Rules of the duel

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

I have a confession to make: I fast-forwarded through the fight scenes in "Gladiator." And during "The Lord of the Rings" movies, I looked away when the Orcs and the good guys had it out in Middle Earth.

Now I'm wishing I had paid more attention.

Standing in the Higgins Armory Museum holding a wooden practice sword called a waster, I'm trying to remember how the film heroes defended themselves. The closest I've come to handling a sword is a letter opener the A&E cable network sent me a few years ago. I use it to scratch my back. Not exactly what King Arthur was looking for in a knight.

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In the minutes before my first medieval combat workshop, I'm getting a few tips from experts at the Worcester, Mass., museum, who want to make sure I live to hide behind my popcorn again. I get in a fighting stance and am encouraged to take some practice swings to feel the power of a wooden longsword (think pointy baseball bat).

Knights loved the longsword in the 14th and 15th centuries. Along with it, I'll also be learning how to fight with a dagger and with a weapon in each hand (where my back-scratching technique could yet come in handy).

Now is as good a time as any to brush up on fighting practices, as a phalanx of armored films is marching toward theaters. With my newfound knowledge, I'll be able to assess Brad Pitt's technique when he plays Achilles in "Troy." He'll be joined by George Clooney, who is producing "Gates of Fire," about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae. And there are three competing projects about Alexander the Great, one of which will star Leonardo DiCaprio. Even nouveau-action hero Vin Diesel is playing "Hannibal" - the Carthaginian general who liked elephants, not the fava-bean munching serial killer.

These sword-and-sandal epics are the battle-scarred descendants of "Gladiator." But swordfights are as common as superheroes in today's movies - popping up everywhere from sci-fi to romantic fairy tales. Not since the days of Errol Flynn have so many actors buckled their swash.

But while today's make-believe mayhem doesn't stint on the fake blood, swordplay in movies does not typically reflect of the real thing. The actors intentionally avoid hitting each other and the audience is spared the full carnage of ancient battles. (See article, next page.)

At the Higgins Armory, the Sword Guild is all in favor of keeping people's limbs intact, but its combatants make bodily contact far more frequently than Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin in "The Princess Bride." The volunteer group teaches courses that explain historically accurate fighting styles - and how best to perform them without skewering your partner.

"We consider what we do a kind of fencing, in that we don't have lethal intent.... We treat it as a martial art," says Mark Millman, an experienced fencer and a Sword Guild teacher.

The museum is unique in that it brings scholars together with people practicing the techniques. The group bases its teachings on curator Jeffrey Forgeng's translations of manuals written by Europeans, mostly Germans. Some of the manuscripts date back to the 1300s, and have been translated only in the past few years.

"It's a growing field. Our understanding of it is still developing," adds Frank Hunt, a member of the Sword Guild who is handy with a longsword.

At the one-day seminar, we are told we'll receive an introduction to various medieval techniques, but should not expect to come away with "Lord of the Rings" expertise.

"Nobody is going to leave the building today being Aragorn the Ranger," jokes Mr. Forgeng.

Those attending the workshop - including couples, a dad, and a guy who makes armor - say they are drawn to what's called Western martial arts, or medieval martial arts, for a number of reasons. Some like the historical aspect. Others say the European traditions, unlike those from the East, don't require participants to adopt religious tenets. And some simply find the activity irresistible.

"I'm completely hooked," says Resa Nelson, a 40-something sci-fi and fantasy writer from Acton, Mass. She originally took a course through the museum as background for one of her books.

"I fell in love with weapons by the second meeting," she says.

Almost from their inception, swords were used for both battle and sport - reflecting the need for practice and the rules that naturally arise from the need to spar, scholars suggest. The first swords are thought to have appeared between 1500 and 11 BC in Minoan Crete and Celtic Britain, according to the recent book, "By the Sword," by Richard Cohen.

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One tradition that arose out of the presence of such weapons were spectator events, like gladiatorial combat and fencing. The Etruscans invented the former, and the Romans revived the practice in 264 BC.

In the Middle Ages, fencing was popular with crowds - along with fights with the single-hand sword and buckler (shield), and the longsword, which requires both hands.

Forgeng explains that fencing differs from longsword battle in several ways: Among them, fencing is a living sport tradition; longsword is a reconstructed tradition from 16th-century manuals.

The longsword, used in battle between 1300 and 1500, faded when the thinner rapier became popular among civilians, who started wearing swords with their clothes. William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" depicts the tensions that arose when swords became a common part of attire among gentlemen. The increased potential for fights created more discussion of self-defense techniques. Eventually, by about 1800, the sword was no longer used as a fashion accessory.

These days, the Internet is bringing scholars and aficionados together to discuss techniques and share scholarship, renewing interest in historical combat.

At Higgins, the instructors teach us a variety of approaches. The longsword techniques grew out of fighting traditions but were primarily developed for sport. Other approaches - for the dagger, and a combination of dagger and rapier - had practical applications.

