Men cross blades to show it’s more than a little bromance

Anne Billson


In The Last Duel, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) clobber each other with lances, axes and swords in a trial by combat to determine whether Jean’s wife told the truth when she accused Jacques of having raped her. Jean only cares about the rape insofar as it affects his own status, but is cock-a-hoop at getting a chance to kill the frenemy who has long been a thorn in his side. Because although the film strives to give equal weight to the female point of view, women in fourteenth century Europe were mere chattels. What we have here is not so much #MeToo avant le fait as a medieval dick-measuring contest.

But what better instrument for measuring dicks than a sword? It’s surely apt that death-dealing devices tend to be of a thrusting, penetrative, ejaculatory nature since it’s generally men, rather than women, who are interested in drilling holes in each other. The easiest way to do this is with firearms, and it’s true the cinema has its share of beautifully choreographed shoot-outs directed by the likes of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah or John Woo. But let’s face it, the gun is an egalitarian arm in that any idiot can fire one; in terms of finesse and fancy footwork, it can’t hold a candle (oh no! another phallic symbol!) to the sword.

From the Middle Ages onwards, fencing became a required skill for actors. Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, to name three of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, feature duels to the death that are not just audience-pleasing spectacle but essential to the plot. Cinematic swashbuckling took its cue from stage combat and was pioneered by silent movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920). I like to think it was in honour of Fairbanks, or possibly of Tyrone Power in the 1940 remake, that I was given a plastic Zorro sword for my sixth birthday. You could tell it was a Zorro sword because there was a piece of chalk on the end, so you could write Z on the wall.

The finest fencer in Hollywood was reportedly Basil Rathbone, though he was always fated to lose on screen since he was invariably cast as the villain. But what a villain! As the meme goes, find someone who gazes at you the way Rathbone gazes at Errol Flynn in their duel on the beach in Captain Blood (1935). All of a sudden, poor Olivia de Havilland, Errol’s official love interest, seems awfully like a third wheel.

If Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ musical numbers are substitutes for sexual intercourse, then so are duels the climax of many a screen bromance, in which censorship and social mores dictate that the only way two guys can get it on is by trying to skewer each other

You feel sorry for Olivia all over again in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), where one is hard-pressed to recall her love scenes with Flynn, whereas the climactic showdown with Rathbone, up and down the castle stairs, casting Expressionist shadows while rocking manly tights in Three-Strip Technicolor, is impossible to forget, even if the dainty parrying and lunging are rather more modern than might have been seen in authentic medieval swordplay, almost certainly more like the primitive walloping on show in The Last Duel. And talking of men’s tights, has there ever been such hypnotically stripey legwear as the commedia dell’arte pantyhose sported by Stewart Granger in his show-stopping duel against Mel Ferrer, balancing on seatbacks and balustrades, in Scaramouche (1952)?

The pervasiveness of westerns on 1950s film and TV may have led to guns taking over from swords as the playtime weapon of choice, but in terms of intimacy and symbolism, blades always have the upper edge. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says to the bad guy in Commando (1985), “You don’t just want to pull the trigger, you want to put the knife in me, and look me in the eye.” If Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ musical numbers are substitutes for sexual intercourse, then so are duels the climax of many a screen bromance, in which censorship and social mores dictate that the only way two guys can get it on is by trying to skewer each other. Indeed, sword fights are best filmed like dancing – simply, with camera movement showcasing choreography and skills in long unbroken takes, as opposed to chopped into rata-tat montage in the editing suite, a conventional way of camouflaging the sad fact that most modern actors barely know their pommels from their points.

The best screen combat reveals character as well as providing action thrills. The choreographer responsible for many of my favourite movie sword fights was William Hobbs (1939-2018). In his Robin and Marian (1976) duel, you can sense the mixed feelings leaking out of an arthritic Robin Hood (Sean Connery) as he brings his lifelong rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) to a mutually consenting climax almost as amorous as the romance of the title. Hobbs’ pièce de résistance is surely the eight-minute showdown at the end of Rob Roy (1995), when honest Rob (Liam Neeson) lumbers around, swinging his broadsword, while his skilled opponent, Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), proves there is such a thing as too much foreplay by toying sadistically with his prey instead of zeroing in for the quick kill. Once again a protagonist is facing his wife’s rapist, and once again the wronged woman gets sidelined as both combatants make it all about them.

But there you go. Boys will be boys.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

Arts & Culture

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