EN GARDE! Two Weirdos Both Named Brendan Continue to Break Down Cinema’s Greatest Swordfights!

First of all, let us just say a huge thank you to everyone who read Part One and hit us up on Twitter with your own favorite clashes of steel, iron, or kyber crystal. We don’t especially need a reason to sit around watching and talking about sword fights all day, at all, really, but it sure is fun to share that enthusiasm with you awesome nerds, and to feel that enthusiasm returned.

Here for your edification is the second of our two-part series, including our picks for Best in a Wuxia film, Best Featuring Samurai, Best East vs. West Bout, and Best Overall.

Please enjoy and feel free to let us know all about all the great ones that we missed!

Best in a Wuxia Film

Brendan Agnew: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu

Given how new a lot of this was to the people involved (Chow Yun-fat had never used a sword before this movie, and Director Ang Lee had never made an action film before, let alone a wuxia piece), it’s amazing how uniformly great all the action sequences are. Arguably the best, and perhaps most iconic, is when Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) square off against each other inside a weapon-filled training hall and clash over the fate of the Green Destiny Sword.

Yeoh and Zhang play to type a bit as disciples of enemy masters, with Yeoh giving the weight of her decades of action film experience experience to Shu Lien’s well-honed skill, while Ziyi is clearly every bit as hungry as Jen to prove herself to the older woman. The characters balance superior skill and superior weapon on the edge of several blades as Jen slices through every sword and spear that Shu Lien thrusts at her. Yuen Woo-ping (also responsible for the Kill Bill battle in Part 1, along with many others) choreographs the living daylights out of the fight, and Lee incorporates just enough of the high-flying wire work to enhance the poetically surreal nature of the scene. There’s never a frame where you can’t see what’s going on, and the camera moves deftly with the fighters, following the back and forth of their duel until Shu Lien breaks through Jen’s guard with a broken sword.

There are few better showcases for flawless staging, sharp characterization, and clear narrative goals coalescing into a piece of pure cinema, and the fact that this is a contest between two highly skilled women at the top of their game inky makes it feel like that much more of a treat.

Brendan Foley: Hero

Nameless vs. Sky

I could probably have grabbed any fight from Hero for this slot, as Zhang Yimou’s Rashomon-style epic is replete from beginning to end with incredible contests, including an iconic duel involving Jet Li and Tony Leung clashing blades while floating above the surface of a lake. But I have to give the spot to the film’s first battle, featuring Li matching skill against Donnie Yen’s legendary assassin Sky, not only for the truly remarkable fight choreography, not only for the skill displayed by both combatants (though Li and Yen are each one of the best martial arts stars to ever appear in cinema, and both are operating at the height of their powers here), and not only for the way Yimou’s camera expertly captures the action and fuses it with the haunting, mythic score by Tan Dun. All these elements are superb, and are superb in conjunction with one another, but the power of the fight goes even deeper than that.

In Hero, Li plays a nameless prefect who arrives at the court of the King of Qin and declares that he has killed the three assassins that have long played the warmongering king, these being the aforementioned Sky, Broken Sword (Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). The events leading up to this fateful meeting unfurl in flashbacks, with differing recounting revealing different interpretations of not only the events themselves, but into the nature of combat and martial arts themselves.

As anyone with even a cursory understanding of martial arts cinema will tell you, there is more to being a master than throwing the hardest punch or having the coolest weapon. There is a mental/spiritual component that is every bit as important as the physical. Yimou’s depiction of this may be thuddingly literal in one sense, but it is so beautifully rendered, and articulates the idea with such clarity and immediacy, that it ends up becoming the de facto pinnacle of martial arts cinema for yours truly.

Best Featuring Samurai

Brendan Agnew: Rurouni Kenshin: Origins

Himura Kenshin vs. Jin-e Udo

Yeah, I know that’s a bit outta left field.

To be clear, there are almost certainly “better” entries in this category — either the third duel in Harakiri or the final fight in same film (which would be a strong contender for the “One vs. Group” category as well), or one of the sequences from Seven Samurai or 13 Assassins. But I have an enormous soft spot for this fight, and not just because I’m weeb trash that loves the anime and manga this film was based on.

2012’s Rurouni Kenshin is actually one of the best live-action anime/manga adaptations, in no small part because director Keishi Ohtomo really cuts to the heart of narrative through action. And nowhere is this better showcased than in the final duel where all the remaining narrative threads and the central character arc converge. Kenshin was an assassin known as Hitokiri Battousai during the Boshin War, but abandoned the name, his sword, and the taking of life when Japan’s Meiji Emperor was restored. But another Hitokiri named Jin-e has decided to prove that Kenshin’s vow to never kill again is folly, and spends the film framing him for murder, tormenting his friends and allies, and finally kidnapping the woman he cares about, Kaoru, in an attempt to enrage him.

