My AWARD-WINNING* series returns! As you all know, I like to talk about swords, and that is what I am going to do right now. If you DIDN’T know, then you might like to start over at the beginning of this series of articles. Otherwise, let’s just get right to it. I am going to start off with talking about the last fight from the new Conan the Barbarian movie and use it as a jumping-off point to address one of my swordfighting bêtes-noir:
1. Two-Sword Style
(So, many apologies, but I actually have no idea how to get video of the fight that I’m talking about; I can’t find it on YouTube, and generally if I can’t find something on YouTube, I just give up and stop looking for it, which is what happened here.)
Conan the barbarian is a MIGHTY BARBARIAN, of course, and he is facing off at the end against Khalar Zym, who is a less mighty barbarian, and instead uses a pair of swords that he whirls around like lawnmower blades.
This whole scene has that same sort of sense to it that The Scorpion King did, which I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed: it’s usually the big, strong guy whose power is a natural consequence of being huge who is the good guy, and then he’s fighting against a smaller, weaker man who uses superior technique as a kind of cheating. Obviously, this is not universal, but you see it often enough that I thought it was worth mentioning. I don’t know what it means, or even if it means anything, it’s not even what I’m here for.
Let’s talk for a minute about Two-Sword Style. It is true that there are several martial arts that train in the practice of paired weapons — Silat and Wing Chun both use pairs of large knives (roughly in the machete range); Southern Shaolin kung fu uses the twin saber (“nandao”, and I think that’s what Khalar Zym has got in this case). You can even find Western martial arts that address how to fight when you’ve got two swords, or a sword and a knife, or even a sword and your free hand.
The thing about this, though, is that they all train in a similar way, and it’s to avoid the number one problem that people who’ve trained in single-hand weapons have when they try to learn paired weapons: they treat their hands like two separate entities, instead of one asymmetrical pair. That sounds weird, let me see if I can clarify.
So, imagine that a guy is chopping at you, and you stab him with a sword in your right hand and simultaneously parry with the sword in your left hand. And you can either parry high with your left hand, or you can parry low with your left hand, depending on where he’s chopping. Common sense tells us that these are three different techniques: a stab, a high parry, and a low parry. In fact, they are TWO different techniques: a simultaneous stab-with-high-parry, and a simultaneous stab-with-low-parry. Unlike those of the mighty ocotopus, human limbs are not equipped with rudimentary autonomous intelligences; we can’t just set one hand off to parry, and one hand off to stab. If you’re going to use matched weapons, you’ve got to treat your pair of hands as a single object that just sometimes makes asymmetric shapes.
What does this mean, for this fight then? Well, if you watch Conan the Barbarian and you fast-forward to the Invader Zym / Conan battles, watch the way he uses those swords. You’ll notice that one of the techniques he uses is to take both swords and swing them along the same arc, at the same target. The thing is, this is a completely crazy thing to do. It’s not just a crazy thing to do because what is the plan here, exactly? You’re going to hit Conan SO HARD by using TWO SWORDS AT ONCE that you’re going to plow through his guard? Are you kidding? Look at the size of that fucker!
Equally important, the whole point of matched weapons is that one weapon will do one thing, while the second weapon does something else, so that a person with only one weapon will be hopelessly outmached trying to keep up with you. When you throw two identical cuts with your two weapons at the same target, all you do is make it really easy for someone to pick that parry up (consider, for example, if Invader Zym had swung his sword at Conan’s neck while simultaneously throwing a low cut to his knee — Conan has to react to both at once, choosing which to parry [almost always it’s going to be the high cut, because we prioritize threats to our faces first, and he’s going to try and kick his knee out of the way — but look, even if you don’t hit him, you’ve got him off-balance and on the run], letting you gain and keep control of the action).
And importantly, this is something that doesn’t happen (at least, not with people who are good with two swords, and well-trained), because it’s not like each hand individually figured it would take a shot at Conan’s neck — the only reason that you would, in a fight, use a technique like that is because you practiced using a technique like that. Remember, these aren’t two independent entities behaving on their own; they are a single pair of entities, trained to work in concert with each other.
2. Split-Sword Technique
Invader Zym also has these particular kind of swords, the pair of sabers that you pull out as a single saber, and you sometimes swing it around a little bit, and then it splits into two sabres and you use it separately; you see them in wushu exercises sometimes, and a lot when there’s an Evil Chinese Guy in a movie. I don’t know exactly where these come from — I’m definitely not an expert in the history of Chinese swordsmanship — but I can make a couple educated guesses, and this is going to lead me to a second point.
