Opinion: Best Movie Sword-Fight Scenes


Recently, “Banksy” on twitter posted a bad meme, which inspired a furious, brief, friendly debate between me and a friend. I’d love to hear your opinions, as well.

Not to get too formal about this, but I find that when offering opinions, it’s best to include some “why” for context unless the opinion is purely aesthetic, in which case it may be hard to come up with a tangible reason why.

This is, of course, the woodland path scene from Sword of Doom, where Ryonosuke is attacked by Utsugi’s kin after the fencing match at the temple (where Ryonosuke kills Utsugi).* I commented back at the ‘banksy’ account that this was an inappropriate image because the character in that scene was exactly the opposite of what the image intends to express: he’s pursuing unsound methods and has fallen into a path of swordsmanship that is leading him in exactly the opposite direction from the samurai/swordsman’s ideal. Ryonosuke is what many would describe as a “nihilist” though I’d say he’s the opposite: he believes in killing. A lot.

Anyhow, my friend Bill fired back that the best swordplay scene in any movie was the duel between Kyuzo and the loud ronin in Seven Samurai. I countered that that was a fairly simple (though beautiful) scene and it was more a matter of fantastic context than great swordplay. After some back and forth, I offer this list:

  1. The fencing master (Toshiro Mifune) fighting in the snow in Sword of Doom. Reasons: the cinematography and camera movements are better than Kurosawa’s – yes, I know, that was as hard for me to write as it was for you to read – and Mifune’s sincerity and motion with his blade is an amazing thing to watch.
  2. The duel between Kyuzo and the loud ronin in Seven Samurai. Seiji Miyaguchi’s calm cut and self-containment is a lesson for any student.
  3. The fight between Ryonosuke and Hyoma’s family after the duel in Sword of Doom. The choreography is beautiful and weird, and the emotional valence of Tatsuya Nakadai’s totally inhabiting his character is pretty hard to handle, frankly. It’s an amazing scene.
  4. The fight between Hanshiro and Hikokuro in Harakiri. Kawabata hides so much in the scene – Hikokuro is brave and skilled, but hasn’t got as much practical experience as Hanshiro. It’s a beautifully rendered version of “old dog, new tricks” between experts at the peak of their game. Elegantly shot, beautifully choreographed, and incredibly atmospheric, it plays perfectly into the rhythm of the surrounding action.
  5. The small-sword fight at the beginning of The Duellists. I like the way that the action starts off organized and then, as the fighters get angrier and wrapped up in adrenaline, they lose control over their movements and everything suddenly gets much more dangerous. Harvey Keitel totally sells the headspace Feraud is stuck in; his performance through the entire movement is a fine thing to behold.

I’m not sure what’s #6; I’m a bit on the fence really. Any suggestions or corrections? I lean toward the final fight scene in Goyokin. The duel between Hyoma and Ryonosuke is pretty amazing, too, thought it’s not exactly a “sword fight.” I love the Zatoichi movies but Katsu’s technique would just get him killed more or less instantly in a real fight.

Honorable mention: the scene where Shimoda is working his bow in the rain at the end of Seven Samurai is really incredible.

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I know this is heavy on samurai movies, but that’s because that’s where I think the best effort is expended, cinematically.

*(corrected) I initially exchanged Hyoma (Utsugi’s brother) and Utsugi. That’s what happens when you go from memory! But if I fact checked everything I remember, I’d never publish anything because I’d be re-reading every book and re-watching every movie.

Comments

  1. says

    You teach me fighting, but you talk about peace.

    My Krav Maga trainer always did that too. He taught us how to kick asses, but always kept on reminding, “If you are confronted by a mugger, don’t fight, surrender and just give them your wallet.” And he had a good point. Unlike in movies, where the good guy always wins, in real life fist fights are messy. You may get hit first, you may end up with broken bones, you might even die. Giving away a wallet is less risky and, if you land in a hospital, also cheaper. His point was that we should fight only when absolutely necessary, when there is no other option. I obviously hope that I will never get in a dangerous situation, where I must fight, but it’s useful to learn some skills just in case shit happens.

  2. Mano Singham says

    A long time ago as a boy I watched Danny Kaye in The Court Jester and was impressed at his fencing skills and wondered how he could have trained to be so good. Some time later, I read somewhere that sword fights in films (and even the fast draw gun fights in westerns) are done more slowly and then the film speeded up. I was somewhat disillusioned but never found out if that is indeed true. What about the sword fights in Princess Bride?

    I am not suggesting either of these for #6 on your list but was curious about whether you knew if it was true about the film trickery.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dunno about best, but my favourite sword fight scene is still with Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan early in The Three Musketeers. I mean, it’s Gene Kelly, FFS.