It works, and there is a kick-ass sword fight with special techniques that can freeze a person’s lungs (…yeah, it’s that kind of movie), unique swords (Kenshin uses a reverse-blade katana that is dull on the outer edge), lightning-fast blows, and a touch of wuxia-esque acrobatics. But what really puts this over is the combination of the ticking clock before Kaoru runs out of breath, and the battle for Kenshin’s soul as he fights a dark reflection of his former self who is literally using his old assassin’s sword.

There’s no end of “cool stuff” in this fight, but easily the most satisfying moment is when Kenshin is about to become a killer once more and it’s Kaoru who breaks free on her own to stop him.

(Fast forward to about 3:00 in the clip below)

Brendan Foley: Sanjuro

Sanjuro vs. Hanbei

I almost feel bad including this one given the sheer brevity of the sequence in comparison to other fights on this list and within this specific subgenre. But for as short, simple, and brutal as the climatic quick-draw bloodbath is in Sanjuro, within that single shot is maybe the clearest depiction of why Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro is the end-all be-all of onscreen samurai.

In the only sequel in Akira Kurosawa’s massive career, Mifune’s grouchy ronin Sanjuro wanders into another troubled town, as he did in Yojimbo, discovers it plagued by fools and criminals and foolish criminals and reluctantly offers his services to help clear things up (read: kill everyone). And whereas Yojimbo was renowned and controversial for its grimy, gritty depiction of a flea-ridden samurai and his scuzzy world, Sanjuro sees Kurosawa indulging in at-times cartoonish levels of action and mayhem. Mifune at one point slaughters an entire fortress of enemy soldiers without breaking a sweat. Throughout the film, Sanjuro’s main opponent is Hanbei (Tatsuya Nakadai), a samurai retained by the film’s villain. Hanbei’s not evil, but he serves his master unquestioningly, as traditions of honor dictate. At the film’s conclusion, Sanjuro has successfully handled the situation (read: killed everyone) and is on his way out of town when Hanbei shows up once more and demands they duel. Doesn’t matter that everything is resolved already. Doesn’t matter that there’s nothing to be gained from this. Honor demands blood, so Sanjuro spills it.

And this is why Sanjuro is both such an outsider and such an icon: He answers to no code besides his own moral convictions, and while those convictions are awfully flexible at times, they are his own. Sanjuro’s master-less nature and crude manner are an affront to all that is considered traditional and upstanding, but it also allows for a freedom and self-governance that is utterly foreign within the film. The tension between those opposing ideals (honor of the institution vs. honor of the self) mounts in the background all throughout the film until that final standoff, when Sanjuro and Sanjuro untie the Gordian Knot with a single gushing blow.

East vs. West

Brendan Agnew: Fearless

Huo Yuanjia vs. Anno Tanaka

I’m getting creative with definition here, because there’s also a great little fight at the beginning of this film between Jet Li’s Huo Yuanjia and a Spanish fencer (Anthony De Longis), including some delightful business involving bracer deflection and the differences in sword styles. But for this particular entry, I’m going to go with the weapon round between Huo and the visiting Tanaka near the film’s finale. Desperate to embarrass China’s warriors in the ring, a gaggle of westerners have sought out fighters from all over the world to beat the champion of Tianjin, attempting to rig a tournament competition and make some loaded bets on the side.

Fortunately for them, Anno Tanaka (Nakamura Shidō II) is a highly-skilled combatant, but unfortunately for them, he’s also a good man who is there for the honor of Japan, not a crooked wager. He and Huo become friends before the tournament, and the first round of combat between them is an exercise in skill and respect as Huo’s sanjiegun (the 3-section staff seen in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) kisses the steel of Tanaka’s katana (try saying that five times fast). Both men are spectacular fighters, and Yuen Woo-Ping (AGAIN) is in top form choreographing the moves. There’s also great wrinkles like the men temporarily switching weapons mid-bout (Jet Li with a katana isn’t something you see every day), or the chain links on Huo’s staff getting broken and him using it more like a pair of clubs afterward.

The whole exercise ends up in a draw, a pointed distillation of both men’s skill and principals, though learned in very different places, coming together and finding equal footing and mutual admiration in one another.

Brendan Foley: Shanghai Knights

Chon Wang vs. Lord Nelson Rathbone

Let me first apologize for including Shanghai Knights in any kind of ‘best of’ capacity. I’ve got a soft spot for both this film and its predecessor, Shanghai Noon, as they were instrumental to Younger Brendan’s burgeoning knowledge of/enthusiasm for the high-flying, hard-hitting, balletic slapstick of the one and only Jackie Chan. It goes without saying that the Shanghai films, while a cut above pretty much all of Chan’s largely unfortunate English-language efforts, are a considerable step down from the likes of your Drunken Masters or your Police Storys, or that part in Project A where he falls like five stories and lands on his fucking neck.

