ARMA is happy to present here an exclusive new essay by "Highlander - The Series" fight director F. Braun McAsh. Although theatrical stage combat is not a focus of ARMA's main effort, for all those aspiring Highlander fans who seek to "learn swordsmanship" from TV shows and movies, his frank comments are enlightening. As well as lamenting on the difficulties of squeezing his real martial knowledge into the restrictions of episodic television, his comments are also a breath of fresh air at a time when so many actors and sport fencers go about declaring themselves practitioners of "historical swordplay" after dabbling in a little "broadsword theory" to arrange creative stunts.

Living In Two Realities -
The Obligations of Choreography

by F. Braun McAsh
1998

Well…finally. It’s been a longtime since John Clements asked me to write a piece for the HACA [ARMA] web page, and now, at last, I am able to do so. I thought I’d address an issue that John mentioned in his last letter; that of the "martial legitimacy, martial value, and ….martial content of stage combat practice". First off, I can only speak for myself on this subject. I’ve been a fight director for over 20 years, as well as an active researcher into the field of period weapons practice –a study that has taken me to many different countries and hundreds of museums, private collections, and practicing masters.

First, it’s necessary to understand what is meant by "theatrical combat". The term does not imply throwing history out the window. It means simulated combat within a very specific genre. And as such, it is subject to a wide range of variables and parameters.

Firstly, since it is within a dramatic medium, the fight scene is there to achieve a dramatic purpose; usually the beginning or resolution of a personal conflict between individuals or factions. To choreograph a fight without regard to either the plot or character development usually results in a scene that has no connection to or validity within the theatrical construct: a mess of violence tacked on by a third party.

So you can’t ignore the script –it’s all you’ve got to tell the story and the fight must help to do so. This often dictates the choice of weapons. It is highly desirable that a choreographer possesses the widest and most in-depth knowledge of weapon usage possible. There are many factors that determine the way in which a bladed weapon is wielded –the design of the blade, design of the hilt, grip, etc.? What sort of protective armor or clothing it is designed to defeat or circumvent? What is the prevailing style of the time in that particular country or part of the world? Who teaches it and how does his teaching vary from other masters? (Check out Mercutio’s critique of Tybalt’s fencing style in Romeo and Juliet. It provides a good example of a dramatist who was knowledgeable of the sword and expected that his audience was too.)

Here is a crucial element to fight direction. As a choreographer, I cannot assume my audience’s knowledge of period fencing techniques. I have to choreograph in a fashion that allows them to follow the action both visually and dramatically. If the audience can’t follow or understand the language of the fight, they can quickly lose interest. Moreover, they can empathy for the characters, thus defeating the entire purpose of the scene. On the other hand (and this is especially true on stage where the action is live), if a fight is too realistic in its choreography or portrayal, the audience can actually begin to fear for the safety of the actor rather than the character. This destroys the illusion as easily as poorly executed fights.

Then of course, there are other considerations, mostly technical. You are often forced in a film and television to choreograph fights in space manifestly inappropriate for swinging swords. "Don’t hit the marble walls/hanging chandeliers/rented furniture….". I often joked, half-seriously, that I waited for the day I would be asked to stage an axe fight in a phone booth. Obviously, the space often negates a fair variety of moves. There is also the occasional necessity to choreograph around or for specific camera shots. On more than one occasion, I have stood behind the cameraman with his hand-held, reached under his arm, and slashed and thrust under, over, and around a $100,000 lens at the actor in front.

Finally, there is rehearsal time. On a feature, or a stage play, you have some. In episodic television, weeks becomes hours. Actor skill and availability are often both at a premium. On HIGHLANDER for instance, almost 80% of the guest actors had never held a sword in their lives (Ed. Note: this says something to all those wishing to emulate movements of such characters). Their average rehearsal time to perform often several sword fights amortized down to four hours per show, spread out over several days. The fight must be choreographed to accommodate this reality. There’s no point in putting together a spectacular fight that can’t be rehearsed in the time available. Fights must not only be dramatic, they must be SAFE.

So...where does period swordwork come in? For me, as much as possible. Since all swords are used in a manner predisposed by their design, to force a sword to do a move its design did not predicate is to create a dangerous situation. I prefer to use authentic technique whenever possible simply because it’s safer. However, being somewhat of a pedant, I also like to use period technique because I can. If the knowledge is available, why not use it? The audience may not understand it specifically, but they can plainly see the difference (I often wonder how many people who ARE knowledgeable on the subject pick up certain nuances…quick, explain to me the differences between Grassi’s Wide Guard and Agrippa’s Seconda Guardia? They only specifically look similar….). As this once esoteric information is becoming more generally available, audiences are becoming more discerning and appreciative of historical authenticity whether they understand individual specifics or not.

Let’s take a few examples from HIGHLANDER since it’s still playing in reruns: The characters are centuries old and consequently should not be locked into a single style of fighting, regardless of what their specific weapon is. They would incorporate any technique, Western or Eastern, that worked consistently and they would develop their own. For the character of Duncan McCleod, I’ve used techniques from Iaido, Kenjutsu, Hapo-no-Kamae, Happo-Giri, Hwa-Rang-Do, Arnis and Kali Escrima, Penkat Silat, and Western foot and cavalry sabre technique from the 18th and 19th century, plus a few moves that I invented myself through extrapolation. And that’s just for the katana. HIGHLANDER forces you to invent because you are pitting weapons together that never met in history and consequently, have no precedent. When, for example, did a gladius hispanicus ever strike sparks with a dai-katana? HIGHLANDER, out of necessity, became a tour-de-force of mixed styles.

However, there were occasions to keep period specific, or contrast styles that had basic similarities. Such as a battle of Romans vs. Celts, where I was able to use the pilum and testudo, or Prestopan, where we were able to use lochabar axe, claybeg and targe and dirk against foot-sabre and bayonet. Or putting the katana against an Indian tulwar or Arabic scimitar.

When weapons of identical design, such as rapiers, are used then variation on the moves can be obtained by mixing the styles of several masters of the period. Have one combatant use techniques from masters that stressed draw-cuts, and the other use moves from masters that favored the point. Marozzo vs. Fabris or Saviolo for instance. In the episode "Duende" where we used the "magic circle" (the actual set diagram was from Thibault) both combatants used the Destreza technique of Narvaez. However, to give the characters stylistic differences, I also incorporated rapier and dagger technique from Capo Ferro, Grassi, Saviolo, Agrippa, and Fabris.

Hmmm...this is getting much longer than I intended, so let’s wrap it up by answering the questions posed by our premise. Does theatrical combat have "martial legitimacy"? I guess it depends on the definition. Theatrical combat is an art unto itself; since its essence is illusory it cannot be defined strictly by arts that are not.

Does it have "martial value"? It can if it’s allowed. It can inspire interest and debate, promulgate research and the desire to learn. Under the right conditions it can even teach. I have used techniques and drills in training and practice scenes that are almost verbatim from period manuals. As for "martial content", this is a variable that is dependent on script material, actor ability and the choreographer’s skill.

The concept of theatricality and entertainment need not be antithetical to authenticity. Costume designers do their research; why should fight directors be immune to historical style? There is over 520 years of written text documenting Western European sword technique [Ed.’s Note, close to 800] and ample forensic evidence from which to extrapolate or infer. As film expands its venue to bring wider ranges of historical subjects to a demanding audience, fight choreographers (and directors) should ensure that history be represented at least as well in the depiction of the sword as it is in costume and sets.

FBM 1998.

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