in a minute or so.

        And I do count it as lazy, but on the part of the choreographer rather than the actor. Designing a sequence of moves that looks substantially more authentic than Flynning, meets the specified duration, and can be effectively taught on-set is more work than telling the actors the path they should take across the set and how to use the props. The downside to having the actors invent their own choreography on the spot is that their ability to communicate while the camera is rolling is limited, so they must telegraph their intentions and deliberately misaim their swings in order to avoid catching the opponent by surprise. Obviously these aren’t advantageous things to be doing in an authentic fight, so it’s no surprise that Flynning doesn’t really look like an authentic fight.

  3. I was musing in a similar vein just yesterday. A local restored theater shows “classic films” each second weekend, and this month the definition was stretched to breaking by including The Greatest Showman. For a show that’s been so praised for its music, I was quite taken aback at how the on-screen singing was an even poorer fit than in most: The actors’ mouths sometimes didn’t even match up with the audio (lip-syncing consonants and forgetting the vowels), and nearly every movie actor seems to think that singing is performed without exhaling.

    Of course to some degree actors have to simulate competence with skills they don’t have, but it’s both interesting and distracting to see such prominent visual demonstrations of Dunning-Kruger.

  4. If a director really pushed for authenticity in an existential martial combat scene, the duel would typically be very short in duration and the stink of primal fear would be evident on the screen for at least one of the combatants. Ask anyone who has ever been cut or shot and they will tell that it was over before they hardly knew what happened. Only in fist fights do people duke it out for more than a few seconds, and even that’s pretty rare, unless it’s women pulling hair.

    • and the stink of primal fear would be evident on the screen for at least one of the combatants.

      Kurosawa really got this, see the fight in one of the viewpoints of Rashomon, or an infamous example in the production of Throne of Blood. Wikipedia mentions this:

      Washizu’s death scene, in which his own archers turn upon him and shoot him with arrows, was in fact performed with real arrows, shot by knowledgeable and skilled archers. During filming, Mifune waved his arms, which was how the actor indicated his intended bodily direction. This was for his own safety, to prevent the archers accidentally hitting him.

      But not that Mifune didn’t have to do much acting in being terrified during the scene.

      But that “stink” wouldn’t necessarily be there if both combatants thought they would win, I’m reminded of the Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone ending fight in the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro, which certainly looked better than the 2 years earlier Robin Hood sword fights.

    • I ran across this on YouTube a while ago. The duel isn’t all that short, but it isn’t the kind of protracted all-out engagement you generally see in movie swordfights. Each individual exchange of blows lasts only a few seconds before both parties withdraw, and the loser is quite obviously scared.

      EDIT: It helps if I actually include the link: https://youtu.be/JOBTFfHJjV8

      • >I ran across this on YouTube a while ago. The duel isn’t all that short, but it isn’t the kind of protracted all-out engagement you generally see in movie swordfights. Each individual exchange of blows lasts only a few seconds before both parties withdraw, and the loser is quite obviously scared.

        Other things that are realistic:

        1. The man who stays chill – doesn’t hyperadrenalize – wins.

        2. Psychological dominance matters. The winner’s body language says that he owns this fight and knows he can lose only by bad luck or carelessness. That presentation is itself a weapon that panics his opponent.

        3. The winner’s repeated use of a low guard to draw the loser closer. Done that myself many times. He knows exactly what his preferred engagement range is.

        It’s supposed to be 1800. I’m not absolutely certain about this, but I think the blades are anachronistic. That’s an epee in its final combative (as opposed to sport) form, a decade or two too early. At this date I would expect a less modern blade shape somewhat resembling a colichemarde.

  5. I can attest that, Flynn did have formal training. I briefly trained as a child with his fencing instructor Raulph Faulkner who by 1983 was approaching 90 years old. The instructor only taught in French, A student was expected to learn enough French to learn from him. This quickly drained my interest and they didnt teach light saber fighting so I stopped going.
    An obit
    http://articles.latimes.com/1987-01-31/news/mn-2511_1_film-swordsman

  6. Even to somebody with no training in swordfighting, the difference between the lightsaber fight in Episode IV and those in the rest of the franchise is glaringly obvious. It could, I suppose, be explained in-universe by saying that Obi-Wan is old and Vader is out of practice, but the style is much less energetic and seems more defensive, whereas the style seen in the rest of the series is more aggressive.

    • I found it quite similar to final duel of Episode I in that both included lots of aiming the swings at the opponent’s sword rather than his body. Yes, Maul’s weapon was double-ended, but it was very clear that his opponents deliberately attacked in ways that made simultaneously blocking both strikes unnecessarily easy.

