Analysis / Flynning

Why Historical European Swordsmanship is difficult to incorporate into Stage Combat, even if you are both a stage choreographer and a HEMA practitioner: An analysis by Rob DeHoff

First, a disclaimer. I like HEMA. I teach Lichtenauer/Meyer Longsword (primarily using Stephen Hand and Christian Tobler's interpretations) for the Southwest Ohio Swordsman's Guild, and I've tried to incorporate HEMA into my stage/film fights for ~15 years now. I want to see more HEMA techniques applied to stage. Just because the following are completely legitimate reasons why we don’t see more actors performing HEMA techniques doesn’t mean I don’t think that we can improve things immensely. I personally feel it's overdue for the choreography industry to significantly re-evaluate how it handles a great number of things. However, if your goal is to see nothing but completely “realistic” fights on the stage or screen, then I'm afraid you're going to need to re-adjust your goals.

Second, there are always going to be exceptions to any of the rules I mention. In aggregate, though, they are true.

Third: While this is a long post, this is also the heavily-abbreviated version; an exploration of each of these issues could be a full-length Spada article in and of itself.

1) SAFETY

HEMA, at its core, is a system of techniques designed to incapacitate your opponent in the most efficient way possible. Stage fighting (SF, hereafter) is a system of techniques designed to make it look like you’re hitting your opponent without actually touching them more than is absolutely necessary. SF techniques are built almost entirely around exploiting the fact that human depth perception breaks down in detail if you’re more than about 15 feet away; while a sword blow may look like it passes through a person’s limb, in reality, there’s pretty much always a 6-inch buffer zone around your fight partner’s target area. Except under extremely strictly-controlled circumstances, your weapon never enters this area. The two really major exclusion zones are the head/face and hands, because a slip or a mistake in these areas can and do end careers (and/or require major insurance payouts).

Now, I understand the counterargument: that if you train people sufficiently, they can throw blows to these excluded areas with significantly reduced risk. And yes, that is completely true. The problem, however, is expecting people – even the tiny minority of actors who have any combat training at all (and it’s a tiny minority) – to literally never make a mistake, in 2-3 months of combat rehearsals 4 days a week while prepping for filming. Or in a 3-month run of a plays that gets 8 shows a week. If we’re using HEMA-sourced techniques which target the face or hands (ie, ~80% of HEMA techniques), it takes exactly one slip-up during all those shows and rehearsals to sever a finger or scar a face, and then that person who got hurt is out precisely one career. Simply put, the risk is almost never worth the reward when there's a perfectly "good" system (in the eyes of almost everyone who isn't a HEMA practitioner) that has orders of magnitude less risk.

Actors don’t get to wear armor or masks 99.9% of the time they’re on a show, or even rehearsing. Throwing a zornhau-ort that accidentally lands because one guy slipped or misremembered choreography, or is just a little off that night, almost certainly means a facial injury. That’s extremely bad news for actors.

EDIT: As a response to a specific point raised by Alexandar Aleksandar Ristić, simply moving an attack which targets the face off-line to target the void above the shoulder is an unsatisfactory solution for three reasons. 1) SF generally doesn't target anywhere around the head with thrusts whatsoever, even with a 6" buffer; when a thrust is online, it is aimed at body mass. 2) It requires changing the technique, which means that it's not really HEMA after all. 3) If you move the technique so it is offline, people will go through and watch the fight at 1/24th speed and exclaim "Ho there! They aren't doing the technique correctly! This choreography is terrible!" And then we're right back where this whole conversation started.

EDIT 2: As a response to another specific point raised by Aleksandar Ristić, during unarmed combat (and sometimes found-weapon combat), you can get away with much more than you can with swords. Even if you punch somebody really hard in the face by accident, generally speaking, you're going to end up with much less damage than if you accidentally hit them in the face with a "hero" prop sword (which is likely to be aluminium or bamboo for a lot of shows, but steel sometimes does make an appearance). There's an inherent safety factor with unarmed combat that is much greater than performing with weapons.

