Scattered Thoughts on Swordplay, Part the Fourth

Posted: September 4, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting
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So, a couple folks found my last three posts on this subject interesting enough that I think it merits a continuation.  Like I said, fencing is a subject that I’m fascinated with, and I can almost always talk about it.  I want to leave off talking about Lady Sabre (which I still recommend that you read), and turn to one of my own personal bêtes noirs: the duel in the Firefly episode “Shindig.”

I’ve complained to my friends about it before, but, after watching it again, I don’t have nearly as many problems with it as I thought I did, and my issues were just me being crabby.  And there are a couple bits that I think are interesting, and illustrative of the long and glorious history of swordfights on screen, and a couple bits that I think are a little challenging, and worth bearing in mind for the next time you ever have to write a duel for your serialized TV space-western.

1.  Preparing for the Duel

“If you had one night to prepare someone for a duel with a master swordsman, what would you tell them?”

“Good luck.”

–me, in response to a completely fictional question asked by a hypothetical imaginary person.

Let’s start with the time before the duel, where Mal is getting ready for it.  I know it’s a sort of staple of fiction that some regular guy gets challenged to a duel, and he stays up at night practicing a bit, and then he does something crazy or gets luck and manages to win.  I don’t have a problem with the getting lucky part, though I do think that if you really love someone (yes, I mean you, Inara), then you’re better off letting them get a full night’s sleep than trying to visit them before the fight.

Because there really just isn’t going to be much that you can do — let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never really fenced before.  Yes, I can teach you how to thrust, and I can teach you the four major parries you need in about an hour.  But, I mean, whew.  Let’s say your opponent thrusts, and you parry it, good!  Good work.  Except now he slips into a bind and tries to stab you again, so you need to learn a counterbind, too.  And maybe you do the counterbind and come back at him, but he does a degagé and thrusts to counter, so you need at least a punto reverse to get out of the way, but THAT’s not enough since once you’ve moved he’s only going to cut down behind you so you’ll need the hanging parry, too.

It’s a lot of stuff and, frankly, you’re more dangerous not knowing any of it.  One of the things that you learn right away when you start sport fencing is about something called “Right of Way.”  What this means, in a nutshell, is that if your opponent threatens you with his sword, you can’t hit him back without doing something about it, first.  Well, you can, but you won’t get a point for it.  He will get the touch, because he presented an attack and, rather than parry it or bind it or dodge it, you just let him hit you so you could hit him back.

Now, a lot of folks will say, “Well, I’d just let him hit me then, so I could get him,” and this is problematic.  For one thing, most duels were fought before the advent of antibiotics, so whether or not you get stabbed through the heart, you’re probably going to die (the smallsword, because it left a lot of deep puncture wounds, and often resulted in “double-touches” like I’m describing here, was the deadliest dueling weapon in history for precisely this reason).

In fact, the “right of way” rule in sport fencing is a training tool meant specifically for the purpose of letting you survive a duel, and you can’t survive a duel if you let yourself get stabbed, no matter how badly you kill the other guy.  (You can, but I’ll get to that.)

Anyway, the point is that there’s a problem with this right of way rule, and that problem is that a lot of academically-trained fencers rely on it.  Let’s say I’m a competent swordsman, and I go to attack you.  I present my attack and thrust straight in, without binding your blade or hitting it out of the way or anything — if I assume that you’re a decent enough swordsman, I can trust that you’ll try to parry me, rather than just stabbing blindly back.

But what if you’re an idiot?

Well, then we’re both dead, and that’s the reason for the old truism:  “The greatest swordsman in the world doesn’t fear the second greatest — he fears the worst swordsman, because he doesn’t know what the damn fool is going to do.”

A poor swordsman is better prepared for a duel by not practicing any of the standard parries or thrusts, because then the bastard will try to use them, which is only going to get him killed by the better swordsman who’s spent his life practicing how to respond to just such techniques.  If you’re a bad swordsman and you just flail around like a madman, then at least you’ve got a chance of confusing the other guy.  (This is not a surefire technique, by the way; it’s a chance, but it’s a small chance, you’re probably still going to die.)

This is why during that preparation scene in “Shindig,” I get overwhelmed with a sense of “dude, why even bother?”  Now, of course, this is ultimately a character-building scene — the idea that Mal would stay up practicing late into the night is meant to reveal that he’s the sort of person who would do that, even though it is basically pointless.  And good, a deeper reading of the scene has left me a little more comfortable with it — I’m bringing it up now because I think it’s a useful illustration of just how crazy the idea of having one night to prepare for a duel is.