      The only fight sequence I recall standing out in this regard was the last part of the final duel in Episode VI. It’s not good swordsmanship, but Luke actually looks he’s lost his cool and wants to chop his enemy in half by swinging his sword like an axe. You get the impression he realises he’s got a weapon in his hand, not a high school marching band “colour guard” flag.

        • Heh, I gave up on the franchise during the The Great Patriotic War for Planet Teddybear, but saw a bit of a fight of the female protagonist that someone highlighted because her opponent was wielding two light knives or whatever, and she backed into him, nothing between her back and his left knife, except editing out or never editing in that there was, BTW, a knife there.

          This was brought up in the context of some bad execution of the choreography of the first big fight in Planet Teddybear, Luke kicking someone way short of where they were, which actually wasn’t all that noticeable in full motion, vs. this being unforgivably bad choreography.

    • It could, I suppose, be explained in-universe by saying that Obi-Wan is old and Vader is out of practice-

      Yes! And that’s why their swordfight is more dramatic than the later choreographed stuff. Old teacher fights middle-aged ex-student, old affection and respect turned to hatred and disappointment, that’s drama. They aren’t displaying their technique, they just want each other dead. The tennis-pro stuff in the prequels might be better fencing choreography, but it isn’t drama.

  7. It’s interesting to me that you see Asian influences in “A New Hope”. I see very little of Kenjutsu in the one saber duel in a new hope (although i’m far from an expert on that). There’s a lot of sabre’s middle guard (as described by Alfred Hutton) which looks weird because of two handed also Hutton sabre is a lot less static. Most of the actual contact seems to draw from two handed “winding and binding” style influences (e.g. Fiore or Liechtenauer) with a bit at the end with Spanish Destreza influence.

    Don’t get me wrong… you’re not going to find any of those moves in any of the manuals i referenced but the flow didn’t really scream Kenjutsu to me. If i had to pick a single style i’d argue Liechtenauer where Obiwan has an unwholesome love of the short guard (and everyone sucked at swordplay a long long time ago).

    Also, an interesting factoid about the Lord of the Rings. A LOT of the extras were Australian and NZ SCAdians and medieval re-enactors (A term at the time was more closely related to “living history” in America so generally focusing on a time period, not a specific event) whose fighting style tends to draw from a watered down (for safety) version of something that is visibly recognizable as Hutton Sabre. As such, i’ve heard that a lot of swordplay happened between takes so it wouldn’t surprise me if that also influenced the sword styles.

    • Remember, A New Hope is largely a remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Castle with WW2 Pacific Theater dogfighting tacked on.

      There’s Asian influences, but they are at their extreme infancy.

    • >ESR, do you follow Skallagrim on Youtube?

      I don’t follow him, but I do occasionally chase links to his videos.

      >See eg here:

      Nothing surprising to me there. The misconceptions he talks about get dispelled pretty rapidly if you train with proper simulants at a martial school.

  8. I am going to strike a blow for Richard Donner’s 1973 Three Musketeers/Four Musketeers film. The fencing may not have been to your liking, but it did manage the elementary task of ACTUALLY TELLING DUMAS’S STORY. No bullshit with flying men-of-war or Richelieu plotting to seize the throne. Plus the cast were perfect.

    • >I am going to strike a blow for Richard Donner’s 1973 Three Musketeers/Four Musketeers film.

      I remember when it came out really wanting to like the movie and being terribly disappointed. You’re right enough about ACTUALLY TELLING DUMAS’S STORY, I’d already read Dumas at the time and could see that. But oh dear Goddess the terrible pacing. And the clumsy fighting. And the dreadful script – Salkind dressed up all those pretty people and gave them no place to go.

      • I had the impression that Richard Chamberlain (Shogun — Count of Monte Cristo — Slipper and the Rose –the Musketeers) was another of the actors who specifically studied “stage” fencing in different styles.

        I wonder what you think of Danny Kaye vs Basil Rathbone in “The Court Jester” ? Especially the half where Kaye is the idiot amateur who endangers Rathbone, mostly, by being so clumsy that they BOTH might fall on the blades or off the castle walls.

        • >I had the impression that Richard Chamberlain (Shogun — Count of Monte Cristo — Slipper and the Rose –the Musketeers) was another of the actors who specifically studied “stage” fencing in different styles.

          Thinking back, I have little doubt you are correct. Like Basil Rathbone, Chamberlain genuinely knew how to move like a skilled swordsman.

