While actual combat is typically nasty, brutish and short, reel combat rarely assumes the form of the ‘one cut, one kill’ method privileged by the Samurai, except when the hero is required to dispatch ranks of nameless pawns. Cinematic swordfights are usually much longer, but brevity is sometimes used to emphasize the tremendous agility or strength of a particular character. The legendary fighter Achilles is introduced as exactly this type of dominant battlefield presence in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2005), when he defeats his much larger opponent, in a fair fight, with a single aggressive attack. Generally speaking, films depict either similarly practiced competitors or an overmatched protagonist struggling to survive against a much more capable foe, both of which are scenarios that lend themselves to the procession of long, drawn out battles.
In Troy, Brad Pitt’s Achilles and Eric Bana’s Hector are portrayed as well matched combatants, both said to be the most capable warriors of their homelands, but the choreography reveals a great sense of difference in the way each embodies aspects of martial culture. In many respects, the way in which a character fights may be as important as the way in which he speaks. A distinct attack can go so far as any line of dialogue when it comes to creating a sense of who they are and how they fit into the narrative world. As these moves coalesce to form a fighting style that is not merely cohesive or contemporary to the diegesis, but which illustrate vice and virtue or other personal attributes, choreography can contribute as much to the development of a character as any other aspect of a production.
While their actions are almost always swift and their objectives usually simple, carefully crafted choreography may feature all of the complexity of well written dialogue. As the Sean Bean’s Odysseus contends, both the sword and the spoken word are tools upon which a man may rely to achieve his objectives. “You have your sword, I have my tricks,” he explains. “We play with the toys the gods give us.” Furthermore, neither are merely a means to an end, but crafts of which mastery reflects a great deal else about an individual who practices them. In Troy, Achilles exhibits tremendous skill in combat, described in the script simply as ‘godlike,’ which is illustrative not only of his supernatural ability, but of his confidence, pride, and desire to be remembered as the greatest warrior the world has ever seen.
As the persona reflected by combat can be crucial to the representation of a character within a story, it is critical that an actor, rather than a stuntman, portray the combatant. “It’s the revelation of character through the fight, through the situation,” explains sword master Richard Ryan, “rather than it being just a sort of spectacle of moves.” It through the language of their bodies, their expressions of hatred, fear, resolve, or desperation, or other details the camera reveals when right with a real actor, that combat serves and strengthens a narrative.
This is especially true of the final duel in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy. It is among the most well regarded fights in all of film, in large part for its immaculate illustration of both characters, as combatants and as men. Although this period piece is based on real life of Rob Roy McGregor, the climactic confrontation is a complete contrivance. While the duelists did, historically, settle their score, this was because McGregor swiftly defeated Cunningham, after which the two became fast friends. In the film, their rivalry is anything but friendly, with Liam Neeson’s McGregor stopping at nothing to avenge the rape of his wife and the fleecing of his township against Tim Roth’s Archibald Cunningham. The structure of the film suggests that such a confrontation is inevitable, and the staging of this climactic scene creates a strong sense of symmetry, which as a result emphasizes the resolution of this conflict.
The final duel shares many features with the opening action scene, aside from the fact that it is staged on same set. Although the narrative weight of the climax is far greater than in this introductory sequence, its narration is otherwise almost identical. Both scenes are the subject of a wager by Andrew Keir’s Argyll and John Hurt’s Montrose, a competition that is an extension of their political and cultural rivalry. When Cunningham easily outclasses Argyll’s champion Guthrie, Montrose taunts, “My factor will call upon Your Grace’s factor.” When he repeats this dialogue upon establishing the terms of the second duel, he does before the battle, as if it were already won. At this point the line resembles an ominous threat more than playful taunt. Cunningham also signals this shift in tone, when in lieu of a flamboyant salute he simply takes off his wig.
As Cunningham reveals his closely cropped hair, it becomes clear that the battle itself will bear little resemblance the former, except that he intends to dominate his opponent. This is no longer a demonstration, but a duel, one that does not recreate but instead reflects the prior scenario. Carefully crafted symmetries aside, the earlier demonstration is an investment that pays off in the final act in a fundamental way. As Cunningham is not the archetypal combatant, being small in stature with a wig and stockings, it is important that the film emphasize his dueling prowess, particularly as he will face the rugged Rob Roy. When the filmmakers create a capable character through choreography, each line of dialogue he utters carries greater weight. As a result, his reply to, “No quarter will be asked,” seems to signal the demise of the honorable hero. When “neither asked nor given,” proves an ironic prophecy, it illustrates the way in which this sense of symmetry and illusion of inevitability sustains drama and increases tension.
