Swords in films, what’s the deal?

Can’t live with ’em, can’t hack your way through a mob of peasants without them. What? That’s not how the saying goes? Well, someone should tell Hollywood. The film industry fell in love with swords from the very beginning, and has never really gotten over it. And that’s a shame, because history says that swords really weren’t as important as we have been led to believe.

So, some background. I was inspired to write this post after that one article I wrote for History Behind Game of Thrones, wherein I pointed out just how much the Ancient Greeks loved spears. So much, in fact, that Hollywood went as far as to include spear-based combat scenes in their major Greek films. This is a rarity because the film industry has swords as its default weapon.

Ross Wittenham 300

Swords are, by their very nature, weapons of the wealthy. Contrast with other military tools, such as the bows, spears, or axes, swords are really only meant for warfare. Where an axe can be used for carpentry, and a spear can be used for hunting. Furthermore, a sword uses comparatively more metal, is therefore more expensive, and requires more skill and training to use correctly. With what other weapon do you have to worry about edge-alignment when you’re trying to kill a guy? For Hollywood’s purposes, it is the ideal tool for a noble hero. Ever noticed that bad guys use swords less often than heroes?

Sauron swinging his mace photo LOTRSauron2.gif

However, the counterpoint to this argument is that swords don’t win battles. One of my favourite stories about the superiority of one weapon over another is the Battle of Flodden, where Scots pikemen were defeated by English Billmen. That’s right, they were weilding billhooks. What’s a billhook, you say? It’s a long pole with an axe shaped like a hook at the top. People won battles with bizarre crap like that, not swords. A sword takes a lot of time to learn how to use properly, and is expensive to mass-produce. Other weapons are far cheaper to produce, far easier to learn to use, and pretty much as killy when deployed en-masse.

But there’s more to it than that. If there’s one person who did more than anyone else to bring sword fighting to Hollywood, it’s Bob Anderson. The former Olympic fencer worked on so many major franchises that his filmography reads like a who’s who of swordfighting flicks. To wit: Highlander, Princess Bride, Zorro, Star Wars, James Bond (both official and unofficial), Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit), Pirates of the Caribbean… I could keep going.

Bob Anderson portrait

However, while all this is impressive, it does also mean that one particular style of combat has dominated the film industry (and influenced other media as a result) for several decades. Fencers are perhaps the only professional-standard swordsmen around, which means that the style of sword-fighting that prevails is the style learned by fencers. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t the style that was prevalent for most of the period that the sword was in use.

But I think what I keep going back to is the fact that there are some truly bizarre weapons throughout history, and these deserve more time on our screens. Perhaps surprisingly, this is an area where the games industry is taking the lead. When your game runs out of ridiculously-oversized swords to give the hero, it’s time to break open the armouries and see what else is in there.

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