Ah, swordplay. Few things are quite as exciting on the silver screen as watching two (or more) people attempting to dismember one another with sharpened pieces of tempered steel. Hollywood gets a lot wrong when it comes to swordplay even in otherwise awesome/decent movies. While there are certain inaccurate things done for practical filming and safety purposes, a lot of what we see in movies has no excuse. If you happen to be a swordplay choreographer, here’s a list of things you should watch out for to make your fight appear at least somewhat realistic.
You see this all the time, but one of the most prominent examples is in “Return of the Jedi.” After Vader taunts Luke about his failings, how much Obi-wan failed as a teacher, and threatens to turn Leia to the Dark Side, Luke seems to forget he’s in a sword fight and thinks his lightsaber is a baseball bat. We can excuse him being angry (though Yoda might have a few things to say about it), but were he to try this in a real fight against a competent swordsman, he’d get killed in pretty short order.
Swinging a sword is a) pretty tiring after a while and b) is subject to momentum. Whenever you miss, your sword isn’t going to stop; it’s going to keep traveling along its path and leave you open to be filleted like a tasty trout unless you recover. It’s too easy to get into the mindset that you have to put a lot of power into a blow. Swords are designed to cut, and it’s best to use its weight and edge to your advantage. You only need to get the sword in a few inches to make a mortal wound, not chop the other guy in half. Here’s some test cutting. Notice how the swordsman keeps his motions minimal.
This has to be one of the biggest faults of swordplay in film. As awesome as the Star Wars films are, I have to pick on them again. You know the drill: as the John Williams score swells, the Jedi and Sith in question lock sabers, pressing back and forth against one another. Locking blades for a prolonged time is pointless because it’s using extra energy and keeping the sword unnecessarily committed.
Sword fights only last a few seconds, if that. On the silver screen, it’s different. In swordplay, like in other martial arts, you want to meet hard force with a soft response, and soft force with a hard response, and you judge this by the instant of pressure you feel when the blades make contact.
When your force (no pun intended) is stronger, you can power through and let your weapon strike home. If your enemy has put more force in the blow, don’t try to resist more than necessary. Instead, let it glide off your weapon and use the momentum to make a critical blow while his sword is elsewhere. Check out this video for a look at how it’s done.
If you watch wuxia films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, you see this all the time. Two fighters will stop and take a really flowery pose: arms extended, sword pointed out, crouched deep, etc. Some of these stances are part of Chinese swordplay.
In martial arts, the purpose of stances are to put your body in a position to move, attack, and defend in the most efficient manner possible. Taking a stance that’s too low is stable, but it sacrifices movement. Taking a stance that’s too high will do vice versa, that is, sacrifice stability in favor of movement. In mortal swordplay, you can’t afford any slip-ups whatsoever, so you need a balance.
From my experience, it’s best to keep your knees slightly bent and stand lightly on the balls of your feet. Keep your body relatively square to your target, with the line of your hips forming a right angle with the line of sight. One foot should be forward, and your weight should be evenly balanced between them. The sword needs to be in front of you as often as possible to close off your enemy’s approach.
Depending on your tradition, you’ll have different ready stances: kenjutsu has seigan-gamae and hasso-gamae (among others), German longsword has Vom Tag and Pflug (also among others). The left-hand swordsman in the image below is in Vom Tag.
Vom Tag (left) is the default ready stance in German longsword. It lends itself well to diagonal downward blows from the shoulder. AlberPassive Blocking/Attacking the Sword (Pattycake Swordplay)
Part of the reason swordplay in film lasts so long is that the combatants seem to have a thing for attacking each other’s weapons, or to be more generous, swinging to passively place their sword in the path of the attacker’s blade. By passively blocking, you’re allowing the enemy to dictate the terms of engagement.
Every motion should go toward advancing your position, so if you must block, do it at an angle. This also is easier on the sword; full-on 90-degree impact on a sharp edge is likely to damage or break the sword.
Hollywood swordplay has a bizarre relationship with mortal wounds and the effects thereof. The fight choreographers and directors often err wildly in both directions, depending on the needs of the story. Either a fatal wound causes the villain to drop instantly to the ground, or the hero grits his teeth and keeps on until he finishes the villain and dies thereafter, no matter how long it takes.
In reality the enemy has a few seconds or more to get his revenge. Adrenaline can dull pain, you might not have hit a major blood vessel, or you might have missed vital organs. Check out this page for an in-depth analysis complete with historical anecdotes.
To sum up, wounds to the heart won’t be instantly fatal unless you hit the right ventricle with a stab or you make a lateral cut across the heart. Head wounds are best done through the eye socket or the sinuses because of the hardness of the skull.
If you keep all these factors in mind when fighting or choreographing a fight, you’re one step closer to making a good-looking sword duel on screen. Swordplay isn’t something we practice in life-or-death scenarios anymore, but you can make it look convincing in a historical context.