As a conventional narrative builds towards a strong climax, this notion of inevitability is shared with most movies, but this is particularly true when a character must sate vengeance or uphold honor. As Shakespeare wrote, “It will have blood they say, blood will have blood.” Indeed, to avenge a trespass is the raison d’être of a formal duel, and it altogether natural for a film to emphasize the satisfaction of honor. When vengeance is established as the primary motivation of the protagonist, it makes justice inescapable, and the duel inevitable.
In Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s Maximus is betrayed by the heir to the throne. The next emperor, Commodus, orders the general to be executed along with his wife and son. As vengeance drives the plot forward, with an ever honorable hero and an increasingly villainous antagonist, it becomes clear that the story can only end when one of these men is dead. After the Emperor learns that Maximus survived his execution, his identity revealed before the entire colosseum, Djimon Honsou’s Juba bluntly describes their fate. “You have a great enemy,” he tells Maximus. “You must kill your enemy before he kills you.” While Maximus will ultimately kill Commodus, he does so shortly before succumbing to a mortal wound inflicted by this very enemy. Although the prophecy of this line, as with all predictions, must be appreciated in hindsight, it takes on its full meaning not only in the context of the film as a whole, but by codifying the conflict, it strengthens the sense that the film is building towards an inevitable conclusion.
Other purely visual elements perform a similar function. As the story revolves around the arena, many motifs are woven into this location to create a sense of symmetry as well as fate, particularly when its main characters come face to face. The Emperor Commodus meets Maximus after his first battle in the Flavian Amphitheater, in order to congratulate the gladiator on his surprising victory, without knowing that the general survived his execution. Before the emperor enters the arena, the gladiators are surrounded by praetorians, his personal bodyguards. Facing inwards, the praetorians form a square formation. This configuration is a corruption of the repellere equites formation used when fighting cavalry, as demonstrated earlier when the gladiators band together to fend off the enemy chariots. Already seen in the sequence, such an arrangement would be featured later in the film, each time with increasing ceremony.
As the climactic duel is about to take place, the praetorians form an oval concentric to the colosseum, echoing not only the shape of the amphitheatre but their prior perimeter purpose. The modified version allows the duelists ample room to fight, while emphasizing the significance of the duel and concluding the motif. This final fight focuses on the duelists, with few distractions. There are no chariots or tigers, no legions of muddied and bloodied barbarians, no other gladiators. There is only Maximus and Commodus. Even the praetorians that stand guard have been abstracted to resemble the colosseum. Through the staging of increasingly personal battles, Gladiator builds directly to its climax, which marshals every element towards communicating the importance and inevitability of this final conflict, while minimizing unnecessary detail. The duel of Rob Roy is similarly sharpened and simplified. While the first fight takes place in a crowded hall, the room is all but empty during the finale.
Although these elements lead to an inevitable conclusion, it is the tension between inevitability and uncertainty that ultimately creates drama. This is particularly true of combat, in which one will live and one will die, with the outcome dependent upon skill, as well as fortune or fate. In film, the outcome of a battle is of course determined well before it ever takes place, but it must look as though is happening in real space and time. While choreography must be believable, this does not mean that it should follow the form of a fight as it might actually take place. A real fight will lack the visual interest and dramatic structure of choreographed combat, and would often end too quickly to sustain a scene. A staged battle, on the other hand, may be to careful or contrived to be believable, so one must strike a balance between the stagy style of choreography and the scrappy strikes of an actual combatant.
Moreover, choreography is only half the battle. When excitement derives from the sense that a particular attack is especially unique, precise, or otherwise difficult to execute, then it essential to communicate the exact nature of the attack as it is occurring, or at least to allow the audience to determine after the fact what has happened. Along these lines, whether a move appears scrappier or stagier is contingent upon the manner in which it is presented.