    I’d also give props to the Hector Achilles scene in Troy. A superb warrior against one who is preternaturally gifted. One of the few really good things about that movie (another being Peter O’Toole’s Priam begging Achilles for Hector’s body).

    Also; not a fight, but my favourite sword scene, notwithstanding inane Monty Python jokes.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    I also am a huge fan of the fight at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity in Princess Bride. It’s both left- and right-handed, it’s the actual actors (actors not otherwise known for stage combat) fighting, there are multiple hits per clip, and the dialog is beautiful.

    Sounds like I need to watch Sword of Doom, too.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Funny, just a little while ago I was recalling Halle Berry’s sword fight in the flaming-plane-plummeting-out-of-control-over-the-Korean-DMZ scene from Die Another Day

    *Ducks and runs*

  6. lumipuna says

    “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war”

    You could be both, like the Agathean Bush-I-Do warriors, with their famous battle cry “Bonsai!!!”

    (/Discworld reference)

  7. says

    Mano Singham@#2:
    I read somewhere that sword fights in films (and even the fast draw gun fights in westerns) are done more slowly and then the film speeded up. I was somewhat disillusioned but never found out if that is indeed true

    It’s called “under cranking” – from back when cameras were hand-powered. All you had to do was record the film a tiny bit slower, so when it’s played back at speed it looks a tiny bit faster.

    It’s definitely true. I’ve tried to find an example on youtube, but I remember that the Roman Polanski version of Macbeth gets distinctly jerky-looking in the first fight scene, because they have sped it up so much. What’s frustrating is that the final fight scene actually has some really realistic choreography in spots – there’s one point where one of the knights gets a chop at the knee (“I was a knight in Scotland, but then I took a longsword to the knee”) and the blade gets stuck in the armor and the other fighter takes a few hacks at the fellow’s head while he’s trying to pull it out.

    With modern cameras like the RED, you can set the framerate wherever you want it within reason, though usually you’d just shoot things straight and adjust the playback speed in post-work.

    It’s interesting because it has to be subtle. At a certain point our brains will go “no way!” when the physics starts to look funny – if you see someone handling a big steel broadsword like it’s a toothpick – it’s probably balsa wood. I always enjoyed Schwartzneggers’ Conan swordplay, because Arnie could sell the size of the blade that he was, indeed, handling like it was a toothpick. I believe Jody Powell made those blades and one of the ones Arnie carried was a practical steel sword; the acting was done with an aluminum blade. If you’re waving metal at an expensive actor, you don’t want it to be something that’s going to carry momentum.

    For example, the sword fights in Sword of Doom are almost certainly aluminum blades. And they may have under-cranked the camera a teeny bit, though the fight choreography is superb.

  8. says

    Chigau and Johnny Vector@#3 & #5:
    I think I’ll have to add the fight at the cliff top to the list.

    The swordplay is actually not very good or realistic (compare it to the opening scene of The Duellists) but it’s a tremendously entertaining scene.

    From a swordplay standpoint, it’s a great reference to vintage cinema-style theatrics: you can see that they’re cutting at eachother’s swords, not eachother. Remember that every time your blade goes “ting” against the opponent’s it’s dead in the air and you’ve potentially lost control over it because the impact will direct it in a way not entirely of your choosing. That means you’ve thrown away the initiative and now your opponent knows where your blade is.

    The first couple passes are beautifully done. Then, at 22:25, Inigo does a silly spin and whips his blade around looking for the block that Roberts has put up, waiting for him. In a real fight, he’d have been hamstrung instantly when he started the spin. I usually cringe uncontrollably when I see spins in sword fights in movies; it’s just something you’d never do if you wanted to actually survive and be able to walk for the rest of your life.

    I’m adding it to my list, because it really is very entertaining and it’s a great nod to the vintage hollywood style.

  9. says

    I was thinking about this posting obsessively last night and remembered the swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt in the Zefirelli Romeo and Juliet as being much better than it was. It’s still pretty fair; it’s what you might expect out of a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs who weren’t professional killers, who got into a fight that turned serious.

  10. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#4:
    Also; not a fight, but my favourite sword scene, notwithstanding inane Monty Python jokes.

    I’ve got to add that one. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of so many movie sword fight scenes!!! And you’ll notice that the Black Knight has really innovated with a fascinating strategy that even Sun Tzu would be impressed by: denial.

    Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan early in The Three Musketeers.

    Oh, heck yes!
    More golden-age style hitting at the opponent’s sword, but it’s really charming and great music.

  11. says

    I’ll also have to add a plug for Broken Sword versus Flying Snow in Hero.

    I’m pretty sure it’s sped up a lot, most of the kung fu swordy stuff is. There are a ton of great bits of play in that movie, though it’s also a lot of chopping at the opponent’s blade.

