- Professional swordsman Dave Rawlings reacts to movie fight scenes featuring longswords and daggers.
- Rawlings rates lightsaber fights in “The Mandalorian” (2020) and “Star Wars Rebels” (2017).
- He breaks down sword fights such as “Rob Roy” (1995) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938).
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Dave Rawlings has over 15 years’ experience teaching Western swordsmanship. He has been featured in the documentary series “Warriors” and “Bloody Tales of the Tower.” He advised The Wallace Collection on its exhibition “The Noble Art of the Sword,” and he teaches longsword at the London Longsword Academy.
Following is a transcript of the video.
– Dave Rawlings: I hate how he’s holding his sword. Orlando Bloom is holding his sword in a manner that upsets me.
Hi, there. Dave Rawlings here at the London Longsword Academy. And you may recall, I did a video looking at, how realistic are sword-fight scenes within films? We’re gonna look at a few different fight scenes and see what we think is realistic or what is good in a sword-fight scene.
“The Lord of the Rings” (2001)
This fight scene has to be seen in the context of “f— it,” because if you’ve got that many opponents, what can you do? There is something which I would suggest is a little bit similar to some of the actions in one of the treaties I studied. Which is, basically, run away a lot, and then when somebody gets close enough to you, cut them, spin and cover your head as you go, and then run away. That wouldn’t be such a good look for Aragorn. So, I’m pretty sure he could find a more efficient way of doing this. But that said, I think there’s a moment of ultimate sacrifice in which he gets rescued. So I think there’s really this feeling, like I say, it’s just, “I’m going to save these people no matter what. If I die, it doesn’t matter.” So, this is the eponymous longsword. The longsword. And, as you can see, this particular example is not the thin thing that you see in a lot of HEMA competitions. This is designed to cleave things quite well but also to thrust them. I never mind seeing cuts to legs. You have lots and lots of cuts, and that’s great. There’s parries. That’s great. But there’s not this awareness of space around you. And the biggest use of anything is that maintenance of this safe space around him, not letting people get close. This is where the study of montante is really, really good. I do not care which of you I hurt, so I’m making the space as big as possible. And that, I feel, is unused in this a little bit. So, I think probably a six, maybe.
“Star Wars Rebels” (2017)
If you’ve seen the Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul fight in the prequels, this is beautiful. You have Obi-Wan’s signature move, and then you have this change into Qui-Gon. This is the key. This is something that sums up all martial arts for me, which is evolution. Learning, studying your sources, learning everything that you’ve made mistakes by allowing yourself to make mistakes. Everything in fencing where we are not dying is education. And this is perfect, because you have Darth Maul doing the same thing that he’s done in the prequels. And Obi-Wan, expecting this same smash in the face, rather than trying to parry severs the blade with the simplest answer. It’s a Gordian-knot moment. When you look at double-bladed lightsabers, I don’t want you to look for something which is going to be the same within swords. Look at polearms. So, that could be staff, it could be halberd. It’s something where both ends have the potential to do damage. So, this would be what I would call half-staff, because you’re holding it more or less in the middle. And obviously that structure is dictated a bit by how wide apart you can hold your hands, so it changes the fighting style a little bit. And then with that, obviously you can thrust, because your reach with your forward hand is still going to be the same, whatever you’re doing. So you can thrust. You can stab this way. There’s a lot of potential with a weapon like this. It’s 10. It’s 10. It’s beautiful. If you’re allowed 15, it’s 15.
