The Flashing Blade
a Something item by J Nash (Tuesday November 10th, 2009)
Just before submitting the final edit, I’d watched the startlingly good television-movie western El Diablo (which I later learned was written by John Carpenter, who’s pretty much made a disguised western with every film but curiously never a real one except for writing two for television; El Diablo in 1990 and Blood River in 1991, which I haven’t seen. Both movies are today completely forgotten, even by J Carpenter’s mum). See how cunningly I weave a plug for the smashing cowboy-shooty movie into a piece about period jabbings.
In which J Nash submits that the sword is in fact mightier than the pen or anything else.
This was the main bit. T Film favoured a style whereby a shortish main section led you by the wrist through several pages where…There’s a moment in the amazingly un-televisiony TV movie El Diablo where glamour-blinded pulp novelist Truman Fellowes faces up to the title villain and is uselessly, treacherously shot. “I’d never considered the pain,” he mumbles from the supine position. “I always thought it’d be over quickly.”
His error was not appearing in a swordfight picture. In a swordfight picture you can’t help but be elegantly, carelessly skilful and you can’t fail to be dashingly photogenic. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about pithy last words because you always die instantly and tidily. Of course, being stuck through with a couple of feet of icy steel which is deliberately twisted before being pulled out so that if you survive the thrust you’ll squirt yourself inside out through the wound is about the most horrible death imaginable, but reality never intrudes on swordfight films. Even the newer movies respect the traditions of pinking the hero and piercing the villain. They’re the last mortal sport for all the family.
They’re also beautifully cinematic. Unlike a gunfight where the thrill comes from suspensefully keeping the protagonists as far apart as possible, in a swordfight you obviously have to be right in there, leading to those spiffy grimacing-over-the-locked-hilts shots and plenty of crackling dialogue. And where once you’ve eventually started your gunfight it’s all over in seconds, because a sword is also a defensive weapon a film duel can go on for ages, with inventive moves, much racing through towering sets, asides with sudden guards and a bit where you twist the blade from the villain’s hand, chuckle thinly at his discomfiture then flick it back to him. For, above all, a swordfight is the politest way to kill a man.
Polite in a dizzying complex way, however. Swordfighting is a distinctly European art (“scientific fencing” being invented in Germany around about the 15th century, developed in Spain and Italy, refined in France and becoming fashionable in Britain under Henry VIII) and to Hollywood, bless ‘em, that meant swordfight movies being based on English legends (Robin Hood), stories about Englishmen confounding frightful foreigners (Prisoner of Zenda) or at the least pitting the hero against a terribly English baddie (all the top swordfight pictures star Basil Rathbone, who when he wasn’t playing Sherlock Holmes put on a sinister moustache to be a vilely beastly cad in any number of films. He was also a real-life master swordsman and so could let the hero win convincingly, and was the greatest screen villain of them all). Thus evolved a sort of Hollywoodised public-school notion of honour in movie duels where, for example, it’s bad form to go for a concealed dagger as Basil does in The Adventures of Robin Hood but perfectly acceptable in the same film for Errol Flynn to throw a spear at his opponent’s beardy head (presumably because fighting with a sword and a dagger is known as the Italian Method and therefore suspectly foreign); where it’s dastardly of Robert Douglas in The Flame and the Arrow to threaten Burt Lancaster’s son’s life, but fine for dashing captain George Montgomery in The Sword of Monte Cristo to boot a corrupt official through a high window as he goes for his rapier; for the studio remake of Hamlet to have a clinch broken up by the accident-prone prince kneeing Laertes in the stomach where in the earlier Olivier version Peter Cushing had waved them apart with a napkin; and for everyone to kick furniture at each other.
Furniture discourtesy is one of the best things about movie swordfights. Anyone’s who seen modern fencing will appreciate that while the fighters may be breathtakingly artful, they look like fools. It’s astonishing that a sport based on something as primally exciting as stabbing each other with big knives is so constipatedly formal. Even the most scrupulously accurate duelling movie, The Fencing Master, lets its protagonists move around the room and is zingingly better for it. The only film to stick exactly to fencing rules, The Adventures of Don Juan, has a scene where a squad of the Queen’s soldiers demonstrate the skills learned from Errol Flynn. Errol swishes his sword decisively, the soldiers snap into their manoeuvres (one-two-three-parry-two-three-lunge-two-three-one), the court applauds wildly, and basically you’ve just had a high, wide-angled shot of fifty mincing jessies. This is why every other swordfight movie has furniture discourtesy, from Stewart Granger hoofing footstools at English-educated Ruritanian bad lad James Mason in The Prisoner of Zenda (shin-blackened James murmurs, “I’ll never get used to fighting furniture,” having clearly attended a lower grade of public school) to Darth Vader hurling that roomful of big plastic things at Luke as he passes the bay window in The Empire Strikes Back. It looks good and it pleases we viewers because it’s a sensible thing to do.
