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A swordsman’s thoughts on some Game of Thrones fights

[Warning: these videos contain some very graphic violence. If you are under 18, and like screen sword fights, please go here instead.]

Game of Thrones is a great TV series, a soap opera of majestic proportions with amazing effects and great stories. It is not, and does not pretend to be, historically accurate in any way. I therefore do not judge it by the same criteria that I would judge The Duellists, for example, which is a dramatisation of actual events. (Great movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, go buy it!)

For fiction of any kind to work it has to ring true. Characters that don’t behave like themselves, or who react to things in ways that don’t make sense kick us right out of their world and back into our living rooms. I don’t for one instant buy the idea that Jaime Lannister couldn’t learn to fight left handed after losing his right. It’s crackers to think that he’d be useless in combat, when he was once a great fighter. Not up to his old standard, sure, but incompetence seems unlikely. It’s a plot device to allow certain situations to exist, which I find annoying.

I tend to judge stage or screen sword fights by the following criteria.

1) is the character’s behaviour in keeping with their character?

2) is their fighting style and skill in keeping with their role?

I do not expect them to do ‘proper technique’ necessarily, unless they are supposed to be highly skilled. I also allow for the fact that stage and screen combat are diametrically opposed to most historical swordsmanship systems I’ve studied. In a nutshell, the difference is when doing stage combat, everyone should see what’s going on, and nobody should die. In real swordfights, nobody should see what you’re doing, and somebody should die.

In Game of Thrones, perhaps the most disappointing moment came when Ned Stark got captured in series one episode 5. You can watch the fight between him and Jaime here:

 

The thing is, these are supposed to be two of the absolute best swordsmen in a very sword-oriented culture. But they are bashing their swords together like they were fighting with sticks. Stupid big blocky parries, the sword dead in Jaime’s hand, it’s a mess. Take a look at this picture:

jaime-holding-his-sword-wrong

See how he’s holding his sword? No grounding, no proper mechanics, his wrist bent, elbow cocked, no sense of the position of the edge, nothing. It’s horrible. It inspired my friend Roland Warzecha to make these embellishments:

jaime-lannister-with-comment

And look at Ned. He’s swinging wildly, and completely unaware of his tactical situation, unlikely in such an experienced soldier (I would hope). Compare that to his fight as a much younger man, here:

https://youtu.be/5aO_CsqfBAo

Now Ser Arthur Dayne and his two swords- yes you can expect me to be a bit sniffy about any fighter dressed in quasi-European clothes in a quasi-medieval-europe setting, using two swords at once. And holding one of them the wrong way round! It’s very silly.

But.

Ser Arthur Dayne is supposed to be a legendary swordsman in a sword-oriented culture. You don’t get to be a legend by fighting like everyone else, and in the context, this fight isn’t too bad. Sure there’s far too much flailing about for dramatic effect, but that’s normal on screen. But Ned is at least as good a swordsman here as he is some 15 years or so in the future (GoT fans feel free to correct my dates). In my experience, as swordsmen age, they tend to get more efficient, not less.

I do wonder though why armour in this culture is so completely useless. If your armour doesn’t protect you from a belly slash, then why the hell would you wear it? In our historical swordsmanship sources cuts are almost invariably done to the head, arm, or leg; thrusts to the face or torso; and in armour, thrusts to the gaps only. You rarely see a cut to the body until much, much later, when cutting swords were often curved, and people fought in shirtsleeves.

[For an explanation of why curved blades cut better, see here. With thanks to Björn Engholm for pointing out my first explanation was sadly wrong. (I'm wrong a lot.)]

The torso is easy to armour, and especially with a straight-edged sword, even normal medieval type clothing offers some protection against a belly slash. But no, belly slashes are easy to choreograph and look cool, so let’s have them. One lovely moment where armour actually works in the wearer’s favour is in this fight, where Ned parries a blow with his vambrace. That’s going to hurt, but it should work in real life.

ned-stark-arm-parry

The business of legendary swordsmen having nonstandard styles is incidentally why I love the Achilles versus Hector spear and shield fight in the mostly dreadful movie Troy. You know, the one where Achilles was NOT GAY AT ALL.

