Warning; this post is long… if you watch all the links, you’ll have an hour of entertainment.
When I was 10, my school screened a 16 mm print of the The Mark of Zorro – 1940 version, starring the dashing Tyrone Power. The clash of steel, the dynamic yet graceful athleticism of the hero as he righted wrongs, attracted me, as it did many boys of my age… I wanna do that. Luckily my next school offered fencing lessons from an instructor at the nearby Sandhurst Military Academy, and my inner Basil Rathbone was set free to ultimately Captain the school team. I saw every sword fighting movie I could and still do. Yet the only duel I have ever filmed had to be shot in 3 hours… The history of the genre could fill many volumes, but here is a short introduction to Sword Cinema.
LA physician reverts to childhood – LA filmmaker never left…
In fact fencers never engage in the sport without wearing masks and all the required protective clothing. The purpose of this picture is to illustrate the traditional technique in sword movies for showing the coup de grace. The director places the actors in perfect profile for the thrust to give the momentary illusion that the blade passed through the body. Often the loser of the duel would fall back apparently impaled, with a shortened blade secured to a base plate strapped beneath his costume.
As censorship restrictions relaxed, a telescoping blade was sometimes used to simulate penetration. Here’s one being tested.
Blood was rare in the classic swashbucklers of the 1930’s intended for family audiences and only began to appear in the Technicolor historical epics of the 1950’s, as in Scaramouche, where Mel Ferrer succumbs to Stewart Granger’s blade at the end of an epic 7 minute duel scene which took eight weeks to prepare and required the memorization of 187 fencing passes.
Here’s the scene from the Spanish language version.
Granger, who did almost all his own stunts suffered knee, back, and shoulder injuries.
How does a character stab another with a clean blade, withdrawing a bloody one, in an unbroken shot? Here’s an example from Cy Raker Enfield’s Zulu.
The blade is blooded on one side only. The shot is set up in profile. The actor stabs with the clean side facing camera, then twists his wrist as he withdraws, exposing the bloody side.
A complete transfixion showing the exit wound was considered too violent until the early 1970’s. These days it is often achieved by CGI, as in this shot from Blade.
Finding the balance between realistic sword play and dynamic choreography is a challenge. Ridley Scott’s opening scene of The Duellists ( his first movie!) is a good example.
The feints and thrusts have purpose and commitment. The strategy and rhythm feels authentic. Harvey Keitel, steely-eyed and intense (what else?) works to make the mayor he cuckolded ( a lot of zipper problems in the history of dueling ) lose his cool and become fatally rash.
Defense of a woman’s honor, or revenge for her violation, is often the motive for a duel scene, as in the rapier versus claymore climax of Rob Roy, where Liam Neeson challenges the splendidly evil Tim Roth. One of the reasons this sequence is so effective is that director Michael Caton-Jones makes sure you know exactly what both characters are feeling in every phrase of the duel.
Both these duels were staged by veteran fight choreographer William Hobbs, now 75, and still clashing steel on HBO’s Game Of Thrones.
Among many movie sword masters, the work of Bob Anderson is also outstanding.
Here a segment of the En Garde documentary. If you scroll to 13 minutes 25 seconds, you’ll see a 4 minute section on Anderson’s career which included doubling Darth Vader when fighting, and staging the light saber battles throughout Star Wars.
I had the pleasure of taking lessons from one of the legends of screen fencing – Ralph Faulkner when he was 88 years old. He was an Olympic fencer (1928 where he won World Saber & 1932) He coached Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Coleman, Tony Curtis, and a host of other stars including Ronald Reagan. Maitre Faulkner showed me a birthday card from the President not long before his death aged 95. He had still been giving lessons 3 weeks earlier.
Fight choreography requires patience, rhythm, and accuracy- particularly accuracy – from the participants. In film, the fight can be broken down into short sections to be rehearsed and shot a piece at a time till it’s right. On the stage it must be convincing at each performance from beginning to end. Here’s some insight into stage combat.
History offers many actual duels that would climax great movies. Such as the notorious duel between the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Shrewsbury, on January 16th 1688 in the reign of Charles The Second. The Earl discovered his wife Countess Anna and the Duke had been making – as Shakespeare put it ” the beast with two backs”. He demanded satisfaction – a commodity the Countess had apparently been receiving for some time. An expert swordsman the Duke ran the Earl through the right shoulder, and he died two months later.
The panorama shows a young person watching from the trees. That reflects rumors of the time that the Countess observed the duel from a distance disguised as a pageboy. When Buckingham extracted his sword, he was sprayed with Shrewsbury’s blood. The scandal rags of the day claimed that the Duke took the Countess back to his mansion, and immediately made love to her, while wearing the shirt stained by her husband’s blood. The Duchess of Buckingham still lived in the Duke’s house and had to endure the continued presence of her husband’s mistress and the birth of her illegitimate child for several more years.
I’ve been doing Foil, Saber, and Epee since I was 13 and still find a couple of hours of bouts enormously satisfying. Win or lose, I don’t really care. I play against my personal best. But I once tied for Bronze at the Southern California Veterans Epee .
A child can start at 7 or 8 under proper instruction. Here’s Guy Williams getting his son interested in the sport.
Guy was TV’s legendary Zorro, starring in 78 episodes of the hugely popular series for Disney, before going on to Lost In Space.
Here’s a 7 minute tribute to Guy from people who loved him.
Screen sword fighting is an elaborate dance. Competitive fencing is gymnastic chess. Here are some saber tournament extracts that convey the adrenaline rush of the sport.
I’m not in that league, but I go to the Beverly Hills Fencers Club.
It’s a great place for beginners to veterans, with lessons available from highly credentialed coaches Ted Katzoff, Carla Corbit, Margo Miller, Carl Christe, and Boris Kushnir. Check it out.
TOP 10 SWORD CINEMA PICKS
The list could be a hundred, but, other than those earlier titles, here are ten I admire (along with their TFH commentaries).
KILL BILL Part 1
BY THE SWORD
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
THE SEVEN SAMURAI
CYRANO DE BERGERAC