When Hollywood gets it right – The best fencing scenes

The Baron of Ibelin looking like he’s never held a sword in his life.

The silver screen has made many pick up the blade and pursue the childhood dream of becoming a fencer. I’m no different and my own fencing journey was very much influenced by movies. But as certain as death and taxes, when you’ve fenced for a while you are destined to see how poorly choreographed most scenes actually are. It’s not, however, the epic moves where the characters do backflips and impossible stunts that irk fencers the most, but the little details, like how they are clutching their swords, how their elbows are pointing straight out when standing in a high guard, or how they are telegraphing their cuts in scenes that are attempting to be realistic. Those things annoy a fencer far more than any of the cool spectacular moves they pull off in movies that aren’t aiming for historicity or realism. After all, movies are supposed to entertain and tell a story, not be a fencing instruction.

So this isn’t a list of movies with the most realistic fencing scenes, but where the fencing is both aesthetic, enjoyable and telling a story – in other words, a personal list of scenes. But let’s start with a clip from people who know how to fence and also how to make the fight entertaining. Just for reference.

Princess Bride (1987)

You know it had to be on the list. The fantasy comedy The Princess Bride is a classic that features references to actual historical fencing masters. The fencing in itself is more of an homage to the choreography of the heyday of epic fencing with actors like Errol Flynn. But so what if it isn’t realistic? It had no intention to be anything but pure entertainment. The fight choreography was done by none other than the famous Bob Anderson, who also worked with Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

Rob Roy (1995)

Another classic and with far more intentions of being realistic, is the final duel in Rob Roy. But is it realistic? Not really. The point of the fencing here is really to tell the story of how superior Cunningham (Tim Roth) is to Rob Roy (Liam Neeson), but it does contain actual fencing techniques. The filmmakers are also making sure to present these techniques to the audience in a way that a non-fencer can understand. Like it or not, movies are not fencing tutorials and unfortunately we often have to settle for less than believable.

The duellists (1977)

Ridley Scott’s fantastic first feature film is a remarkable masterpiece. It also contains some really nice duelling scenes that are often said to be realistic. But again, these scenes aren’t really showing perfect execution of techniques. In fact, most of these movements are sloppy and slow, with a lot of telegraphing. The greatness of the fencing scenes in The duellists is that they give the audience a sense of the feeling of a duel and duelling culture. There are real fencing techniques displayed, as seen in the first duel between d’Hubert and Feraud, but they are far from realistic in execution and much of the fencing is the classic clanging of swords. But compared to most films clanging of swords is however kept to a minimum. The film’s real value lies in the beauty of the photography and how it shows a snippet of the actual duelling culture of the Napoleonic era. As we’ve written about before, the film is based on Joseph Conrad’s book which in turn is based on actual events.

Watch the duel on Youtube here

The Swan (1956)

The Swan contains a fantastic fencing lesson scene with the lovely Grace Kelly. The lesson is surprisingly accurate and it’s obvious that Kelly actually knows how to handle a foil. In fact, she received lessons from master swordsman Jean Heremans in preparation for the film. Heremans was an eight-time Belgian national fencing champion and he also trained actors for the Three Musketeers (1948) and made a few screen appearances himself in various movies. Beyond that, of course, is the loveliness of the scene, acting and setting in themselves.

The lovely Grace Kelly practising for The Swan

Born for the Saber (2020)

If you think that the fencing in this scene from Born for the Saber actually looks like Polish saber fencing, there’s a reason. Behind the film are two brothers Bartosz and Krzysztof Sieniawski, and their father Janusz Sieniawski. They are saber fencers and have an online course under the brand Sztuka Krzyżowa / Cross Cutting Art. You can rent or buy the full movie here.

The Deluge (1977)

This fencing scene from The Deluge is a classic because of its intensity, but is it realistic? No, not really. And that’s a pity. There’s some good fencing in there, but it also contains classic movie fencing flare and exaggerated moves for no reason. Again, fencing on the silver screen is more than just a display of fencing, but we certainly hope that some time in the future great storytelling and fencing realism will go hand in hand when the story is attempting to be realistic. And maybe, when more people are acquainted with historical fencing, they will also be better at demanding that movie fighting is closer to the real thing.

Mark of Zorro (1940)

This scene is amazing in depicting fencing, but possibly not in depicting a duel… and they are using sport sabres. The fencing is superb, however, and the entertainment value and drama is equally good. Not surprisingly, Basil Rathbone, who played Captain Esteban Pasquale, was considered one of the best fencers in Hollywood at the time as he was a two time British Army fencing Champ. This duel was choreographed by the Hollywood fencing master, Fred Cavens, who had immigrated from Belgium. But most of the “choreographing” was simply actual fencing. For the more demanding exchanges, Cavens used his own son Albert to double for Tyrone Power. But according to Rathbone, Power was no slouch with the blade himself and commented: “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.”

Captain Alatriste: The Spanish Musketeer (2006)

Captain Alatriste was, at least at the time, the most expensive production in Spanish movie history and had the ambition to display historical fencing, especially Destreza. It’s a great film and has some quite good fencing, displaying the use of rapier and dagger, scrapping, kicking, disarms, as well as the use of a cape. However, it still suffers from some typical movie errors now and then, which a fencer will spot immediately. Examples include pulling back the hand before thrusting and parrying wildly in what is intended to look like intense and close to panicking moves, but given how timed they are, they just look choreographed. Viggo Mortensen prepared for his role by training at the National Fencing Center in Madrid, under foil master Jesús Esperanza, and the choreography was done by famed Hollywood choreographer Bob Anderson, who also choreographed Princess bride mentioned above.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

I had this movie on video cassette when I was a teenager and watched it countless times. There isn’t much positive to say about the fencing in terms of accuracy, it’s traditional Hollywood fencing with exaggerated movements and extravagant motions. From a technical standpoint one might say a few positive things about the range of fencing and that it includes some wrestling, for example, but the point of it is really just to entertain and tell a story. And that’s enough. There is, however, also another aspect worth noting – Cyrano de Bergerac is the fencing ideal; combining wit, sophistication and fencing skills. As far as fencing culture goes, that’s certainly worth emulating.

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