See the crazy shit they pull off? Leaps and twists and using a spear not like a spear, and even having it go behind your own neck like Brad does here? Love it.

achilles-spear-behind-neck

One of the major downsides to being good at swordsmanship is that it tends to ruin movies. I watched A Knight’s Tale sat between two friends; JT Pälikkö, legendary swordsmith, and Lasse Mattila, arms and armour conservator. This is a film in which just about everything that can be wrong historically, is. And as we sat there in the dark, about five minutes in, we stopped being appalled and started to laugh. Because there was nothing about the movie that pretended to be a serious historical film; it was and is an excellently entertaining romp, with, incidentally, some amazingly good jousting scenes. Likewise, Game of Thrones. It’s not supposed to be accurate. It doesn’t claim to be. But I do wish that some of the swordsmen in it were properly trained to use swords like swords. Perhaps I should send the crew a box of The Medieval Longsword?

If you found this post interesting or useful, let me know and I'll dig into some of the other fights… like the one where one character actually ends a mandritto fendente in posta di dente di zenghiaro la mezana- whether he meant to do it or not! Feel free to suggest a scene for me to rant about in the comments.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

17 Responses

  1. Brilliant!
    You have summarized the good, the bad (and you know the rest) with eloquence. You get there with honesty and without just bashing bad choreography.
    I appreciate a good stage fight but my need to suspend comment has increased as I’ve spent more time studying HEMA.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Regards,
    Matthew

  2. I’m not a physicist, but:
    The pascal is a unit of pressure, equal to one newton over one m^2. The PSI is just another unit for pressure, so while you can convert them, and while you can express the amount of pressure in either unit, saying “Pascals are expressed as PSI” doesn’t seem to make much sense.

    Sorry, but you asked for it. 🙂

  3. Spot on. From a film making perspective it is a lowest common denominator effect, giving the audience what they expect in order to conform to their incorrect ideas – that’s basically most entertainment. Yet, just like your book for writers and game mechanics, there is a huge gap in place, just waiting to be filled. Where a script and acting preparation takes the training of swordsmanship seriously.

    I would love to hear more about the other big films, though I imagine it is a futile quest; it would just be a long list of films with the same mistakes over and over.

    Which films ‘make the cut’? The Duelist?, Rob Roy? (kinda) There are precious few.

    1. It depends on what weapon you study. If you happen to study smallsword (shown in the Duelists and certainly the period weapon for Robb Roy, although a rapier is shown) it can be equally frustrating when people comment about the historical accuracy because they just aren’t in terms of fighting technique. I think people who study HEMA like the Duelists because it has the right feel of a duel with sharps even if the technique is an invention of the fight choreographer rather than historical. Real fights aren’t dramatics, and choreographers don’t care about experts in the audience. My wife is a 30 year veteran of federal law enforcement. Imagine what a joy it is sitting next to her watching any movie involving law enforcement. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

  4. Love the insights! I know movie fights are designed to be very over the top to make them seem more exciting. How about a critique of the battles in the movie 300? I don’t know the possibility but just how much force would it take to cut a mans leg off clean with a sword using one hand? Sounds like you could have your own “mythbusters” swordplay show.

  5. There are two films with Robert Taylor: “Ivanhoe and Knights of the round table” that have a number of sword fights. I have to say I love both of these films yet would love to hear your take on the authenticity or accuracy of the sword fighting within these two movies. I know that Robert Taylor fancied himself an action hero, fighting man but I even I “totally untrained” can see huge issues with the sword fighting in both movies. Another good battle to the death is in El Cid with Charlton Heston, during the Champions fight to the death! Any feedback would be awesome?

  6. Another question: What movie would you say has the best/most accurate Medieval Sword fight scene ever! Being a medieval movie fan I would love to know so I can watch it!