The great era of swordfight movies was the period costume drama boom of the 1940s and 1950s, but like the Western they can’t be wholly killed off. The Richard Lester-directed Musketeers films of 1973 and 1974 revitalised the idea of chivalry pictures with some tremendous jokes and Christopher Lee playing Basil Rathbone, and set the scene for similarly good-natured movies like The Princess Bride and the Ray Harryhausen-tribute Army of Darkness. Seemingly every other French costume picture has had a swordfight, from La Reine Margot to Cyrano de Bergerac (and that to improvised poetry), and the recent wave of historical films like Braveheart and Rob Roy have seen the welcome return of spectacular battle scenes and a final, squeezingly intense duel. There’s something irresistibly stylish and romantic about swordfights, and that suits the movies jim-dandily. Amblin have just announced a big-budget remake of Zorro. Perhaps they could have a computer-generated Basil as the villain.
And the best movie swordfight of all time? It’s still Rathbone and Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, directed in 1938 by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. But you knew that all along.
… hundreds of large boxes leapt out and strangled you, or something.“THE THCARLET PUH-PUH-PUH-PUMPERNICKEL!”
Not all of cinema’s swordfights happen in films. Two of the three Flash Gordon serials featured set-piece duels, and other chapter-plays like Zorro’s Fighting Legion filled their quota of vastly mad fencing-cum-punch-up scenes. (This serial also bequeathed the world the immortal war-cry, “Quick Juan!” and a villain who consistently failed to notice the entire male population of the village disappearing when Zorro’s masked mob went on the rampage.)
Theatrical cartoons had some smashing swordfights. Starting with The Two Mouseketeers, Tom and Jerry did a series of French Revolution stories that inevitably featured Tom baffledly outclassed by a tiny mouse child armed with a pin. The largely entertaining Animalympics finished with a fencing competition won by a monocled boar who stood on his opponent’s tail: laughing falcon The Comtessa (“Gasp! The Comtessa!”) then drops in from nowhere to serve shiny sticky justice on the portly fiend. And Daffy Duck in The Scarlet Pumpernickel duelled classily with despicable Grand Duke Sylvester the Cat, their silhouettes lunging across the wall behind the eeking heroine, and their locked-hilt clinches so tight they nudge eyeballs.
“I’m the hero of this picture, and you know what happens to the villain!” gloats Daffy. “So what’s to know?” replies Sylvester, as aloof as every other Grand Duke, Count, Captain and High Sheriff tempted by an absent king’s younger brother. Only Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride has any sense. Confronted by the vengeful Spaniard whose father he killed twenty years ago, he strikes the en garde pose then runs like slippery jesus down the corridor. Bravo, sir!
“TO BE SECOND IS NO DISGRACE”
After 60 years, the showdown in The Adventures of Robin Hood between Robin and Guy of Gisbourne is still the finest movie swordfight. It has everything: Basil Rathbone; snappy dialogue like, “Do you know any prayers, my friend?”, “I’ll say one for you!”; Robin returning Guy’s sword with a flourish; tangible, searing hatred; comprehensive furniture discourtesy; a bit where they cross out of shot and their huge shadows continue fighting on the stonework; cheating with a dagger; and Guy, fatally impaled, flipped backwards off a balcony. Hurrah!
Second-best then. Popular choice is the Stewart Granger-Mel Ferrer duel in Scaramouche, but while it’s unusually public in a packed theatre, six-and-a-half minutes long and magnificently trousered, it suffers the worst ending of anything when the duellists realise they’re brothers and stop. A large number of Hong Kong Action Pictures include an amazingly choreographed swordfight at some point (Wheels on Meals and Project A have two of the best) but inevitably only one fighter is armed. (The other salmons grippingly and tends to win anyway.) The Princess Bride opens strongly with a duel between Cary Elwes and comically-forenamed Mandy Patinkin that warmly spoofs all others. But it fails because there’s no sense of danger. Dangerous Liaisons’ runs out of steam. The Sea Hawk’s is slightly “off.” Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s is a bit one-sided. And so on.
