Holiday Edition – Best Swordfights on Screen

21 12 2012

A lighter entry for the holiday season! Hollywood Sapien is supposed to be an anthropologist’s eye on the entertainment industry. But I’ve also been a fencing coach for twenty years, and a fencer for almost twenty-five; so this week, it’s a fencer’s eye on the entertainment industry instead. Featuring a highly biased selection of the greatest swordfights on screen. There are plenty of other greats, but these are personal favorites.

Other than the first, they are presented in no particular order. Enjoy! And keep your eyes peeled for the next Sapien entry, on the amazing world of headshots.

1)The Princess Bride

PrincessBride

Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) vs. Wesley (Cary Elwes). Hands-down the greatest sword fight ever filmed (though in William Goldman’s script this is specifically called “the second greatest swordfight ever”). It used to be considered gauche to say this was the best sword duel ever filmed; it was critically assumed that you had to list a fight from a classic movie as the greatest, not one from an 80s comedy. But this one truly has it all – it’s exciting and acrobatic, has plot twists all its own, and a dynamism seen in the best screen duels: the pacing and tempo ebb and flow.

2.)Scaramouche

Scaramouche

Scaramouche/Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vs. de Maynes (Mel Ferrer). A classic, and deservedly so. For many years, this 8-minute long fencing match was the longest sword duel ever put to screen (and it may still be). This is a swordfight of the classic costume picture era, and it shows. Dazzling sets, sumptuous costumes, and some excellent stunt work make for a great duel. And having watched the main character practice his fencing throughout the movie, it really feels like a culmination of the story; like an epic swordfight is really the only way the movie could end.

3)Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke

Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer) vs. Marquet (Ken Hutchison). An often-overlooked film duel, this is one of the greats. It starts as a sword fight on horseback, and degenerates (realistically, for a movie) into an on-the-ground brawl, beginning with the opponents clear hatred of each other, and finishing with two exhausted fighters just swinging away with whatever they’ve got left. It’s the sword fight version of the alley brawl in They Live, and it’s great for the same reasons; two big guys smashing away at each other, getting tired but still giving it their all. (also, see note at the end about the music).

4)Robin Hood (1922 version)

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Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks) vs. the Entire Palace Guard (lots of extras). Douglas Fairbanks was a longtime fencer, and his passion for the sword shows in this picture. Robin’s fight with roughly 20 palace guardsmen is fantastic, and originated many things that later became clichés of the genre – fighting two guys at once with a sword in each hand, fighting an entire squad of guards and singlehandedly pushing them back – it’s the best. Plus, there’s a great pre-fight with Guy of Guisborne (Paul Dickey) in which Robin opens the fight by throwing his hat in Guys’ face, then just goes to town and chokes him like a baseball bat, before breaking him over a piece of furniture. Then Robin grabs a sword and goes after the guards.

5)Rob Roy

RobRoy

Rob Roy McGregor (Liam Neeson) vs. Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). What’s particularly great about this fight is that it unfolds the way a battle between two men with these particular weapons (a Scottish broadsword and a rapier) would actually have occurred. The guy with the rapier is much quicker, and dances around his opponent, slashing him to bits. In fact, it’s only the cockiness of the villain that insures his destruction, when Rob Roy grabs the lighter blade, ignoring the pain, and delivers the kind of final stroke you can only get from a good broadsword.

And, like all good DVDs, we’ll add one special bonus, deleted scene:

6)Better Off Dead

Better-Off-Dead-Theatrical-Poster

Lane Meyer (John Cusack) vs. Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider). You’ve just skied the infamous K-12, and beaten the stuck-up and overtly ubermensch captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin. You’ve escaped the paperboy, to whom you owe two dollars. And your dreamgirl, French foreign exchange student Monique, is on your arm. But one dastardly rogue stands in your way: skeevy neighbor Ricky, who wants the girl for himself. Ski poles are drawn; only one man can emerge the victor.

