Swords in films, what’s the deal?

highlander swords

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.

Things We Did To History In 2014

Dracula Untold

This was the year I started this blog and, looking at how popular it has been, I think it was a good time to do so. 2014 has been a very interesting year for history. We really won’t just let it stay in the past. We insist on bringing it up again and again, and we don’t mind distorting it for our own entertainment. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to run down the top 12 posts of the last year for your consumption.

#12 American food in Lord of the Rings

This February blog argued that, if Middle Earth is supposed to be set in prehistoric Europe, the tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are completely out of place. What’s more, strictly speaking, it probably should be cannabis they are smoking, not tobacco.

Radagast the Brown gets high
If ‘Old Toby’ was really just tobacco, would it have this affect?

#11 Counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

When it comes to history in popular culture, counterfactual histories (which did not happen, and would’ve changed the course of history if they had) are pretty damn popular. Don’t be surprised if we revisit this topic later. Hat tip to Alternate History for linking to this article.

Assassin's Creed I's Altair
Assassin’s Creed I’s Altair

#10 Chatting with Brick to the Past

2014 has also been the year of the Lego brick, with the franchise releasing a major blockbuster this year. In much the same spirit, I had a conversation with James Pegrum, who specialises in building historical Lego models. Since that conversation, he has set up a group, called Brick to the Past, and they go from strength to strength.

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum
I’m a firestarter – courtesy of James Pegrum – the Great Fire of London begins

#9 Interviewing Mr Happle Tea: Scott Maynard

We are very lucky to have spoken to a large number of creative history fans this year. One man who embodies this trait is Scott Maynard, the illustrator behind the Happle Tea web comic. If you’re into crude humour and interesting historical facts, this is the place for you.

Horus gets The Talk
With a back-story like this, who needs childhood trauma?

#8 The time that cinema forgot

As someone who is interested in film and history, I can’t help but notice that some time periods just don’t get the same kind of coverage that others do. In this blog, I got all analytical and worked out exactly *how* neglected those periods are. Verdict? There’s plenty of scope for more films throughout our earlier history, but that imbalance isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon.

graph showing that recent history is far more popular as a film subject than older topics
Prehistory is particularly neglected

#7 Historical Honey tells us what historical figures would be doing now

Bored with modern celebrities? The lovely Historical Honey gave us a guest blog about what the heroes and villains of our past would get up to if they were around today. Would they slink to the shadows? Or are they more likely to grab the limelight, ever the attention grabber? What do you think?

What would Lucezia Borgia be doing now?
Is this what Lucezia Borgia would be doing now?

#6 Anne Boleyn is my spirit animal

One thing that I definitely needed to address this year is just why Anne Boleyn is so popular with the world of web historians. Because she is. If historians anywhere need a figurehead, this woman is, apparently, the one to go for. Thanks again to Historical Honey for the inspiration.

Anne Boleyn
Natalie Portman’s Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl

#5 Profiling the most influential wizard in the modern age

Alan Moore is, primarily, a graphic novelist. But he’s also a wizard, and a cult icon, and he really doesn’t like it when people get taken advantage of. So when he cropped up in the news twice in one week, in historically-related areas, I figured it was only fair we had a look at him, and why he matters.

This is Alan Moore in 2009. He's speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I like to think he's rolling his lucky D20. Published under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy of Matt Bidulph https://www.flickr.com/people/51035707449@N01
This is Alan Moore in 2009. He’s speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I like to think he’s rolling his lucky D20. Published under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy of Matt Bidulph https://www.flickr.com/people/51035707449@N01

#4 Vampires; what history wouldn’t say if it could speak

If there’s one vaguely-historical thing the public loves, it’s vampires. They’ve got that whole neck-nibbling thing going on. What with them being immortal, any film, TV series, or game that features them could quite justifiably see itself heading into the past at some point. But how helpful are vampires as a medium for history?

Dracula Untold
Dracula as he probably never looked

#3 That time I interviewed a YouTube sensation

Epic Rap Battles of History is an important part of modern culture, inasmuch as it teaches young people about important historical figures through the medium of confrontational music and aggressive posturing. With that in mind, I felt it was only appropriate to get one of the show’s creators in to discuss the hows and whys of the show.

 

#2 Someone we should all know more about

Janine Spendlove is a high school history teacher/US Marine/pilot/published author/mother/historical cosplayer. While all of those things are pretty impressive, and combined they’re are totally awesome, it was that last one that particularly interested us. We had a chat with the woman behind the outfits to find out how she does it.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume
Janine’s Wonder Woman costume

#1 When feminist satire ruled history

By far my most popular blog this year has been the time I interviewed Erin and Morag from Manfeels Park. The web comic combines quotes from actual comment threads and combines them with art from Jane Austen films, to highlight just how silly they are. Further comment threads ensue.

Mansplaining Manfeels Park
Real-world comments, in the mouths of Jane Austen characters

And that’s about it. It has been a busy first year for History Mine, and of course, we’ll be back next year. I’d like to end by giving further nods to people like Jamie (of History Behind Game of Thrones) and Kelly (of The Archaeology of Tomb Raider) for their support. Happy New Year everybody!

