Swordplay Bias

I came across the end fight for Star Wars Episode 1 today and remembered something I thought of a few years back. American films treat fencing and swordplay differently than empty handed arts, especially non-boxing arts. Fencing and swordplay seem to have always received the royal treatment with wide shots, long takes, and long fight scenes in general.This has been the case since the early days of American films with Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and any other film with sword-fighting heroes. fencing

Mark of Zorro (1940):

I don’t know anything about fencing, but doing a quick search on Youtube reveals that the average fencing match seems to last roughly five seconds, and for good reason: that’s when someone gets speared in the face. The match is over! Granted that’s how point sparring typically goes in empty handed martial arts, but you’ll probably live if someone lands a punch on you.

Fencing compilation:

Fencing is still treated the same today.

Rob Roy – Liam Neeson duels Tim Roth

The Princess Bride – The Chatty Duel

Darth Maul’s (Ray Park) fight from Star Wars Episode 1:

Despite the short length of any real fencing match, American films love to dramatize fencing matches by making them extremely long and complex, complete with dialog and plenty of good gags. They’re almost always spectacular, and anyone with or without a lick of fencing knowledge can enjoy them immensely. The opposite logic seems to apply to empty handed fight scenes. Shaky camera, short takes, and short fights in general (always remember the truncated finale from Shanghai Knights) are supposed to do justice to the non-swordfighters, but nobody ever actually buys that. The worst is the notion that Americans don’t “understand” Asian martial arts and get impatient with longer fight scenes. So why do empty handed martial art scenes in American films suck so badly by comparison?

Is fencing somehow “easier” for actors to master than empty handed martial arts, and that allows the cameraman to pull back further and the editor to avoid rapid-fire editing? Are these swordfight scenes actually very simplistic and amateur and I just can’t tell? Do studios/directors just put more effort into them because they’re more “western” and need less biased coverage than martial arts?

My guess is that America’s “dueling” history is much more engrained with the sword than with the hands or feet, and that has laid the foundation for a more swordplay-based action system in American film. Despite the overwhelming popularity of mixed martial arts in the past decade, sword trainers for film still have 30-50 years MORE experience in the industry than empty-handed trainers. Empty-handed martial arts still relatively new, but give it a generation and we’ll probably see American fight scenes like these but with kicks, punches, and throws.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.