  12. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#6:
    Halle Berry’s sword fight in the flaming-plane-plummeting-out-of-control-over-the-Korean-DMZ scene from Die Another Day…

    I hadn’t seen that before, so I looked it up on youtube. If I may observe: scenes in bond movies, taken out of context, become weird jump cuts that make no sense at all.

    I love the part where Berry gives her opponent an elbow to the face, partially stunning her, then stands courteously by waiting for her to recover and resume the fight. In the Inigo Montoya/Roberts fight, that kind of thing would work but they’re trying for gritty and enraged and they completely miss it.

  13. says

    Baji Naji@#7:
    Tim Roth as the deadly fop in Rob Roy has some memorable fights.

    Yes! That’s good stuff!!
    I love the way that they occasionally step back and take stock of what they’re doing: they know it’s serious business and you can see they’re trying to figure eachother out. They also do a good job of appearing to be getting tired.

    Looks like it was filmed in the same vaulted room where The Duellists first saber-fight was filmed! They also do a good job of appearing to be getting tired.

  14. felicis says

    Have you seen “Twilight Samurai”? An excellent 1800s period piece from 2010 (ish). The ending scene features a swordfight in a house which is very well done.

  15. says

    felicis@#16:
    Yes, that’s a great movie. I didn’t list the swordfight as one of the greats because it’s downplayed very well – the fight scene is about the interaction between the characters, beforehand, rather than the fighting. I’m not sure how else to say it than that.

    There’s some good action in When the Last Sword is Drawn too, but it’s kind of over-the-top-ified. I think that’s almost a great movie, but it keeps getting lost in the weeds.

    I also love the fight scene at the end of The Hidden Blade but it hardly counts as one.

  16. says

    Sandy Chase’s Samurai Soul Sword videos are pretty cool, too. They’re a good example of what you can do with a modern high end digital camera – speed up and slow down the action:

  17. Dunc says

    Oliver Queen vs Ra’s al Ghul in the middle of Arrow Season 3: for most of the fight, Ollie has two swords, and Ra’s has his hands clasped behind his back. Ollie gets run ragged, Ra’s doesn’t break a sweat. Then Ollie gets punched in the throat, has one of his own swords shoved through his chest, and is thrown off a cliff. That’s how an expert fights.

  18. fusilier says

    It’s not a _sword_ fight, but check out the final duel between Russel Means’ Tlingatchgook and Wes Studi’s Magua in “Last of the Mohicans.”

    Kindly ignore Daniel Day-Lewis firing a flintlock smoothbore in each hand while not breaking stride.

    fusilier (who remembers Michael Mann yelling to the extras,”Work with me people, this is not a documentary!”)
    James 2:24

  19. Rob Grigjanis says

    fusilier @20: The last 10 minutes or so of that film is a quite beautiful Dance of Death.

    Marcus @12: The link wasn’t to the Black Knight scene in Holy Grail (which was good), but to the end of Excalibur. The reference to Python arises from my first viewing of Excalibur, during which I had to put up with some friends’ predictable and lame Python quotes (e.g. “strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government”, etc).

  20. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#21:
    The link wasn’t to the Black Knight scene in Holy Grail (which was good), but to the end of Excalibur.

    Ooooh. That’s another fun movie – I owe my life-long fondness for Orff’s Carmina Burana to the opening bit. It took me years to find out what that music was… And besides: Helen Mirren!

  21. Bill Spight says

    My favorite is the confrontation between Mifune and Nakadai at the end of “Tsubaki Sanjuro”. The Nakadai character has been itching for a fight for the whole movie, and he finally gets it. The tension builds and builds, and finally explodes. When I first saw the movie I thought that Mifune’s move was Hollywood, but a few years later I chanced to see it in a book about Bushido.

  22. says

    Bill Spight@#24:
    Yes, that’s a classic move done very well.
    You can see a demonstration of a similar technique by Tetsuzan Kuroda, @0:17 here (really worth watching all the youtube stuff of Kuroda Sensei). Kuroda Sensei makes it look so easy – yeah, you just step under the guy’s arm and open his armpit on the way through. Piece of cake! If you have perfect timing and move like a rattlesnake on meth. What he’s teaching in that video is how to make the correct choice of move to counter the opponent, then doing it faster and faster and faster. Being able to dynamically react at lightning speed like that… eesh.

    There are a couple of very elegant sword techniques that are pure timing – if you slow down Kyuzo’s cut in the duel with the loud ronin in Seven Samurai it’s the same thing: a very slight deflection and then stepping through the opponent’s cut and transforming the step into a lethal attack. The trick is to be fast enough and perceptive enough to do the correct step, or you wind up with a very sad collision and very dead. That’s part of why the fight scene with Kyuzo is so good: part of what Kurosawa is showing is that the loud samurai has only one trick, and so, he’s predictable.

