From Middle Earth to `Troy,' swordfights carry the day

Swordplay is considered more noble than gunplay, but it's just as bloody

December 26, 2003|By Dan DeLuca | Dan DeLuca,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Before Aragorn, the titular monarch played by Viggo Mortensen, can ascend to the throne and wrap up The Return of the King, his sword, Anduril, must be reforged.

"The blade was broken," says a skeptical skeleton in the finale to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Aragorn sets him straight: "It has been remade!"

In Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Quentin Tarantino's chop-socky opera, Uma Thurman's avenging Bride has a list of people to dispatch, starting with Lucy Liu's yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii. But she'll wait for the master to create for her this movie year's weapon of choice: a sword. She instructs: "I need Japanese steel."

And at the start of Tom Cruise's historical epic The Last Samurai, a solemn voice-over mythologizes creation of the major islands that are the Land of the Rising Sun: "They say Japan was made by a sword. The old gods dipped a coral sword into the ocean, and when they pulled it out four perfect drops fell into the sea."

It's as if the movie industry has been taken over by gun-control advocates, though if less violence was the goal, the ploy has flopped. Multiplexes (and DVD players) are now filled with broadsword-brandishing, epee-parrying action-adventure epics.

The list goes on. The summer Disney phenom Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, with Johnny Depp as a wobbly buccaneer; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir's recasting of Patrick O'Brian's high-seas novels featuring Russell Crowe. Then there's the back-to-the-past extravaganza Timeline and this week's Peter Pan, along with historical dramas to come, including Brad Pitt donning a suit of armor for Wolfgang Petersen's Troy and Oliver Stone directing Colin Farrell in Alexander, about Alexander the Great.

Why are we seeing so much old-fashioned celluloid swashbuckling? And, really, is a sword ever just a sword?

Like everything about movies, the answer has to do with box office.

"Nobody's thinking too much about art when they greenlight movies," says Nick Powell, the theater fight-director who trained Cruise in Samurai and worked with Crowe in 2000's Gladiator. "They're thinking about making money."

Gladiator made lots - more than $457 million worldwide - and thanks to innovations in computer-generated imagery showed that realistic-looking sword-and-sandals epics could be produced without a cast of thousands. With the success of the first in the Tolkien trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001, mythic-battle movies started to look like potential bonanzas to major studios.

"It's a new dimension for the action genre," says Martin Grove, a film columnist for the Hollywood Reporter online. "It was common back in the 1930s with the Errol Flynn swashbuckling movies, but Hollywood got away from it. So now it's fresh: Instead of one more film with everybody shooting each other, it's another way for people to get killed off."

"In a society that is so chaotic and violent, the sword is about honor and virtue," says Mark Masters, owner of the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia in Powelton, Pa. "It's a powerful cultural symbol."

The notion of the sword as an all-powerful force, a magical weapon of non-mass destruction, goes back at least as far as the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur, the super-sword stuck in stone. (When not providing fodder for Hollywood blockbusters, Tolkien was an Arthurian scholar.)

Film's fascination with knives and swords and other assorted blades is a throwback to the days when scores were settled one-on-one. Not so many people can be killed at once, but these flicks are plenty bloody, with heads getting lopped off in Kill Bill, Samurai and Return of the King.

"It's more primal," says Powell, who plotted fights in modern flicks such as The Bourne Identity. "It appeals much more to the baser instincts to put a blade into someone and feel the flesh at the end of it, just as it's much more rewarding to stick your fist in somebody's face than it is to shoot them."

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