Why Can’t Movies Show “Medieval” Sword Fights Accurately? (cringy rant)

the best sword fight in a movie

There’s a good reason why pedantic historians and enthusiastic students never cease to ask the question “why is the swordplay in ‘medieval’ Hollywood movies still based off of 19th-century sports fencing and to-the-minute choreography when we have HEMA (historical European martial arts) and HAMA (historical African martial arts) practitioners and theorists promulgating translated combat treatises from the Middle Ages across the internet for the world to see?”

Imagine life 1,000 years from now. The children of humankind are floating around in spaceships and people still believe that swords can stab through breastplates and all castles were just bare stone without paint!

To me this whole issue is more than just a problem of entertainment not being educational. This is a problem of humankind believing misconceptions about their own past. Although I focus solely on the medieval aspect of this, the problem doesn’t change for ancient, early modern, cultural and all other areas of our past where misconceptions dominate. I like to imagine what future A.I. will think, being a lot smarter than us, as it tries to understand our past. An A.I. or even an alien race who would like to learn more about our history wouldn’t make the error of depending on Hollywood movies, and neither should we, unless, of course, we can start to teach truth in movies. I’d like to do this because I honestly believe movies are one of the best mediums for conveying powerful meta-truths about what it is to be a human.

My brain quakes trying to understand why to this day we still don’t have a Hollywood movie that shows medieval sword fighting accurately. Now without mocking any movie that’s already been produced, let’s discuss what movies in the future will look like…

Assuming we all understand that comparing the 1990s to the 1970s is no different than comparing the 1430s to the 1450s, we must keep in mind that real medieval sword fights will look different as we switch from decade to decade and place to place. This is because comparing 14th-century Italian swordplay to 6th-century Irish swordplay is like comparing Trump to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Just to make this point ring for the masses, I would love to make YouTubers like Lindybeige, Scholagladiatoria and Shadiversity the directors of big-budget movies, baby. My hope would be that they would actually take the time to sit back and really consider what this godforsaken sword fight should look like, man.

Wondering if there’s a reason why I just spammed you with seemingly random YouTube videos? It’s because I’m really hoping you know what HEMA is as I attempt to describe what a real medieval sword fight might have really looked like. A lot of the techniques used in HEMA come from medieval manuscripts. Although we have this evidence to study, the majority of sword fights that took place in the Middles Ages were conducted by people who had never read these manuscripts. Despite its limits, HEMA as a sport gives us much insight into real medieval combat, and I’m so grateful for it. I’m also grateful for the other tools humankind has to look back at medieval sword fighting. My favorite one is imagination. More on that later. For now, just please understand that I will be using “HEMA” as a general term to represent what modern humankind has learned about medieval sword fighting by studying medieval manuscripts.

Thank you.

Armored HEMA techniques, as you’d imagine, are a lot different than unarmored HEMA techniques.

The fighting gear “unarmored” HEMA practitioners use are as follows: replica swords ofttimes trying to be historically accurate and armor that isn’t very historically accurate at all.

But forget that. Forget the sports and all the enthusiastic hype about HEMA. Now think like a historian who’s never heard of HEMA. A historian with a Masters in Medieval Studies from the 1970s. If a historian were to really take a look at these medieval manuscripts and use imagination to show us what medieval sword fights may have looked like, I would buy a ticket to whatever movies he produced. I haven’t been to the theaters in years.

If you’ve read this far, you already know that I still haven’t described what a real medieval sword fight looked like. But I will now, b*tch. To make this easy on myself, yet forcing me to use my imagination, let me separate the things a real medieval sword fight would have from the things it wouldn’t.

A real medieval sword fight would NOT have:

  1. Swords that slice and stab through armor like a knife through butter.
  2. Swordsmen twirling around like ballerinas.
  3. Swordsmen using fantasy weapons.
  4. Scenery filmed in historical locations.
  5. Extras in dirty rags pumping their fists and screaming “yeah” over and over again.
  6. Magical spells.
  7. Directors who can scrupulously leaf through old footage to replace hideous choreography.
  8. Movie critics.
  9. Cheesy music.
  10. Elongated, stilted dialogue that only exists to present some tension between characters in a plot.
  11. If the fighters were Holy Roman Catholic, an atheist mindset with no care for the extreme unction.
  12. Torches burning during the daytime.
  13. Extras dying instantly from tiny wounds.

A real medieval sword fight would DEFINITELY have:

  1. Swords that rebound and act realistically against armor.
  2. If the swordsmen were not using techniques that had been taught to them by masters, extempore moves that would still make logical sense after considering what we have learned thanks to HEMA.
  3. Swordsmen using historically accurate weapons.
  4. In-the-moment scenery.
  5. People wearing historically accurate clothing and behaving realistically.
  6. Nasty smells.
  7. Reason and cause that actually happened in this world.
  8. Truth.
  9. Historically accurate sound!
  10. Complex guilts and other tensions reflecting true medieval history.
  11. If the fighters were Holy Roman Catholic, a religious mindset with care for the ars moriendi.
  12. Historically accurate lighting.
  13. People behaving realistically to nonlethal wounds.

