Movie Contrivance #15: Sword Fighting

I have two major qualms about sword fights in movies.

The first comes to you thanks to a delightful little film called Snow White and the Huntsman. My two-word review of this movie is: “Good try.” It’s the type of movie that has some solid aspects on the surface, but in the long run it will serve as fodder for many a late-night ad-lib.

One element of the movie that I found amusing is Kristen Stewart’s ability to wield a sword and shield with ease. Stewart can’t weigh much more than 100 pounds, and I have difficulty believing that she could lift a Big Gulp, much less a broadsword. And yet she charges into battle (her first battle, by the way, after being locked in a tower for most of her first 18 or so years) twirling a sword as if it’s a toothpick.

This qualm isn’t just about Snow White and the Huntsman–rather, it’s about any movie that involves sword fighting. You see, swords are very, very heavy. I had the pleasure of trying to lift one when I met author Brian Jacques when I was in middle school.

In medieval-period movies, people wield swords with ease, but those are prop swords, not real metal swords. Most broadswords take two hands to swing, and although a strong person could fight with a smaller sword with one hand, there’s none of this twirling the sword with a flick of the wrist like you see in Lord of the Rings. You’d sprain your wrist trying that and then would immediately be killed by a dwarf-hobbit hybrid.

What are they aiming for?!

The second qualm is in regards to the insistence of swordfighters in movies to try to cut their opponents sword in half instead of the opponent themselves. The next time you watch a movie with sword fighting, watch how often the two people aim for each others’ swords even when they have a clear shot for the body.

I’m not trying to glorify violence, and I understand that staged sword fights are probably more entertaining than actual sword fights, but I think the audience can see through these staged dances. They look like actors swinging swords instead of real sword fighters, which removes the stakes from the scene–if they’re not actually trying to hurt each other, why are they fighting? Why doesn’t one person just put his sword on the ground and let their opponent smash the sword to pieces?

Never is this more evident than in Star Wars. Not just the prequels; all 6 movies have sword fights where characters endlessly smash their opponent’s lightsabers instead of hitting the person. Some of these fights are choreographed so well that you can’t tell at first that they’re not actually fighting. But the illusion can only last for so long before you start to notice that the characters have no interest in hitting each other.

Can you think of an example of a movie where the characters look like they’re hefting heavy swords and are actually trying to hurt each other when they fight? I just watched the Game of Thrones finale, and there’s one sword fight that looks fairly realistic.


32 thoughts on “Movie Contrivance #15: Sword Fighting”

  1. Well, I have to admit that swords fights are not the thrill of a movie for me but I would have to say Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander.

    • Looks like Katy linked to the Pirates fight here too. Again, they seem much more interested in clashing swords than actually hurting the other person, but no one wants Orlando Bloom’s soft face to be cut up anyway.

    • The only way this could have been better is if they’d both had ladles and tried to duel with those–only by striking the ladles together of course, instead of actually hitting one another with them!

    • All I can say about this one is “hey, hey, hey, what is going on here!?” which will now be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. Thanks, Brad! 🙂

  2. Snow White and the Huntsman. What a weak movie! Fighting scene between the Evil Queen and Snow White was bad. It was NOT a fight scene. The Evil Queen could of easily won without all that villain speech. Like you said, it didn’t make sense that Snow White can ride into battle with a full armor and wield a sword and hold up a shield. It was just one of the worst sword fights in history.

    I think I need to look up some Game of Thrones sword fights.

    • Ha ha…that’s so true about her villain speech at the end! I guess that’s classic hubris, but it didn’t seem likely that a super powerful witch could fall to a tiny girl.

  3. Isn’t there a classic moment in Braveheart where one of the Scottish extras and one of the British extras face off, take a half-hearted swing but don’t connect to each other’s swords, then just stop fighting as if someone had yelled, “Cut!”?

  4. “You know NOTHING Jon Snow!” I’m beginning to wonder if you’re a Sci-Fi writer in Fantasy bindings. Broadswords are big and heavy, and ought to wielded by big land-workin folks (Scots, Norse, Germanics, maybe Bretons, etc). But, by the time you have the medieval feudal system, knights train (for physicality and skill) with a Longsword, a weapon designed to combine slashing and piercing. I mean they’re wearing a frickin tank on their body, yes they’re strong folks. In France and more gentile courts, you see Musketeers with lighter and thinner Rapiers, intended almost exclusively for piercing (like a fencing foil). Ironically, in Japan, you see Samurai warriors in natural plated armor, strapped with Katanas, another light, fast sharp blade for slashing. And in the middle east the guy that Indiana Jones shoots is spinning a Scimitar, a weapon that thickens as it extends from the handle, and is curved to add weight and force the the end of a slash.

