Film vs. Reality: Sword Battles!

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Imagine this for a moment…

Your eyes are blurry; the smell of sweat mixed with blood fills your nostrils. The gash on top of your left eyebrow is starting to compromise your sight, but you have to push forward. Your entire Men-at-Arms are in disarray; the lines are broken and there’s sporadic fighting everywhere.

A loud cry to your right awakens you from your momentary haze. An enormous Goth warrior charges you with a long sword in his right hand and a small axe in his left. As you turn to meet his barreling form, you see the axe that was once in his left hand is now flying at your face. With all the strength you have left in you, you swing your left hand bearing your shield to block the axe which sticks to your shield. Within one gasp of air, three more axes slam into your shield and stick; the shield is too heavy for you to hold now with the weight of the stuck axes. Suddenly, the Goth warrior’s shoulder slams into you, knocking the breath out of you. In that instant, you release the shield freeing you of its encumbrance.

As you slip backwards, the Goth warrior lunges and stabs his long sword at you with both his hands at the hilt. You attempt to parry with your short sword, but it’s a little unwieldy since the weapon was made mostly for stabbing and thrusting at a close range. There’s a loud clanging sound as the swords meet, however the Goth warrior keeps his contact with your short sword and in one motion, winds around the momentum of your swing and stabs deep into your neck.

The salty metallic taste of your blood fills your mouth as you hit the ground. There are no flashing lights. There is no director to yell “CUT!” This is what a true battle would have been like in the past. No large swings or talking to your opponent as your weapons collide; just immediate death after one or two exchanges.

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Have you ever watched a sword fight or melee combat on screen and wondered, “Why aren’t they actually trying to stab each other? Why does it look like they’re attacking each others weapon’s instead?” This has bothered me at times and I’ve often asked these questions. So I took some personal time off and actually did some research by speaking with sword master and choreographer, Tim Weske (known for Master and Commander, Firefly, ANGEL, etc.), and I also trained for an entire day with Jonathan Mayshar and Jason Taylor from the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance (HEMA). I probed their minds about film vs. reality in sword techniques.

Let me begin by stating that training with HEMA was absolutely amazing. What they do is NOT “LARPING” or better known as Live Action Role Playing (if you don’t know what that is, Google it). They have taken and translated old medieval scriptures and resurrected true, pure, and brutal sword combat. After spending 9 hours in one day taking a crash course in several different types of weaponry, I learned that this is definitely not your Hollywood fight scene.

Longsword Sparring
(Credit to Nikos3000 from YouTube)

When training with Jonathan Mayshar and Jason Taylor, they both explained to me in the most simplest of terms when comparing film vs. reality: The Victorian Era. Here’s a little Hollywood history lesson for you all. During the Victorian era, there came upon stories of knights, kings, medieval warfare, and basically romanticizing the entire age. Years later, Hollywood wanted to make movies about that time period, but unfortunately they didn’t know much about it except from what they attained from the Victorians. That’s where you got the crazy visuals of armored guards always holding big kite shields or tower shields wherever they went, which was highly impractical. Now I’m not saying they didn’t use those large shields, they actually did use them during tournaments or massive warfare situations. However in normal day-to-day routines, they walked around with bucklers clipped to their belts.

Medieval Siege Society Skirmish - Sealed Knot Battle at Loseley Park

Two soldiers have a mock battle sporting a sword and buckler.

During my personal training with a sword and buckler or just the long sword itself, Jonathan and Jason again pointed out a big difference between film and reality: there are no exaggerated movements. When you watch fight scenes from movies like 300 or Troy, you see them spinning around and making huge over-arcing motions with their swords, however in reality this would have gotten you killed instantly.

Achilles vs. Hector fight scene – TROY (2004)
(Credit to Warner Bros. Gothures)

Here’s a great example what I’m talking about. This is video of a sparring session between the European sword style vs. the Japanese sword style. If you look closely, they make no overly ridiculous swings and aren’t jumping and spinning around like monkeys. There are no wasted movements in the entire spar.

Bokken vs. Longsword
(Credit to zukuru from YouTube)

Following the intense physical training with weapons, I then spoke with Tim Weske about the Hollywood side of choreography and fighting. I asked him three in-depth questions about how he feels in regards to the film vs. reality aspect on melee combat onscreen. With Tim being an actual sword-master and choreographer who has worked within Hollywood for quite some time, I really respected his answers to my questions.

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Tim Weske on set

Alger Alama (Nerd Reactor): When comparing the Film vs. Reality, I often notice that 80% of the time the characters are usually attacking the weaponry of their opponents as opposed to outright attacking the opponent’s limbs, body, etc. Is this a directorial stance or a choreographic stance?

Tim Weske: This is a result of poor training and choreography by the sword person. Cinema swordplay has been reduced to this crap. To find a good sword master is hard. There are a lot of people that say they are but they are pretenders and Hollywood keeps allowing them to work so you get what ya see.

Nerd Reactor: I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but I recently did some research and worked with people from H.E.M.A. (Historical European Martial Arts) and spoke to them about the differences in techniques utilized on-screen vs. reality. Basically they stated that realistic fights would last no longer than 30 seconds to a minute with a fatality on either end. Would it be possible to utilize these techniques onscreen and still be considered a successful fight scene or would it be too quick and not as entertaining?

Tim Weske: A fight that lasts a short time is easily done. Remember that there are reactions when there are actions, and those moments can be filled by things other than hitting swords together or throwing punches. The fight is a story. The story is told as the director sees fit. So if the fight is short (punch count that is) then that’s what you give him. If a person is thinking creatively they should have no trouble with this. If you see a scene where people are just standing and saying lines, there is always someone listening. They don’t always have to be talking to tell the story.

Nerd Reactor: Finally, I watched your video on your website and I noticed you put a lot of emphasis on safety when it comes to doing fight scenes. If a movie were to utilize the real-world sword or axe techniques (choreographed of course) used to kill or maim opponents, would that be too much of a safety risk for the actors?

Tim Weske: Not at all. Through the years I have had to create a system that works for all types of fights, from comedy to hack and slash. The system is always safety first. Never does that change. It can’t. You teach the actor a fight that the script calls for and you create your fight the same way. I have never met an actor that does not get what the script is asking as far as situation and emotion. The hard part is keeping them in the guidelines of the technique and the system while they learn the fight and the movement. When it’s done correctly there is no fight that can’t be staged and staged safely. Again. You will need one of the very rare people that know how to do this. There aren’t too many of us left anymore. And what I am honored to be is a member of a dying art.

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Tim Weske choreographing with Marisa Miller

Personally I think there’s always going to have to be a balance when it comes to portraying any kind of a battle sequence on the big screen. In respect to Tim Weske, Jonathan Mayshar, and Jason Taylor, the brutal realistic fights would be great to see, as long as there’s a story to it. If a quick, realistic fight sequence can translate the emotional struggle of the main character against his foe, then I hope to one day see a movie like that. An epic film utilizing real-world gritty fighting techniques with character driven emotions translated into the use of their weapons. One day Hollywood, one day.

Rob Roy – Final sword fight scene
(Credit to United Artists)
http://youtu.be/BEtPluUi0_U

Sources:
Tim Weske Homepage – http://timweske.com/
HEMA – http://hemaalliance.com/
KRON Martial Arts – http://www.kronmartialarts.com/

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Alger Alama
Alger Alama 327 posts

Highly sociable and having been entrenched in Nerd\Geekdom since he was a kid, Alger has seen it all. During his spare time he loves to go out clubbing, sing karaoke, and attend parties. This Nerd is no wallflower. He'll always greet you with a warm smile and a drink in hand.