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Buckle your Swashes: The Greatest Movie Swordfights of all Time

Written by: Jonathan Lipman, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageDespite the enormous amounts of bullshit that I fling out to the world on a daily basis, I really only feel qualified to formally pontificate on a few topics: writing, journalism, politics and, oddly enough, swordplay.

As a former captain of the Northwestern University Men’s Fencing team, where I amassed over 100 wins, I tend to watch all duels with a critical eye and as more than a casual observer. Thusly, I present my list of Top 5 Cinematic Duels, with a following list of also-rans.

 

5. The Princess Bride

Why only No. 5 you ask? Isn’t this popularly held as one of the greatest duels on screen ever? Isn’t this the movie that all fencers love? 

Yes, yes, yes, all right already, all of that is true. But I choose, like Nick Hornby’s cheeky protagonist in High Fidelity thumbing his nose at the Beatles because it’s just too damn obvious, just too damn mainstream, to place this movie at the bottom of the list. I can’t believe how freakin’ sick of it I am. If I get one more person at a party who, upon learning that I fence, hands me a drink with a wink and in a terrible Spanish/French/Croatian accent proclaims “*I* am not left handed” then I will hurl.

Also, let’s count the duels in the movie people. One. That’s it. One big sword fight and after that it’s Andre the Giant and a lot of wacky Billy Crystal jokes. 

However, even a sword curmudgeon like me admits that it must be included among the top five. That one duel between Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin is often credited with reviving Hollywood’s interest in civilized swordplay:

Watch their feet and the interplay of their points. Prior to this movie, for decades, almost all swordplay you saw was of the Conan hack-and-slash variety. But in the Princess Bride, both combatants are actually lunging at each other, trying to stab with the point, attacking along a variety of lines, changing their distance. Until Elwes’ gymkata moment at the end, the swordplay is technically and historically perfect, down to the historical references spouted by Patinkin. 

 

4. Captain Blood (1935) / The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) / The Sea Hawk (1940)

Before there was Princess Bride, there was Errol Flynn.

I’ve listed what my favorite three Flynn movies, though I often can’t tell them apart. Robin Hood is in color and not on a boat, after that they blur. I think he’s a slave in Blood and a pirate in Sea Hawk, though if you put a gun to my head and told me my life depended on telling them apart, I’d ask for a pen to sign my will. But the truth is it doesn’t matter – you’re not watching for plot, you’re watching for Flynn. Here's a scene from Captain Blood. The fight takes place about six minutes in:

Flynn, crazy bastard that he was, was known for his rigorous attention to detail in his swordfights and many seem boring to people’s eyes today because they’re actually a lot like sport-fencing matches, with Flynn’s little feints and countermoves passing too quickly to even be seen. For that reason, I find them a joy. In Sea Hawk, the killing move isn’t some wacky flip over the villain’s head or a last-minute lunge for a hidden dagger, it’s a simple one-two disengage in lines. It’s a move any foilist would recognize, one of the simplest to learn and hardest to truly master.

But it’s real. Flynn didn’t fuck around with fake swords, a lot of those puppies were sharp enough to wound. And you can tell.

 

3. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace 

This was a spot that a few years back would have been owned by The Empire Strikes Back but was thoroughly upstaged by Ray Park’s fiendishly acrobatic performance in Phantom Menace. There are entire legions of geek lore devoted to the thesis that this movie wholly sucks until the final 20 minutes when Darth Maul shows up and begins to kick Jedi ass, so I will not declaim on this topic. Go on, relive it! You know you want to:

I struggled with whether to include this as a “swordfight” given that Darth Maul’s two-bladed lightsaber isn’t a sword so much as a futuristic update of a spear-style weapon used in Asia. But hell, if there’s no guns and no punches, it’s a sword fight, and the thing is still called a lightsaber.

The reasons this fight is so damn awesome should be obvious – the frenetic pace, the believable two-on-one interplay, the Jedi jumps, and the way Lucas suddenly channels Spielberg and shoots the sequence in documentary style, letting his combatants occasionally reach out of frame. But more than anything, it was something we had never seen, because a weapon like Darth Maul’s has never existed. Make those two blades out of metal and the thing becomes phenomenally heavy, impossible to whip around with the speed and verve that Park accomplishes. 

Sword-geek note: the prequel trilogy is notable for its departure in swordsmanship style from its predecessors. Bob Anderson, once Errol Flynn’s stunt double and long the reigning swordsman of Hollywood, choreographed all the lightsaber battles in the original trilogy and in Episode IV actually donned the Darth Vader suit himself (the telltale is the legs – look at Darth Vader’s classic fencing posture when he’s facing Obi Won). Anderson is expert in the classic European sword techniques and thus his fights look swashbuckly. Luke Skywalker, when he ignites his lightsaber, has his feet and sword in the same place a modern sport fencer does.

Park was the choreographer for Phantom Menace and he is clearly a student of Asian fight techniques. It’s obvious from the first few minutes of phantom menace, when Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson ignite their lightsabers and both strike poses straight out of samurai mythology. 

There are other great sword fights in the Star Wars universe. The Empire fight is tops for its range of location and its moody, foreboding lighting. The Revenge of the Sith fight between Obi Won and Anakin is epic but lacks the realistic grittiness of Phantom and is much more clearly choreographed. And while it’s great to see Yoda kicking ass, there’s only so much believability you can get out of an animated frog.