The desert ambush in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven demonstrates the difficulty in splitting the difference between contrivance and improvisation. As Orlando Bloom’s Balian begins the battle without a weapon and only his wits, it would seem to be wide open to interpretation, but the only implement organic to the scenario is a rock. Ironically, it is the least rehearsed, most uncomplicated part of the fight that betrays the staged nature of the scene. After striking an excess of blows with this rock, his improvised attack takes on the redundant character of Glasgow cuts, the mindless back and forth blade whacking of low rent stage productions.
The battle becomes more interesting when Balian is thrown to the ground. Although the broken pots serve the same purpose as the stone, their use is demanded by the dynamic development of the battle, which emphasizes the pressures of relying on whatever means available. This circumstance is particularly pronounced when he must seize the dagger of an enemy to pierce the narrow opening of his helm. While this would require a great deal of luck as well as skill, it is a valid technique that is practiced when possible. Such an attack could also be performed with a hand-and-a-half sword, its wielder with the advantage of being able to grip the weapon firmly with both hands, having one at either end to ensure maximum stability. Indeed, such an attack is made possible by this second hand, which when placed near the end of the blade, can precisely point the direction of its thrust. In this regard, the attack is not only an exciting conclusion to the scene, but a relatively realistic method of killing a fully armored opponent.
While this maneuver depends on extreme precision, it is surrounded on all sides by graceless brawling, and because it is born out of desperation, it does not appear so staged. The success of this choreography depends on its presentation. Most important of all is the point of view shot looking up towards the cruciform dagger with which he makes the kill. This insert not only signals what will transpire, but the manner in which the shot telegraphs the attack makes its improbable success appear more likely.
Such perfect balance is a challenge to achieve in cinema, but even more so in the case of theatrical fencing. While stage fencing often features extremely complicated choreography, it is by and large bound by safety. This concerns stems from the fact that the entire battle must be performed at once and in sequence, and therefore must be memorized in its entirety. As a result, they tend to consist of maneuvers that have distinct profiles and unique names, long since codified by swordmasters through the Renaissance tradition of fencing manuals. Since each swing has a logical transition and each attack an expectant parry, they may produce a pattern of stilted sameness if the choreographer is not careful. In a cinematic swordfight, for which the choreography can almost always be broken down into more manageable units, it becomes possible to introduce subtle variations within these basic forms, along with more difficult maneuvers.
What fencing master Fiore de Liberi termed the fior di battaglia, or flower of battle, can blossom in a variety of ways. Indeed, as a knight in fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy, living amongst the patchwork of warring states in which Fiore created his comprehensive manual, one did well to be prepared for all manner of melee, from unarmed to mounted combat. Whatever their tools, whenever their time, fights feature three types of subject matter, which may take precedence at any moment of a scene and yield to another in the next. These are the dialogue and development of the duelists themselves, the progression of the fight through swordplay or other melee combat, and the path of the characters throughout the setting. Though high frequency bladework can be combined with the traversing of significant distance, one of these actions must typically yield to the other. Combat almost necessarily prevents dialogue from being uttered, and dialogue rarely implies any sort of movement, but these elements must also be thought of as For example, the only sensible way to choreograph the climactic battle between Macbeth and Macduff will include a dramatic shift in fighting style, which reflects the desperation Macbeth experiences after learning the truth of the prophecy, which was foretold to him by three witches.
In the case of Troy, for example, all of the dialogue takes place in advance, which allows for a brisk pace throughout the remainder of the scene. This is a procedure throughout filmed fight sequences, though it is improbable that so many scenes are as neatly bifurcated in this regard. What is most notable about the scene is that it favors footwork over swordplay, which is likely due in large part because of the nature of the historical weaponry. These weapons are designed for fighting as part of a large group, and do not lend themselves to those techniques we typically associate with dueling. The short length of the blades which they use do not lend themselves to extended exchanges of blade on blade contact, and consequently the scene cannot develop simply through sword play. Even though the setting, as least insofar as the parameters of their duel or concerned, is more or less vacant, their movement throughout it is of primary importance in the scene, even as much as is bladework.
