Movies with fencing in them are there for the entertainment of the people who view them. All fencers enjoy a good fencing movie. All remember the fencing scene at the top of the cliff in "The Princess Bride". The problem is that quite frequently experienced fencers will look at these movies and see holes in the technique and the actions of the combatants. This blog is a brief investigation into the problems with getting such things right, and also continuing to make them saleable for the general public, as unfortunately the educated fencing community seems to be rather small for budgeting an entire movie around. Various aspects will be addressed and considered.
The first problem that is encountered in the making of a fencing movie is the approach. It is a question of choreography versus combat. The purpose of the combat in a movie is to enhance the scene and develop dramatic elements between the combatants involved in the action. The purpose of an encounter between two fencers is a test of skill which is the focus of the encounter, considerations of their relationship to one another is usually not considered. Thus the big difference here is that one set of action is an attempt to tell a story while the other is a martial engagement between two individuals for the purpose of the encounter, rather than for developing a storyline. This particular situation leads to other elements of great importance to this particular topic.
Fencers are trained to strike their opponents with their weapons. Admittedly there is a level of control behind this striking, but the intention is to strike the opponent before he strikes you. For the actor involved in a dramatic situation, the last thing they want to do is to actually strike their opponent. Stringent safety precautions are laid into the training in order that the actors do not strike one another. Anytime that one actor happens to hit the other is usually the result of a lapse in judgement or a break from a set routine. This is a fundamental difference that must be taken into account. Intent is important and the intent of an action more so.
Fencers use tactical considerations for the actions that they will use against their opponent. They will use the most efficient method of striking their opponent while at the same time ensuring that they are not struck. This differs greatly from the actor. The actor has a set of choreographed actions which were developed by the fight director of the movie for the actor to perform in order to portray the action required by the director. There are no real tactical considerations here in the hands of the actor at all. The actions are controlled not by the person holding the weapon but by someone else, thus the actor is not free to change an action in order to be more efficient or in order to avoid an action which will result in defeat. Their fate, or the fate of their character has already been determined by the director and writer. This is obviously not the case for the fencer, who is in control of their own actions and responses to their opponent's actions.
Both actors and fencers are involved in training in order that they are prepared for the encounter with their opponent, but the training is different for the two and also the length is also different. While a fencer will spend months and years perfecting their technique in order to improve themselves, the actor has a much shorter period of time. On average the actor has about six weeks in order to learn all that they need to in order to perform the actions that are set by the fight director and the director of the movie. This truncates the training of the individual quite markedly. This is not to say that there are not actors who are also fencers, this is simply not the case as Basil Rathbone clearly proves. The thing is that the actions learn by the actor are set moves which are performed for the movie. While there is a basic introduction to what the actor is supposed to be doing the main focus is on those actions as determined by the director and the fight director. It is only this set of moves which is the focus for the actor. If the fencer limits themselves to a predetermined set of actions this would limit them a great deal and would not make a very effective fencer.
The image presented in movies is quite different from the actual nature of fencing. The image depicted by the movie is dependent on many factors and what sort of story the director wants to portray in the movie. This is of great importance. "By the Sword" depicts some elements of sport fencing in it. Some of the training is addressed, but the main focus in this is to depict the actions of the fencers as having speed and elegance once trained properly. This is reflected by their actions before and after training has been done. Still, though the actions are limited by what was required for the movie. Swashbuckling movie such as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Three Musketeers" want to portray something different and thus the actions are different. The most important thing in this respect is that movies tend to focus on the flash and the bash. The sound of steel on steel and the large flowing actions of the characters in the movie. The use of the weapon is dependent on the character being depicted. Certain actions will be used by some characters and not by others, this enables some character development through physical actions. This is all quite different from actual fencing where economy of action is the focus and being the most effective against the opponents being the prime objective.
One of the problems that seems to come up again and again is a lack of research by the individuals involved in making the movies. This is evident in several places. Assumptions have been made about weapons and armour and this affects how the action is depicted. A great deal of this is attributable to 19th century fencing historians, but still there are some issues that can be brought to light where there are problems.
The first assumption which is often made is about armour. It is often assumed to be heavy and thus extremely limiting on the actions of the combatants. Anyone who has used armour which is fitted the right way will know that movement, while limited somewhat is not limited to the degree often depicted in movies. Research into the correct construction and wearing of armour is important in order that it can be depicted properly. Armour which is constructed properly and for the wearer is much less restrictive than several movies would like us to believe. A perfect example of this can be seen in "A Knight's Tale" where one of the knights is hoisted on to his horse. While this did happen much later in the Renaissance period where tilting armour was very heavy, it simply was not true for most of it.
The next area which needs to be investigated and researched by those making the movies is about the weapons themselves. Some would have us believe that weapons of the medieval period were heavy and unwieldy. Proper research into their construction and make will reveal that this simply was not the case. The sword of the medieval period was a precision weapon, and not one used for simple bludgeoning of the opponent. This is also reflected in the many Renaissance period texts on the use of such weapons. Simple bashing at the opponent was not the objective, there was a great amount of technique present as can be seen in the texts presented by such individuals as Liechtenauer, Talhoffer and other masters of the art of the sword. Some movies would also have us believe that the thin elegant rapier was as effective at cutting as some of its medieval counter-parts. This is simply not the case. While there were some rapiers which were somewhat effective at cutting, its prime use was the use of the point of the weapon. The weapon was simply too thin, in most cases, to perform the slashing and cleaving cuts which are so often presented in movies.
Added to all of these misconceptions about weapons and armour, the background of the fight director needs to be taken into account in the examination of the weapons and their use. A fight director whose main area of expertise is sport fencing will depict the use of weapons primarily based on this particular mode of fighting. This is appropriate to some weapons, especially those of the 18th century and later, but ones previous cannot have the same said of them. It is important that the fight director actually investigates the weapons being used in the movie in order that they can be depicted properly. This is where Renaissance martial artists and other researchers will be of great help to them. Needless to say, only the correct research will enable the weapon and the armour to be depicted properly.
While a great deal has been said about the problems associated with weapon-based combat as depicted in movies, it must also be said that there have been some great improvements over the years in the depiction of various period weapons in movies and their associated combats. One example of this is the difference between the 1993 version of "The Three Musketeers" and the later 1998 "Man in the Iron Mask". The formers' fencing is primarily based on sport fencing as can be seen by much of the action, whereas the later has a great deal more fighting which is more depicted like the weapons of the period. As research into period weapons improves and becomes evident to fight directors and directors, the depiction of fencing in movies will improve, so long as this research is taken into account. There have been several movies released relatively recently in which the historical nature of the movie has been more and more evident, along with the use of the weapons in these movies. "Kingdom of Heaven" is a prime example of this particular trend toward an increase in research in the period associated with the particular movie being depicted and the use of weapons and armour in the movie.
Movies with fencing in them are very entertaining to watch for the fencing community and also the general public. There are many of them out there, some of them are good, some of them are not so good. It is important that for the fencer that these movies are looked at both from the perspective of the educated fencer, but also from how the general public will see it. Questions about what this movie is attempting to depict as well as what sort of angle the director has taken in depicting the movie are important. If fencing is depicted totally accurately, much of the general public will not understand what is going on in the movie and thus will lose interest in it. The fight director's art must be respected as the depiction of any form of sword combat on the stage or screen is not a simple thing to achieve, but also considerations should be made on their part in order that this depiction will improve and thus represent fencing as it should be. Enjoy movies for what they are, they can teach us much.