The best swordfight movie of all time

When people say “They don’t make movies the way they used to,” Rob Roy is the kind of movie they’re talking about. It’s also the kind of movie that makes you see they have a point. It’s a deeply satisfying adventure story, and not the least of its resolutely old fashioned virtues is a pair of swordfights that remain unmatched in film.

They are the masterworks of fight choreographer and swordsman William Hobbs, whose name has been praised throughout the first two installments of this series, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to Roger Ebert, who called the final duel “one of the great action sequences in movie history.” Hobbs himself thought so highly of it that he made a chart plotting out all of the scene’s emotional beats the centerpiece of his book Fight Direction for Stage and Screen, and you can see the fight for yourself up top via the magic of YouTube.

The story, which is decidedly not drawn from Walter Scott’s novel of the same name, takes place in Scotland during the early 18th century, when the Scots-Catholic Jacobites were seething under the rule of Protestant England. The hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, incurs an unpayable debt to the local Marquis of Montrose and must contend with Montrose’s henchman, Archibald Cunningham, a smirking dandy who also happens to be a supremely dangerous swordsman.

Having seen John Hurt’s performance as the viperish Montrose several times now, I’d lay odds that this was the most fun he’d had since playing Caligula in I, Claudius, and Alan Sharp’s script gives him some great lines. (“We must never underestimate the healing power of hatred” is a particular fave.) But the top villain honors go to Tim Roth’s lethal fop, and it is the special glory of Hobbs’ work here that he gives Cunningham a pair of duels that combine dazzling bladework with character revelation, all while advancing the story and generating an impressive amount of suspense.

Our first glimpse of what’s in store comes during the first duel, a tavern exhibition match between Cunningham and the loutish Guthrie, champion of the local Duke of Argyll. During the pre-fight badinage we have already been given hints that there is more to Cunningham than meets the eye, and the duel proves it. Guthrie catches Cunningham off guard as he’s bowing to the presiding nobles, but from that moment forward Cunningham is in complete control of the situation.  Hobbs gives us a preview of Cunningham’s tactical skill, in which he uses the bigger man’s size against him by dancing inside his reach, steadily wearing him down and always keeping him on the defensive — even smacking him upside the head with the flat of his blade when Guthrie tries an underhanded move. We also get a glimpse of the taunting core of sadism beneath Cunningham’s finery. A quick kill (or, in this case, a swift victory) is the last thing Cunningham wants. His pleasure is to see fear, and the helpless awareness of defeat, in the other man’s eyes before he delivers the final blow. In an interesting twist, Guthrie rubs salt in his own wounds by trying to backstab Cunningham, dishonoring himself in front of his former patron and friends.

The bout with Guthrie gives us a framework for watching the climactic duel with MacGregor, with the added awareness that this is a fight to the death, with Cunningham administering extra doses of pain and humilation along the way: tricking MacGregor into swiping at thin air, slashing his torso and limbs as punctuation for each encounter.

Though Hobbs choreographed the fights, credit goes to director Michael Caton-Jones for the way it was shot and edited. When I saw Rob Roy in the cineplex, I left the film convinced Caton-Jones must be an Old Hollywood veteran, some old-timer from the studio era who knew how to shoot an action scene without attention-deficit-disorder editing. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be a relatively young (in 1995, anyway) filmmaker with a television background and a highly variable catalogue: Scandal, Memphis Belle and This Boy’s Life on the high end, Doc Hollywood and Basic Instinct 2 on the low. I don’t know if Caton-Jones spent quality time with Errol Flynn movies before he shot Rob Roy, but his framing and editing of the fight scenes is impeccable. Take another look at that fight scene. We are always aware of each character’s position within the space, the framing is always correct — no unnecessary closeups or shock cuts — and the action unfolds in what feels like real time. Very often, Caton-Jones holds the camera still and lets the action speak for itself, an extremely rare virtue in modern filmmaking, and vital to a sequence in which the emotions of the combatants have been so carefully worked out.