2) MONEY

This is mostly limited to film, and is a corollary to the above. Insurers get very upset with you if there are injuries on set, because their whole business model is predicated on not having to pay people money for getting hurt. Choreographers who repeatedly have injuries happen on set don’t last very long, partially for this reason. It is not at all infeasible to simply have insurers refuse to underwrite a production if they don’t like the safety stuff happening, and that does include the combat. It is a similar problem to what eventually happened to Jackie Chan; getting insurers to underwrite his productions eventually became nigh-impossible because he kept getting hurt. And, not to put too fine a point on things, he’s not the most bankable US star. Imagine underwriting a Tom Hanks movie circa 2001; the pressure on the crew to keep a 20-million dollar star from getting hurt so badly his career goes down the tubes is immense.

Using HEMA techniques will only exacerbate this problem, because they are inherently more risky than the stage combat techniques which are “made to miss.” There is no reasonable way to make many of them safer and still be related to the actual technique. Duplieren, for example, depends entirely on redirecting the energy in your blade stored there by an opponent hard at the sword and is almost guaranteed to make contact with the face if performed correctly. Or Swetnam’s True Guard, which “spring-loads” the rapier by bending it back toward the user through the use of a perpendicular dagger; upon release of this tension, the rapier is going to move directly forward at face level and the normal SF safety techniques are basically all rendered moot. Because these HEMA techniques are riskier, there are and will be significant moneyed interests pushing against their usage when there are “perfectly good SF techniques that audiences already accept that don’t result in so many injuries”.

3) TRAINING AND TIME

Do you know how many actors receive SF training as a part and parcel of their acting training? The answer in the US is so close to zero as for the two to be indistinguishable. Britain is a little better, but in general, combat training is in no way a mandatory part of the acting curriculum. Being told, “just hit them, they can take it” is actually par for the course for many actors growing up in theatre and film programs. If actors want SF training, they must seek it out on their own time and their own expense (or at the very least, take the elective at their college if they’re in the minority of colleges with a SF training regimen).

Most SF training takes place “by rote”, during the rehearsal process. They learn the specific moves of that one fight, in that one order. They aren’t learning the core principles or “why” the fight works, because there isn’t time for that. Think about how long it took most completely new HEMA people who didn’t come to this discipline from another sparring discipline (such as Eastern Martial Arts) to be sufficiently in control of themselves and their weapon to be able to spar safely and competently. How many hours in the salle? Keep that number in your head. Actors generally get between 3 and 10 hours of rehearsal to learn a fight sequence. Most of the time it’s between 3 and 5 hours. On film, it can be better for A-list productions (a month or martial arts training can happen), but on anything lower-budget than that, it go all the way down to “we shoot in 15 minutes, let me show you this fight.”

Additionally, it’s not exactly uncommon for fights to be completely changed at the last minute due to rewrites, lighting or set issues, cinematography issues, and so forth… meaning that our big Hollywood type may have spent the last 2 weeks working on nothing but this one fight sequence, and all of that is now out the window and it’s going to be shot in a dozen, 3-5 second sequences (A and B cam for each sequence) which are COMPLETELY UNRELATED to one another in choreographic “story”, and will stitched together by editors in post. This last, by the way, is almost Standard Operating Procedure on a serial television series (exhibit A: Star Trek TOS and TNG). In such situations, which are way more common than you think, falling back on the “boring and safe” SF techniques provides a way to quickly learn and shoot fights and not incur those pesky injuries. A boring-looking, unrealistic fight that is shot and wrapped on time and under budget is usually better than a realistic fight that takes 2 weeks too long.

EDIT: Shaky-cam is an issue in and of itself. You'll note that film fights actually look and feel faster in many case than real fights. The movement of the camera can cause a "speeding up" effect for a fight, as can quick cuts and shaky-cam, without having to resort to actually speeding up the footage. There are completely legitimate reasons to use all of those, and to meet audience expectations, film fights actually do need to look faster than real fights... but yes, in practice, one of the primary reasons to use shaky-cam is to hide choreography or editing flaws (or to hide the fact the actors got 20 minutes of rehearsal instead of the 20 hours the choreographer asked for!).