          >I wonder what you think of Danny Kaye vs Basil Rathbone in “The Court Jester” ?

          My memory of that was dim. but…here it is.

          Heh. This is Hollywood stage swashbuckle at its cheesiest…perhaps deliberately so as the film was a broad comedy. As fighting technique it’s a joke, but both actors are highly skilled at it and the result succeeds at what it’s intended to do.

          A comment on YouTube asserts that both actors were expert fencers offstage, and I completely believe this. Both were from an age when fencing was still taught in drama schools. Rathbone always moved like a swordsman, and I do not believe anyone can clown with a sword as effectively as Kaye does without having a pretty firm grasp on not-clowning.

          The difference between seeing that scene with my old, untrained eyes vs. my trained ones is this: before, I couldn’t tell that it sucked pretty badly as fighting technique. The moves are too large, and they’re aimed wrong. They don’t have the deadly economy of a real fight. Even the range is off; with those weapons a real fight would tend to happen slightly closer.

          (One exception, however: Kaye doing wrist parries in the doorway at about 1:29. That is really rather good. Notice how little his hand moves? He’s controlling center line with not much energy expended. Then he remembers he’s stage fighting and his parries get larger.)

          On the other hand, I’m now more impressed with the actors than when I first saw it. There’s a lot of art and skill in what they’re doing that I was not formerly equipped to understand.

          • Both were from an age when fencing was still taught in drama schools.

            I remember hearing from my father that Kaye only started his fencing lessons for that particular movie…but that the coach had said he was one of the most brilliant pupils he’d ever had. Websites like this seem to confirm it. (And add that the coach sometimes “stood in” for Rathbone, who had the expertise but was slowing down due to age.)

            Semi-apropos: Rathbone starred in a strange little 1939 picture about Richard III called Tower of London…in one scene, Rathbone, as Richard, has been halberd-fencing with his brother Edward, played by Ian Hunter.

            When they finish and throw the halberds away, the queen says something like, “I do wish you’d be more careful.” To which Edward replies–“The only way to learn to fight is to fight!” Always liked that line.

            • >“The only way to learn to fight is to fight!” Always liked that line.

              It’s true. I don’t like the idea of being seriously injured in training any better than the next guy, but I’ll tell you this much; given a choice between (a) risking pain and minor injury while fighting under enough pressure to be stress-inoculated, versus (b) being padded to the eyeballs, sparring with totally nerfed weapons, and never being under threat…I’ll choose (a) every time.

              I’ll even like it. I have adrenaline-junkie tendencies…

              In that immortal line from Lawrence of Arabia: “It’s not that it doesn’t hurt, it’s not minding that it hurts.” Yep, exactly.

  9. What do you think of the sword fights in “Rob Roy,” the Liam Neeson version? Broad sword or claymore against epee or saber.

    • >What do you think of the sword fights in “Rob Roy,” the Liam Neeson version? Broad sword or claymore against epee or saber.

      I’d have to re-watch it. It came out a decade before I learned how to understand sword movements.

  10. Does smallsword really only date to the 1800s? When I ran a GURPS Martial Arts campaign set in the French Regency (ca. 1710), I had the characters studying smallsword fencing, because that’s what the book said was prevalent then. Or is “high-line fencing” a later development in the use of the smallsword?

    • >Does smallsword really only date to the 1800s?

      That’s about when it reached the final “high-line” form that froze into Olympic sport fencing. If you want “dates to” for the beginnings of the smallsword you have to go back to around 1650, but the earlier weapons named that way are rather different than the later ones, enough so to require different form.

      Thus, training in 1710 would look different from training in 1810 – by 1810 the tempo was faster and the last vestiges of cutting moves would be gone.

      Reasonable summary here; as it notes, later versions of the smallsword became the epée or “duelling sword”. It’s wise not to get too hung up on terminology, because it wasn’t applied consistently even in period (let alone today).

      • I wrote:

        >That’s about when it reached the final “high-line” form that froze into Olympic sport fencing.

        I’ve done a little checking and it appears that this is not, as I thought, a generally recognized term. Or at least if it is, web searches are not turning it up. And, unfortunately, there does not appear to be any generally accepted equivalent. So I’d better explain it.

        Late-period smallsword fencing is called “high-line” because of the rest position of the hilt. In most earlier forms it was down around the belt-line or navel. As smallswords got shorter and lighter, the normal rest point shifted upward to chest level and the blade position in guard moved towards horizontal. This was required in order for the shorter blade to control enough space in front of the fighter to threaten his opponent and give him time to react.

