Horrible History: Fight scenes
Introduction What follows was inspired by a @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:
• We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.
• That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.
• However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.
• And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.
‘Schwing!’ So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ made in movie fight scenes? First off are foley artistes  or sound effects engineers who have a lot to answer for when it comes to sword play in movies and TV dramas. Virtually every time an actor draws their sword from its scabbard the action is accompanied by a rasping or ‘schwing’ sound effect. Of course, in the right historical circumstances this is perfectly acceptable. For example, it was common in the 19th century for military sword scabbards to be made of metal to protect blades from the rigours of campaigning.
So, drawing the blade from a steel scabbard like the one above can, unsurprisingly, generate a rasping sound. But earlier scabbards, Roman and Mediæval for example, were typically made of thin wood lathes covered in a weather-proofing leather sleeve. While admittedly scabbard throats on these swords can be of metal, from personal experience the blades when drawn rarely make the distinctive movie ‘schwing’. If Foley artistes must add the effect to the soundtrack, then it clearly implies that this is not a ‘thing’ when Mediæval and earlier swords are drawn. So why is this sound effect so common? One answer might be that filmmakers use it to boost the dramatic tension by signifying to an audience that a blade has been unsheathed. Which is all well and good until the rasping sound appears in a scene where the protagonists are supposedly being stealthy to avoid alerting opponents to their presence. Not the smartest move. Overall, this tired movie trope is a nonsense.
Meleé Another frequently witnessed non-sensical move involves massed ranks of infantry advancing to battle, or cavalry charging an enemy, which ends up in a series of one-on-one fights. Creating the obligatory re-enactment scenes appropriate to the period has become de rigeur in history documentaries.
All too often battle sequences involve one side or the other performing something like the “Highland Charge” as they charge forward and crash into the opposition. Thereafter the fight devolves into a ‘hack ‘n’ slash’ meleé of individual combats. This is particularly frustrating where the sequence supposedly depicts Roman soldiers whose collective discipline and all their training is apparently forgotten just for dramatic effect. Moreover, the frenzied attacks by fur-clad ‘barbarians’ merely demonstrate that the extras and stunt crew were fully aware this was a stage fight and that they faced an ‘enemy’ clearly not intent on killing them. If the latter were the case, in other words it was an actual fight where serious injury or death was a real option, then they might have act a little more circumspect. This is not denying that some warriors did not experience a form of ‘battle frenzy’, or were so confident in their fighting abilities to look as if they would risk life and limb, it is just that most people would be far more cautious and avoid unnecessary danger. While dramatic for the uninitiated, the ‘hack ‘n’ slash’ meleé is not a wholly accurate portrayal of ancient battles.
That said, there is no reason to believe that Roman soldiers, in this example, could not fight individual, one-on-one, combats. But from what we know of their training it emphasised team cohesion. A soldier breaking formation not only risked his own life but endangered those of his comrades. There is a real strength, physical and psychological, in working closely together. Allied to this, a fully equipped, trained and disciplined Roman soldier would have been a formidable opponent. Facing one you would quickly realise that he was very well protected by his helmet, body-armour and large curved shield (scutum). Indeed, the Roman’s only vulnerabilities would have been his face (where the helmet’s overall protection is traded off to improve breathing and vision), his sword arm when striking at an opponent, and the lower part of his leading left leg. The large shield, if handled correctly, offered a superb defence and was immensely difficult to circumvent. Yet, time and again, the director’s zeal for a ‘good punch up’ means pitched battles by armies devolve into one-on-one combats.