    It’s a similar lesson to what Bruce Lee teaches O’Hara in Enter The Dragon in the opening moves of the island death-match. He hits O’Hara around his block, from different directions, demonstrating conclusively that not only is he way faster than O’Hara, he is strategically faster, too. Literally, “you cannot hit me and I can hit you any time or way that I choose.” (I had that done to me, once, in an epee fencing warmup with the JHU varsity champion, who was nationally ranked – he started telling me where he was going to hit me and how and I was just too slow to do anything about it. It was heart-breaking.)

    PS – I totally did not remember that was Tatsuya Nakadai! Now I’ve got to re-watch it.

  23. alvin says

    I’m a big fan of Takashi Miike’s remake of 13 Assassins. I can’t single out a single sword fight from memory as the last 50 minutes is just about nothing but! There’s a great balance however between sheer speed and the tension of waiting for the blow. Highly recommended.

    From an earlier age there’s a rather good sword fight in the classic vein at the end of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’.(1953 version with Granger and Mason). It has some of the standard Hollywood mistakes you allude to above in terms of realism but its’s thrilling to watch and ebbs back and forth convincingly.

  24. DonDueed says

    I haven’t seen enough movie sword fights to give it a meaningful ranking, but the climactic fight in the snowy garden in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is pretty intense.

  25. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I’ve been spoiled by watching lots of HEMA videos. Whenever I see a swordfight where they’re attacking each other’s swords instead of attacking, you know, each other, it loses it for me. For those who don’t know: Watch the swordfights. Imagine what happens if the other person doesn’t block, parry, or evade, in any way. Oftentimes, the strikes would miss even with no defensive action of any kind from the target. That’s what we mean by attacking the sword instead of attacking the person.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Flynning

    Also, spinning is right out, for also obvious reasons.

    Also, let me ruin something else for you. Whenever you see someone with a large sword being kept in a back-sheath, it’s bullshit. The ergonomics simply do not work: Except for extremely short swords, you cannot draw the sword from the sheath, and neither can you return the sword to the sheath. Whenever you see someone with a back-sheath in a film, they always do camera cuts: You see them start to draw the sword, then camera cut, and then they’re holding the sword outside the sheath. That’s because to get the sword out of the sheath, they need help, or they first need to remove the sheath from their back. For those people without actual swords and back-sheaths, there are plenty of videos on youtube that demonstrate the basic ergonomic problem.

    Sometimes back sheaths were used, but only when combat was not imminent, because you cannot draw from a back-sheath without first removing the sheath from your back.

    This is also true in many cases for drawing a back-holstered long firearm. Camera cuts are the norm to work around this problem, and the filmmakers continue to do it because “it looks cool”.

    I must sound really negative. Sorry! Lol. Not my intention. I enjoy knowing stuff like this.

    PS:
    This is also why side-sheaths are how swords were actually carried. You can quick-draw a sword from a side-sheath, but not a back-sheath. Except for the rare, extremely large swords, e.g. “greatswords”. They also have additional problems for carrying and drawing.

  26. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#28:
    Also, let me ruin something else for you. Whenever you see someone with a large sword being kept in a back-sheath, it’s bullshit. The ergonomics simply do not work: Except for extremely short swords, you cannot draw the sword from the sheath, and neither can you return the sword to the sheath.

    Yes! Yes a thousand times yes. Cross-back carry is not even particularly comfortable. Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo demonstrates exactly how it was done in Seven Samurai.

    I made a sheath for a claymore for a woman who was about 5’4″ – it had a quick-release peg in the front, and a side-opening, so she could grab the handle, pop the peg, and the blade would fall sideways out of the sheath. I would not want to carry that if it wasn’t made of welded ABS plastic sewn with stainless steel wire under the leather; there’s too much to go wrong there and bobbling a 4-foot razor blade is nobody’s entertainment.

    The main point is that most sword-fights were not from a position of tactical surprise. There was a bit of that, to be sure, but the samurai solved that problem, and most other sword cultures didn’t have a “surprise! (cuts at the head)” behavior.

    Related: if you want to see some really cool illustration of the problems with handling a very long sword, check this out – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbSCIqjaiiE

    PS – what is “HEMA”? (undefined identifier at line 20, standard input)

  27. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_European_martial_arts

    For some of my favorite youtube channels, with varying degrees of expertise and entertainment value.
    https://www.youtube.com/user/scholagladiatoria
    https://www.youtube.com/user/lindybeige
    https://www.youtube.com/user/SkallagrimNilsson

  28. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Also, to contribute to the actual topic of the thread. Here is one of my favorite sword fights on film.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5w2Mh6CyXo
    I appreciate the (amateur) commentary, the slow-mo, identifying the hit locations, half-ass guessing the severity of the wound, etc.

    It even has some grappling very near the end, which is present in most “real” swordfighting, which made me smile.

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