Four fantasies that owe something to history

A few weeks ago I gave a nod to the History Behind Game of Thrones blog in my article about counterfactual histories. In that article I reiterated a point made by the blog itself, which is that it is possible to see the whole series as George RR Martin’s experimental tinkering with history. If history’s rumours really happened, how would that’ve played out?

And this is a theme that definitely bears thinking about. Because, while fantasy might be utterly absurd and largely drawn from imaginations, it is also grounded in the real history of our own world. So here we go:

#1: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is all the weirdness of our anthropological past

Like many other great fantasy authors, Pratchett is a student of history. In The Science of Discworld, it is explained that the Discworld works in a similar way to our own except that, instead of the fundamental laws of science, the Discworld has fundamental laws of magic. Therefore, if people once believed something existed in our world, it probably does exist in the Discworld, and is minding its own business thankyou very much.

#2 Tolkien’s Middle Earth is all the complexity of our linguistic past

JRR Tolkien was fascinated by language and linguistics, and spoke (and, more importantly as far we’re concerned, wrote in) a number of different languages, to varying levels of fluency. Languages were his bag. One of his many Elvish languages was based on Latin, by way of Finnish, Welsh, English, and Greek. And that’s not even abnormal. It’s just par for the course, baby!

The Elvish inscription from JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings

#3 The Warhammer world is all the madness of our aggressive past

As a younger man, I was a massive fan of Warhammer. There is a vast mythology to the games which goes beyond any other series I’ve come across. The ultimate focus of it is on the aggressive jostling of different races of creatures and peoples. Warhammer is about fighting, and each race has its own style. The Empire, for example, is based on C14th German Landknecht culture. The colourful Lizardmen, by contrast, inhabit a continent that looks suspiciously like South America, and behave a lot like Mesoamerican civilisations.

Warhammer world looks like historical maps of Earth

#4 Robert E Howard’s Conan is all the brutality of our lawless past

While the other series on this list capture the broader sweep of history, Conan is all about one guy. Moreover, it is about the struggles between the powerful and the powerless. Conan, despite his heroic stature, is a powerless man. He is forever having people he cares about torn away from him. There is no higher power for him to appeal to. In many ways, he embodies ‘barbaric’ tribal prehistory, where an individual could either trust to primal gods, or take fate into their own hands. Conan doesn’t love battle, it is his last resort.

Conan the Reluctant Hero

There  are other fantasy series, but these are the cream of the crop, and all of them owe something to real world history.

American food in the Lord of the Rings

Denethor eating a tomato

When I originally had this idea, it was going to be the start of a larger blog about imported foods in films. It was going to be a big discussion about what food was available when and where. It was also partly inspired by Jeff Mummert’s ‘Modding Skyrim’ piece on Play the Past, which I have already mentioned on this blog.

Unfortunately, right now I can’t seem to get past all the food in Lord of the Rings.

Lord of the Rings is set in our world, long ago. In the films this is never explicitly stated, but it’s there in the books. This is why they filmed in New Zealand; because it looks like Europe before the industrial revolution hit. Exactly when is never stated either, except that it finishes in the Fourth Age, which is the ‘Age of Men’. It is set in the fictional prehistory of the old world. Middle Earth is Europe.

I make this point because a lot of the food consumed in the films actually comes from the Americas. Take, for example, the prime pumpkin specimen being polished in the following scene from the Return of the King. It’s a member of the squash family, and it’s from North America. They weren’t introduced to Europe until significantly after European colonisation of the continent. For what it’s worth, turnips were used for Hallowe’en lanterns before this .

Sticking with the third film in the series, there is the tomato that Steward Denethor nibbles his way through after sending his son Faramir off to near-certain death. Nice one Denethor. The tomato is originally from the area surrounding the Chilean Andes, and spread to Europe much later. While I’m throwing interesting facts out there, did you know that Chile translates to ‘cold winter’? You do now!

Then there are of course Samuel ‘Samwise’ Gamgee’s beloved taters.

Potatoes are also from the Andes and, like the other foods in this blog, have become so popular in the wider world that most people don’t even make the association. It might be the strong association with Irish history that has done this. In a tragic irony, ‘Conies’ were introduced  to Great Britain by the Romans, and to the Americas by later European settlers, probably about the same time they were taking potatoes back in the other direction. Having said that, mashed potato, rabbit and a good rich gravy does work very well, so perhaps there is a silver lining.

Finally, let’s talk about pipe weed. Tolkien is pretty explicit that this is tobacco. Unfortunately, you will probably remember this as another one of the things Sir Walter Raleigh was supposed to have brought back. JRR mentions it as ‘a variety of Nicotiana’, which, knowingly or unknowingly, contains the name of Jean Nicot; the guy who introduced the plants to France and saddled them with his name.

Peter Jackson decided to go the ridiculous route, and some have argued that this is a reference to Marijuana.

The purists may not like it, but I have to give the nod to the stoners here. If they were smoking anything in prehistoric Europe, it was more likely to be marijuana than tobacco. There’s some pretty conclusive evidence that members of the cannabis family were used across Europe even in prehistory.

So there you have it, Peter Jackson can gobble carrots all day, but he still won’t know anything about the historical accuracy of foodstuffs in continental Europe. If you have spotted any other foods in films you’d like me to dissect, please give me a shout in the comments below.