One peculiar aspect of the battle between Hector and Achilles is that their equipment is designed for use in large groups. The spear, the shortsword, and the hoplon (the large round shield from the foot soldiers of the ancient Mediterranean would derive their name) where used chiefly in conjunction with an overlapping frontline known as a phalanx, which was often several rows deep. Although this tactic would not be refined until many centuries after the Battle of Troy, these weapons would nevertheless be best used in a similar capacity. During a duel, strategies would be radically different than in those battles for which these tools are intended. For example, the primary function of a shield is to ward off attack, but it may be used as an offensive instrument, as the centerpiece duel of Troy demonstrates.
For many years, knowledge of archaic Greek weaponry survived only through The Iliad, which describes Hector as carrying a massive lance as long as eighteen feet. In this case, artist license is subject to the physical limitations, such as what a human being can actually wield. A weapon of such length would be impossible to fight with in the context of a duel, but hoplites many centuries later carried weapons of similar length as they operated as part of the phalanx. Such length was necessary for soldiers three or four rows deep, and those farther and farther back carried increasingly longer spears, which would be less difficult to wield in this regimented setting. While informed by history, the practical considerations of fighting with and filming weapons ultimately determine how battles will unfold.
The scene follows a form emblematic of the way in which a duel begins as a civilized contest but devolves into a desperate struggle for survival, a progression that may be defined as spears, swords, and scraps. While it is not always the case that the combatants employ these weapons, it is nevertheless useful to think of such a scene in these terms, as each class represents a different approach to battle that represented by the type of battle that takes place during each phase. Spears, for example, enable the wielder to keep his opponent at a distance, and within this realm of tentative tactics, allow for a lucky strike that might end the battle quickly. When they draw their swords, the pace increases with their proximity, and combat becomes more aggressive and dangerous. As the duelists are injured or otherwise grow weary of battle, their style becomes increasingly desperate. During this last phase, they may fight with a fraction of their original equipment, some of which is broken or damaged. In the duel between Hector and Achilles, each of these segments follows a trajectory that mirrors the structure of the scene as a whole.
The film shifts between many different characters and multiple perspectives, without a clear protagonist or reason to root for one hero over another. Consequently, the duel between Hector and Achilles is very different from the typical fight scene, in which audience allegiance is aligned entirely behind the principle character or his allies. While King Agamemnon is without a doubt the villain of the story, the rest of the characters are heroes, and it is not the wish of the viewer that they be defeated. Only when Paris faces Menelaus, whose wounded ego inspired the whole conflict, is a sense of perspective strongly implied by the film. And it is not so much implied as much as it is imposed: the audience sees part of the battle through the eyes of Paris himself, with his helmet masking the sides of the screen, and his shield covering up the whole field of view as he blocks incoming attacks.
While this particular device makes no other appearance in the film, it is echoed before the duel between Hector and Achilles in an understated fashion. As the elder Prince leaves the safety of Troy, the camera tracks with him, its over the shoulder view providing a sense of his perspective as he approaches his enemy. In the scenes immediately preceding the battle, the camera never takes position behind Achilles, and his approach is viewed from the high walls of Troy instead of his chariot, building upon the notion that the audience will watch the battle from the point of view of the Trojans. This is furthered by frequent cutaways to King Priam, as he prepares to watch his son die, or Paris and Helen, as they embrace their guilt for what has happened.
In times since ancient Greece, poets and storytellers have traditionally favored Hector, who as Prince of Troy is ancestrally linked to the founders of Rome, Britain, and several ruling houses in medieval Europe. Notably, he is one of three pagan heroes among the nine worthies, an important motif in medieval literature that originated with the 1312 poem Les Voeux du Paon, which describes a hero who surpasses the nine greatest warriors in history. Each of these figures was held to exemplify the core components of chivalry and guiding principles of honorable conduct. Taken together, the nine possess all aspects of the perfect warrior and are the paragon of knightly virtue. The omission of Achilles in favor of Hector better represented what were becoming increasingly important concepts of courtesy and humility, even as the nine emphasized prowess over other knightly virtues. The film similarly represents Hector in a positive light, as the embodiment of all virtues esteemed in martial thought.
From the moment the heroes begin the battle, to that which Achilles lets Hector fall unceremoniously to the ground, the fight lasts three minutes and five seconds. While the pace of the first segment is relatively slow, as the characters spend the first subsegment at a distance from one another, it is edited at a pace comparable to the increasingly rapid combat that succeeds it. This segment with the spears lasts 44;11 with 3 cutaways accounting for 08;02 of this duration. During this segment, Achilles attacks 18 times, defends 3 times and performs a 2 part special maneuver (breaking the spear and pushing Hector). Hector attacks 4 times, defends 14 times, and performs a 1 part special maneuver (breaking the spear). This represents a rate of 0.5 attacks per second of film (or 0.6 without cutaways).