 

2. Highlander

Before the series and sequels Jar-Jar’d this franchise into laughability, Highlander was actually pretty cool. It had a great visual style with lots of intercutting, a rocking Queen soundtrack, and the mysteries of immortaldom were left pleasantly unexplained. It also had a premise that gave you license to have dudes hacking and slashing each other in the middle of Manhattan, and that’s pretty much geek heaven. Here's the open, where Fasil loses his head in a fucking parking garage!

The film does a good job of giving each character a distinctive fighting style, which is often neglected in other movies. The monstrous Kurgan relies on strength, Sean Connery’s Ramirez relies on trickery and deceit.  Christopher Lambert, in his only good role ever in the history of his life, is a great everyman swordsman as our hero. Not brawny or lightning quick or possessed of a secret trick, he is just skillful and persistent. Ramirez tell him that you defeat Kurgan through “bravery, heart and skill” and we are left believing that Lambert’s character has done that.

Next to the Star Wars movies, Highlander’s swordfights have the best use of visual effects. Despite it’s 1980s lineage, the effects hold up (except for the Ghostbusters ending) and the release of mystic energy when an immortal is defeated remains brain-blowing. This movie also loves the swords themselves. Each hero’s sword gets its own loving introduction, either through dialogue or long steady camera shots. The swords match the fighting styles, so more bonus geek points. 

But Highlander’s greatest accomplishment is its mastery of broadsword tactics. Most movie swordfights are based, one way or another, on fencing, which is either a point-and-thrust style or a one-handed slash style. But Highlander’s characters are out to behead each other and each wield heavy broadswords or katanas – two handed-jobbies that take an entirely different technique.

Most times you see a sword like this in a movie, it’s used like a baseball bat. But Highlander makes it art. 

 

1. Zorro (1998)

There was tremendous buzz about this movie in the fencing world before it came out and the final product did not disappoint. The urban legend (is it urban if it is discussed among a bunch of geeky fencers at gym in the suburbs?) was that Antonio Banderas lived with the Spanish national fencing team for 6 months before he even began to formally train with the studio’s fight trainer (the legendary Bob Anderson).  It’s believable, because Antonio is form-perfect, like a damn textbook in correct sabre technique. Watching him just go on-guard gives me goose pimples.

Of course, it’s not the technical perfection that makes this the best sword-fight movie. It’s the sheer pizzaz and energy. It starts with a good three-on-one melee by a surprisingly spry Anthony Hopkins, continues with a Looney-Tunes-esque duel-cum-brawl with Banderas and a band of unwashed thugs, and achieves true sword-nirvana with the massive running duel in the middle of the film. In this duel, Banderas (and presumably his stunt double) displays not only technical perfection and athleticism, but a flair and flash that verges on the poetic.

It starts with a duel in the hallway where he battles his two arch-nemeses.  Each is a reasonable swordsman and yet he clearly toys with them. When they gang up on him to fight together it was one of the most amazing duels of its kind. Unlike almost every other two-on-one sword fight in movies, it looks unscripted, as if the two bad guys really are trying to kill him and not just standing there as steel-fodder. Banderas as Zorro is forced to block each attack independently with a sword in each hand, and it is positively dizzying.

This is followed by a more conventional yet absolutely breathless man-vs.-mob fight where Banderas somersaults onto a table and then fends off some dozen dudes with a brilliant series of parries and counterthrusts. He even parries a few dudes behind his head. It is awesome. The steel is bright, his clothes are black, the music swells and Catherine Zeta-Jones breathes deeply. What more could you want.

Obviously, Antonio’s duel with Zeta-Jones is also memorable, for reasons too numerous to enumerate here. See for yourself:

Ultimately, this movie, more than any other I know, is in love with the dazzling dizzying dance of the duel, and it invests its swordplay with the mischievous bravado inherent in all great swordsmen.

 

Also rans:

 

Rob Roy – A great example of a “mixed-media” fight, when Liam Neeson, with claymore, takes on a rapier-armed Tim Roth at the end. Would be better except that it’s kind of a one-sided fight until Liam guts Tim like a fish in a Hemingway story.

Lord of the Rings – Despite Peter Jackson’s boasting on the DVD commentary, Viggo Mortenson is clearly not the best swordsman Bob Anderson has ever met and most of the battles are pretty straightforward. Still, points for sheer volume of metal.

The Duelists – Great technical mastery, but a dull film.

Dangerous Liaisons – The duel at the end between John Malkovitch and Keanu Reeves is one of the only ones I’ve seen to accurately reflect what a duel must have been like in that particular time and place. They even use actual small swords, which most filmmakers reject in favor of the flashier and more recognizable rapier.

Three Musketeers (1974) – Michael York, Richard Chamberlin, Oliver Reed and others manage to work in every classic fencing combination: single-sword, sword-and-dagger, sword-and-lantern, Florentine (two swords), sword-and-cloak. But the movie is almost impossible to find and appears dated.           

Three Musketeers (1993) – This piece of popcorn Disney fluff can be easily derided, and should be, for the presence of Chris O’Donnell. But Charlie Sheen, Oliver Platt and Kiefer Sutherland are having great fun and actually duel in styles loyal to their literary counterparts. 

Dune – Best knife-fight on film that I know of.

Willow – Val Kilmer almost makes the list just for that twirly thing he does with the broadsword.

 

Author: Jonathan Lipman, CC2K Staff Writer

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