    But we’re talking movie contrivances. Instead of answering your question (something I rarely find myself doing when commenting), I’ll give you an example of a scene where the fact that the sword is big and heavy matters; the end of Rob Roy. The guy in the frilly getup (Tim Roth) chooses a thin-bladed rapier, a good selection for close-quartered gentlemanly duel. Now, there’s not even a Braveheart-style Broadsword on the table, because we’re not cutting up our in-laws in the Highlands. This is a duel. So Liam Neeson (AKA Voice of C.S. Lewis’s Jesus-Lion; AKA Qui-gon-jin; AKA Zeus; AKA Ra’s al Goul; AKA Micheal Frickin’ Collins; Etc) grabs the shorter, cup-hilted Broader bladed sword (sacrificing speed for strength, and sacrificing agility with the hand and wrist, for a protected fist [only a win if you’re gonna punch the guy in the kisser]). Neeson’s swinging that damned heavy thing over his head in huge sweeping strokes, exhausting himself and getting pretty cut up in the process because he can’t keep up with the speed that the rapier gives his opponent. He can barely cross the room, and falls to his knees. Finally Neeson Hulks Out, GRABS Pierre’s sword barehanded, reaches for his sword and with one big slash, ends the fight. Morals, the right tool for the right job, and know your strengths.

    • Wow. I don’t know whether I should be impressed with your knowledge of swords or very, very scared. I’m going to go with both.

      Coincidentally, I was going to post the link to that Indiana Jones scene. Makes me laugh every time!

    • You certainly do know your swords, John. I should point out that even samurai swords are heavy–they’re just light in comparison to broadswords.

      That Rob Roy fight sounds pretty awesome–I love that they got to choose their weapon and that they had specific reasons behind each of their choices. I need to watch that.

  5. While Kristen Stewart nimbly wielding a Norman longsword is laughable, and Darth Maul aiming for Qui Gonn’s imaginary Master Blaster midget is effin’ ridiculous, I have to disagree with you on one point. Most European broadswords weighed between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds–not much heavier than a baseball bat. They also had a center of gravity between 1/3 and 1/2 the way from the hilt. Spinning and twirling such a weapon may seem difficult to a hundred pound actress or a guy who works in accounting, but plenty of brick layers, auto mechanics, fence installers (as opposed to “fencers”), or farm hands would have no problem with the physical demands of spinning a broadsword. Someone whose job it was to train with and kill with such a weapon would have even less a difficult time of it (as evidenced by a plethora of anectdotal accounts).

    Just my 2 cents.

    • Jason–You seem to know what you’re talking about, whereas I haven’t lifted a sword for years. 2.5-3.5 pounds seems really light, though. The sword I tried to lift in middle school was smaller than a broadsword, and I’m sure it was at least 20-30 pounds. Is it possible you’re off by one decimal point?

      You do have a fair point that a strong person whose job was to swing a sword would have no problem lifting it. I think twirling it might be a little excessive, but the people who were busy twirling swords instead of swinging them probably didn’t last long anyway.

      I Googled the weight, and it looks like you’re right! “As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs.”

      Maybe 13-year-old Jamey was just really, really weak.

      • Lol! The myth of the 40 lb sword is a contrivance of 19th and early 20th century bookworms–none of whom, I’d imagine, had ever wielded a broadsword. Lots of historical museum pieces exist at 2-4 lbs, though. I’ve swung a 5 lb iron maul, and it’s heavy, but still.a one handed weapon. German Zweihanders were upwards of 6 or 7 lbs (and I’ve handled replicas)–not so heavy that I can’t swing them, but WAY too heavy for a ten or fifteen minute workout.

        From what I know of hand tools (some of which are heavier than Scottish or German broadswords), I suspect a professional soldier could swing a 3 lb sword for about as long as a construction worker can swing a 5 lb mattock, or a farmer a 10 lb cording mallet.

        • I think a key part of it, as you said, is the balance. If the center of gravity is at the right place, a sword probably feels a lot easier to swing and control than if it’s off by a few inches. Thanks for the scoop!

  6. I have to bring to attention one of the most brilliant, classical pieces of movie fighting.


    While it isn’t JUST sword fighting, it is remarkable. In this clip, you see the following:

    -Rafael is aiming for the belly. He’s truly trying to shred the belly. No fakery here!
    – Leonardo has a truly inspired move that unfortunately ended in an epic fail. Both swords extended and the flying swordsman move. It should have worked.
    – The TMNT really work the whole “one at a time” thing. Again, it should have worked. Everyone knows it isn’t fair to gang up on someone, especially a dude wearing shoulder pads. They fight with honor.
    – Michaelangelo has the foresight to throw his nunchuaku in a place where Splinter can access them later. Perfection.

    As far as engrossing and realistic fighting, you don’t get much better than this.

  7. Check out this clip, from the 1968 Romeo and Juliet:

    Ignore the flourishes and brawling, but look at the swords. They’re light, sharp, and wickedly pointed–and a good example of swords popular in Italy and France during the 14th-16th c. Dueling weapons, not battlefield weapons, and probably less than 2 lbs.

