I’m going to point out the cheat right away instead of hiding it at the end. Limiting this to Hollywood films eliminates any number of terrific sword fights from foreign films. No Japanese samurai epics. No Polish saber duels. Etc. And — here comes perhaps an even bigger cheat — I’m limiting this to films I happen to own copies of. Pretty convenient for me. I don’t have to decide, for example, if The Duelist beats out any of the films I’ve chosen, and, if so, which fight therein would get the nod. So, let me get on with my much simplified task. Drop me a note with your own suggestions, criticism of my choices, or related obloquy and calumny.
I’ve set no particular order, so I begin arbitrarily with #1: The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds. I’m choosing the fight in the convent courtyard. I could pick almost any one from either this film or The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge. They are all brilliant and entertaining. But the convent fight encapsulates what makes the sword fights in these films so great: creativity, humor, tension, acrobatics, yet all the while conveying a sense of immediacy and realism.
#2. Conan the Barbarian. One could go with the wonderful extended sequence of “rescuing” the princess from Thulsa Doom’s pleasure chambers, with that exquisite soundtrack. But I’ve selected the fight near the end between Conan and Rexor. There is admittedly a dearth of masterful swordplay in this sequence. The two men appear rather slow and clumsy if viewed a certain way. But what that allows is a clear, blow-by-blow exchange, each swing of the sword given time to be appreciated. The choreography plays up the visceral power of the two antagonists and allows us to feel the pathos and rage of each man. Remember, Rexor may be the bad guy, but Conan had just killed his son (in a memorably horrific fashion.)
#3. The Princess Bride. Sure, the duel between the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya is on everyone’s list. But there’s a reason for that. It is by no means realistic. It is pure theater, fencing as spectacle, as dance. But for what it is, it’s glorious. It is the apotheosis of the fencing choreographer’s art. If watching it doesn’t put a smile on your face, check your pulse.
#4. Highlander. There had to be one, right? I suppose most would pick the climatic duel between Macleod and the Kurgan. But my preference is the first fight, between Macleod and Fasil in the parking lot. I love the sweeping camera movement contrasted with the constraints of the parking lot, the acrobatics, the contrast of two entirely different types of blades, the improvisation, the running fight, the hide-and-seek suspense. Plus, it’s the first one, setting the tone for the film. Though it does lack an anthemic Queen song.
#5. The Fellowship of the Rings. Aragorn vs. Lurtz. After all these elaborate, entertaining duels, here is one I appreciate for its abbreviated brutality. It is long enough to generate tension, but eschews extensive thrust-parry-riposte routines and gets right down to one opponent hacking another to pieces as efficiently as possible.
That’s my list. What do you think?
I’ve written plenty of sword fights. Many appear in short stories, notably the Cesar the Bravo tales. Then there’s the swashbuckling in Escapement and Resource, a couple of other, unconnected stories. I can help you locate any of these if you’re interested. Or check out my Falchion’s Company series. Even Thick As Thieves contains a bit of swordplay.
Okay, that’s the end of advertising. Now, on to the next entry in Magnus Stoneslayer’s diary.
The most challenging days can often wind up the most rewarding, dear diary. Any challenge, any obstacle can be overcome. Approaching adversity with the proper confident attitude is the first step, and confidence is not something I’ve ever lacked.
Confidence, as I’ve stated, is the essential foundation. But without the knowledge, skill set, and competence necessary to justify that confidence, one is more likely than not to quickly become a corpse with a baffled expression.
Knowledge, then, is a useful thing. As a barbarian I can often succeed on instinct and natural ability alone. As I age, however, my growing store of knowledge proves more and more indispensable. Today provides a good example. Reaching even my threshold of dehydration, I staggered gratefully into a small oasis, a pleasant stroke of luck. The oasis happened to be the temporary bivouac of a band of desert raiders, a not so pleasant stroke of luck. This was a decided obstacle. A challenge. Despite my thirst my confidence remained unshaken. It only remained to deploy knowledge.
One of the important facts I’ve gathered is that outlaw organizations – bandits, pirates, marauding hordes – all hold to the same simple rule: if you are strong enough to best the leader you become the leader. It’s natural law, pack law, something a barbarian understands in his very bones. (I’m not so sure I like this correlation between the outlaw band and the barbarian tribe, dear diary. But I will set that aside for now.)
So, of course, I challenged the raider’s chief. Ragged, parched, and chapped from desert exposure, I did not, perhaps, look my most formidable. The chieftain – a big brute sporting an eye patch – certainly accepted my challenge lightly enough. He came at me with confidence. But he lacked the knowledge, the skill set, and the competence to overcome the challenge. It was his last mistake.
Thus, dear diary, after starting the day on the verge of death, I find myself leading a ferocious band of desert warriors. I cannot laud too highly the confident attitude. In that spirit, I confidently wish you a good night.