        (I’m talking Anglo-French-Italian fencing here. Some schools of Spanish fencing used an extreme high-line guard much earlier and with longer weapons. No, I don’t know what the tactical theory behind this was.)

        I learned this term at my first sword school, Aegis. I don’t know who else uses it.

        • >I learned this term [“high-line”] at my first sword school, Aegis. I don’t know who else uses it.

          Related story from my first week of sword training…

          Singlesword practice. We’re using simulants of medium-length double-edged cross-hilted swords used with one hand – arming swords, shorter and lighter than the bastard sword and longsword I would later come to favor. Definitely not smallswords, however.

          Instructor asks me to step out and do a bout with him. He says “Concentrate on your tip work.”

          There’s a thing humans do where they extend their kinesthetic map into their tools. If you’ve ever felt for something with the tip of a screwdriver, that experience is what I mean. You can know where it is and sense what it’s touching as though it were part of your body. (Clever experiments have demonstrated that this is not unique to humans. Chimps can do it too. Safe guess that it’s general to higher primates.)

          I was an empty-hand martial artist before I was a swordsman. A thing I already knew in week one is that the sword has to become a kinesthetic extension of your body; you have to feel through it, cast your awareness into it, grok it. So I did. I put my awareness in the tip of my sword, took guard, and the conversation of blades began.

          I noticed a shift happening to my guard and engagement line during the bout, forced by my attention on the tip. The instructor was doing tip too. Our hilts drifted upwards. We fought in very small movements, mostly wrist, with our swords glued to center line and the blades circling each other a lot. I don’t remember who scored the touch, but afterwards I blinked a bit confusedly and asked “Uh…did we just do French high-line?”

          The instructor smiled and nodded. (Jason, it was Matt Bernard.)

          And I learned something important. I had never fenced in that style before, but I was able to do high-line fairly competently – despite my inexperience and the fact that the weapons weren’t really optimal for it – simply by assuming a particular mental stance.

          It taught me a habit I’ve kept. When I’m trying to learn a new sword style or weapon, one of the first questions I ask myself is: “Where does this style want my mind to be?”

          It does help.

    • Bear in mind that the naming of sword types is actually a relatively modern thing so it really depends on your definition. Wikipedia’s definition of a smallsword lists it as being at it’s most popular between the mid 17th and late 18th century so it doesn’t seem inappropriate (given what i know of RPG authors, it’s highly possible that’s what their source was).

      • >Bear in mind that the naming of sword types is actually a relatively modern thing so it really depends on your definition. Wikipedia’s definition of a smallsword lists it as being at it’s most popular between the mid 17th and late 18th century so it doesn’t seem inappropriate (given what i know of RPG authors, it’s highly possible that’s what their source was).

        Yeah. Frankly if you’d asked me what “smallsword” included before I read the Wikipedia entry I would have given a different set of boundaries, extending later (including dueling swords and epees) but also starting later. I would not include the earliest, heaviest things Wikipedia calls “smallswords”, because I think of them as light rapiers. In my mind it’s important that blade length and weight changed significantly around 1760 – there was a particular Italian master teaching in London who was instrumental in this but I’m spacing his name.

        I won’t say Wikipedia is wrong, but I won’t say I am either. “Smallsword” is a fuzzy term and it’s not clear it was in use until very late; application of it to pre-1760 indoor blades might be entirely retrospective.

        • Are you thinking of Domenico Angelo?

          The first known reference of “small-sword” in period manuals i can find is in 1707 (William Hope). While a brief scan couldn’t find a passage describe the weight or length of this “small-sword” in specifics it does mention it shouldn’t be too long or too heavy and “a thrusting weapon that isn’t long” is probably as good a description of a small sword as any. There are french titles related but these didn’t get translated into English until much later. If we assume that the meaning of smallsword was mostly consistent (ha) then the first manual i can find that (translated) specifically mentions small sword is L’Abbat’s “The art of fencing: Or, the use of the small sword” in 1696 (translated to english in 1734).

          I definitely agree, it’s not a matter of right or wrong here. Just different definitions and figuring out what people are talking about is half the challenge.

          • >Are you thinking of Domenico Angelo?

            Yup! That’s him.

            Thanks for the info about early uses of the term “small-sword”. I didn’t know them.

    • Me : Fencer at 14; Martial Arts student at 17. Now 71 and still practice both.
      Comment :The Duellists is great. Also “Reclaiming the Sword” covers the resurgence of “real” sword training. Highly recommend.

      • >Also “Reclaiming the Sword” covers the resurgence of “real” sword training.

