Swordplay Bias

I came across the end fight for Star Wars Episode 1 today and remembered something I thought of a few years back. American films treat fencing and swordplay differently than empty handed arts, especially non-boxing arts. Fencing and swordplay seem to have always received the royal treatment with wide shots, long takes, and long fight scenes in general.This has been the case since the early days of American films with Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and any other film with sword-fighting heroes. fencing

Mark of Zorro (1940):

I don’t know anything about fencing, but doing a quick search on Youtube reveals that the average fencing match seems to last roughly five seconds, and for good reason: that’s when someone gets speared in the face. The match is over! Granted that’s how point sparring typically goes in empty handed martial arts, but you’ll probably live if someone lands a punch on you.

Fencing compilation:

Fencing is still treated the same today.

Rob Roy – Liam Neeson duels Tim Roth

The Princess Bride – The Chatty Duel

Darth Maul’s (Ray Park) fight from Star Wars Episode 1:

Despite the short length of any real fencing match, American films love to dramatize fencing matches by making them extremely long and complex, complete with dialog and plenty of good gags. They’re almost always spectacular, and anyone with or without a lick of fencing knowledge can enjoy them immensely. The opposite logic seems to apply to empty handed fight scenes. Shaky camera, short takes, and short fights in general (always remember the truncated finale from Shanghai Knights) are supposed to do justice to the non-swordfighters, but nobody ever actually buys that. The worst is the notion that Americans don’t “understand” Asian martial arts and get impatient with longer fight scenes. So why do empty handed martial art scenes in American films suck so badly by comparison?

Is fencing somehow “easier” for actors to master than empty handed martial arts, and that allows the cameraman to pull back further and the editor to avoid rapid-fire editing? Are these swordfight scenes actually very simplistic and amateur and I just can’t tell? Do studios/directors just put more effort into them because they’re more “western” and need less biased coverage than martial arts?

My guess is that America’s “dueling” history is much more engrained with the sword than with the hands or feet, and that has laid the foundation for a more swordplay-based action system in American film. Despite the overwhelming popularity of mixed martial arts in the past decade, sword trainers for film still have 30-50 years MORE experience in the industry than empty-handed trainers. Empty-handed martial arts still relatively new, but give it a generation and we’ll probably see American fight scenes like these but with kicks, punches, and throws.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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6 thoughts on “Swordplay Bias

  1. I think Swordplay is a lot easier for actors to do because there is less fear of getting punched in the face. and its easier to swing a sword and look good, but not everyone can throw a good looking punch.

    also in america, people are so into boxing and now ufc that they always utter the phrase “that wouldn’t happen in a real fight” which is probaly true, but most people dont know what would happen in a real sword fight, so its easier to lie to the crowd. just my 2 cents, good post

  2. I never noticed that before but thats very true. I think the reason fencing and sword fighting is placed in such emphasis is because america has built up a notion that “Oh thats so unrealistic” due to the fact that everyone has thrown some punch at some time. Everyone is too caught up in how people “really” fight. People are more accustomed to their hands, but not with swords. So since most havnt touched a sword but seen movies with these elongigated fight scenes, they accept over the top sword choreography more than intricated hand choreo. I really lost my train of thought in this haha

  3. Hah don’t sell yourself short Devin I followed that.

    And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my time in independent action, it’s that general audiences are ready for dramatic and elaborate empty-handed fight scenes in full view. They’re ready and they don’t even know it.

  4. I once read an American critic reviewing a pretty bad martial arts movie, can’t remember which one though. But in his review he said that hand to hand combat just can’t translate as well to the big screen, and that unless you have weapons the choreography won’t be as creative. i thought it unfair to make such a sweeping generalization when reviewing one bad movie. I think it has to do with the lack of mainstream talent in America, whereas with fencing you don’t need as much talent to make the fight look good. But I have a feeling hand to hand martial arts fighting will be in high demand real soon, if it isn’t already. Tony Jaa got one of his movies into American theaters, after all.

  5. My two cents is most people can accept a long sword fight as “believable” because if the two swordsman are good, then no contact is made except for by the swords. So no one is getting hurt and they could go on and on. With empty handed fights, where people are getting constantly punched and kicked, it begins to feel a little too much. Like, “no one could take that many hits and not be hurt” kinda thing. Sometimes they barely bleed.

    I know for me that’s always been an issue. unless the film is going for comedy or supernatural action, or the fighters are so good they never land blows, then drawn out empty-handed fights scenes can start to seem too tough to swallow. And I’m only saying this from layman’s POV. I understand the art of fight choreography enough to know that it’s an amazing feat in and of itself. But most movie watchers don’t experience that way. Whoa, sorry this was so long…

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