Monday, November 10, 2008

Five favorite sword fights

As the author of a novel called The Sword-Edged Blonde, about a character derisively called a "sword jockey," I've spent some time thinking about, reading about and watching lots of swordplay. For such an outdated mode of fighting, it permeates our popular culture. From Star Wars to Highlander, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Kill Bill, we love to see people square off with sharp metal in their hands. Below, I've listed five I consider the best.

First up is my favorite swordfight, from Richard Lester's 1973 all-star version of The Three Musketeers. Actually, I love all the fights in this movie and its sequel The Four Musketeers, because they don't seem choreographed or staged: there's a clumsy violence that's exactly right for tough men fighting for their lives, using both swords and anything else handy.



The swordplay in this scene from The Princess Bride tells us as much about the characters as any stretch of dialogue. The viewer likes both combatants and wants neither to lose, even though it's clear one of them must. The fight itself mixes dazzling choreography with the wit of screenwriter William Goldman and the actors' perfect deadpan delivery. If only something could be done about that cheesy synthesizer score....



In Knights of the Round Table, noble Sir Lancelot (Robert Taylor) seeks to join King Arthur's (Mel Ferrer) cause. But when they finally cross paths, neither knows or recognizes the other. So after jointly defeating a band of outlaw knights, they battle each other for hours, to a draw. Only then do their true identities come out.

(Alas, I could find no clip of this.)

At the climax of Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro, the nameless samurai (yes, the original version of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name) faces off against Hanbei Muroto, his opposite number and a man he's come to like and respect. Their final confrontation probably contains the least number of blows of any classic swordfight, but you can practically see the fight in their eyes as they stare each other down before an ending so outlandishly over-the-top it's still a shocker.



And finally, the classic. This is probably the best swordfight in movie history, because of its narrative purpose in resolving the story, its presence in a definitive motion picture version of a universally-known tale, the glorious Korngold score accompanying it, the skill of the actors in pulling it off (Basil Rathbone was, in fact, a champion fencer), and the simple fact that no one, ever, will be as cool as Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood:



Any suggestions for scenes I may have missed?

5 comments:

Deborah Blake said...

You hit my top 3 favorites--Robin Hood (#1, of course), The Princess Bride, and the Musketeers. Good job!
Deborah

Dori said...

I just had a Highlander movie marathon. I do love those sword fights. There is something about a guy and his sword. LOVE THEM!

The Dunaway Family said...

Nice list! Your comment about the realistic clumsiness of the 3M fight reminded me of another favorite -- Mercutio and Tybalt in Zefirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATelecWOgmw&feature=related). The ensuing Romeo and Tybalt (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMDJf-ip7Zg&feature=related) is pretty great too, and really captures the desperate body language of a teenage kid mad with grief.

Alex Bledsoe said...

Thanks for the clips; I'd forgotten about R&J. Interesting how Michael York is such a strong presence in both 3M/4M and R&J; he's not really thought of as an "action" performer, but he uses fighting styles appropriate to his characters, making the fights as crucial to the story as any dialogue.

Tim Hall said...

Ah, so glad you didn't overlook Robin Hood! I can't imagine a better one. And Princess Bride is a classic.

Of course, for sentimental reasons I'd probably include the first Obi-Wan/Darth V. fight that ends Star Wars...