The thing is, martial arts are kind of a mixed bag of usable techniques. They are, none of them, designed explicitly to only contain fighting moves, or “moves that you would use in battle”, &c. All martial arts — even the Western ones — have training exercises, that you practice to get stronger or jump higher or move faster, but you wouldn’t necessarily fight with. And all of them have “noise” — stuff that someone threw into the form because they though it looked cool, or because they SUPPOSED it would be good in a fight, or because someone else had used it once and maybe they got lucky but didn’t realize it and so treated the technique as viable and effective. And the thing about bad techniques is that, since fight-masters don’t typically have to fight very often, a lot of times there’s no one to report back that a technique doesn’t pass field testing. And the other thing is, in a demonstration style (like modern wushu) non-combat techniques don’t matter as long as they look neat.
My suspicion is that this matched-sword style began as a way of carrying two swords easily in one sheath (possibly because martial artists are no more immune from the “if one is awesome, two are AWESOMER” attitude that characterizes 90s comics artists than anyone else). They develop a variety of paired weapon techniques for actual fighting, and also a variety of “show-off” techniques — flourishes that are meant to show how fast and coordinated you are. Over time, the flourishes get incorporated into the curriculum, but the explanations don’t, and — as actual swordfighting becomes less and less common — those flourishes eventually come to be regarded as legitimate fighting techniques.
This is the only reason I can think of for a guy to pull out a paired saber, fight with it like it’s one sword for a little while, then separate it and fight with two. It is certainly not because he was actually trying to kill a guy; that’d be like a boxer pretending he’s only got one arm.
3. John Carter, Master Swordsman (of Mars)
While the fights in this movie are pretty good, there is a thing to me that is a pretty glaring problem that, I think, had it been solved would have lent the movie a subtle but interesting character and it’s a shame it was overlooked. Bad dramaturgy, I guess. See if you can guess what it is:
Right, here’s John Carter, just wrecking the Warhoon, and actually, there are two problems that I have with this and the first is: for fuck’s sake, that is too many Warhoons. There are like a hundred guys there and John Carter is just laying waste to them like fucking SUPERMAN. I don’t have a problem with John Carter being the best swordsman in the world, and I don’t have a problem with him killing twenty guys, but there are A HUNDRED OF THEM. That whole thing was ill-considered.
And the second thing isn’t quite as obvious here, but I’m using it as an example because it is how he fights earlier, and this is the only fight video I can find.
The answer of course is: two-sword style. That is to say, where in the HELL did John Carter learn to fight with two swords?
It’s indicative of an attitude, I think, that fails to recognize that matched weapons are not, like, an upgraded technique from one weapon. It’s not like you learn to fight with a sword in your right hand, and then you learn to fight with a sword in your left hand, and then you can just fight with both at once, because TWO SWORDS IS AWESOMER.
All swordfighting techniques are a product of their time and history, and matched weapons are as much a specific part of the culture that produced them as the kind of weapon that John Carter would know how to fight with which is: cavalry saber.
The thing is, a cavalry saber isn’t just a weapon that you typically use one-handed. Unlike rapier and dagger, or even the smallsword and free-hand that you find in things like Hope’s new method, saber trains specifically without a second-hand weapon. Why?
Because you use it on fucking horseback, you need the other hand to keep a hold of the reins of your horse.
I’m not saying that John Carter couldn’t have learned to fight with two weapons (obviously, not while he was at West Point or whatever, but maybe he hung out with the Apache and learned their two-tomahawk style fighting [I do not know if such a thing exists]; maybe there was a time he was with the Tharks that we didn’t see, in which he learned their multi-arm fighting style), but the fact that the way that John Carter fights should be a particular and unique expression of his character and history, and if he’s going to fight in a different way, then the process of learning that should also be a part of his character, that is the missed opportunity I think.
Especially in modern movies, so much of the swordplay is — I don’t want to say reduced, but kind of homogenized into this semi-kung-fu style, in which all of the techniques bear an awful lot of resemblance to their similar, East-Asian counterparts. Which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, and if you were going to learn how to fight with a sword now, then you’d probably be served to learn all of these different techniques. But the thing is that a fighting style is exactly like an accent, and just as it’s important for a character to get the accent of his voice correct (which Taylor Kitsch also didn’t really do), it’s vitally important that he get the accent of his body correct — not because it looks fake or it looks wrong, but because it’s generic, and permitting even a corner of your movie to be generic is exactly the kind of thing that’s going to get everyone saying, “Oh, yeah, it was a fun time,” without it leaving any real lasting impression on you.
*Note: this series has not actually won any awards.