2.  The Weapons

This part does still bug me a little bit.  So, first Mal is practicing with that fat, curved blade.  This is a Chinese weapon called a “dao”; it was not really a dueling weapon (except among Shaolin Kung Fu masters) and was typically carried as a sidearm by spearmen — if you lost your spear in a fight, a fat, heavy chopping sword is going to do you some good, as you can use it to try to lop off the heads of spears, or push past them and fighting in nice and close.

Mal is cutting with it, Inara hands him a smallsword and tells him to thrust instead.  Everything they’re saying, that a cut is stronger, but a thrust is faster and actually it doesn’t need to be that strong, all of that is true — that’s not the weird part.  The weird part is:  these two weapons are nothing at all alike.  I mean, not even remotely similar weapons.  Everything I said about sabres and smallswords from the previous posts is true here, but the dao is even shorter and fatter than a cavalry sabre, and that makes it all twice as true.

Watching it the first time through blew my mind because doesn’t Mal know what kind of swords he’s going to be fighting with?  In codified dueling, you typically both fight with identical weapons — this is because the purpose of a duel is never to kill your opponent.  The purpose of a duel is to show that you’re better than they are, something that you sometimes accomplish by killing them.  The killing is ancillary, though.  And it’s one of the reasons why dueling is the province of the nobility, and there’s something kind of declassé about fighting a peasant in a duel:  I’m a French aristocrat; the notion that I should have to prove that I’m better than a peasant is, itself, insulting.

There were asymmetric duels — my favorite was one that I think came from the Talhoffer manuscript, a judicial duel in which one person had to stand in a hole with a mace, while the other person stood outside the hole with a sack of rocks.  But usually when you see the kind of dueling culture that led to duels of honor, you also see a corresponding increase in a sense of parity — swords are brought out in “braces” which is a fancy way of saying “pairs”, so that there’s no question that the duel was fought on equal footing (see the end of Hamlet:  “These foils have all a length?”), because you can’t prove that you’re better than someone else if there’s any question about whether or not you might have just had a better sword (again, you can, and I’ll get to that in Part Five, “Paying Homage”, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense here).

But above all, the weirdest part isn’t that Mal seems to be vacillating between two completely different weapons, each of which has a many-centuries history of evolution in terms of its use and style — it’s not even the fact that, when it comes time for the duel, his opponent is actually using a third weapon:  a fat-looking swept-hilt rapier.  Okay, you know, maybe this IS one of those duels where the duelists can use whatever weapons they feel like — a Thunderdome duel, where if you manage to grab the chainsaw, you’re allowed to use a chainsaw.  It doesn’t exactly jive with the sort of dueling culture that I feel like they’re trying to establish (which culture, I should point out, was never, ever referred to again during the admittedly limited number of episodes we were able to see), but okay.

The weirdest part is that when the camera pans over to Mal, we now see that he’s got a completely different weapon.  This is a kind of standard-looking cavalry sabre.  So, not only is this not a duel where both swordsmen are expected to use the same weapon — something at least that has historical precedent — but it’s also a duel that Mal Reynolds intends to fight with a weapon that is actually completely different from either of the weapons he stayed up all night practicing with.

That just seems weird to me and, if I can lapse into a theatrical mode for a moment, it seems like it’s probably an issue on the part of the director or the props designer, rather than the fight master.  Most folks who do work on fight choreography and have their own weapons usually have them in pairs — hell, I’ve only ever had to professionally choreograph two (illegally, because I’m not in the Union), and even I have a bunch of pairs of weapons, since it’s much more likely that I’m going to have to choreograph a symmetric duel than I am an asymmetric one.

I don’t know what the thoughts were at this stage, though I’m sure someone did have sound reasoning behind it; it’s just that, from the outside, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

(One last note about the weapons:  Rapiers — the kind of sword that what’s-his-name has in this fight — typically come in two varieties: swept hilt, in which the hilt is made up of that weird cage of bars that wraps around your hand, and cup hilt, in which the hit is just a big cup with no holes in it.  The musketeers typically used cup-hilt rapiers — except in the Disney movie The Three Musketeers, where D’Artagnan uses a swept-hilt.  Swept-hilts are fancy, and they make a lot of sense for shithead gentry to carry around because they are pretty, but let me tell you they are a god-damn HAZARD.  In my personal experience, carrying a swept-hilt rapier is tantamount to begging that someone stab you in the fingers.)

Continued in Part Five.

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