The second best swordfight movie of all time

To discuss a fight in musical terms, and to talk about its rhythms, will probably sound incongruous, and perhaps pretentious. However, possibly because of a vaguely musical background . . . I have often been conscious that most well-constructed fights have changes of rhythm and are ‘orchestrated’ in a way not unlike a musical score. For example, a fight may, like a piece of music, start in low key at a slow tempo and gradually gain in momentum and pitch, arriving eventually at the equivalent of a clash of cymbals. This can be followed, perhaps, by a period of uneasy calm shattered occasionally by phrases of ‘staccato’; the rallentando until the next crescendo, and so on until the final climax. Without this orchestration, or shape, a fight will not only run the risk of being excessively dull, but will probably emerge as an unorganized mess.

William Hobbs, Fight Direction for Stage and Screen (A & C Black, 1995)

In 1794, an officer in Napoleon’s army, a certain Captain Dupont, was given the task of informing another officer that his presence would not be welcome at a party held by their commander, General Moreau. The offending officer, Captain Fournier, already had a reputation as a bloodthirsty duellist, and had just killed a young man that day.

When Dupont faced Fournier with the bad news, Fournier directed his fury not at the general, but at his messenger. He immediately challenged Dupont to a duel; when Dupont inflicted an incapacitating wound, Fournier said “That’s the first touch.” The implication of that warning became clear a month later when the freshly healed Fournier challenged Dupont to another duel, this time sending Dupont to the surgeon. After a third duel that left both men wounded, Dupont and Fournier came to an agreement: any time they came within a hundred miles of each other, they would meet at a midway point for another duel.

Over the next 12 years, the antagonism of Fournier and Dupont became one of the stranger footnotes to the Napoleonic Wars, with the two men crossing swords numerous times while maintaining a regular correspondence — sometimes even dining together after a clash. The bizarre relationship was ended when Dupont, who was about to be married, proposed a final bout in which he and Fournier (now both generals themselves) would stalk each other through a wooded area, each man carrying two pistols (this was, remember, a time when a gun could only discharge once and and then had to be reloaded with great trouble). Though Fournier was a crack shot, Dupont tricked him into firing and missing twice. Dupont, who had not yet used his pistols, then advanced on Fournier and told him that if he wished to make another challenge, the weapons would again be pistols, only this time with Dupont entitled to fire the first two shots from a distance of three feet. Dupont was never troubled by Fournier again.

Joseph Conrad read a newspaper item about the long- running feud and used it as the germ for a short story, “The Duel,” changing the names of Fournier and Dupont to Feraud and D’Hubert. The story in turn inspired The Duellists, Ridley Scott’s 1977 filmmaking debut and our tied-for-second- place entry in this article about the best swordfight movies of all time.

The Duellists is, first and foremost, gorgeous to look at — astonishingly so, given that Scott had next to no budget with which to recreate the era. The film also doesn’t underline some of the most important elements of the antagonism. It takes a few viewings to appreciate the class resentment driving Feraud: a man of low birth, Feraud is a fierce Bonapartist who affects Napoleon’s bicorn hat and smolders with resentment against the royalists, of whom D’Hubert is an obvious example. Every frame of The Duellists could have been painted by either Theodore Gericault or Jean-Francois Millet, but the characters remain pretty ciphers. This is particularly the case with Feraud, played with a fixed bulldog glare by Harvey Keitel. When Feraud is forced to relinquish his obsession, Keitel — and Scott — cannot give us anything more than an inscrutable figure contemplating yet another ravishing landscape.

But the movie is tremendously significant for marking a decisive break with the old Hollywood flash and clash stuff. As Richard Cohen notes in his wonderfully engrossing book By the Sword, The Duellists was the first film in which lengthy swordfights became exhausting, bloody and painful. “I don’t want any of that old tosh,” Scott told his fight choreographer, William Hobbs, “I want it to be real.” And so it was. Our first view of Feraud at work leaves no doubt about his deadly skill: throughout the duel, he controls the ground around him while his opponent scampers about, trying to score a thrust. Once he has the other man’s measure, Feraud goes on the offensive so implacably that his opponent finally tries to buy time by clutching his blade. Not a good idea.

Scott’s history-on-a-shoestring approach is particularly impressive when he depicts Napoleon’s long retreat during the murderous Russian winter, when Feraud and D’Hubert — frozen stiff and barely able to hold their pistols — square off only to find themselves with an audience of visibly amused Cossacks, who can hardly believe these two crazy Frenchmen are about to do their work for them:

So why isn’t The Duellists the clear second-place winner? Because, with the exception of the initial bout between Feraud and D’Hubert and the opening duel shown at the start of this post, the film has no complete swordfight sequences. I’m not saying every bout should have been shown from start to finish — done that way, the film’s running time would have clocked in ahead of the entire Lord of the Rings series — but surely it would have been possible to give us a better sense of each man’s developing skill, and the newly learned tricks that would have added a new sense of danger to each clash. As I explained in the first installment of this series, swordfight scenes have to be more than simply flashy — they have to reveal character and advance the story. That’s why a flick like Scaramouche, while tremendous fun to watch, doesn’t rank as a great swordfighting movie. But The Duellists still commands a place of honor in any discussion of swordfighting in film, simply because of the fresh realism and honesty it brought to movies. The 1970s were years of innovation and ambition in many areas of film art, and choreographed swordplay was not the least of them.This series is largely a paen to the brilliance of William Hobbs, but his colleague Bob Anderson is a big part of the reason my choice for the second-best swordfight movie is The Empire Strikes Back, the first Star Wars sequel.