Each of these segments, to provide a clearer idea of the way in which the rhythm of the scene is developed and structured, can be further broken down. In the first segment, there are three subsegments, each representing shifts in the battlefield strategy but marked also by brief pauses in the action, some of which are cinematographically imposed using cutaways. The first subsegment, lasting 05;12, consists of their approach and initial attack sequence. It contains only 2 attacks. After a gap of 03;18, there is an extended choreography of 26;12, broken by two cutaways, one lasting 02;06 and the other 02;05. This subsegment contains 16 attacks. After a brief pause in the action, lasting 04;12, the segment continues for another 04;03 until Hector breaks the remaining spear. This subsegment contains 3 attacks.
The primary swordplay lasts 59;14, with 3 cutaways accounting for 08;03 of this duration. During this segment, Achilles attacks 19 times, defends 14 times, executes 2 special attacks (an elbow to the face and a kick to the shield), and performs a 2 part special maneuver (trapping and forcing Hector’s arm). Hector attacks 18 times and defends 13 times. This represents a rate of 0.6 attacks per second (or 0.7 without cutaways). The second segment features 4 subsegments. The first lasts 09;16 and contains 12 attacks, followed by a gap of 07;04. The second lasts 14;01 and contains 11 attacks, followed by a gap of 03;00. The third is 12;23 long, featuring 12 attacks, followed by a pause lasting 04;08. The fourth is 00:10:16 long, featuring 3 attacks.
Between these sections, there is a period of stasis lasting 18;12 before the battle is reinitialized, with a cutaway of 3 subsequent shots lasting 07;16. The third segment, from the moment Hector gets back up to that which Achilles plunges a broken spear into his chest lasts 00:33;02, during which there are no cutaways. During this segment, Achilles attacks 8 times (half of these coming during the very last moments of the battle), defends 7 times, performs 2 special maneuvers (pushing Hector and taking his spear), and draws blood twice (once from the upper leg and once from the chest). Hector attacks 15 times and defends only 1 time. The killing blow is dealt 13;12 after he is speared, and Hector falls down dead a full 12;01 after that.
This quantification confirms the existence of apparent trends, some of which have great narrative significance. As Achilles appears to be aggressive, these numbers describe a similar character, who attacks far more often than Hector. The exception to this rule is the latter part of the battle, during which Hector becomes desperate. Through his superior skill, Achilles forces him to go on the offensive. After this point, Hector attacks twice as often as Achilles, and manages only to parry a single strike. The segmentation also supplies some subtle revelations regarding the structure of the scene, which has a clear beginning, middle, and end marked by peculiar editing patterns. For example, within each segment of the scene, reactions of the spectators always appear in triplets, including immediately before and immediately after Hector is killed.
Although a fight is precisely choreographed and performed, at a consistent rate that is comfortable for the dueling pair, the editor may still have a considerable, even astonishing level of control over the rhythm of the scene. In the duel between Hector and Achilles, other principle characters watch over the proceedings, so it is natural and in some cases important to cut away to their reaction. This type of coverage, as with any other scene, affords the editor a measure of latitude, at least insofar as he is enabled to increase or decrease the time between separate sequences of moves. A cutaway might also allow the elimination of entire sections of the choreography, but this could create another set of problems, and such a strategy does not appear to have been implemented in the reconstruction of this particular duel. Instead, editor Peter Honess takes the opposite approach, by expanding the timeline of the fight. In a relatively simple example, he cuts away to a shot of King Priam, for a duration of two seconds, to a piece of the choreography which had been shown seconds before from a different angle. Its effect is not meant to be noticed, and similar strategies are employed a few more times at other points in the scene.
