In Kazuo Ishiguro’s new best-selling knights-and-dragons novel, "The Buried Giant," there are indeed fight scenes. But I was immediately struck by the fact that there’s precious little fighting that goes on in them. It’s all footwork, posture and position, a slow build, a game of mental chess, and then in one or two actual slices of action, it’s all over. Contrast this to just about any fight scene in, say, "Game of Thrones," and the duels are far more dynamic, with acrobatic swings, spins and slashes that feel more "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" than what I would imagine was actually taking place on European battlefields of the past. So I thought to ask: What were sword-fights really like, and are any television or film fights the least bit realistic, or are Ishiguro’s in-action sequences more true to life?
To answer such a question, we need to call in an expert. Enter Roman Vučajnk, a Slovenian expert in historical European martial arts. He certainly looks the part: a snappy dresser with a three-piece suit, a 16th-century hipster cultivated beard and a pocket watch, he bears an uncanny resemblance to a Lucas Cranach painting of a halberdier. Roman travels the world to teach the history, and practice, of pre-Modern fighting—that’s right, he not only studies it, but grabs dirk and sabre and has at it with fellow scholar-recreationists (note to Hollywood: if you need a historical fight consultant, here’s your man).
Vučajnk describes the Biblical throw-down of David vs. Goliath as the ultimate proto-duel, which inspired both the literary construct of the climax of so many movies, bad guy vs good guy, mano-a-mano, underdog vs. favorite. But while literature bristles with such scenarios, the pitting of two champions in place of the sacrifice of entire armies (Achilles vs. Hector comes to mind), in true history, they are remarkably scarce.
In terms of confirmed historical encounters, there is a famous, and aborted, attempt that comes to mind. Sixteenth-century powerhouses King Francois I of France and the Habsburg Emperor, Charles V, wanted to duel to settle their scores and compare codpiece sizes. But Francois had a romantic notion of duels, and wanted to rock out medieval knight style, battling in full armor and mounted, meaning first charging with lances, round two with spear and sword, and finally with a dagger in the third, if it got that far. Charles, on the other hand, wanted to do it in civilian clothes with a rapier, a modern 16th-century fashion accessory, and cloak as a secondary weapon. But weapon of choice aside, their respective advisors talked them out of it. War was just too important to leave to politicians. It would’ve been like Obama and Putin throwing down and agreeing that the winner gets the other’s nation.
Roman and I sat down to analyze three iconic "Game of Thrones" fight scenes, and then examined three cinematic swordfights for contrast, play-by-play, to see what about them was realistic, and what was a load of highly entertaining Hollywood hooey.
"Game of Thrones," Viper vs. the Mountain
When we think of the term “martial arts” we think of Asia, but it simply means the art of fighting. But did European soldiers boast the sort of acrobatic ninja skillz that kung fu movies have taught us to associate with the East? Sort of. This one-on-one fight pits the proud spear-wielding, acrobatic Viper against an armored colossal strongman. This is the duel I watched that prompted my interest in the subject, because I assumed that, however badass it looked, it couldn’t possibly be historically plausible. First you’ve got the Viper dancing around with a spear like a video game ninja, and the Mountain half-again taller and bounding about in full field armor. Impossible? Au contraire. “There’s a decent presentation of how to use the spear as a weapon. The twirling and showmanship at the beginning has absolutely no battle value; it’s just for show, to intimidate the opponent, perhaps, and nobody would have done it, sober, in real life. In any fight to the death, special attention is given to minimizing the target presented to your opponent. You never turn your back. You don’t want to tire yourself out with dancing around before the fighting starts.” But aside from the showy intro, the spearmanship is pretty good.
What about the Mountain? “There actually were people like the Mountain. Not far from where I live, in Carinthia, there’s a colossal suit of armor made for an extra-large fighter.” It is also technically possible to kill someone by crushing their skull by hand—not quite with an explosion, but by compressing the skull and causing brain damage. Roman points to an account of a gruesome judicial duel between a pair of French captives in 1455 who were sent to fight with wooden batons and shields. They covered their bodies in oil, to make themselves harder to grab, but dipped their hands in ashes, so they could grip their weapons. One tackled his opponent, gouged out his eyes, and threw him out of the ring. While a human hand can’t make someone’s head explode, you could cause brain damage by putting sufficient pressure on the skull.