Because HEMA is inherently less “safe” than SF techniques, it requires additional training on the part of the actors and choreographers to try and compensate for that added risk. The SAFD mandates you train for 30 hours in a weapon (Sword & Shield, Rapier & Dagger, Unarmed, etc) before taking a competency certification test, and that is with our “safe” SF techniques. You’d have to train for significantly longer with HEMA techniques in order to develop sufficient control. You can see this in movies sometimes who bring in specialists to perform a certain technique: in The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise hacks off a samurai, who draws and cuts at Cruise’s character, stopping his sword only a hairsbreath from Cruise’s neck. That was not a stunt, nor a stuntman; the actor swinging the sword has been training on the katana for ~30 years and when they were talking about how they were going to fake the technique, he said not to bother faking it – he could just do it. Which is AWESOME. But requiring actors to devote 20-30 years of training to develop that sort of control over their weapons in order to be more realistic with the fight is, well, an expectation which is pretty unrealistic in US or British cinema. Note that the guys like Tony Jaa are specialists; they are martial artists by training first and foremost, who happen to make the jump over to film/stage, and their ability to play roles apart from “martial artist” is almost nonexistent. The model we use for leading actors is that an actor should be versatile, ideally able to play an action star, or a dramatic piece, or a comedy. These are two totally separate things.

4) REALISM ISN'T THE GOAL

Setting aside the entire issue of deliberately stylized fights (such as Pirates of the Caribbean styling its fight beats after Errol Flynn movies), fights are there to tell a story first and foremost. You can have very, VERY technically proficient fight choreography, but if the actors aren’t involved, there’s no emotion in the fight, or if the audience can’t tell what the hell’s happening, then it’s not a good fight.

HEMA fights have a similar problem to MMA fights or trying to watch Olympic Judo: unless you know specifically what to look for, you’re almost certainly going to be lost and bored very quickly. Something that everybody here is likely forgetting is that we are a self-selected group of people who really like swordfighting, and therefore we study it, break down fights into the component techniques and tactics, and are generally just really used to looking at real-ish fights. The other 98% of the audience is not. There’s the meme going around that MMA is nothing but sweaty guys rolling on the ground and punching each other in the dick, and for the majority of people, that is exactly what the MMA looks like to them. They wouldn’t know a triangle choke from a shotgun choke. And MMA has been fairly front-and-center for two decades now, while HEMA literally just got a cup of coffee on ESPN… 3.

If you put most HEMA techniques onscreen, they’re going to look like crap to the audience, unless and until the audience has more familiarity with swordplay than a mere, “the pointy end goes in the other man.” Most HEMA techniques do the opposite of telling a story; they kill the other guy as fast as possible, and to hell with a drawn-out fight. Rarely, this can work in your favor (the fight between Kyuzo and the Random Pissed-Off Samurai in Seven Samurai is a 1-blow fight that works, and the audience can tell what’s happening at the same time). More commonly, though, the interplay between bladework and distance is just going to turn into a non-cinematic mess... and if it doesn’t do that, then the fight won’t be “realistic”. See the problem?

Finally, a good chunk of HEMA sword techniques simply don’t play well on camera. I’ve been trying off and on for a decade now to show the difference between being hard or soft at the bind and the hyper-quick changes in pressure that can occur in mid-bind and one person senses the other is hard, so he tries to be soft and change line, which is sensed by his opponent who in turn tries to stop being hard and counter the change in line, which is sensed by his opponent who in turn tries to (etc, etc, etc). Another issue is that frankly, what sells a fight to the audience’s expectations is blade-on-blade contact. We should all know by now that most of a real fight is playing with distance and jockeying for position, and blade contact doesn’t last very long. To the uninformed audience, therefore, a realistic fight is not usually going to be as entertaining as having two guys banging sharp sticks around for a while.

5) GUNS

Guns are very, very easy to choreograph “realistically”, because they don’t come into contact (as a rule) with – or even get nearby – the bodies of other actors. When you make gunfights “realistic”, you make sure there are reasonable hit rates, you track the rounds in magazines/drums/clips/etc, you make sure people think about utilizing cover well, and if appropriate to the characters, you have them make trained tactical choices. (I’ll mention John Wick vs practically every John Woo movie and be done with that point.) Unless you have a stylistic reason not to make a gunfight “realistic”, there isn’t much reason not to do so, unless somebody on the production team just doesn’t care (see also, most John Woo movies).

This is HUGELY different than choreographing “realistic” swordplay. The relevant safety factors are totally different, and gunplay shouldn’t enter any further into the conversation.