— Scott Frank

  • Note: it’s true, there are no lightsaber duels listed here. You know why? Lightsabers aren’t swords. It’s not that their blades are energy or anything, it’s that they have no handguards. To stop the blade from sliding down and cutting off your hand. A handguard is one of the basic parts of a sword; without one, you’re not holding a sword, you’re holding a glorified club. (and yes, the ski poles in Better Off Dead don’t really count either – but it’s one of the greatest comedies of the 80s, it gets a free pass).
  • Another note: there are no actual fencing (i.e. the sport) movies here. Good reason for that; first of all, there aren’t many, and secondly, the few that do exist are generally really, really terrible. But if you must…check out Ring of Steel (a favorite, ultra-cheesy classic) and By The Sword (Eric Roberts as a fencing master). Also, I’d be remiss to somehow skip Grace Kelly fencing in The Swan.
  • Ladyhawke takes a lot of heat from genre lovers, who particularly hate the 80s-new wave soundtrack; usually they say that 1980s music doesn’t fit the time period. They’d apparently prefer an orchestral score or classical music, which anachronistically doesn’t make much more sense – those forms of music mostly came about in the 1750s or later; the movie takes place in the 1200s. So is music 500 years out of date better than music 700 years out of date?
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Credits & Collaboration [or] Nobody Understands What You Do!

12 03 2012

Where I come from, when the credits of a movie started to roll, that meant it was time to leave.  So when I moved to L.A. many years ago, one of the most baffling bits of culture shock was that at the end of a movie, people would actually sit through the credits and watch them.  Asking around to try and figure out the reason for our vast cultural differences, the most common response I got was that people in L.A. stick around through the credits “To see if anyone I know is there.”  Now, I don’t know if this is actually the reason or not – it’s certainly possible, given the number of people who work in the biz and the number of other people who must know them (after all, we’re all less than six degrees away from knowing Kevin Bacon).  But to me what credits really point out is one of the primary hallmarks of the artistic creation know as movie and TV production, and a common feature of cultures around the world: they are collaborative.

In Art Worlds (a groundbreaking book on the sociology of art), Howard Becker uses filmmaking as the example of the most complex type of artistic endeavor in our society.  Becker is writing about the different ways art is created, from individual artists working alone to large workshops fueled by the talent and effort of hundreds of people.  To him, filmmaking is an artistic product that requires the specialized talents of a tremendous number of different kids of artists – writers, directors, and actors of course, and also the below-the-line work of craftspeople that pull together on set and make things work.   One of the most astonishing things about the production of a film or television show is the sheer number of talented people it takes to put one together.

anthropology of Hollywood

These guys from Ben Hur are really just working on a collaborative production.

I’ve worked in museums for many years, and one of the most interesting things about them is how little people who work in one end of a museum often know about the ones who work in the other – and how rarely anyone really seems to think about how integral everybody’s individual job is to running the whole place.  The people who take care of the artifacts don’t always think much about the financial people doing fundraising for the museum, and the financial ones don’t always seem to realize that the whole point of having a museum (okay, one of them) is to care for those artifacts.

This happens in the entertainment industry, too – as an anthropologist, many people I talk to seem to think that, whatever their role, it is eternally underappreciated by everybody else who works in the industry.  A few weeks ago a screenwriter told me that nobody seems to understand that without the writers, nothing would be created.  Grips and other below-the-line professionals feel that they’re invisible to people outside the production office, and actors complain that people don’t understand that what they do is a craft, and requires talent and skill.  And of course, there was Stanley Motts’ (Dustin Hoffman) rant in Wag the Dog about how there isn’t an Oscar for producing , because nobody knows what producers do (actually, producers usually accept the award when a film wins Best Picture).

