I am not going to talk about what sword fight is the best in film, or even what is the worst one, but rather I am going to talk about the art form itself and how it has really fallen in Hollywood film. Yes, they are still thrilling, but when I stopped watching the fight, and started paying attention to the actual action on screen, I began to notice that the fight scenes in modern film were missing something.
I am excluding Asian cinema in this analysis because I am talking about classic Hollywood films. This doesn’t mean that overseas films are lacking or anything, but it’s late, and my brain can only analyze so much before exploding.
Also, this article would last forever.
A brief history lesson
Sword fighting for the stage allowed a production to have a more dramatic conclusion and give the audience something thrilling to see while they watched the stage. The fighting was choreographed with the audience’s viewpoint kept in mind which allowed the actors to essentially cheat their movements in order to make their actions seem more intense or riveting from the crowds PoV.
When film first started coming around, stage combat was integrated and used whenever Hollywood made a period piece film. The actors were drilled and taught how to fight a specific scene. This is still used today, but with modern cinema techniques, the training isn’t shown off as well as it was in the past.
What isn’t done today is showing the action. Now, I’m not saying that film has no action today, that isn’t it. What I am saying is that modern Hollywood films use a lot of close ups and medium shots without the actors in the same frame. This is done in order to make the action feel more intense, but it also cuts down on choreography for the scene and saves time; something every shoot worries about when they are in the field.
Time has effectively killed off seeing two talented fighters on screen, which is a real shame, because seeing a well choreographed sword fight go off without as few cuts as possible is a real treat. It allows the actors in the scene to really utilize and pace the action rather than having an editor do that job for them in post.
Case in point, The Court Jester with Danny Kaye (Danny Kaye was a badass, but that’ll be another article for another day).
The fighting here is shown predominantly in the wide. There are inserts and some close ups, but they are done for a reason, and that’s to allow for comedic bits to occur. Seeing the skill on screen is always fun and inspiring to watch because you are seeing two people parry, counter and attack one another without feeling like you are going to have a seizure from either the amount of cuts in the shot or the lighting changing direction within those cuts.
I present a few more examples:
The Great Race
The Princess Bride
Now these films are predominately comedies and this kind of combat lends itself pretty well to that genre. What I am stressing here is that while these two films are meant to be funny, what the audience is seeing on screen is a lot of skill and hard earned practice.
Now compare those scenes to The Mask of Zorro:
The action here is muddled. You never really see the main actors fighting one another in the same shot and whenever a major hit is about to be landed we are given a close up. The cutting in this fight scene really undercuts the action happening on screen. We get it’s dramatic, but it doesn’t really hit as hard as it could have and this is mainly because the cutting acts as a disconnect between the action on screen and the emotion that the audience is experiencing. In Zorro the speed of the cuts and music is creating the drama rather than the actors in the scene. If you want the audience to be floored by something in a film, show it and do not cut away from it. Cutting is telling the audience, “This is important and you should be paying attention” letting the scene run its course is saying, “Pay attention because this is important”.
If you watch a lot of modern Hollywood films, you’ll notice this technique being used for the vast majority of the main fight sequences. Allowing the audience to witness what is happening in a film is going to not only make the fight feel more impressive, but it will even be remembered. In my humble opinion, if you hack up the action in a sword fight, you are lessening the effect it can have on an audience; and this can even be applied to car chases and hand to hand combat.
Or you could just continue to hack up all the action and be a jerk.