Hollywood Warfare: What the Hell Happened to Stage Fighting?

A number of my more recent readers may not know this, but I’ve a long-running feud with the modern Western film industry’s way of handling swordfighting. My opinions on that have evolved a ways since the, er, less-than-reserved ones I threw at Kill Bill. This isn’t just about swords, though. It’s about modern “high budget” fight scenes in general. Like, all five of them.

Because, you see, five fight scenes are enough to encompass every lame trick of all but the tiniest number of creative outliers in a vast archipelago of copy-pasted lazy trash.

I know I’m lowballing that number a bit, but it’s not by remotely as much as you’d think. Next time you’re watching a fight scene, and I mean any fight scene, pay attention. You’re going to notice some things. Thing one: they’ve made it unreasonably difficult to pay attention. Jump cuts every second (if they’re having a slow day), camera so shaky it must be running a cocaine battery, constant insanely close shots framed in such a way as to make everything impossible to follow. This doesn’t “put us in the action”, I think you and I can probably agree there. Speaking from experience, if you’re having trouble seeing in a fight you’re either panicking, exhausted or dying. If a character is one, two or all three of these things, fair enough.

Except, as you’ve likely noticed, we almost always get nice steady shots of panic, exhaustion and/or death. So that’s not likely the motivation, is it?

At the most basic level, much of modern fight scene staging, choreography and editing makes them just plain bad viewing. If you do manage to follow what’s going on long enough to see some moves, you’re in for another disappointment. Because, friend, you’re going to see a lot of the same moves, and most of them are shit. I don’t just mean in the snobby martial arts practitioner sense that the actors clearly don’t have a clue how to fight. That problem’s never gone away, but I’ve matured enough to realize that’s often (not always) okay. Fight scenes should only depict skilled fighters if the characters are supposed to be skilled fighters. For that matter, realistic portrayal of skilled fighters should only be a concern if realism’s a focus. A lot of fights don’t necessarily feature classically trained martial artists, or even take place in our world. That’s not the bigger issue.

The bigger issue is that modern stage fighting abuses its freedom to make everything look the same. While I disagree that fighting is an elaborate dance (dances don’t involve actively thwarting as many of your partner’s actions as possible), dance has one vital emphasis that stage fighting needs. No two dancers move precisely the same way. Even within the same school, even when doing the same movement as a group, there are subtle differences in the way they execute that move. You’d be amazed how many different ways there are to turn a pirouette.

Now, consider the modern fight scene. Every actor does the same moves exactly the same way. It was Joachim Meyer who said that not all people have the same body, so we should move according to our strengths. Joachim Meyer was a German martial arts instructor in the tradition of none other than High Master Johannes Liechtenauer, one of the most important figures in the entirety of HEMA. Even today, the sensei of Japan’s koryu (classical martial arts schools) don’t just look for their students’ flaws. The best teachers look for the strengths students have that are peculiar to them, and help guide them to harness that power.

What I’m saying is that practical martial arts focused on effective sword technique has more permissiveness for variety than stage fighting does. Stage fighting has exactly two purposes: to present fights that look good and are reasonably safe. I can’t comment on point two, but I refuse to believe any longer that I’m even close to the only one who’s noticed how awful things have become. How many fucking times do we need to see a female character do that stupid fucking move where she spins up on to a man’s head and breaks his neck with her legs? How many times do we have to see the same glacially slow spin move while twirling the sword around the back into a single bad cut?

No one moves with a sense of power or killing purpose. Fight scenes in supposedly grim series that would most benefit from the murderous, lightning-fast strokes of true swordsmanship instead fall back on sluggish flailing and still include spins. I’ve wracked my brain for years and I can’t for the life of me imagine this is anything more than pure, lethargic twitching. I can actually make more convincing attacks in my sleep. I’m not exaggerating, I’m prone to performing nukitsuke if I happen to think about it just before falling unconscious. That’s what practice does.

I have seen two arguments “in favor” of the current style, and they are as follows: “We don’t watch it for the fight scenes” (often said of Game of Thrones) and “It’s not supposed to make sense, it’s supposed to look cool.” Well, it’s my opinion that if significant resources and runtime in a major television franchise are devoted to scenes no one wants to watch, that’s a flipping problem. As for the latter statement, it doesn’t look cool. That’s the point!

Movies don’t even have their own fight scene identity. I’m serious. It’s to the point where any film which uses something other than the same regurgitated visual tropes instantly becomes noteworthy. Into the Badlands is a show I worship just for having its own style, and that style’s really not all that far off standard Wushu fare. But it’s still leagues beyond all the present tripe. I also take back everything mean I said about the way people fight in Kill Bill. All of it. Would I do things differently? Hell yes I would. But Quentin and Co. actually put together something unique and I am deeply sorry it’s taken me this long to give them credit for it. Oh, you can little understand how sorry.

Flailing horizontal cut from left to right, terminating with sword hilt near the back of the right shoulder. Slow uppercuts into telegraphed thrust. Prolonged bind without grappling, displacement or any attempt to cut the other person around it (did you know swords are not magnetized and do not stick immovably together when you push against some else?) So many slow, slow spins, so many attacks thrown from a standing position even though proper footwork not only allows faster strikes by better body mechanics but looks cooler. All of this then chopped to pieces in editing because they know. They know how terrible it all looks but they won’t hire anyone with the training and the actual genital fortitude to figure out how to do it better. Every time a movie comes out with truly good fight scenes it’s lauded for it, and yet no one gives a fuck.

You’re damn right I’m pissed off. Fight scenes are supposed to be exhilaratingRob Roy‘s final broadsword-on-rapier duel. The faceoff between Martin and Tabbington in The Patriot. All the fights from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, always plausible (Aragorn’s miraculous shield-pin escape in Fellowship notwithstanding) and visceral even if sometimes they were a bit sloppier than they should be. We’ve done so much better in the past. Was any of it all that realistic? No, but it was fun.

I’ve long since stopped demanding everything be realistic, but I’m pretty sure action in movies is supposed to be fun. I’ve always had issues with fight scenes, but lately all the things I enjoyed are just missing. I have a dread certainty I’m going to watch The Last Jedi when it comes out and be disgusted by whatever’s passing for saber combat at the point.

We’ve done so much better in the past. What the Hell happened?

The author in his (possibly inaccurate) interpretation of a 1500s Scots free mercenary’s day wear. Pictured: a longsword at the waist and greatsword at the shoulder, two excellent (and yes, fricking sharp) cutting implements with a wealth of refined, often visually stunning historical technique behind them. The film industry’s understanding of these techniques will now be summed up within the quotes: ”              ” There are so many HEMA and other martial arts practitioners who would love to change that. LET US HELP YOU, DAMN IT!

Say something, darn it!

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