Silly movie swordfights

John Clements, a professional swordfighter, writes at THEFORCE.NET:

Moves that Look Cool are usually the Stupidest
One of the worst clichés of these fan films (and in professional films too, so don’t feel bad) is this ridiculous spinning around action. I’ve lost count of how many times Obi Wan has used this move so far in two films. Stop trying to spin around at every opportunity! I can’t tell you what a phenomenally useless move this overused cliché really is. Against a skilled opponent it’s virtually suicide. The move is ubiquitous in countless sword fights and each time it’s made to look like it has some value, but in reality, it’s about the most inane thing you could possibly do in a real sword fight. You gain nothing from it. No experienced fighter or fencer is going to intentionally turn his back, taking his eyes off his opponent while exposing his whole body in the process, just so he can turn himself around and bring his weapon back predictably from the other side. To what purpose? It’s not going to make you any more deceptive nor any quicker in your strike nor any better defended. It fools no one, adds no real power, and immensely delays your attack.
…it’s silly and leaves you horrendously vulnerable. I cringe every time I see it in a sword fight scene.

The more aware you are of the physicality of personal combat (that is, how the human body actually moves and how a weapon actually performs when fighting in earnest), the more dramatic opportunities you have at your creative disposal. The clear reason why Darth Maul looked so darn menacing as a fighter was the simple fact the performer was a real life martial artist, not an actor just faking it (even if it was often clear he was just doing classic kung fu staff moves). His obvious sense of personal space and balance as well as his firm and agile stances made the other actors look amateurish by comparison.

He concentrates on lightsaber fights, but that stupid spinning move is cropping up in any movie where swords ever make the briefest of appearances. My ‘suspension of disbelief’ comes down crashing down every time it does, making me very aware that I’m watching something made by very silly people. Bah!

17 thoughts on “Silly movie swordfights”

  1. Absolutely correct. The sword-fighting in Errol Flynn’s old movies would never have featured any such sillines. I also like the sword-fighting in the Oliver Reed version of the Three Musketeers, which is more like brawling with swords than fencing-as-a-sport. Sword fighting should like an effort to murder someone with a big knife, not like some kind of stylized dance.

  2. Lex:

    Absolutely correct. The sword-fighting in Errol Flynn’s old movies would never have featured any such sillines. I also like the sword-fighting in the Oliver Reed version of the Three Musketeers, which is more like brawling with swords than fencing-as-a-sport. Sword fighting should like an effort to murder someone with a big knife, not like some kind of stylized dance.

    It’s also very silly if the fighters attack each others’ swords, and instead of each other.

    The Oliver Reed version of the Musketeers had good fighting scenes, but overall it qualifies as a comedy, i think.

  3. Well, the fighting in the Errol Flynn movies was mostly fencing and stage business. Those early films drew on the tradition of stage drama, where a drawn out fencing match was part of the excitement of the show. Still, they did not do stupid things like spin around — they thrust and parried. Flynn’s fight with Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood is pretty good and pretty convincing.

    The Three Musketeers was both a drama and a comedy. It was not all played for laughs. Oliver Reed brought a dramatic intensity to his role, and Charleton Heston was menacing as Richelieu. The fighting, I thought, was probably about what a fight in those days would have looked like. Lots of fencing, with people trying hard to stab and slash each other, but also dirty tricks like throwing things with the left hand and other oppurtunistic stuff.

  4. The final scene from “The Last of the Mohicans” is my big favorite. Although not completely “realistic” (No fighting scene ever is. Real fighting among trained men is quite ugly to watch.), it has the essence of strategic fighting condensed in it: place yourself where the enemy can’t see you and take his mobility from him. Cold but true.

  5. Real fighting is visually ugly and boring. Compare the fights shown on reality shows versus those shown in fiction. Sports fighting of all kinds imposes lots of rules largely because real fighting looks so ugly and doesn’t last very long.

    My personal favorite is the flying spin kick. Newtons 3rd law dictates the force of any kick delivered while disconnected from the ground will have its force halved. Any grounded opponent can easily deflect the blow or, worse, redirect it.