The second-best screen swordfight is in a Spanish movie called The Fencing Master. It’s a brisk little film noir directed by Pedro Olea and disguised as a period piece. A mysterious woman, Assumpta Serna, wants the title’s gentleman duellist, Omero Antonutti, to teach her his patented killing stroke. Impressed by her skill, he agrees. Soon a politician is slain, and the fencing master recognises his technique as the cause of death. But the mysterious woman is also dead. Except, of course, it’s really her maid. At last she reappears to petition the fencing master for an incriminating letter. Suddenly they both go for his sword-stick, and a wholly formal, blisteringly ferocious duel occurs. Despite negligible furniture discourtesy (the master, left with the stick, throws over a rack so he can reach a foil) the fight is pressed-into-your-armchair thrilling. Both know it’s to the death, both have fallen madly in love, the woman is easily the master’s equal, and as a topper they’ve both seen the foil the master snatched up has one of those buttons on the end so it’s utterly, utterly, utterly useless. They duel with blazing grace. Stop here if you haven’t seen the film. Faces desperate, but movements clinically masterful, they can’t penetrate each other’s guard. Their blades skid into a full-length training mirror. Really stop here if you haven’t seen the film. Senora Assumpta, with the advantage of a working sword, scores her opponent’s leg and tickles his ribs. He can’t maintain his defence. She steps forward for the killing stroke, and he drives his button-blunted blade all the way through her left eye with a tooth-freezing liquid pop.
“THE MASKED CAVALIER — A WOMAN!”
Women come off exceptionally badly in swordfight movies (it’s all kookily symbolic of something or other, eh, Freudians?) almost exclusively waiting around to be rescued in curly earmuffs. The worst example of luvverly ladiness is in Don Juan, where Robert Douglas boasts on a sweeping staircase to Errol Flynn that he holds Viveca Lindfors, while she stands behind him, unwatched, without escaping or booting him in the back of the knees.
Even with a strong female character, there has to be a role-reversal gag so everyone can hang their jaws when a mask falls away or the male lead meets the bloodily-nicknamed boss. Jean Peters, the vengeful lead of Anne of the Indies, is introduced unseen as “terror of the seas Captain Providence” but fortunately Louis Jordan’s pop-eyed goggle on her entrance is the last misstep in this ace pirate movie where she decimates the navy for blowing up her brother, sticks it to Blackbeard in a tavern duel and refuses to reform at the end. Similarly, Kim Cattrall in The Return of the Musketeers has to run around in a cloak so when it’s lost in a struggle everyone who’s never seen a woman run before can kick themselves. Later she lures the musketeers to a splendidly booby-trapped house and convincingly outfences all four. Even Geena Davis’s newly-inherited crew rock mirthfully when the captain’s daughter takes over the ship in Cutthroat Island, but the script for this film is so bad the writers should have had their throats cut with a big island, or something.
Swords-and-sorcery movies like Red Sonja don’t count, universally adopting the Highlander approach: nobody in the cast can hold a sword properly, let alone pull off an exciting fight, but we can’t be bothered with doubles, and anyway, who cares?
“YOU BLACK-HEARTED VILLAIN!”
The champion of the swordfight movie is Basil Rathbone. The best screen Holmes was a real-life fencing master so knew exactly how to make his opponent look effortlessly skilful, but beyond that really put his heart into the action. Dispiritingly many swordfights have the fencers clacking away all over the place without their smiles ever slipping, but Basil’s duels are gruellingly realistic. He’s always fighting for his life rather than for the camera.
Mark of Zorro sees his finest screen death, where, as Tyrone Power’s blade strikes home, he falls against a picture he’d hung to conceal the evidence that Zorro had embarrassingly broken in earlier. The trademark Z appears ignominiously above his slumped body. Zounds!
Only in Captain Blood was Basil no grim-visaged sinister supposed-lawman. Playing “hard-fighting, hard-gaming French rascal Captain Levasseur” he was allowed this once to show he was enjoying himself, and laughs winningly throughout his fight with Errol Flynn as Blood. He’s killed, of course, but only until the next film. His last screen duel, against Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, was performed when he was sixty-four and he was still fantastically great. Astonishingly, it never occurred to Universal to have Holmes duel with Moriarty.