Here's a sample of how one of Forgeng's translated manuals suggests fighting with a longsword: "In the Approach, when you come into the Wrath Ward [position], then as soon as you reach him, step and deliver a swift Wrath Cut at his left ear, which he then must parry...."

Wrestling, with pointy objects

The instructors have us perform each move very slowly. I dubbed it the "Six Million Dollar Man" fighting style. The Guild also has a set of principles they use to teach safe fighting.

"We use the highly corny mnemonic, BLOOD," Mr. Millman tells me. BLOOD stands for balance, line (for line of attack, and the line you use to set your balance), eye contact with your partner (the double "o" in BLOOD is meant to be a pair of eyes), and distance (as in how far you are from your opponent).

But just try keeping all that in mind when a guy is coming at you with a dagger (OK, it was wooden, but still menacing.)

The dagger work, in many ways, was the most invigorating. It is combined with wrestling, and was more about getting your opponent off balance. Our version was a little tamer than the kind done centuries ago, which involved throwing opponents on their heads and breaking bones.

Not all the weapons we learned to use easily fit in a belt. One tool, the halberd, used by men on the ground to fight men on horseback, could be up to 8 feet long and came equipped with an ax on the business end. One of the most challenging weapons is the rapier/dagger combination. Fighting with one in each hand is thought to have arisen as an alternate form to a sword and buckler, with the rapier generally being for attacking and the dagger for defense.

As Forgeng suggests, when you have two weapons, you have to sort of let your mind go and not overthink what you're doing. "Your own practice, your own instincts kick in at that moment. It's very liberating," he says.

Israel Fitch, a 30-something participant from Cornwall Bridge, Conn., is impressed that the guild teaches with "live steel," as he calls it, for training on the rapier. He says that is rare in martial arts classes, in his experience.

Cue the stunt double ... please?

One thing is for sure, a day fighting with medieval weapons is a good workout. It's very physical, often sweaty, work. And the choreography gives it a less primal feel than you would expect from working with weapons.

It doesn't always feel natural to position yourself in certain ways. But as the lead physical teacher, Jeff Lord, says to me, standing up and walking was a feat when we were kids. It's all a matter of training your body, he explains.

That's a project that will take longer than a Sunday afternoon. For Militza Mortiz, who came to the workshop with her husband, Tom, the day offered just the right amount of introduction to the weapons. Any more, she says. would have been overwhelming: "It was definitely a good taste."

As for me, I'll stick to watching the fighting on the big screen - and using my letter opener.

'Monty Python' takes top honors

With sword-fighting depicted in the movies for a century, you'd think it would be easy to pin down experts on their favorites.

The trouble is, Hollywood takes a lot of liberties, partly because it can't really reproduce an ancient battle - as they were terribly gory - and partly because moviemakers aren't always well versed in the traditions they are imitating.

Take "Gladiator." Andy Moynihan, who is writing a book about gladiatorial combat techniques, says the final duel between Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix was more reminiscent of an 18th or 19th century fencing match than one employing a second-century weapon. "That's largely because, in many cases, that's all Hollywood is familiar with, and it takes time to make an actor look dangerous on screen," he says.

He also points out that most gladiators fought with bare torsos, whereas in the movie they wore armor. (I have to say, I might not have fast-forwarded through those scenes had they been accurate).

"On the one hand, it was about as historically accurate as 'Star Wars,' but on the other, if it hadn't been made, there would not now be the interest in the games or the Romans in general," he says, noting that he did enjoy the movie.

One of the movies that's often mentioned by experts is "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The period swordsmanship in the scene where King Arthur fights the Black Knight is to the liking of the pros, says Adrian Ko, president of Sword Forum International. Others he lists are "The Mask of Zorro," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which have good choreography and swordplay.

For Mr. Moynihan, who is the director of the Society to Promote Accuracy in the Teaching of Historical Arms, the film that comes the closest to a faithful representation of gladiators is "Spartacus," which depicts their rigid training regimen.

And what about "Braveheart"? Stephen Morillo, a history professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., enjoyed the movie but says "much of the battle stuff was wildly inaccurate." His pick for medieval epic is "Alexander Nevsky," a Russian film from the 1930s.

Even the most famous movie swashbucklers concede that their way of fighting is more theatrical than historical. Actors have to be protected from serious harm, and subtle fighting movements need to be exaggerated to be seen by the audience.

"I'm not a fencer. I'm a thespian. But I know how to make it look good," Errol Flynn explained in his autobiography "My Wicked, Wicked Ways."

In many ways, making a period war movie accurate has to do with providing the audience enough background about what motivated the warrior, notes Mr. Morillo. "People's basic assumptions about why you do things and how you act in society, are often just completely foreign, particularly to a modern American way of thinking," he says, using the idea of dying for glory as an example.

As for the history book's worth of epics that Hollywood is debuting soon, he quips, "They'll probably all be garbage historically, but they'll be fun to watch."

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