    Battlefield, dueling, and cavalry swords were very different weapons, but even the heaviest broadswords were light enough to be fast. Slow swordsmen fared about as well as slow gunslingers.

    Most “slow” melee weapons (Zweihanders, pole axes, etc) were used in formation fighting, where masses of troops or support from more lightly armed soldiers countered their speed disadvantage.

    Back to the “center of gravity” comment, point heavy swords didn’t have to be heavy to give their mechanical advantage. A 1.5 lb machete is fast, deadly, and brutal against an unarmored opponent. A 2.5 lb cutlass or Chinese broadsword (“dao”) even moreso. Their point-heavy design and curved blades are best used in sweeping arcs. And kung fu practitioners can twirl a dao around for a while before fatiguing their arm or wrist. And they’re not even pros!

  8. First off, what’s to say Kristen Stewart’s Snow White (by the way I haven’t seen the movie yet) didn’t pull an Ashley Judd move from Double Jeopardy and work out while she was in the tower all this time? Maybe she destroyed her bed and used a bed post as a fake stunt sword to practice with until she was able to receive a real sword?

    Some of us (not mentioning names) who are similar in size, can lift about 300 pounds…maybe not very far, but still it is do-able? To ask a Monty Python-esque question, “How much does the sword weigh?” The shield she has, either way, it’s impossible to hold the shield and the sword at the same time! You are so right. Thank you for posting this, I might just wait til the DVD comes out!

    As far as favorite sword fighting scenes, maybe something from Gladiator? It’s been so long since seeing it. If you want an entertaining sword fight (where its OBVIOUS they go for swords in some scenes)…The Princess Bride. 🙂

  9. One thing about Star Wars lightsaber battles that should contribute to the swordplay and explains a lot of what you’re seeing is the Force. Unfortunately, it probably wasn’t intentional. But think about it…
    If you can you the force, you have some degree of prescience. So if that prescience is high enough and your reactions are quick enough, it should make it pretty much impossible for another Jedi/Sith to tag you with their lsaber.

    That would make the main focus of Jedi/Sith battles to disarm the opponent primarily, then attack the body. So, you attack their weapon. And, as I’m sure you noticed, most of these battles end with a disarming first, then murder. Most of the notable exceptions to this combat philosophy are high-ability Jedi vs low-ability ones/mundanes…which can easily be chalked up to lacking or limited prescience…

    • That’s a good point about the Force. As masters and apprentices of the Force, they’re operating at a different level than most of us. Although in some cases I think that would help them–if they know Darth Maul’s next move, why not just cut him down?

      If you watch the video, you’ll see a few points where they have clear body shots and they don’t take them–they’re busy twirling and spinning.

      I do like the Force argument, though. Sometimes I forget that among all the huge battles and droids and characters in the Star Wars universe, nothing brought out awe and wonder in me when I first saw Episode IV moreso than the Force. That’s what makes Star Wars stand out from all the other space operas.

  10. Also just did some quick research. So swords really were pretty light (<5lb). But, you're fooling yourself if you could swing that around for too long without being in great shape. I just grabbed a couple 2.5lb weights and tried to imitate a 5 minute duel…it's really tiring really fast.

    The first 3 minutes feel light then it just gets heavier and heavier. I'd estimate that I'd really need to stop at around 12 minutes, might start getting cramps around 15min. Granted if you're fighting for your life you'd push it out….just saying.

    There is a reason even elite athletes use really light weights when they're doing exercises with arms extended.

    Also, going back to your original point, I'd have to imagine that with the jarring you'd get from sword on sword contact you'd tire out even faster. So you'd want to avoid sword on sword contact as much as possible…

    • Matthew–Thanks for putting that theory to the test! I applaud you for doing it, even though it meant admitting that you have 2.5 pound weights. 🙂

      I’ve never tried boxing, but I’ve heard it’s exhausting, even though you’re not holding any weights when you box. I can only imagine how quickly you’d tired jabbing and swinging a sword, even if it isn’t all that heavy.

      • 8 oz boxing gloves are a half pound each; 12 oz gloves are 3/4 of a pound. These guys go 12 rounds while getting pounded on (esp welterweights).

        Professional smiths can spend half the day banging steel with a 6-8 lb hammer. I’ve spent an hour at a time breaking dirt up with a 15 lb digging bar, and even longer swinging a 10 lb mattock. You show me a stonemason, and I’ll show you someone who could swing a sword for 15 minutes without flinching.

        It’s all about conditioning. Try marching 25 miles in one day, carrying a 40 lb backpack. When you say “F that S!” at mile three, find a US Marine. Then tell him it can’t be done because it’s too hard. When he’s finished laughing, look up some Roman military history and read up on how professional soldiers have been doing it for two thousand years. Then think about this: the first marathon was run by a guy in full armor! :p


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