But the climatic sword duel between Chan’s Chon Wang (pronounced “John Wayne”) and Petyr Baelish’s Lord Rathbone does something that I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen from another Jackie Chan fight: It puts Chan on his heels in a way he can’t, and doesn’t, recover from. Now, being overmatched and knocked around silly is sort of a hallmark of Chan’s (there are very few people on earth more fun to watch get beat up than Jackie Chan, and he knows it) but built into any scene of him getting knocked around is the knowledge that eventually he’s going to turn the tables and improvise some kind of reversal. He’s going to grab a ladder and start beating the crap out of people, or he’s going to drink a bunch of industrial alcohol and start beating the crap out of people, or he’s going to DROP FIVE STORIES AND LAND ON HIS FUCKING NECK (sorry, I’m still not over that, sorry).

Here, though, Jackie Chan is truly helpless in a way he’s never been before, and his visible discomfort with the weaponry at hand gives the sequence a real tension that’s never been totally present before.

Also, say what you want about Shanghai Knights, the “Singin’ in the Rain” fight is legendary. LEGENDARY, do you hear me?


Best Overall

Brendan Agnew: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Robin Hood vs. Sir Guy of Gisborne

This one was both very easy and also incredibly difficult. On the one hand, there are towering accomplishments in cinema swordplay like Luke and Vader facing off in The Empire Strikes Back, or the Man in Black and Inigo in The Princess Bride, or even Maximus finally getting his revenge in Gladiator.

But it was always going to be Robin and Guy.

This is one of the great cinematic hero/villain pairings in one of the great adventure films in cinema history, with clockwork perfection drawing these two together toward this inevitable conflict from the scene where both characters are first introduced, and it does not disappoint. Hollywood has been chasing the dragon of this duel for 80 years now, and it’s easy to see why. Stairs are scaled, tables are bounded over, 6-foot candelabras pin down combatants and larger-than-life shadows fight upon the torchlit halls.

Director Michael Curtiz (Captain Blood, Casablanca) is very much in his element, and he’s inventing adventure film images and swashbuckling motifs here that movies still reference to this day. The epic struggle seems to range over every inch of Nottingham castle with verbal barbs being traded as fast and furious as the blows. The antagonistic chemistry between Errol Flynn (Robin) and Basil Rathbone (Guy) is so thick you could cut it with their swords, and evidently it wasn’t entirely acting. There was reportedly some friction between the experienced professional Rathbone and the hot-headed and cocky Flynn, with one kernel of Hollywood lore claiming that Rathbone elicited an especially venomous onscreen reaction from his costar by telling the younger actor how much more he was getting paid.

There are many other great fights atop the mountain, but this one is a colossus even among giants. Now, pick up your sword, Gisborne.


Brendan Foley: The Princess Bride

The Man in Black vs. Inigo Montoya

Man, I gotta tell ya, I’m about as loquacious as they come, but I find myself tongue-tied trying to find a way in to talk about this scene and this movie. I love The Princess Bride with all my heart, and this scene, atop the Cliffs of Insanity, is a huge part of why. I still remember the day my Dad returned from the video store (shut up, I’m old) carrying a DVD (not that old, natch) featuring only the title written in cursive and Robin Wright’s face beneath a glittering crown. “Ugh,” I said, “I don’t want to watch a princess movie.”

And neither does Fred Savage’s sick young boy want to hear about “the kissing book” brought to him by his affable grandfather (Peter Falk, really out avuncular-ing himself). But slowly but surely, the escapades of murderous princes and screeching eels and rhyming giants start to win the kid (and viewers over). The fight atop the Cliffs of Insanity seals the deal, a startling display of athletic prowess and sheer badassery (Cary Elwes was born to swagger about in a mask and swishy pirate attire). Hell, the banter and interplay between affable avenger Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and affable mystery man, the Man in Black (Elwes) is so terrifically written by William Goldman (adapting his own novel) and delivered by the actors, that the fight itself probably could have settled for passable and we’d still remember it fondly.

But the swordplay is every bit as composed as the wordplay is cutting. Bob Anderson (mentioned previously) helped train up Elwes and Patinkin so the two could perform virtually the entire fight themselves (only the mid-fight flip is a stunt double), crucial given that the two would be chatting for pretty much the duration. As written by Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, The Princess Bride is perhaps the ultimate spoof; parody that so perfectly inhabits and deconstructs the genre in which it is playing that it actually becomes the genre. The chatty duelists duel fits that to a T: A (loving) mockery of swashbuckling that ended up demonstrating the best of what it could be.

No disappointment here.

(The fight kicks in around 3:30, but come on, it’s The Princess Bride. You’re watching all of it.)

And that’s all folks! Thank you to everyone who played along, and feel free to let us know all about the probably countless examples that we missed do to the strictly-enforced and inflexible rules and conditions that we made up and paid little attention to.

Brendan Agnew can be found on Twitter at @BLCAgnew, and his writings about The Meg and other things besides The Meg (but really who cares about anything besides The Meg, come on, have you even seen Jason Statham dive. Glorious.) HERE.

Brendan Foley can be found on Twitter at @TheTrueBrendanF, and he’s got a podcast called Black Sun Dispatches, plus stuff posted all over Cinapse. Not necessarily good stuff, sure, but it certainly does exist, you gotta give it that.

See you folks later. And remember: Never trust a Brandon.

Except Brandon Routh. Brandon Routh can stay.

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