Stage Fencing and Martial Maidens

When I scoffed a bit (only a slight bit, I hope) at Queen Susan in PRINCE CASPIAN decking a full grown member of the Brute Squad with a tap from her longbow swung stick-fighting-wise, one reader asked me what I thought about the the scene where she (Queen Susan) stabbed an arrow into a Telmar soldier’s chest, much like Legolas did in the Fellowship of the Rings movie?

Well, I have never thought just pushing an arrow through someone’s mail shirt (or whatever) into his chest and killing him was very realistic, no matter who does it. Maybe if you got him in his unprotected neck, and hit a vein, you could off him with a blow like that. The problem is, arrows are not knives; they are not built to be pushed by the shaft. I would suppose all that would happen would be that the shaft would snap in your hand if you put too much pressure on it. The evil councilor pushed an arrow by hand into Miraz the Usurper to frame Queen Susan, and I kind of wondered at the realism of that.

Modern stage fencing, where shield bashing and smiting the opponent with the hilt of your weapon, rather than standing four or six feet away and lunging and striking with the point, as per the weapon design, never looks good to me. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s stage-fencing looks better to me than the modern “kickboxing” style of fence. There is very little slicing and poking in modern stage fencing that I see; but a lot of punching people while holding in your hand an unused blade (longer and sharper even than the Bowie knife of Crocodile Dundee). I just don’t think of a sword as a pair of brass knuckles.

For that matter, I am always slightly “taken out of the movie” when the hero is flat on his back parrying the incoming blade. I would have to be a really, really bad fencer not to be able to score a touch on a target who was on his back and could not lunge or retreat. You have foot control: you can establish the distance and strike at leisure. What about hitting him in the meaty part of the thigh, from the left? How is he going to parry that?

You would never, ever take off your helmet during combat, unless you were suicidal, but in a film the audience has to see the handsome actor’s face to see his emotions and reactions.

I thought the duel between Miraz and Peter was well done. They seemed evenly matched, they got winded and got wounded; it seemed like  a real fight. Peter’s youth and vim was almost overmatched by the cunning, reach, and strength of Miraz. I could pick nits and make minor complaints, by why should I? It was a good scene despite any minor flaws.

Let me emphasize again, these are very, very minor objections. Even really good stage fencing is juststage fencing, not real fencing. It is a movie; it is supposed to look good, and PRINCE CASPIAN, in my opinion, looks really good.

Not every movie can have a fencing scene like the dread pirate, Roberts, facing Inugo Montoya atop the Cliffs of Insanity as in PRINCESS BRIDE.

I unfortunately have a deep-seated mistrust of teen-girl warrior-glamor-models, which is a very popular trope these days. It is an article of faith with some people that young girls are equal to professional soldier, strong as linebakers, tall as bold grenadiers, tough as Marines, mean as Viking berserkers.

Now, a well-trained girl against an untrained man, I would believe the girl could hand him his head on a platter. Training counts for a lot. Even an athletic guy with good reflexes holding a sword for the first time cannot lay a blade on someone with as little as a year or two sword practice. He does not know how to stand or hold the weapon.

But a short and slight girl, even well trained, against a linebacker in forty pounds of plate armor, him with buckler and broadsword, her with a slim and unsharpened stick? Let her stand back and shoot him with a bow, and give him an nice puncture wound to the lungs or heart– that I can well believe will knock him off his feet and put him in his grave. A hard slap with a wand to his helmet? I don’t see how that would deck him. Boxers have to be hit in the face pretty often & pretty hard before they see stars.

Again, we are talking about a movie. The same blow, if filmed from a different angle, or with a different sound effect, might look more realistic. Make it look like he is being hit in the throat rather than the gorget. Part of the art of convincing the audience is establishing the character: I am willing to believe the four-pound superninja death-mouse with his letter opener can kill a grown Telmarine. But Susan was established to be an archer, not a Kung Fu killgoddess. I assume she can shoot like Robin Hood– she has the skills and memory of a grown up Queen, and a Queen of Narnia, too, and her bow was given her by Father Christmas himself.

As a viewer, I am not hard to please, not hard to convince. But the movie maker has to give me something to work with.

I will happily suspend all sorts of disbelief for a good cause, or for the sake of a good story. The theme of the Martial Maiden is as old as Brandemart and Britomart, Camilla and Penthelisea. Give me something to work with, and I can suspend my disbelief like a champ. Britomart had a magic lance; Pentethelisea was a daughter of Mars, a war-god.

But just the casual assumption that young glamor models fight as well as tall and bulky veteran thugs is too arrogant an assumption for me to swallow casually: it stinks of Political Correctness, which I call that special art of pretending unreality so blindly that one feels free to be offended with the obvious.