    It looks impressive though.

  6. “…real fighting looks so ugly and doesn’t last very long.”

    The Icelandic sagas were clearly written by people who have seen real violence with edged weapons. Nothing thrilling about the violence. The fights last about three sentences. Someone walks up to someone else with a sword or spear, and one or the other manages to impale or split the skull of the other, pretty much immediately. Elapsed time sounds like about five seconds.

  7. Hollywood tried to make something esthetic out of jiu-jitsu in the end of Lethal Weapon 1. Ridiculous. If Mel Gibson was supposed to be such a killing machine, why did he have to change locks every two seconds if, were they done properly, they would have ended the brawl right there? Because the director wanted to show the beautiful diversity of said martial art. Gimme a break.

  8. Can someone explain just how a beam of light can be used to block another beam of light? I cannot accept the concept of fencing with light sabres because personal experiments with laser beams say it can’t happen.

    Bad science makes bad SF.

  9. Don’t they teach anything in schools these days? Lightsaber blades are not made of light, but are instead a highly energetic plasma contained within a very powerful magnetic field. It is this magnetic field that prevents sabers from passing through each other.

    Now that I’ve cleared that up, I’ve got to log into Wikipedia and modify an article on Smurf social behavior.

  10. Have any of you seen Equilibrium? It’s a pretty silly movie, but I loved the fight scenes. The “Gun Kata” they developed for it is absolutely ridiculous as a real-world fighting style, but looks absolutely awesome.

    The stylized fighting that makes action movies like this one great is more a dance than any kind of real martial art. Christian Bale, who stars in the film, has a background in theatrical dance (apparently what he did between being a kid in Empire of the Sun and a grown-up American Psycho) and it shows in how he pulls it off. The outlandishness of the moves actually makes it easier for me to go into suspend-disbelief-this-is-fantasy mode.

    Still, the butterfly kick is the one move that snaps me out of a movie faster than anything. There is no more ridiculous act a person could do in a fight, even in the wildest of fantasies.

  11. The flying side kick was (allegedly) developed by the Koreans to knock someone off of a horse. Generally both feet leaving the ground in a fight is a really bad move, and you have to be a really good fighter to even use a spinning back / hook / oblique kick without getting punched in the kidneys on your way around. Generally I only a spinning back kick as part of a combination when my opponent is backing away from me. With an edged weapon, spinning is suicide.

    But the distribution of time in actual fights is bimodal – they are either over very quickly, or they take a long time. But the long ones are much uglier than in the movies becuase both fighters are tired. There’s a reason that boxing rounds are three minutes long, that’s about as much immediate energy as the body can generate before it needs a rest.

  12. By the way, what are the health insurance rates like for a professional swordfighter? And could they maybe get group rates if they joined with the professional gunfighters?

  13. Mon cher Captain Mojo.
    I cannot accept the notion that a pocket nuclear power plant can create both a plasma cannon and a magnetic bottle to contain the plasma and further that the bottle would have a hard edge so that you can duel with it but the hard edge would conveniently disappear when cutting off an arm or leg or other dangling part.

    Explain how this is possible and why guys who are Masters of the Force even bother to fool around with silly light swords which are allegedly magnetically bottled plasma cannons.

  14. “Bad science makes bad SF.”

    True but irrelevant.

    Star Wars was not SF. It was fantasy with spaceships instead of dragons. Not a speck of science in it. “Light sabers” are just magic swords that have been transposed to a “spaceship” setting. And, of course, they look and sound cool.

  15. Sol, it’s the beauty of the diatium power cell, capable of storing several thousand megawatt hours in the size of an AA. What can I say? Batteries in a galaxy far, far away are pretty kick-ass.

    Continuing on this line of thought, and ensuring I never talk to a girl again, I would expect lightsabers are “hard” against each other because of the opposing magnetic bottles, and that non-magnetic flesh doesn’t interact with the fields. Thus your best protection against a Jedi is to make a suit out of refrigerator magnets.

    As for me, hokey religions and ancient weapons are no substitute for a good blaster at your side.

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