And the idea of a knight as a sort of tortoise is not true. Knights could do pushups, jump on their horses—otherwise they would’ve been quite useless. The idea of the knight as requiring assistance to even get on his horse comes from Henry VIII, who grew fat and had trouble moving later in his life, so a crane was devised to raise him onto his horse, as the myth goes.” Large, even two-handed longswords used in battle were actually much lighter than you’d think. A man-sized longsword would weigh no more than 3 kilos, usually less—otherwise even Mountains would have trouble lifting them. Roman mentions a study done that showed that First World War infantry equipment was actually heavier than what most medieval soldiers would carry into battle.
"Game of Thrones," Gate of Mereen
While the idea of a besieged city sending out a single champion to decide its fate is more Old Testament and Homer than historical fact, "Game of Thrones" does some nice things with their equivalent, in which an unassuming infantry soldier offers to best the mounted knight from the city of Mereen. Needless to say he does so with panache, hurling a dagger between the charging horse’s eyes and then easily dispatching the fallen rider. “A good example of how an infantryman can stop a horseman. He would stop the horse first, and then deal with the horseman. To stop a horse, with its mass plus velocity, normally a pike would be used, with its butt rammed into the ground. It’s like stopping a small car. How do you do that? It would definitely be a mark of proficiency to throw a dagger between a horse’s eyes, but only a Jedi could pull it off.”
Infantry with a wall of pikes could prevent horses from charging through. But clusters of foot soldiers huddled together made an easy target for archers or artillery. Each piece in a battle can best another. “The only reason to have cavalry is because it is nearly impossible to stop a cavalry charge. If the horse stops moving, then infantrymen can just pull riders off. In "Alatriste," there’s a very realistic scene where pikemen form a wall in close ranks, in a square, with four- to five-meter pikes, and the French cavalry is charging and the pikes stop them. But this is countered by artillery, which scatter the formation.” Films often make it look too easy to unhorse a rider without touching the horse (because audiences are happier to watch people harmed than animals). “Just hitting a rider over the back with a one-handed sword would not unhorse them. You’d have to lift up from below, or attack the horse.”
"Game of Thrones," Brienne vs. the Hound
Zero out of five realism stars for this match-up, unfortunately, between two classically trained iconoclastic knights who both bring their idiosyncratic strengths and passions to the fight. “They prefer fists to swords, then they start boxing in armor, even though they still have daggers," Vučajnk points out. "And if you really got that close to each other, you’d go for grappling or limb breaks, not turning into Mike Tyson.” The Mike Tyson analogy is apt, because Brienne wins by biting the Hound’s ear off.
"The Duelists," Second Duel, with Epees de Cour
If you can get past Harvey Keitel’s disturbing (but realistic) hairdo as a Napoleonic hussar, then "The Duelists" is the most accurate portrayal of cinematic swashbuckle. But it seems Ishiguro was right. Roman notes, “This is the essence of real duels. It’s measuring, nothing, nothing, nothing, then an action and it’s over, disengagement. It’s more boring but more realistic.” The reason is logical if you put yourself in the place of a duelist. In the pre-penicillin and emergency room era, even a tiny scratch could get infected and lead to death. So combatants wanted nothing to do with each other, keeping their distance for as long as possible.
Of all the duels in this film, Roman chose this one to illustrate this point. “This is where real fighting differs from stage fighting. In real fighting, you don’t want to get scratched at all. This is why the fights are more boring—there’s a term, “measuring,” essentially sizing up your opponent, and this is what takes up the vast majority of time during any real fight. The epees de cour was the most lethal civilian duel weapon, in my opinion, the small sword. It is very fast and wherever it hits, from the elbow or knee up, it can cause a rupture and you can bleed to death or die of infection. A significant part of our historical information on duels comes from written records, notes from doctors who would treat patients after battles. They let us know what sort of damage weapons would inflict, so we work backwards, to learn about the use of the weapons. If a combatant would need a breather, they would just drag their blade along the ground, and the judge would stop the duel, because the dirty blade was ripe for infection.” Get even a nick, and you could be majorly screwed. That means more caution and less swash to your buckle.
