Scattered Thoughts on Swordplay, Part the Fifth

Posted: September 4, 2011 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

In these sections, I’m going to be writing a little bit about a fight that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with:  the duel in the Firefly episode “Shindig.”  Upon closer consideration, I actually think I’m not really as troubled by it as I let myself be when I first saw it — it’s easy, when you see things you like on the television, to let your enthusiasm get a head start on your more considerate faculties.  However, there are a couple points that I think are interesting and worth mentioning — some things that are a bit of a problem some things that are just illustrative.  So.

Here is the fight again, in case you haven’t seen it, don’t remember it, or, for some reason, started here on Part Five instead of at least with Part Four.

3. “Don’t Fall for that Mal!”

This is one of the three actual problems that I still have with this fight — the first being the weird choice in weapons I talked about earlier, the second being an element yet to come.

At 1:19 in the fight, Mal’s opponent (“Atherton Wing”) puts his sword behind his back.  Mal, obviously angry, comes charging at him — only Atherton does a fancy little spin, hops out of the way of Mal’s reckless charge, and stabs him in the side.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem so bad.  Mal is angry, his opponent is taunting him, why wouldn’t he charge recklessly forward only to get stabbed.  But on closer consideration, I believe that this is kind of crazy.  “Don’t fall for that!” Inara yells out, and I mean, come on.  Really?  If you were boxing Muhammad Ali and he’d popped you on the nose a couple times, then stepped back and put his hands behind his back, would YOU charge face first into what is obviously a trap?  I mean, there is literally nothing that a person could possibly think under these circumstances except, “Man, that guy wants me to run directly at him.  I wonder if he’s got something planned?”

Now, it’d be one thing if Mal Reynolds was just some country bumpkin, up to the city for the first time, with little knowledge of big city fightin’ ways, but seriously — are we really meant to believe that Mal has never been in a fight before?  That he doesn’t know when he’s being messed with?  Later on, he kicks a broken sword up directly into his hand (not impossible — especially on the third or fourth take — but very difficult) and hurls it right into that guy’s shoulder.  That is not easy.  That is the sort of thing that you could only do if you’d had LOTS of practice being in fights and having to have to do weird things; we know that Mal isn’t an idiot, and he knows what he’s doing, and it doesn’t really follow that he’s going to fall for a trick like this, even if he’s never used a sword before in his life.  He may not know what Atherton has planned — but he MUST at least know that the key to Atherton’s plan is Mal running blindly forward, face first, into a man who is waiting for the opportunity to stab him.

4.  A Question of Expedience

The third and final problem that I have is one that applies to the fight in general, to the fancy-pants move Atherton Wing pulls in the previous section, and in particular to the moment at 2:03 — where Wing gets Mal’s sword on the ground and then stomps it, causing the weapon to break off at the hilt.

Okay, now.  Okay.  Weird things happen in sword fights.  When you remember that metal is technically a crystal, and that a sword blade is actually a complex, extruded lattice work of billions of atoms of carbon and iron, then yeah, it’s definitely possible for there to be weak spots in the blade, flaws in the crystal, &c and so forth.  It is certainly possible to snap a blade off at the hilt like that.  I just don’t think it’s very likely — even relatively stiff blades like cavalry sabres are still pretty flexible.  Here’s a picture of Museum Replicas founder Hank Reinhardt bending a sword nearly 90 degrees:

When you consider that the bend on the sword, where Atherton stomps it, is still going to be pretty shallow (since it’s lying on the ground and just can’t go that far) and that the forte — the bottom third of the blade — is the thickest and strongest part of the weapon…well, the whole thing seems pretty unlikely.  And because it’s unlikely, it seems like an even more improbable technique.  Being a master swordsman doesn’t mean that you’re really good at doing complicated, crazy moves — your 200-escudo thrusts or your five-point-palm exploding heart techniques — it’s being really, really good at the ten or twelve most-likely-to-be-successful moves.

Consequently, when faced with the opportunity to try to stomp on Mal’s forte and break it — a highly unlikely circumstance — rather than, say, stomping on his hand, or just pinning the blade and punching him in the face with your hilt (any of which might be considered to be equally humiliating), you’d expect Atherton to choose the technique that has a better than 1 in a 100 chance of succeeding.  The stomp here is a little like a thrust that relies on a convenient lightning strike to fell your opponent.