Reminder: This is a blog post and not an academic article.

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11 Comments

  1. `Sup. HEMAist and professional fight choreographer here.

    The priorities on a film set for a western fight choreographer are, mostly in order of priority:

    1) Ensure there are no accidents or injuries
    1) Fulfill the director’s stylistic and choreographic vision for the fights, because the director can and will overrule you.
    3) Make the talent happy with the fights; they can and will overrule you
    4) Create a good story arc during the fight, ideally for all characters involved, because the writers can and will overrule you
    5) Create a fight where the audience can follow and understand the action, because if you don’t then the people who are in charge of hiring you in the future can and will blacklist you
    6) Do all of the above in as little time as possible (all the way down to, “take Phil and Bob, write a 30 second fight; we’re setting up lights and we film in 20 minutes”)
    7) Minimize training time and training costs for the talent; those both cost money
    8) Come to terms with the fact that you have no say in the editing process and so anything you do can be chopped up; like having a scene shooting an M16 where the actor empties the magazine in 2.5 seconds…then the editor stitches together 4 different angles of that same shot in a row so it now looks like the rifle can fire full-auto for 10 seconds and you look like an idiot who doesn’t know the rifle’s cyclic fire rate and mag capacity. Not that this is a sore spot for me or anything.
    9) Do all of the above and make the fighting look as “realistic” as possible.

    So, which one of 1-8 gets ignored or made less of priority to make the fighting more realistic? These are the realities the fight choreographers face, so how does anyone get around them in order to make the fights “better”?

    The only way we’re going to get “good fighting” by the standards of HEMAists is going to be to have some movie come out – someday – which is devoted from the top down in showing fights as realistically as possible in the same manner as the John Wick team wanted to do with gunplay. The will (read: financial incentive) to do that simply doesn’t exist in Hollywood at this time, and the personnel with the training required to do that are doing HEMA and aren’t working their way through the stuntie training pipeline.

    Side note: if movies in the future look like that, then we’re in trouble, because there isn’t an audience for that, and the audience can’t follow that sort of action. There’s no characterization or story, and those are way, WAY more important in a theatrical context than “realistic” swordplay. I’d like to see more HEMA too, but let’s not pretend that everyone involved in film production is deliberately keeping fights “unrealistic”, and let’s not ignore the fact that there’s some massive barriers – some of which exist for good reason – to seeing that happen.

    1. @Rob. These are great points! For me they’re kind of reassuring, too, because producing a movie that from the outset is dedicated to not only showing what real medieval swordplay looked like but also what life in general looked like in the Middle Ages is exactly what I plan to do and this is one of the main reasons why I’m currently majoring in Medieval Studies. If I don’t do it, someone else will!

  2. I like what Rob DeHoff says. I mean, I think that 99% of Hollywood fights are kind of sucky, but then I realise I’m not their audience, and won’t ever be, so I’m screwed that way. Oh, and I lump those clips Edmund posted in the “kind of sucky” category too, sadly. 🙁

      1. I can ’cause I can. 😀 But remember, I’m a super picky customer. Also, that “kind of” part? I admit these guys move in lovely ways, especially in the longsword fight. Technically, they’re far above most things I’ve seen. But hey, I’m a storyteller, and I wanna things to make sense. (Except for when I don’t want them to.) 😀

        So, both fights take too long, to begin with. I want my realistic sword fights to take about as long as the first duel in The Duellists. These sweeties take their bloody time, though the poor sods are just trying to entertain us, I get that. But what’s up with disarming your enemy and then throwing his sword back to him? That’s just dumb. It’d make sense in a duelling context, but there’s no audience, so it’s iffy as a duel. Also, when the fighters lose their swords and start doing wrassling and the like? That just smells suspicious to me. Like someone at the set went, “Hey, also, I wanna show some wrassling moves, make that happen.” Alice not buying. But like I said, I’m super picky! Choreo-wise, these sweeties are doing stellar work.

        Also also, you didn’t ask what my favourite sword fight on film is, but I’m gonna tell you anyway! 😀 It’s in The Seven Samurai, the scene where Kyuzo is introduced. It’s not totally cool (that death topple is cheesy) but it’s pretty damn cool.

        1. @Alice. But what if there was only one scene with wrestling that for twenty minutes a giant and a dwarf wrasssled it out in the mud in full plate armour during the aftermaths of a historical siege trying to get their rondel daggers through each other’s chainnmail and helmet visors while Judas Priest was blaring?

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