        “Reclaiming the Sword” or “Reclaiming the Blade”? There seem to be films by both names.

  11. Decades of watching movies involving technology have conditioned me to stop looking for anything resembling realism in that regard (including that infuriating bweeeeeep bweeeeeeep sound that computers always make). My wife’s medical background causes her to have a similar kind of reaction to the way medicine is portrayed in movies and television. The movies are made for (and by) people who don’t know what the real thing looks like or how it works, so those of us who know better are almost guaranteed to have a cringe or two at the way things are depicted. So I’ve learned to just go with it and enjoy the movie for what it is. With the exception of THAT INFERNAL BWEEEEP BWEEEEEEP SOUND – Gaaaaa!!! That was fine in 1985, but for crissake, people should fucking know by now that computers DON’T MAKE THAT SOUND!!!! GAAAA!!!!!

    (sorry. my bad. carry on).

    • Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect at the movies, compounded by cinema’s need for immediate visual indications of something that may take hours to occur in the Real World. There are rare exceptions like Grand Prix (1966) where the star actually drove the car at speed on the track.

      I was a military submariner and we never, never, EVER when active with the sonar system, it was all staying quiet and listening (including surface units).

    • For years, computers made a sound like an ASR-33 whenever the ASR-33 printed out text. Then, they switched to glass ttys, and the same sound was used. Later, they switched to it just beeping as the text spewed out.

  12. Proper sport fencing is utterly inappropriate for movies, and looks nothing like movie fencing at all, mainly because it doesn’t look like *anything*. It’s far too fast. It looks like two people standing with swords in various static postures, connected by jump cuts.

    Proper/good swordplay for movies would probably use ultra-slo-mo footage.

    • >Proper/good swordplay for movies would probably use ultra-slo-mo footage.

      Nonsense. If real sword combat in historical styles were like that, I couldn’t do it.

      The weight and moment of inertia of real swords (or proper simulants for same) slows down fight tempo a lot compared to “sport” fencing. Go find some HEMA competition videos on YouTube and watch them, you’ll see.

      • The weight and moment of inertia of real swords (or proper simulants for same) slows down fight tempo a lot compared to “sport” fencing.

        I’d add two more factors contributing to the higher speed in sport fencing: the swords’ flexibility, and the rules governing near-simultaneous touches. When I was growing up, my brother fenced (saber) and I got to see him compete. At lower levels – we’re talking city tournaments, not the Olympics – the popular technique is to immediately sprint at your opponent, flailing your sword around like you’re trying to dislodge something sticky from the end of it. The swords are so flexible that non-elite fencers simply can’t parry effectively, because your opponent’s blade will bend around yours like a whip and score a touch anyway.

        The tendency then would be for a fencer under attack to try to hold his opponent at bay by threatening his own attack instead of attempting to defend himself. But the governing bodies try to promote “sensible” fencing, so they discourage attacking into an opponent who is already attacking, on the grounds that adopting such a strategy with real swords would be unreasonably reckless. As a deterrent, a near-simultaneous touch is awarded to the fencer who established “priority” by initiating the attacking sequence. So the fencers run at each other, knowing full well they’ll both be hit, but trying to convince the referee that they were the one to initiate the attack.

        • >At lower levels – we’re talking city tournaments, not the Olympics – the popular technique is to immediately sprint at your opponent, flailing your sword around like you’re trying to dislodge something sticky from the end of it. The swords are so flexible that non-elite fencers simply can’t parry effectively, because your opponent’s blade will bend around yours like a whip and score a touch anyway.

          /me rolls eyes

          Why does anyone even bother with this nonsense?

          You’re confirming all my suspicions. I wish sport fencing were something about which being doomed to suck at it would actually make me feel bad.

          • Why does anyone even bother with this nonsense?

            Easy answer: price. A “nylon” feder is, like, $50-75. An actual feder of equal weight but actual steel is fully ten times that much.

            I’m sure you’re referring to the fighting style, not the swords themselves, but I think one is feeding the other.

            (I can’t stand the nylons, precisely because you’ll get slapped with a hit that you would have parried if it were steel. But for beginners, I have to admit they’re ideal for learning the basics.)

  13. This is not relevant to the subject, but I thought you might find it worthwhile to address:

    Vox Day pointed out a couple of months ago that big tech companies’ willingness to break previous agreements (or use nebulous “user agreements” to weasel out of a contract) is turning the internet economy into a sort of third world, low-trust economy because no one knows who can actually be trusted to continue an agreement if (wildly unpredictable) political winds swing the wrong way.

    Did you have any thoughts on this subject?

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