And I think, to some degree, everybody who thinks these things is right. Each job in the industry is specialized, and professional, and involves talent and knowledge that is often hard-won through experience.  And so sometimes we denigrate people who try to step outside their own profession – actors who try to write screenplays, writers who want to be showrunners or direct (my screenwriter dopplegänger Scott Frank is one), etc.   But I think it’s a good thing, because it teaches everybody exactly how hard the other jobs are.  That actor who is writing learns how difficult it can be to be a screenwriter.  The writer who directs finds out that the directors they’ve cursed for changing their words have reasons to do the things they do.

Obviously, the industry isn’t a happy fantasyland of smiling workers all getting along and whistling while they work.  But when you look at the sheer amount of collaboration and teamwork that’s required to produce any piece of media – from small independent webisodes to major motion pictures – from a social engineering perspective, it’s not exactly building the pyramids, but it’s still pretty damn impressive.

— Scott Frank





Welcome to Hollywood Sapien – the Anthropology of Hollywood!

7 03 2012

Hello; my name is Scott; I’m an anthropologist (that is, I have a Ph.D. in it), and I’ve been studying the entertainment industry for over ten years. 

What can an anthropologist tell you about the entertainment industry?  When most people think of anthropologists – if they think of us at all – it’s in terms of studying remote tribes: in Papua New Guinea, perhaps, or among the !Kung bushmen.  Occasionally you get an image of Indiana Jones, or for the people who remember their anthropology course back in freshman year, Margaret Mead.  When people at a party ask what I do and hear “I’m an anthropologist,” they say “oh, you dig up dinosaur bones?”  The correct answer is to say “yes,” then slowly edge your way over to the punch bowl.

Anthropology is the study of human beings, in any place and any time; modern anthropologists use their skills for understanding human behavior everywhere, from remote villages in the Amazon or Himalayas to the bustling urban streets of Shanghai or Paris.  At Hollywood Sapien, the goal is to look with an anthropologist’s eye towards the “tribe” of the entertainment industry.  Those who work in the business know: people in Hollywood are like their own remote tribe – with specialized language, complex social networks, and strange behaviors that seem bizarre to outsiders.  Over the years I’ve presented scholarly articles and papers on casting professionals, actors, scientific and technical consultants, headshots, and production design.  And with an estimated (by the MPAA) 193,200 people working in the entertainment industry, there’s plenty more to write about.  By the way, that number is low – there are about 192,000 people just working in the local Hollywood unions; if you include all the related jobs, the figure is much, much higher.

A New Yorker cover featuring Oscar "worshipers"

The anthropology of Hollywood: the entertainment industry tribe “worshiping” their Oscar idol

In 1949, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker first wrote about Hollywood from an anthro perspective.  She wanted to see how understanding the people who make movies [no significant TV then] helps to understand the final product  (in her words, “how the social system underlying the production of movies influences them”).  That was 63 years ago, and although in many ways the Hollywood of today is not the one she studied, the culture she described is familiar to any denizen of modern Los Angeles and the entertainment industry: the competition, the belief that everybody is just one “break” away from success or failure, the jealously-guarded profit figures, and the phenomenon whereby “schoolteachers, doctors, white-collar workers, and many others…spend their spare time writing movie scripts.”  That’s right, apparently that was true in 1949 as well as today.  So the fact that the guy who does your hair says he’s also writing a script is part of a long and noble tradition.

There are so many amazing, fascinating, crazy, and occasionally unbelievable things about the Industry; in the coming weeks and months (years?), there will be no shortage of subjects to write about.  I welcome discussions, responses, and suggestions for topics; this should be a conversation we all have, no a lecture.  Look forward to next time!

                                                                                 — Scott Frank

  • I shouldn’t be confused with the screenwriter Scott Frank (whose real name is Alan Scott Frank).  Pseudonyms, screen names, and naming conventions and will be covered in a future post.  For now let’s just note that nicknames and alternate names are common in cultures around the world.
  • People interested in a historical perspective on the Industry might enjoy Powdermaker’s original 1949 anthropology of Hollywood book, titled Hollywood, The Dream Factory.  Out of print for a number of years, you can find it on abebooks and Amazon.