    1. I second this request. I would be interested in your views of movies, or specific movie sword fights, that are realistic

  7. “You know, the one where Achilles was NOT GAY AT ALL.”

    COUSINS. TOTALLY COUSINS.

    One aspect where GoT really lets down is the fight choreography, when there’s far lower budget shows that at least put in some effort to the fights (Daredevil, Into The Badlands, Killjoys) and get a lot of things right, and in GoT we get the absolutely disgraceful fight performance such as what we saw in the generally terrible ‘Jaime and Bron go to Dorn’ plot.

  8. This blog is great and lucrative because after reading through this great information I picked up your Mastering the Art of Arms Books! Now I’ll be able to comment with conviction and new found knowledge! 😉

  9. Another thing I despise is when the unsheathe or sheathe their swords in their wooden scabbards, they insert the sound of two blades rubbing along each other as the action occurs. Totally inaccurate. A sheathe doesn’t make a metal sound, if it makes any at all. It is most noticeable in the beginning of the scene Young Ned Stark VS. Ser Arther Dayne, when the group all unsheathes its swords at once.

    And why does Jamie sheathe his sword after his fight with Ned Stark without wiping it off? Oh… must be because it is cheap aluminum. 🙂

  10. Hey, I want to know about the fendente-to-zenghiaro movie!
    BTW, I have a picture of my supposedly untrained 2y8m old kid performing a decent sottano manrovescio. Which leads me to think that most of my bad habits as a beginner are to blame on movies.

  11. Regarding the physics part, the situation you describe would apply if you pressed a straight edge well aligned against a flat surface. This is not likely in a combat situation when you fight an opponent whose surface is mostly rounded—and even if it was flat, you would have a hard time to align the straight edge with the flat surface. So there’s certainly no massive increase in pressure with a curved blade. Just try and cut a tomato with a straight edge and another tomato with a curved edge. Read this article to learn about a physicist’s take on blade sharpness: http://hroarr.com/concerning-the-sharpness-of-blades/

  12. I’m no expert in sword fighting but I have some thoughts as bad movie fighting drives me absolutely crazy. I hear this kind of thing a lot, the idea that fighting in a movie either looks cool…or is technically correct and the two must be exclusive. I don’t understand it. Jon snow is a perfect example on GOT…he looks like he is drunk when he sword fights and he is supposed to be a great fighter just like the others you mentioned….yet somehow he is surviving battles by wildly flailing. spending most of the fight over extending past his center of gravity, or up on his tip toes with absolutely no balance or connection to the ground. All of these guys do it because they aren’t fighters I get it, but they have to train for the movie…why not train to actually look martial instead of like a drunk child. Brad pit is the one exception in the above “Troy” scene. Notice how he stays low, knees bent, looks like he actually has some strength behind his movements…and does he look less cool because of it….I would argue that it’s one of the cooler looking fight scenes out there, may not be perfect sword fighting but at least it appears martial in nature. Boxing movies really get me. If I have to watch another “boxing champ” in the movies throwing haymakers at the heavy bag, dropping their hands and leaving their stupid heads open to pummeling. It’s a boxing movie doesn’t someone on the set say “hey a boxer wouldn’t drop his left hand while he throws a right hook to the body, or he would be a consistently unconscious brain dead boxer with no sight in his left eye” and don’t get me started on guns in the movies…these guy who wait to cock their guns until they put it to someone’s head….you walked into a place knowing you were going to get shot at…and you don’t already have one in the chamber? John Wick is a good example of a realistic killer, again he stays very low, has great balance, and shoots people at point blank range multiple times so there is no chance of the guy coming back to kill him. Ranting aside my point was….looking like you really know what you are doing makes the movie look better in almost every case…so why do we have to watch these terrible movie fights? It doesn’t look cool to be a bad fighter on screen and I think even the untrained eye knows the difference. It’s just lazy…stop it Hollywood I’m sick of it.

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