[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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Also published on Medium.