Inspired by Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Gregory Widen wrote a screenplay about immortals trying to hack each other’s heads off with big swords. Former Olympic fencer Bob Anderson choreographed the showdown between Christopher Lambert and evil Clancy Brown, who is clearly having too much fun to live. “There can be only one!” Followed by a zillion sequels and TV spin-offs.
So unending is the carnage in the six-film Baby Cart series that it’s hard to single out just one sword fight, but let’s go with the 50th kill from the first film, when wandering ronin Ittō (Tomisaburō Wakayama), infant son strapped to his back, takes a leaf out of Archimedes’ book by using reflecting sunlight to blind his opponent.
All the fights in Zhang Yimou’s wuxia film, with its unreliable narrator and politically ambiguous subtext, are exquisite exercises in colour-coded gorgeousness. But with its swirling autumn leaves, Maggie Cheung serenely facing off against headstrong Zhang Ziyi is probably the prettiest duel of them all, albeit not very useful for anyone looking for practical sword fighting tips.
The exhibition match at the start of Philippe de Broca’s swashbuckler (adapted from Paul Féval’s much-filmed novel) showcases the irresistible swagger of Vincent Perez’s Duc as he demonstrates his secret sword thrust (we might as well call it Chekhov’s sword thrust) on the protagonist (Daniel Auteuil). Floppy shirts and age-inappropriate romance galore!
Scott’s debut, an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story, arguably kickstarted a mini-trend for men wearing their hair in plaits, as seen later on Adam Ant. The second duel is notable for Keith Carradine turning aside to sneeze, and Harvey Keitel exclaiming “Là!” The sword fights were staged by William Hobbs, of whom more later.
For many non-Asian film fans, Ang Lee’s romantic fable was their first taste of the Chinese martial fantasy world of wuxia. Taking his cue from the King Hu classic A Touch of Zen (1971), Lee set one of his gravity-defying duels high among the branches of a bamboo forest, where Chow Yun-fat tries to teach Zhang Ziyi a lesson.
The bittersweet romance between the older but no wiser Robin (Sean Connery) and Marian (Audrey Hepburn) is almost eclipsed by the frenemy bromance between Robin and his nemesis – Robert Shaw as cinema’s most sympatico Sheriff of Nottingham. Which means, of course, they have to cross swords, with choreographer Hobbs showing how exhausting fighting can be for oldsters.
On a corpse-littered bridge, differently abled David Chiang devises a cunning way of wielding multiple weapons with just one hand to defeat the evil teacher who killed his best buddy. Directed by Chang Cheh, master of heroic bromance, but choreographed by Lau Kar-leung, who would go on to become one of Shaw Brothers’ finest action directors.
Hollywood swashbuckling at its most flamboyant, with Stewart Granger performing most of his own stunts in stripey commedia dell’arte trousers as he and Mel Ferrer parry and riposte all over a packed theatre, making full use of balustrades and seatbacks in a thrilling duel staged by fencing master Fred Cavens.
There’s no shortage of swordplay in Japan’s longest-running film series (1962-89), but for convenience’s sake let’s go with Takeshi Kitano’s lively remake/homage, in which the writer-director takes the blind swordsman role. He and a ronin (Tadanobu Asano) rehearse moves in their heads (pre-Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) before Zatoichi confounds the opposition by changing his grip.
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Mandy Patinkin gets one of cinema’s most satisfying revenges in his showdown with “the six-fingered man”, an unrecognisable Christopher Guest, in a fight choreographed by Anderson.
The most memorable duels in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s tale of a bounder are probably the ones with pistols, but the glorious natural lighting, Steven Berkoff’s perfect twirl and Ryan O’Neal’s foil-deflection and grab, coached and choreographed by Anderson, make this one a keeper.
“How senseless,” says Kanbei, leader of the samurai, as he watches this duel. “It’s obvious what will happen.” But maybe not so obvious to the greenhorn, or to first-time viewers of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. The aggressor is full of sound and fury, but he is no match for the badass master swordsman (Seiji Miyaguchi) who fells him with one perfect stroke.
Basil Rathbone, the finest fencer in Hollywood, was invariably cast as villains, so always had to lose. But he said Tyrone Power was “the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.” Their superb duel here was staged by Cavens.
Takashi Miike’s 2011 remake has its moments, but nothing to equal the impact of the graveyard duel in Masaki Kobayashi’s original masterpiece, a scathing critique of institutional hypocrisy. Black and white widescreen plus Dutch tilts (a crafty way of getting an entire katana sword into frame) plus the great Tatsuya Nakadai at his frowniest add up to a classic showdown.
Another Hobbs – choreographer extraordinaire – special. The final duel between a hero (Michael York) mad with grief-stricken fury after the murder of his mistress, and his scheming nemesis, played by Christopher Lee, follows the fight into a church (cue shocked nuns) and shows the physical exertion progressively taking its toll on the combatants.
King Hu, in the Shaw Brothers film that put him on the map, revolutionised wuxia by filming his combat scenes like dance, with a leading lady (Pei-Pei Cheng, later Crouching Tiger’s villain) who had trained in ballet. In the temple duel she holds her own even when the villain cheats by trying to wear her down with his expendable minions.
Fresh off his work on Captain Blood (1935), Cavens was hired to add pep to the fight scenes in Michael Curtiz’s classic swashbuckler, and you don’t get much peppier than Errol Flynn versus Rathbone in fabulous three-strip Technicolor. More parrying and lunging than might have been found in authentic medieval swordplay, perhaps, but one of the all-time great cinema duels.
In another of Kurosawa’s minimalist but thrilling duels, Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai stare at each other for what seems like hours before matters are settled with a single rotating draw that sword fight fans never tire of analysing. The blood was a pressurised mixture of chocolate syrup and carbonated water; the hidden mechanism reportedly malfunctioned, with geyser-like results.
Exhibit No 1 in demonstrating Hobbs’s ability to ground his fight choreography in character is this brilliant showdown in which the combatants’ personalities are reflected in their duelling techniques. Aristocratic Cunningham (Tim Roth) is skilled with the rapier, but sadistic and overconfident, whereas honest Rob (Liam Neeson) is all blundering around with a broadsword. Guess who wins?