"Rob Roy," Final Duel
Back in the 17th century, real men wore high heels, as Tim Roth’s villainous English fencing master does against Liam Neeson’s "Rob Roy." Mixed dueling weapons (historical MMA) would be unusual in the 18th and 19th century, which featured sets of matched weapons that you could buy specifically in order to duel, but in this earlier period, you would fight with what you had. Neeson uses a basket-hilt broadsword against Roth and his rapier, and the styles differ because of the weapons, cutting versus thrusting. Lots of cinematic fights get it wrong, having fighters with stabbing weapons swashbuckling around—it’s easier for the viewer to see, but you wouldn’t try to slash with a stabbing weapon. As Roman analogizes, “You can’t drive Formula 1 with a Jeep.” But aside from Roth’s overzealous slashing with a thruster, the historical details are correct. “Tim Roth’s wig comes off before the fight, which is real, doffed so it wouldn’t get in the way. But he keeps his high heels on—which is also realistic, at least starting in the second half of the 17th century. Heels were for riders, to help keep the shoe in the stirrup, but evolved into a hipster male fashion accessory. And it’s tough to fight in high heels—I’ve tried it.”
This is a judicial fight, to the death. The guy with the wig between them is a judge. The character played by Roth is a professional duelist, and he’s showing off, playing with Rob Roy. Rob Roy has been cut and is getting tired, so it’s plausible that he would start using a one-handed weapon with two hands. You would indeed be totally exhausted after four minutes of fighting, as Rob Roy is, dragging his sword along the floor. “Dueling is the best cardio workout ever,” Roman assures me, “especially if you’re fighting for your life.” Roth is not trying to go for the immediate kill, but toys with his opponent. Slashing into the opponent of course makes sense, but a lot of fight choreographers, like on "Game of Thrones," have their combatants slash around the opponent, which looks cool but is useless in practice. The spin-around move Roth uses at minute 4:00 is a rare piece of bullshit in this otherwise accurate fight—you never turn your back to an opponent at such close range. One thing you don’t want to do, which fencing masters would warn against, is what allows Rob Roy to get hit at minute 5:10—he lifts the sword to strike, but leans in with his unprotected chest while doing so—a common mistake, historically accurate. Just when we think Neeson is down for the count, he grabs Roth’s blade with his bare hand and cleaves him in twain, as Hamlet would say. “You couldn’t grab a sword with your bare hand and keep it there while someone tried to pull it away. Just try doing that with a butter knife and you’ll see. But the strike across the shoulder is good—it might cut through the clavicle and some ribs.
"Robin Hood," Beach Battle
This is not technically a duel, but it’s a battle scene that the director has cut into duels which is, to be honest, what most directors of large-scale battle scenes do. Historically this might happen if things degenerated, but armies fought in tight, organized units whenever possible, and things would be going very badly indeed if a battle disintegrated into a chaotic series of one-on-ones. But Roman chose this scene to examine because it features a fighting monk (which demonstrates that even "Diablo III" has some historical verisimilitude). Friar Tuck fights with a mace, a blunt weapon. “Monks really did fight, but it was thought of as inappropriate for a clergyman to fight with a blade.” One of Charlemagne’s clergy went into battle with a mace, as the legend goes. “He’s bashing, but he’s bashing with technique. He’s using a mixture of grappling (wrestling) and his weapon. His technique is to turn his opponent away from him through grappling and then bash him on the head.” This is indeed accurate. “The oldest preserved fighting manual we have, from the early 14th century, is for the sword and buckler, a small shield, very common for travelers, who would take them on journeys for protection. And the fighting manual does not feature soldiers at all, but a monk, a scholar and a woman as the combatants.”
One thing that this and many scenes get wrong ("Game of Thrones" is particularly guilty of this) is oversimplifying wounds. Soldiers wore many layers of material, felt or leather, and it would be very difficult to slash through it. “In the Crusades there are accounts of people shot full of arrows, like porcupines, but fighting on, because the arrows were stuck only in the material. A hit to a helmeted head would cause a concussion, but be unlikely to split a helmet open and cause such bleeding.”
Academic differences aside, all of these scenes fared better than, say, the whole Jeep chase scene in "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," deemed particularly silly by our expert: “The fencing is not bad, the sabers don’t move in a silly way, but the rest of it is just…come on!” And don't even get Vučajnk started on the old "Highlander" moves to ensure "there can be only one"--the showdown between McLeod and Iman Fasil is plain ludicrous. “Why waste a perfectly good sword in a fight with so many backflips that it seems clear you don’t want to use it?” asks Vučajnk. HBO showrunners, take note.