Now, what’s got me a little more relaxed about this whole thing is just thinking about how it must have come about.  One of the reasons you don’t see a lot of complex, really good swordfights on TV is simple expedience:  these guys have less than a week to choreograph, learn, practice, and film a swordfight — all at the same time that they’re filming the rest of the TV show.  That is not a lot of time.  And if you figure that at most, probably only one of the actors is going to be a really well-trained swordsman (it’s a common enough skill that you could probably select for it when finding someone to play Atherton Wing, and just hope that Nathan Fillion is a quick study), that makes the whole thing even harder.

What happens is this:  the director, or the writer, sits down and says, “We’re going to have a swordfight.  We need one move that shows that Atherton Wing is a good swordsman and contemptuous of his opponent.  We need one moment that shows that Mal is a little lucky.  And we need one moment that shows that he’s a tough guy who knows about fighting.  You’ve got about two days to figure the whole thing out, go.”

So, what you get is a sword fight with a lot of “left, right, left, right, bind, cut” (this is a pretty standard exchange in stage combat; one person alternates attacking on your left and right side, then you bind around and cut so they have to back away and then you can attack), with a couple of these moments that are meant to be indicative, are pretty easy to learn, and are pretty clearly understood, even by people that don’t know a lot about fencing.  I don’t like it, because I think it lacks finesse and subtlety, but I recognize that there are more demands involved in the production of an episode of Firefly than “What Chris Braak wants to see on television.”

5.  Paying Homage

Here’s something else that I think is interesting.  Most people who choreograph fights, and who even just like fencing, have a sort of mental library of fights that they love, techniques that they enjoy, styles that they’re enamored with.  I won’t say that these things are like a fingerprint, exactly, but it does happen that you can start to recognize signature elements when you watch several fights thought up by the same person.  There’s a fight director here in Philadelphia, for instance, who loves hamstring cuts — I think this is unfortunate, because without really great swordsman, hamstring cuts just look a lot like “getting stabbed in the butt”, but there you have it:  if you’re in Philadelphia, and you see a swordfight in which someone looks like they just got stabbed in the butt, then you’ve got a better than even chance of guessing who choreographed the fight.

One of the other things you notice when you watch a lot of fights is when a choreographer is referencing another famous fight.  This entire duel, for instance, is very pretty clearly an homage to this one:

The final swordfight in Rob Roy is one of the finest duels ever committed to film — from the skill of the fencers, to the quality of the choreography (by legendary fight master William Hobbs), to the clear through-line of the fight:  Rob Roy is growing weaker and more exhausted; Cunningham is clearly taunting him and flaunting his superior skill, &c.  Even the cinematography is great:  we get a lot of fairly long shots in which we can clearly and easily see what’s happening — this is a fight that relies on two fencers being good at fencing, rather than two relatively competent fencers who are abetted by mind-slappingly quick editing.

The parallels to the “Shindig” duel are pretty obvious:  this is an asymmetric duel between a tough former soldier and a refined, skilled swordsman.  The swordsman is just being a dick about the whole thing, showing off for the audience, but loses because the guy he’s messing with is just a lot tougher than he seems.  It’s also a good example of why you might fight an asymmetric duel (in this case, Cunningham doesn’t just want to show that he’s better than Rob  Roy; he’s also showing that England — and England’s civilized swordsmanship — is better than Scotland’s steer-butchering claymores; there’s a better context for it here than in “Shindig”), and an example of when you might accept some damage (in this case, to Rob Roy’s hand) for the sake of being able to chop the hell out of your opponent.

I actually suspect that Atherton Wing’s little fancy-pants spin around is another homage — this one to a movie called The Revenge of the Musketeers, which is streaming on Netflix and you should watch it at once.  Starring Sophie Marceau and her boobs, it is a hilarious adventure full of some pretty neat swordplay.  One bit of it involves Athos using a technique he calls the Montparnasse Viper, in which he messes with his opponents by hiding his sword behind his back.

This might be stretching the idea a little.

Anyway:  the duel in “Shindig” — it’s not quite what I would like to see, but it at least reminded me to go watch Rob Roy and The Revenge of the Musketeers, and therefore I cannot find fault with it.

  1. Gabe Valdez says:

    Hey, Chris, this is my favorite article of yours thus far. I remember talking with you about the similarities between kung fu and taekwondo. I’m not sure about kung fu, but one thing I valued in how I was taught taekwondo is the attitude that you can have all the martial arts knowledge in the world and be facing a strung-out, starving bum with a rusty pocketknife and if he really wants to fight, he’s still got a decent chance of getting that knife in you at some point.