The editor endeavored to expand at several segments of the fight, or at any rate willingly accepted a small violation of continuity principles in favor of a more interesting rhythm. After Achilles performs his trademark aerial attack, Hector returns with two quick strikes, the second a heavy blow against the defending shield. A second strike is so natural in the rhythm of the choreography that the edit reads as a normal application of continuity principles. Even after the disjunction is revealed, it may first appears as an ellipsis, on account of linking footage that did not exist or was otherwise omitted. Upon closer examination, the torquing of their bodies and redundant rotation of their shields reveals the true nature of the edit. It is a temporal overlap, in the neighborhood of one half second. While this may not seem very long, it is enough time for Hector to perform his entire attack and, consequently, for it to be repeated in toto.
This repetition is likely to go unnoticed for a number of different reasons besides its rapid speed. First of all, attacks from the weapon side of the body can be performed somewhat more quickly than their roversi counterpart, especially when fighting with a shield. Furthermore, this type of overhand swing, known as a squalembrato, would be among the most natural and useful to repeat in rapid succession, as it safely and swiftly brings the sword over your shield, and its blade downward at your opponent with the maximum amount of force, courtesy of gravity as well as flesh and bone. Second, the initial camera placement is very close to the axis of action, so the shield occludes the incoming blade and disguises the repeated action. And third, the soundtrack blends these discontinuous shots smoothly together. The minimalist score serves this purpose as well as any, but more importantly, the distinct character given to the sound of each strike causes the eye, as well as the ear, to read these attacks as different events. Clearly, this is not intended to be a temporal overlap in the Soviet cinematographic sense, but a derivation of Hollywood continuity principles, its seam all but completely obscured to the unaided observer.
A similar application of this technique appears shortly thereafter, immediately before Hector strikes his adversary, but damages only his gleaming cuirass. Again, the attack which follows the cut is one which was completed following the edit, and what was two swings of his sword becomes three. Footage from preproduction tests confirms that this piece of choreography includes only two attacks, and that the sense of a third is a result of the edit. This instance, however, differs from the earlier application in that it represents in most respects a very precise match on action. The attack which is blocked is more or less the same as the attack which connects, so the former can be repeated without risking a sense of discontinuity. Although the orientation of the blade in his first attack, is very different from that of the second, a squalembrato or downward slash, his blade makes a clean entrance from top of the frame. Not only is the orientation of the attack somewhat ambiguous as a result, subsequent blade contact is obscured by his flowing tunic, enabling increased variety on the effects track. The distinctive sound associated with a missed attack sells a sense of difference between the first and second swings, while the implication of an ineffective parry on the part of Achilles communicates a lapse in his otherwise immaculate defense, further fleshing out this aspect of the choreography well after its performance.
It is possible that the attacks concluding the battle, which appear in duplicate, were repeated not in the choreography but once again using this strategy, but this cannot be confirmed by the shots in the scene alone. It is worth noting that this method of representing a kill, as it appeared earlier in the film, required no cutting, whereas the example in question exhibits an edit at the exact moment as would be required to loop this choreography. Furthermore, the series as it is shown in the final cut begins with three missed attacks, which is more consistent with the previous iteration of such an overlap than it is with the ability Achilles displays in the rest of the film. In both cases, he ends a battle with a fearsome flurry, with his arms whirling like a windmill, leading to a pan that reveals his weapon embedded in its victim.
While the editor is able to accomplish a great deal, especially when considering the restrictions of continuity principles, the success of the fight is of course dependent on the quality of the choreography and the capability in its performance. In this regard, the scene is wonderfully inventive, a creativity best represented by the moment in which Achilles captures the arm of his opponent with his shield. While such a maneuver is undoubtedly improbable, it does not play like the product of a controlled environment, as a sense of uncoordinated brutality prevents it from looking planned. This illustrates that scrappiness and staginess, as opposing tendencies, are best played against each other.
Aside from being exciting in its own right, this moment serves an important narrative function. After Achilles knocks Hector off his feet, the further fleshes out an aspect of his character. That Achilles will not slay Hector at this particular point shows that he is not fighting to survive, or to achieve victory, but for glory and pride. Through the choreography, draws distinction between the two characters, defining them as well as does any dialogue in the film. By establishing a sense of difference, fights create heroes and villains, or demonstrate other disparities that give dramatic impact. In this regard, Rob Roy is again exemplary. Due the supreme skill Cunningham shows in his duel against Guthrie, it is made clear that he should pose a serious threat to the hero. It is this sense of danger that makes fights so thrilling.