6) THE CHINESE DO IT, WHY CAN'T WE?

This one is really important. Read it twice.

It's true that Hong King Cinema successfully blends the concept of "teaching an actor to fight well" and/or "teaching a fighter to act well". This is largely a function of a giant population base. No, not "oh, they have 1.6 billion people"...but the fact that they have something like 100 million child martial artists coming up through their system. The very few of THOSE who ALSO have the ability to act worth a damn are deliberately culled out and trained in acting as well. Which is why we get between 1-5 badass martial artists who can act each year out of the Chinese system. They have an entire farm system dedicated to making sure this happens. Do you know what the "farm system" for aspiring actors in the western world looks like in comparison? Hint: it's not good. Certain through sheer probability we'll get a few people out of the HEMA community who can also act reasonably well, but to be totally honest, both "learning to fight at a professional level" and "learning to act" at a professional level are each full-time jobs. The time you can pull that off is when you're a kid/teenager, and that sort of kid-teenager-adult farm system simply doesn't exist for the disciplines we're discussing here. And there's very little will for it to start in the first place (will where it counts: where the money is, not on HEMA discussion pages).

Let me say this again: The Chinese take martial artists (ish) who have been practicing for a decade+, and teach them how to act. The Western world takes actors who have been practicing for a decade+ and teaches them how to fight (ish). This is the core difference.

I'm not saying it won't happen eventually. I'm saying that even if we started a system like the Chinese use TODAY, it'll take 10 years minimum to grow to a large enough size to be useful, and then another ~10 years minimum before it starts producing a large crop of dual-trained actor/combatants of the kind the HEMA community wants to see.

CONCLUSION

In essence, SF is stuck in a sort of, “chicken and the egg” trap. If audiences suddenly started saying they wanted genuine realism (note: “gritty” is different than “realism”) in fights, and put their money where their mouth is, then there’d be a push to figure out SOME way to ensure actors can do more HEMA-correct techniques at least sometimes. There’d be additional training, and somebody somewhere would figure out the new balance point between risk and technique. Audience demand matters like that. But since it’s next to impossible to make these work well under the time/training/budget limitations of the media, the audiences never see what they’re missing, and so there’s no push to make things different.

As a choreographer who has been pushing for a little more realism to the SAFD’s curriculum for over a decade now (SAFD longsword technique as taught to beginners is basically identical to its cut-and-thrust rapier technique, which itself is based off of sabre fencing, just with 2 hands on the hilt and a few occasional differences like half-swording), there are a few things we as choreographers can do. I’ve been personally moving toward teaching Lichtenauer’s guards as the default positions instead of "agricultural" guards, and when I can get an actor to perform a defense by moving between these I will try to throw it in. I try to make the wrists and lower arms a target more often, or attacks that seem like they target the head, even though the head is never there when the attack gets near it. I very definitely make sure to point out that these weapons don’t weigh 40 lbs and the actors don’t have to pretend they’re super-heavy. I absolutely love finding 1-2 move “realistic” kill techniques to give to a major antagonist, who uses those techniques to mow through the nameless good guys until he reaches the protagonist… who throws the counter to the technique and makes the whole audience go “Oooohhh, he must be a badass too!” But with all that, I *DO* still have to bow to the limitations of the mediums. I have to make sure the director likes what he sees, not require choreography my actors can't or won't perform. I do still have to play to the camera and respect what it lets the audience see. I do still have to make sure that the action is big and blatant enough that the little old lady in the 300th row of the theatre can see and enjoy the action of the fight just as much as the guy sitting front-row center.

If what you want is genuinely realistic fighting on your screen of choice, you have two choices. First, your best bet in the near future (like the next 5-10 years, minimum) is going to be to petition ESPN to show more Longpoint. Second, grab an iPhone, grab a buddy with some cinematography knowledge, write a short film with HEMA in it, and go film it. We have to prove to the studios that there is a market for this sort of choreography, because what currently exists sells PERFECTLY well to 98% of the population. Give them a reason to change it, and change will come, and as much as I'd love to convince the whole industry myself, the people best equipped to bring HEMA into the film/theatre industry are all of you, because you're dedicated specialists in a highly specific martial field, just like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, or Tony Jaa were ''before'" their film careers ever began.
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