“The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)
As far as swordplay is concerned, this to me looks very, very just like a classic saber. It’s not posh. It’s got parry riposte. That’s what you need. When you get close, ideally you don’t just want to cut from side to side on the sword. It’s not a good use of your time. We, in general, would prefer, in most of the systems that I study, to stay on the blade and then to thrust the other side of the hilt. And that will encourage your opponent either to have to block, or if they don’t have to block, then they’ll leave themselves open. Just beating down the sword. Perfectly fine, good thrust, and moving out of the way of the thrust, such a lovely thing. A combination of cover and getting out of the way. Perfect. No problem with that at all. If I have one complaint, it’s that whenever anybody gets close, you have this arm that is floating around, waiting for the point that it does something with the dagger. It’d be really nice when there’s these closures, smack someone in the face, push them on the elbow to turn them away. The finish is beautiful. The finish is absolutely lovely. The fact that he gives a blow, he still, even at the end, maintains distance, keeps his distance, delivers something to get the opponent to react. There’s a thrust, then a recovery to see what happens. That is lovely. Just the stab, get out of the way. “Are you all right, mate? Oh, no, you’re dead.” There are three things that you want to do if you want to make sure that your opponent is not going to still try and mess you up afterwards. No. 1, as you see in this, is stab and get out. No. 2 is something that Fabris and Thibault use, which is that you smash the hilts together, so the opponent’s blade is effectively squashed into them or out of the line of attack, and then you get out afterwards. Third is to carry out some kind of movement of conclusion. And you see this in different systems, where you grab the opponent’s blade with your left hand or your secondary hand, you immobilize it, then you give them a bit of slice and dice, and then you either take their sword away or you keep control of it. I think this is, honestly, this is a 10. The fact that there is clearly, clearly a definite fencing system going in there.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
Right at the beginning, where there’s this sliding along the blade, from a Destreza point of view, this is lovely. The measure is terrible. Someone should have been stabbed in the arm, but then they’re not really trying to kill each other. You do it occasionally just to see what the other person is doing. Can I get control of your blade to do something? It’s not well illustrated, but if you were being nice about it, you could say it’s Verdadera Destreza. It’s not. I hate how he’s holding his sword. Orlando Bloom is holding his sword in a manner that upsets me. Put your thumb on the flat of the blade. You’re going to have much more ability to hold on to your sword. If you wanted to turn your hand over slightly, then do so. But this just kind of feels like a hideous way to lose your sword. This is all fine. It’s very, very slow. It’s just plodding through. Distance is maintained. So, when we’re talking about distance in fight scenes, really what we’re looking at is a perfect distance whereby we can disadvantage our opponent. So the ideal situation is for us to be at a distance where we can just hit our opponent, putting him with our hand, or maybe by putting him with our hand and a little bit of a lean of our body, because that means that we’re free to move. What we want from our opponent is a minimum of needing to reach us with a step. The sword in the door is a very, very interesting thing, because what you have is something which tapers to a very, very small point with a fricking great lever on the end of it, that, if you went waggle waggle on the lever, would intrinsically — all of the functions of a sword that make it good to actually stick into something also kind of make it relatively easy to remove. So if you’ve just got the point in there and you go up and down a couple of times, that’s coming out. This is getting a six. There’s bits in there that are passible fencing.
“The Mandalorian” S2E8 (2020)
One of the things I never understand about lightsabers is they’re always portrayed as being these slow, cumbersome things. And I don’t think it’s intentional, but you have techniques here where, where you have this cross against the blade, the simplest thing would just to be to cut around so quickly. With a longsword you would do this insanely fast. It’s such a fast, sharp maneuver, and there’s no reason to think that this would be any different. So I don’t know why you have this long, slow press against the wall. There’s so many things you could do. You could wind in from the other side. You could cut to the other side. So, spear and staff are intrinsically interlinked, so there’s really not a problem. These single-handed releases, where you whirl with the back end of the staff, totally a thing. Totally effective. You can see the only thing really that’s going on in there is that as he’s delivering this downward blow, he’s really trying not to smash the other person in the head, which is kind of courteous. So it’s not being delivered with the force that you might realistically see. Kicking this with the foot, this is something you see in montante in order to start the generation. The thing that I think is possibly missing from this sight is, really, there’s two advantages that the Mandalorian has. First of all, the Darksaber is not any good at cutting through his armor, so he can pretty much do what he likes most of the time. And, secondly, he’s not using the full advantage of his spear. Usually when you’re seeing a spear against a sword, what you’re looking at is somebody holding a spear really on the last quarter and trying to maintain distance as much as possible and really letting the point jab as quickly, and as quickly as possible. But, yeah, I think entertaining, and does contain a lot of realistic technique in it. I think I would give this a six, seven out of 10.
“Rob Roy” (1995)
I absolutely love “Rob Roy.” There are little bits of problems. First one is that there’s not very much point work from Liam Neeson. The idea that the broadsword cannot thrust is completely wrong. Zachary Wylde, who does a small-sword and a broadsword treaty, says that the broadsword has the advantage over the small sword because it can both thrust and cut. Tim Roth is a much better swordsman. And this is, again, set up through the whole film. He knows he’s the villain of the piece. He sets himself up as the villain of the piece. So don’t look at Liam Neeson’s character, Rob Roy, as being a good fighter in this. He’s somebody who can hack and slash. He isn’t aware fully of the full capacity of the weapon that he’s using, and Tim Roth is just massively outclassing him. I love that there’s good distance in this film. People not just hanging around in distance messing around with each other’s perception of space. Not just a linear fight. Circular parries, following the sword. Wonderful things. Wonderful. Good. I’ve seen this duck under the arm criticized a lot. This is completely viable. If somebody is coming down with quite a diagonal movement, maybe not so much if they’re doing a vertical movement, you can get away with it. If they’re coming through a diagonal movement, they come in by necessity higher than your head in order to cleave through your head. This leaves you a big triangle of space that you can step into. Usually you’ll put the sword in the way to keep yourself safe, but that awareness of that triangle that you can step into, very much there. And this is the perfect hubris death. It’s absolutely wonderful. People get so worried about grabbing blades, but if it’s the difference between you dying and the other person, absolutely, it’s what you’ll do. You see this throughout so many manuals, and every time you show a picture of it, some wise— on the internet goes, “Oh, you’d never grab a sword!” Yes, you would, if you don’t want to die. Ratings-wise, I’m giving this a 10.