No detail is wasted here. Even the choice of swords — a rapier for Cunningham, a broadsword for MacGregor — speaks to each man’s character and fighting style. Though MacGregor is bigger and stronger (Liam Neeson towers over Roth in their scenes together) Cunningham is in command of the situation right from the start. And when he starts holding his rapier tip directly in MacGregor’s face, we know what is about to happen. I can’t say the outcome of the bout was a big surprise, but the means that bring it about are, once again, fully in keeping with the personality of the winner.

Hobbs has gone on to choreograph fights for other films, most recently Lasse Hallstrom’s slapstick comedy about Casanova, but he has never topped his work for Rob Roy, and no swordplay in any other film I’ve seen comes close to matching Rob Roy. This, quite simply, is the way to do it right.

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11 thoughts on “The best swordfight movie of all time

  1. [...] Steven Hart considers the best swordfight movie of all time. [...]

  2. Peter says:

    I simply agree with you. Ride on mate!

  3. le0pard13 says:

    This was a beautifully written post on one of my favorite films, and favorite action sequences. This was also a fantastic collaboration between the director Caton-Jones and sword choreographer Hobbs. Both kept the story and personality of the antagonists central to their sequences. Some have criticized the outcome for not being realistic–in that a deadly duelist like Archibald would have killed Rob*. But, they ignore their personalities and traits in the outcome. Honor may be at stake, but the costliest emotion for most of the participants here is pride.

    Plus, Hobbs and Caton-Jones successfully film each of their action sequences by keeping the footwork clearly on display–a characteristic many directors fail at when they lense these action-based excerpts. Plus, each of the protagonist’s skill is beautifully established (Cunningham’s lethal long range skill with the epee and Roy’s deadly close-quarter work) and built through the film for the climatic duel. And while both suffer from that sin of pride, it is Rob’s intelligence (and iron will and grip) that brings his (very painful) victory. He had to bring his superior skilled opponent into killing range. Great write-up!

    * I usually argue that if we’re being realistic, Cunningham dies before we ever get to the duel. I mention that the small-statured neck of said Archibald does not survive the rope wrapped around it and snapped taunt from the 6’5″, 200+ lb. weight at the end of it being dropped some 15-20 ft. from a bridge. One doesn’t end up with a just sore throat and a hoarse voice from that kind of stunt ;-).

  4. Herb Moore says:

    Yes Rob Roy was great. Thanks for the tip on the Duellist. How about the early Zorro. I know its cheesey but I’ll pop in “Die Another Day” just for the fencing scene.

    Thanks

  5. This article is actually the greatest on this valuable topic. I absolutely feel the same way with your viewpoints and will eagerly look forward to your approaching updates. Just saying thanks will not just be adequate, for the wonderful lucidity in your writing. I will immediately grab your rss feed to stay up to date of any updates. Good work and good luck in your writing!

  6. [...] messing with Urquidez once it becomes clear who’s going to win. It’s not as nasty as Archie Cunningham’s cocksure mind games, but sitting down to take a breather, knowing your opponent is so bushed that he won’t be [...]

  7. Barry says:

    Hey, I really enjoyed reading about your picks. Especially how you qualified what you would consider to be the criteria for a good swordfight. That being said, I noticed that duel in Princess Bride wasn’t mentioned. It is flashy, but I feel they used the space very well, left long shots, and it was great for character development. Just wondering about your thoughts on it.

    Also, I’ve seen Empire Strikes Back hundreds of times, but I never really took notice of how well the fight scene was done. It really is it’s own three act story.

  8. The best sword fight movie of all time associated with director Caton-Jones and sword choreographer Hobbs make the film to be more interesting.

  9. [...] is my argument for why Rob Roy is the best swordfight movie of all time, and why flicks like those duels in Errol Flynn movies never rise above standard flash and clash. [...]

  10. [...] ultimate and crucial sequence of the film, and if you haven’t read Mr. Hart’s highly regarded 2008 piece (one that those into relief the motion picture’s closing match), one he and I agree is The [...]

  11. [...] The first segment examined some of the unique and intriguing undertones I found in Alan Sharp’s screenplay and Michael Caton-Jones’ wonderful direction. Part 2 looked at the other recognizably and stellar aspect of the film, its climatic sword-fight, which was under the expert helm of sword-fight master William Hobbs. It was and remain what author Steven Hart, and I, consider to be the best movie sword fight of all time. [...]

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