Monday, October 22, 2012

Aesthetics of the Sword Fight in Cinema: Realism is Not The Point

This is the third post on this blog that discusses the aesthetics of sword fights in cinema, a topic that I had absolutely no intention of writing about when I started this blog.   But I came across an odd fact that helped me to understand something about cinematic sword fights, so I am writing about it here.

It won't surprise you to learn that a sword fight in a film, at least a western film, is not realistic. But it might surprise you as it surprised me to learn that Samurai movies are often more realistic. And that is because, in real life, back when swords were used as the primary personal weapon, a sword fight was generally very brief and nearly always fatal. There would not be enough time to say much more than perhaps "Die You Scum" and maybe not even the time to say that. And even if they had enough time to say more, they probably wouldn't, because they would be out of breathe from trying to beat the other person to death with a piece of metal.

The fights were brief for a number of possible reasons and here are a few of them: (a) one party was able to get a blow in before the other party was ready, or (b) one party was that much stronger or that much more skilled than the other party that he was able to get a blow in first in spite of the other party being prepared, or (c) the two parties would fight for a few seconds, perhaps for a minute, but then one party or the other would get a blow in and one blow was all you needed in most cases. Depending on the nature of the first blow, the party who had received one was at a serious disadvantage. Occasionally when both parties were evenly matched, both parties might receive blows before one was disabled and killed.

Also, in a real sword fight they were not fighting by Olympics fencing rules. Better to think about a man in a slaughterhouse with an axe to get more of a feel for the situation. Once the other party was seriously hit, a blow or two and it was over. They were either dead, would be dead in a few minutes from the bleeding, or would be dead in a few days from infection.

Or possibly, one of the parties would avoid the fight or break it off, perhaps by running away. Then both might live, but that was one of the very few ways that both parties could survive a sword fight.

This has a number of implications for understanding the authenticity of certain genres of film:

1. I always thought that the incredible speed of the sword fight in a samurai movie was a way of expressing the skill and zen spirit of the warriors. That might be true as well, but it was the case that such fights were generally over very fast. A real fight from the period had more blood than you normally see in most Samurai movies, I think.

The following is an excellent example of what I think of as a somewhat realistic samurai sword fight, with blood.  This scene is probably from Zatoichi by Takeshi Kitano.  Three blows parried and one blow not parried, and the fight is over.

2. There is actually one use of a light saber in the Star Wars films that was more authentic by this standard than the others. And that was the very brief use by Obi-Wan in the cantina in the first Star Wars film, where Luke gets into a fight with a patron who pulls a gun. It is over in less than a second and the character with the gun loses the arm that was holding the weapon.  The fight is over nearly instantly, but Obi-Wan poses for the camera and dramatic effect.

3. It is an interesting detail of light sabers that they have several advantages over a steel sword for the person who loses a fight. First a light saber is self-cauterizing, so there is no bleeding. Second, in the process the wound is also disinfected from the heat, so there is much less danger of infection. A third advantage from a cinematic point of view is that there is essentially no blood, and the amount of blood is a very important criteria in determining what sort of rating your film receives (e.g. G, PG or R).

4. With this new information, we can probably say that the sword fight and duel in Rob Roy (1995) is the most realistic sword fight in western film that I am aware of. It takes place over a few minutes, but in that few minutes there is perhaps 20-30 seconds of actual sword fighting (e.g. when blows are exchanged), it is physically very demanding, and there is very little talking.

Why do you keep pointing at my nose?  It is so very rude to point!

You can see this fight here:

5. What we learn from this information,  is that the centrally important conversation that the two parties have during a sword fight, discussing good and evil, and raising the fight from a mere battle of steel to metaphorical importance, is not realistic or authentic. It never happened and it would never happen in real life.  The fight is not a fight for its own sake, it is there to advance the story.  The sword fight is the colorful and drama filled activity that is taking place while we are advancing the story.

I doubt that many people will be surprised to hear that a cinematic sword fight is not realistic, but the important point to take away is that it was never intended to be.

The same criteria should be applied to visual effects, whether what is being shown appears to be realistic or not, the important question is how does it serve or advance the story?

To read all the posts on the subject of the aesthetics of sword fights, click here.

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