The Swordplay of Lord of the Rings

Dec 30, 2014 | Swordplay

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!┬áThe 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.