The Swordplay of Lord of the Rings

I have the greatest respect for the fight choreographers of Hollywood. They don’t have an easy job of it – and I know plenty of people like to talk crap about the fight scenes in movies being silly and unrealistic, which is especially unfair when those fight scenes probably took months of work to get right.

(Except for the Star Wars prequels. Frankly, those scenes were godawful.)

Fight choreography is hugely interesting to me – so much so that stage combat is part of my regular class schedule in Academie Duello here in Vancouver. I can’t help watching swordplay in movies without judging it in the back of my mind as to whether it’s actually good. Fortunately, being a writer gives me a different perspective as to how to judge ‘good’.

A caveat: I’m no expert, by any stretch of the imagination, on HEMA – historical European martial arts. My weapon of choice is the longsword, and that’s the one I know best. Anything outside of that… well, I’m a little more fuzzy. So take all this as opinion, nothing more.

I absolutely, positively, love the LOTR movies. (Not The Hobbit. We shall not speak of The Hobbit except to mention the name of Martin Freeman with reverence.) The swordplay in them, eh… sometimes gets on my nerves, though. Here’s a clip from the Battle of Amon Hen:


Here’s part of the fight in Moria:

Is it good?

Well, it depends. I’m usually watching Aragorn, if possible, because he uses a longsword. (Boromir uses an arming sword and shield; Gimli has his axe; Legolas has his bow; Gandalf uses a staff and longsword.) I don’t think about whether it’s historically accurate – it’s not, mostly – because it’s hard to hold that against movie swordplay whose purpose is not to be historically accurate; rather, it has to serve the rhythm of the action and the beats of the story, while still being safe for the actors involved. So to be good, it has to be interesting, and it has to be appropriate.

For the most part, the swordplay does hold up – and then I see stuff that grates across my nerves. My main issue, that keeps appearing time and time again, is that the fights almost always amount to “everybody swinging wildly as if the swords are baseball bats,” regardless of what the context is. And it just doesn’t always work!ย The fights of LOTR are not always chaos and should not be. I keep thinking that Peter Jackson just got hung up on large, massed battles, and never once gave a thought for anything more than having a large, insane scrum that honestly gets visually and emotionally tiring after a while.

Swordfights for the sake of swordfights. Compare the two clips above, for example – Amon Hen had a real story purpose, where the Fellowship get ambushed just as Frodo runs from Boromir and Aragorn gets his little moment of awesome. Then we get all kinds of interesting things: Boromir’s death, Frodo running away, Merry and Pippin kidnapped. The action serves the story.

In Moria, it’s basically another ambush, but good grief – it’s long, drawn out, and damn near everything moves too fast. There’s a whole lot of action and not enough story beats and everyone is spinning around like ballet dancers. It’s not good storytelling.

Moria is especially irritating because right after that, we get the Balrog. And goddamn do I ever wish Jackson had done the Balrog better… It was supposed to be this huge, terrifying creature that even Gandalf feared, and it’s revealed far too early and made far too small. It should have been Gandalf against the impossible, not Gandalf against the fantasy version of a T-Rex.

Anyway – it’s somewhat annoying for me to constantly see this baseball bat technique when we already have perfectly good techniques that could serve all kinds of different storytelling purposes. The overuse of this also suggests that these characters just don’t know how to handle their weapons, if only because it comes off as flailing instead of proper skill. Yes, movie swordplay should look good, but honestly, this is not the only answer, filmmakers.

For reference, here’s a video of “real” longsword fighting – by which I mean unscripted sparring between two very highly trained fighters, both using techniques that were reconstructed from the original historical manuals through study and practice. (They’re going at variable speeds so you can actually see what’s going on!) I think you’ll agree that swordplay can be much more than just wild swinging.

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2 comments on “The Swordplay of Lord of the RingsAdd yours →

  1. Bob Anderson, one of the most renowned fencers of all time, was actually the sword master for the LOTR films (among many other films), so I’m sure there’s actual technique and realistic aspects to the choreography.

    I recently became more interested in cinematic swordplay and battle choreography and uncovered lots of cool information. You should check out the documentary Reclaiming the Blade:
    Can’t believe it took me this long to see it.

    LOTR is one of my favorite movie series of all time.
    There’s always more a director could do to make things more realistic, but I actually think LOTR had a lot more realism and effort put into it to make it feel authentic, even in a fantasy universe (quite unlike The Hobbit). A lot of it also has to do with the individual actors capacity to learn and wield a sword. Viggo vs Sean Bean comes to mind. Viggo was notably one of the more devoted actors to becoming his character–impeccable accent when speaking elvish and super convincing when wielding his sword. Compare this to poor Sean Bean, Boromir, who did exactly what you said, “swinging wildly as if the swords are baseball bats.” Haha. Even though they (presumably) had the same training and consulting by Bob Anderson, there’s a noticeable difference. There’s only so much that can be done. They have to work with what they have.

    I’m not trained in fencing or swordfighting (although I really want to pursue it), but I can’t help but think that context and the stage of the battle has everything to do with how they are forced to fight. In a crowded tomb like that in Moria or the assault on the Black Gate, I can’t imagine you could do much but thrust, barely parry, and swing your sword around wildly to clear space so enemies don’t overwhelm you, especially with a long sword as massive as Andruril. Also in a full suit of armor I’d expect your technique would suffer drastically. There’s also an element of realism that any staged fight, even in the fencing video you posted, that just can’t be portrayed or reenacted. You either kill or be killed, fight or run away, and that intensity can’t be captured when it’s not real.

    I feel there were several moments in Game of Thrones where they captured it so well it seemed so realistic, both in duels and in the crowded and disorienting battle when John just get’s trampled and buried alive.

    Anyways, all this said. I really appreciated your comparisons, especially the Amon Hen and Moria battles, with which I agree to a degree. Your second to last paragraph is a great summary and what I’m mostly agreeing with. I’m also just sort of a sucker for LOTR, so I’m a little more forgiving ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Any suggestions on where to start learning swordplay?
    This is one of the few places in my area:
    Or would you suggest starting with classical fencing?


    1. Now this is the kind of quality commentary I like to see on my blog ๐Ÿ™‚ I didn’t know Bob Anderson did LOTR, and that’s a really good point about the actor differences.

      I’ve heard of Duellatoria! They come up to Academie Duello in Vancouver every once in a while, great bunch of people. Highly recommended. I think it was them who did the course on Thibault for the Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium last month.

      Don’t bother with classical fencing if you really want to get to grips with HEMA. I personally think that sport fencing and medieval swordplay have become too different at this point. Try out the Fundamentals of the Longsword with Duellatoria – or, if you can, make the trip to Vancouver and do a workshop in Academie Duello. Then go pick up some books by Tom Leoni and get to reading!

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