Basil — we salute you. We raise a glass to your unmatched swordsmanship and your unquenchable villainy. Then dash its contents in your face and kick over a table, just to make you feel at home.
Swordfights aren’t just duels. Huge, Spartacus-like battle scenes are impossibly difficult to plan because each victim has to be visibly skewered, but so what, eh? Where two armies clash (as in Spartacus itself, or Braveheart, or the Henry Vs, or any pirate movie) you must cheer whenever you spot someone take a sword under the arm, or die screw-faced after the friendliest nudge, or fall down at the sight of a blade (something neatly twisted in Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain, where the hero plays dead during an unbelievably savage battle then jumps up smugly after it’s passed, except the camera pulls back to show about half-a-dozen enemy soldiers have done the same).
Manageably-choreographable skirmishes are far better, such as the cliff-top one in Jason and the Argonauts between the crew and those hellishly-shrieking skeletons, the boardroom attack in the feature-beating short The Crimson Permanent Assurance, or the washing-line fight in The Three Musketeers. Better still are one-man fights against hopeless odds. Possibly five swordfight movies don’t have a shot where the hero fends off three guards who ineptly fail to fan out, but there’s an occasional gem like Vincent Perez showing up fifteen soldiers in La Reine Margot (eventually he’s shot in the leg), Toshiro Mifune downing nine men in ten seconds in Yojimbo, or Bruce Campbell wielding two swords John Woo-style while surrounded on a staircase in movie god Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness. He then sidesteps as the warriors thrust, and one takes another’s sword under the arm. Hurrah!
“YOU SEE, IT’S NO ORDINARY POMMEL”
Ingeniously, movie swords aren’t always simple long bits of metal stuck to round bits of metal with a grippable bit of metal at the bottom. Saviour of the Soul introduced the flexible blade — a sort of sharpened steel tape-measure — which is used by the hero to slap the villain humiliatingly about the face and stab people round corners. It also means that the retracted sword can be carried in a pocket, although regrettably not up a sleeve. The mesmerisingly awful Cutthroat Island had horrible Frank Langella carry a monstrously serrated cutlass but do nothing at all with it, and managed to hopelessly throw away a lovely bit with Geena Davis, attacked by a gang, pressing a button for two other angled blades to spring from her hand-guard. It did have superb sound effects, though.
Sword-sticks are always popular in Victorian-era pictures (although presumably an elderly opponent would just fall down after drawing it), and there’s a brainwave moment in Rob Roy when the thoroughly defeated Liam Neeson grabs the blade of Tim Roth’s sword and holds it grimacingly while he splits its befuddled owner in twain. So perish all evil fops who order a trusty dog cartwheelingly shot.
Cinema’s most famous swordfight gadget, indisputably, is in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy, faced across a parted crowd by yet another swordsman, wearily shoots him. It’s hootingly funny, but, really, not quite the done thing.
In the same way all those samurai pictures didn’t strictly have swordfights (a bloke wading through hundreds of enemies slashing at them unerringly accurately — parrying was obviously a later invention) you don’t strictly need a sword for a duel. Pots of horror movies have swordfights, except now they use chainsaws. There’s a spiffing one in the underrated, zanily bleak Phantasm II between heroic bald middle-aged ex-ice cream vendor Reggie Bannister and a seven-foot gasmasked minion, with a magic moment as Reggie, forced to scramble in retreat up a series of shelves, leaps over his opponent’s overhead swing and just makes it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 predictably ends with a duel, but the lasting image is of Dennis Hopper stomping in with a saw holstered at each hip. Cop movie Tiger on the Beat scores twice, not only with a climactic, drainingly athletic sawfight between Conan Lee and Lau Kar Fei, but also a simultaneous bayoneted-rifle duel outside. Hong Kong Action Pictures really are good at this sort of thing.
The Star Wars trilogy had obvious ersatz swordfights, even down to the sliced candle-emulating steampipe-choppings, and they themselves were copied rather neatly in Pedicab Driver where fluorescent tube lights are dragged off the ceiling to hit people with. They even get the vwarm-vwoosh sound right.
Don’t be a soldier in a swordfight movie. It’s rubbish.