Unless you are A Moviegoer Of A Certain Age, it is hard to imagine the pleasurable shock delivered by The Empire Strikes Back when it opened in May 1980. The original Star Wars had been an exciting melange of tropes from Golden Age and pulp science fiction, stirred together by a filmmaker who obviously knew his way around the genre. (This was before George Lucas decided he had actually been channeling ancient myths with help from Joseph Campbell.) Instead of delivering more of the same, Empire turned out to be a grimly purposeful action adventure that burrowed deeply and unapologetically into the SF genre, aided considerably by workmanlike direction from Irvin Kershner and, most importantly, a story shaped with the help of Leigh Brackett, a bona fide SF writer who had also made her mark in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Howard Hawks.

The film is loaded with classic set pieces, such as the pursuit through the asteroid field, and the battle with the walking tanks. And Darth Vader, essentially a flunky in the original Star Wars, truly comes into his own as a villain with a sardonic sense of humor and private code of honor, subtly revealed in the way he treats Han Solo, a thorn in his side throughout the film, as a worthy opponent while giving Lando Calrissian, an operator who sells out a friend, the back of his hand.

But the reason Darth Vader lingers in the pop-culture memory bank as something more than a cool Halloween costume is his climactic duel with Luke Skywalker, the scene everyone had been anticipating for three years. As worked out by Anderson, a champion swordsman in his own right, the face-off is low on flash but high on storytelling value, for what Luke thinks is a fight is actually an audition, with Vader in control pretty much every step of the way.

The fight (telescoped by this YouTube clip) moves in three stages. At first, Vader hangs back and reacts as Luke throws his best moves at him, knocking back each sally until he is satisfied that the young wannabe has some basic skills under his belt. He then lays out the possibility of taking Luke under his wing, all while subjecting the sprout to more intense pressure and deadlier challenges. The third and final phase shows Vader abandoning finesse and going for sheer brute power, raising the intensity to the point that when Luke actually manages to land a hit, he is too terrified to follow through. This of course leads to the climactic revelation of Luke’s parentage, which may be the most referenced and parodied movie moment since Max Von Sydow played chess with Death in The Seventh Seal.

The duel was filmed over the course of five days on a set that was kept overheated to prevent the picturesque billows of steam from dispersing. The weapons were tubes of coated aluminum, strong enough to do damage if somebody bobbed instead of weaved. Since Mark Hamill would be fencing without any protection, while the actor playing Vader would have only limited vision, Anderson was brought in to make sure everything went right and looked good. Anderson did his job so well that the film’s big line — “I am your father!” — drew gasps instead of laughs. Certainly no other Star Wars film delivered a scene of similar quality. The closest the series came was the big fight that jolted everybody awake at the end of The Phantom Menace:

Ray Park has some pretty sweet moves on him, eh? Too bad George Lucas kept cutting around and diminishing the visual impact of the fighting. The same attention-deficit editing has undone some potentially classic sequences, such as the brutal sabre fight in Die Another Day.

Which brings us to the first place choice, a movie in which the swordfighting is the perfect blend of brilliant action, storytelling value and character revelation. See you in a bit.

7 thoughts on “The second best swordfight movie of all time

  1. Fred Kiesche says:

    The Ridley Scott film is a good one. Listen to the commentary on the DVD version for various interesting bits. For example, the final scene in the film was done in a hurry, as the film site was about to be flooded out.

    Nice to see somebody else who thinks the film is more a series of paintings.

  2. Fred Kiesche says:

    “Because, with the exception of the initial bout between Feraud and D’Hubert and the opening duel shown at the start of this post, the film has no complete swordfight sequences.”

    Maybe if you look at all the duels, with the exception of the first, as one long fight. Each part gets stopped for one reason or another. Eventually they switch to pistols.

  3. Fred Kiesche says:

    Boy, no truer words spoken than in that “Phantom” clip when they have the title card “Some ten minutes later…” and the fight is STILL going on. Like the pod race, some serious editing and self-control was needed.

  4. […] Steven Hart ponders the second-best swordfight movie of all time. […]

  5. fencing fan says:

    You’ve left out my favorite modern swordfight – though I admit the Rob Roy was technically better – Inigo Montoya vs Wesley – in the PRINCESS BRIDE!

  6. le0pard13 says:

    I’m glad to see you mention The Empire Strikes Back sequence, especially in the presence of Phantom Menace. Empire is very under-rated (and few mention it outside of the big plot reveal) and Phantom is lowered by the poor editing decisions by Lucas. It reminds me of the edits performed upon ‘The Great Race’ sword fight between Tony Curtis and Ross Martin. One yearned to see more of that sequence, and less close-ups. You and I very much agree that a sword fight in film must advance the story and characters as well as the action. Another wonderfully written piece.

  7. […] was the three-part duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I first wrote about it as part of a series on what I consider the best movie swordfights of all time, and I still think it’s the jewel in Anderson’s crown, right up there with William […]

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