“Vikings” S6E6 (2020)
First of all, within this fight scene, we have something thrown in a simple deflection. Just roll it and carry on. So you’re not trying to obscure your vision very long, and then you’re piling in. You could say there’s a problem in that he then immediately goes back to attack at the side which has got the most protection on it, which is not necessarily the best use when going against a large shield. You don’t want to keep on cracking at the big object. This rotation and cutting around, absolutely lovely. Now, there’s different ways you can do this, but that is a very good just rotating with the weapon and cutting through on this side. If you have contact and you can spin inside that, it’s very, very much a thing to do. It makes it very hard for your opponent to defend. You have to be cautious. It’s overly used towards the end of this, and the fight scene starts getting fatigued. It’s kind of gone into old Viking tropes where everybody has to hit the weapons really, really hard. And this does an incredible disservice to the lightness and the maneuverability of some of these weapons. A lot of Viking swords are so nippy when you handle the originals. Not all of them. Women have been fencing since the very beginning of recorded swordsmanship manuals. Our very, very first fencing manual is the very first fencing manual with a woman fencer in it. That’s all you need to know. Now, in this fight scene, you have somebody who is technically using their weaponry better than the other. The dialogue is between two fencers, one of which is better. It’s not gendered, and this is a really, really cool thing. So, I think probably a six, maybe. Maybe a five, six. It starts off very well, and then it deteriorates into trope, which is a bit of a shame.
“The Duellists” (1977)
Oh, this is always interesting. Whenever you have blades which are in what I call a passive position, this makes it incredibly difficult for you to gain dominance over them. And this is their strength. If you have two angles like this, it’s quite easy for you to try and wrest for a little bit of dominance and try and feel very, very strongly what your opponent’s doing by putting pressure on their blade. When somebody is in this passive and this passive, it can be incredibly dangerous for you to do so because they can disengage so quickly. This is a beautiful start to the fight. No crossing the distance. There’s just this wait, waiting to see when it’s the right time for you to go forward. This, this, this, even this, is just, this is good. This is nice. If your distance management is thus that as they keep on coming forward, they can’t reach you. So he’s encouraging his opponent to commit. And then as his opponent goes to go around to go above this bit of hilt, it’s only enough, but it’s enough for him to reposition himself beneath the hilt, and that, to rotate the palm down, a simple thrust. This is a beautiful fight scene. Obviously, it’s “The Duellists”! It’s a 10.
“The Mummy Returns” (2001)
I hate this. I hate this so much. So, again, in general, the majority of this fight is too close, and it kind of gets better as it goes on. The distance becomes more elongated. So I don’t know if they shot this the wrong way around, or whatever’s happening. Anything where you do not have protection in your hands, if you want to parry something, stab at the other thing. If they go up, stab at their hands. Attack the hands. There is not this intrinsic awareness of, “That’s the thing coming forwards. I can injure that.” I’m not sure where these daggers are supposed to be from, but I would not suggest that they’re really meant to be Egyptian. They look an awful lot like sai. Maybe there’s some cross-pollination. Who knows? It’s not a particularly good fight, so I would give this a four.
“The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002)
I really don’t know how to rate this fight scene, because there is no clarity to it. There is no reason for the guy, as far as I can see, to fall off the horse. There is an awful lot of sword waving that doesn’t seem to be particularly applicable. You have someone who, earlier in the film, is supposed to be good at swordplay and to understand it who suddenly thinks just waving your arm around is a really good thing to do, doesn’t have a good sense of timing of how to hit somebody, supposed to be experienced. Within the disciplines I study, there is an art called Rossfechten, which basically means fighting on horseback. Now, within that, there are ways of controlling somebody’s balance on the horse, making them lose control of their horse’s balance for example, or just the movement of the horse. So you might slice their bridle. You might cut the bridle. You may control the bridle yourself to try and rotate the horse’s neck. Those things are very, very well known within the community. You also have techniques on foot, which are things like, with a spear, trying to trip the horse and break its legs. None of that’s in this. This just appears to be something that happened. There was some arm waving, and then a man fell off a horse. Nobody really knows what’s going on. So this is getting a two, because I don’t understand it.
This, I have really no idea what’s supposed to have happened at all.