A Festivus airing of grievances: 3 popular sword fights in Western media that I hate

Hapy holidays everyone! Today is Festivus, and as such I decided to take one portion of the event and make it a post. The Airing of Grievances!

For my part, I will take on some very popular and well loved sword fights from movies and talk about how I think they are awful. No doubt with no end of argument.

There is a lot of cinematic swordplay out there. Swashbuckling, samurai, and sword swinging are always popular inclusions in movies and TV. And everyone has their favorites. There are a few movies in the West that garner a good deal of cheers and inclusions of the list of “greatest swords fights ever” in movies. But not everyone agrees with everything. Not all staging is right of the viewer. Sometimes the action is limited by the skill of the actors or the stunt team. And sometimes the entire idea of what the sword fight should be is off. People’s reasons can be myriad for disliking something that most people love. And Vice versa.

And this is my turn, here are three pieces of sword fighting that most people in the US love and use as their standard for such action that I absolutely hate. 

#3: Rob Roy

Tim Roth and Liam Neeson. This duel is one that had been talked up to me by many of my friends who know of my obsession with swords. My first Taiji teacher emphatically told me it was the best sword fight on film. So I rented the movie and sat in great expectation of what was to unfold. When it did, I was as dejected as a child watching their new balloon fly away. 

So why do I dislike this fight? 

First reason is that much of the camera work is boring and not well framed for the action. Often the camera is set far off so that the action is not clear, or it is too close so the actions cannot be seen clearly (a common occurrence as we will see). The pacing of the fight is a stop and start type of fight. I find this type of fight in a movie generally very dull. And so I found it here. You cannot even see the actors faces very well during the exchanges. This all makes it one of the most underwhelming fight scenes I have in memory. And I only have it in my memory because people continue to recommend it to me. 

I would have liked to see more gritty and dirty fighting. The attempt was made to make a more realistic sword fight here but for me it fails to project any semblance of reality. The movements are too big and graceful to project tension. The space between the fighters is too great so you can’t get a good feel for the struggle. Bring them in close and break them apart. Have Liam Neeson chasing Roth around more and have both fighters get tired. All the things that happen in the fight character wise seem just to happen because they are in the script. 

#2 Highlander

Clancy Brown and Christopher Lambert. Highlander is a cult classic. It was the first big sword movie that many of us in the US grew up with. There are iconic lines and deliveries that have been enshrined in popular culture. Everyone loves Highlander. Except me. 

Highlander is one of these movies that I will see on streaming (or the video store back in the day) and think, I haven’t seen that movie in a good long while. Then, I will watch it and quickly remember why I don’t ever watch this movie. It is terrible. But let’s focus on the sword fighting. 

The duels in this movie are the shining example of every tired old stupid sword trope that you can find. None of the actors look convincing with their weapons. They swing them so slowly that  it is obvious they are not trying to hit each other. The choreography is choppy at best and asinine at worst. The gimmicks that they throw at the viewer do nothing but direct attention to the absolutely wretched level of the sword fighting. When ever I watch this movie, what I can get through, I am depressed. 

Now it can be argued that that is appeal of the movie. Slumming it with cheesy movies from the 80’s is a fun nostalgic activity. All that would be fine, but the sword fight at the end of the movie is consistently given as one of the best sword fights in movie history. Yikes. 

#1- Phantom menace- Duel of the Fates

Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Ray Park. This one is probably the one that will land me in the most hot water. Even though I am a big fan the Lightsaber, lightsaber duels are, on average, not great. The bottom the barrel for me is the Phantom Menace. Not because it is the worst as far as choreography or anything. But the absolute disappointment and wasted potential that it represents. 

First of all, I knew who Ray Park was before seeing the movie. I knew he was a Wushu competitor and was very much expecting some of the highflying martial arts action that I had been seeing in Hong Kong films and the like. So, when there was almost no use of those skills of Park’s, I immediately started to turn off. It wasn’t hard either. The cut aways from the fight to other things in the movie only served to distract from any tension that might have been built. There are a few sequences in the choreography which seem to be repeated over and over, also thus distracting from the fight narrative.

The fight also suffers from it’s cinematography. So much of the action with lightsabers is sown from along distance away. This is cut with sequences that seem to be far too close. When the camera distance seems to be good, the angle is often such that the trick of stagecraft are visible. the actors staying out of range as not to hit each other, jumps and dodges for actions that do not require them, and patchwork use of physicality to move the fight along. Again these are not bad things, they are just things that most fights work very hard to mitigate.

And in the end, (Spoilers!) of corse, where Maul is bisected and uncermolincy thrown down the pit left a bad taste for the whole endeavor.

Now, my love of the Star Wars franchise and the lightsaber is not damped at al by this. And, in fact, it seems that some have at a least had the same vision of Jedi strafing through the air on the Force as to make it part of the Clone Wars series. The final battle between Ashoka and Maul is not only a redemption for Mauls untimely dispatch from the Phantom Menace, but also harkened to new approaches to this type of action that we see in the Mandalorian and Obi-Wan series.

But this one I can do without.

So there we have it. My grievances aired, I am ready for the rest of the holiday season! I hope all my readers have a happy and safe holiday and a very prosperous new year!

Happy Festivus!

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