    I also cringe every time I see the Firefly fight. In a duel that seems to be void of most rules, I find it completely believable that the tougher SOB with the will to cause the most damage wins (in fact, I’d bet on it), but Mal wins only out of shoddy choreography and a cheap escape (Inara’s distraction). The solution to that fight should have either depended on Mal’s cleverness (i.e. a Rob Roy moment) or on his toughness (getting in close and punching the guy’s lights out). It shouldn’t have to rely on Inara distracting his opponent, especially when Mal is holding his own against a sword-wielding Chiwetel Ejiofor with just his fists by the time Serenity rolls around.

    “I guess I’m just a good man…well, I’m all right,” makes up for the shoddy choreography, though. As is often the case with Joss Whedon, the left-field cleverness of the writing immediately makes up for what the production lacks in polish.

    I’m curious what your catalogue of finest Western swordfights from the last decade would include.

    The best to me has been Kingdom of Heaven (with Liam Neeson again doing some nice work in the beginning). The choreography is great, and the sound editing on the sword fights really adds an extra something. The Russell Crow redux of Robin Hood had strong choreography (truly underrated film, IMO), especially in having the balls to involve cavalry directly in complicated battle choreography. That was brave, and apparently injured a lot of actors, but damn if it isn’t something special to behold. But that’s all Ridley Scott, and the guy never skimps.

    The movement philosophy in Troy was like a breath of fresh air to me. I bought that trashy film based solely on the fight choreography. Neil Marshall’s underseen Centurion had some nice axe and sword choreography. Other than that, though, has there been much Western swordfighting to remember on film as of late?

    I remember The Count of Monte Cristo having a solid fight at the end, but the only fight detail that sticks in my mind is how yellow Guy Pearce made his teeth for that scene, so I can’t say for sure. The Book of Eli and 300 had interesting ideas, but they were more about the visual presentation than the actual choreography (a drinking game involving the number of times someone fails to take an immediate opening on Denzel Washington would kill even the hardiest of alcoholics).

    Where are all the good, recent, Western swordfights? More than ever, they just seem like toss-off, paint-by-numbers sections that skip a lot of the hard work.

  2. braak says:

    I generally agree. I think the lesson clearly illustrated in Rob Roy is that it’s the will to do harm that is paramount, and that the essential difference between the “duel” and the “fight” is that in a fight the goal is to hurt the other guy, but in a duel there’s any number of specific victory conditions. I think it’s a little less clearly illustrated with the Firefly episode, but, yeah, good writing (this one was written by Jane Espensen, incidentally), and we have to be forgiving due to not having a lot of time.

    As to the good recent, western-style swordfights…I don’t know. I love the duel between Hector and Achilles in Troy — I think it’s hurt mostly by all the reaction shots of Peter O’Toole. Which, you know, yeah, I like watching Peter O’Toole, but come on. I fucking know what Peter O’Toole looks like. I don’t remember much about the fight in The Count of Monte Cristo — this was actually the last official William Hobbs fight — except for a weird bit where he manages to knock the sword out of that one cat’s hand and catches it.

    It’s a good question, and worth investigating. I think that a relatively recent preoccupation with the idea of “Eastern” (re: Chinese, Japanese, Korean) martial arts has resulted in an unfortunate lack of attention to Western martial arts, which were every bit as developed, as codified, as considered.

    Did you KNOW, that in the time of Henry VIII, there was a thing called The Company of Masters, that was based on the science and art of defense. And if you wanted to be a master, basically what happened is that they called in all of the other masters, and you had to fight (I THINK) ten different masters in eight different weapons (including rapier, longsword, spear, dagger, &c.) all in the space of one day?

    There’s no question that Shaolin training was pretty hardcore, but I think any martial art where the final test is eighty duels in one day is probably pretty near with regards to the hardness of its core.

    I will think about some other good duels, maybe that will be the subject of my next posts.

  3. John Jackson says:

    I know next to nothing about swordfighting, but I do love films. The Rob Roy scene is pretty spectacular, and I’ll have to watch La Fille de D’Artagnan (Revenge). I would like to offer up another swordfight for your perusal, well, technically three fights. No idea if they’re accurate, but I assume that two of the actors have strong fencing training and one is an actor (Sean Bean). I do like how they used fairly standard tropes of film sword fighting in ways that build story and character. Frankly, if you watch these two scenes, you don’t really need to watch the movie (Sharpe’s Justice). @ 1:23 @ 4:00

  4. John Jackson says:

    Oh, about Robin Hood. Yes, they organized cavalry fights, even a big battle at the end, but, um, the flank of fully armed French infantry was taken by children in loincloths on ponies with twigs/sticks and one mounted woman in armor that somehow fits her well. While there are a fair few good things done in that film…what the hell was the scriptwriter thinking?

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