Turning to horses, one of the advantages of cavalry is the shock value delivered in the charge, a form of attack has been exploited throughout the centuries by both of armoured knights and lighter mounted troops. Yet, historians such as John Keegan have argued from the analysis of contemporary accounts that when cavalry charges succeeded it was usually due to the defending formation scattering, often in fear, only to be hunted down by the enemy horse. The same analysis revealed that when correctly prepared against (such as by improvising fortifications) and, especially, by infantry standing firm in face of the expected onslaught, cavalry charges often failed (Keegan, 1993). It is quite usual to witness horses refusing to gallop into the compact mass of enemies or if they do, the charging formation quickly loses momentum and breaks apart. Yet, while it was not recommended for cavalry to press home an attack against unbroken infantry, charges were still a viable danger to heavy infantry. Parthian lancers were noted as requiring significantly dense formations of Roman legionaries to forcibly stop them, and Frankish knights were reputedly even harder to stop, if the writing of Anna Komnene  is to be believed. Nevertheless, only highly trained horses would voluntarily charge a densely packed, unbroken enemy disposition, and even then, to succeed, the cavalry formation would have to stay cohesive, which of itself relies on effective training. Heavy cavalry lacking even a single element of the combination of high morale, excellent training, quality equipment, individual prowess, and collective discipline of both the warrior and mount would suffer in a charge against unbroken heavy infantry.
Once a horse and rider have been slowed to a stop, infantry can mob the horse and rider (albeit easier said than actually done). In such circumstances, the rider is vulnerable, yet a trained warhorse can still put up a good fight. If you have wondered what the equestrian sport of ‘dressage’ was all about, then we have to go back as far as 350 BC when the Athenian General and historian, , describes the concept in his treatise 'On Horsemanship' . It deals with the selection, care and training of horses in general, while military training and the duties of the cavalry commander are dealt with in Xenophon’s second treatise ‘Hipparchicus’ (‘The Cavalry Commander’). The idea of an obedient, supple and responsive mount was thus a military idea - the better schooled your horse, the better it would perform in battle. This notion was later combined with a desire by the nobility to be seen 'about town' on magnificent steeds with exaggerated movement clearly demonstrating their horsemanship. 'Dressage' was thus born, but it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that it began to develop as an art form, with the sporting side arriving in the 19th century (British Dressage, 2021).
Odd moves There are several unorthodox moves that frequently feature in movie sword fights. Clearly these actions are included by choreographers to generate drama and excitement. In a real sword duel however, where neither fighter has a script to follow but must act or react to their opponent actions, most of these moves would be highly dangerous. The most common of these ‘daft’ moves are covered here in more detail by Jacob Dorey, a HEMA practitioner , but we are going to focus on three really pointless ones. Firstly, the reverse or ‘ice-pick’ grip.
Contrary grip Presumably fight choreographers and directors believe this fighting style appears more ‘exotic’ or somehow demonstrates heightened skills. Oddly it seems most popular where Asian fighters are involved, but not exclusively. One example that readily came to mind appears in ‘The Last Legion’ (2007), a film ostensibly set at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which features the character Mira, played by Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (see right). The character is portrayed as a highly skilled fighter from the Orient, trained from a young age to be an elite warrior. So skilled in fact that she loves to hold her sword in the completely unnatural reverse grip, which is just odd.
There are numerous types of sword: short or long, straight or curved bladed, single- or double-edged, simple hilts, complex hilts, or with no handguard at all. Regardless, the form of the weapon clearly influences its function and the fighting style adopted, whether that be cut-and-thrust, cut only or thrust only. The lack of a prominent handguard on the short bladed Roman gladius, for example, reflects that these swords were typically used in combination with a large protective shield, more of which later. Longer swords usefully lengthen the fighter’s reach and increase the power of cuts delivered at the point of percussion. So, while the reverse grip works perfectly fine in knife fighting, it is poorly suited to sword fighting. Such a grip reduces the swordsman’s  reach, places the hand closer to the opponent’s sword risking a wounding cut, hampers the fighter’s range of motion, and decreases the power delivered in any strike. Using a reverse grip with a long sword is acting against body mechanics and is just not how swords in general are optimised to work. We recommend using the reverse grip against an armed opponent if you want to die.
Spinning around Another classic fight move that appears far too often on screen is the ‘spinning attack’. This action sees one swordsman rotating completely about usually to deliver a backhand cut. So, having started facing their opponent, where they can clearly see what the opponent is doing or planning, the swordsman then spins round presenting, at one point, their back to the enemy. While these moves look fast, to a reasonably competent swordsman they are easy to read. Any opponent with a modicum of skill would undoubtedly use the moment where they are unsighted to strike the undefended back, prepare a block, or at the very least get out of the way. Put simply, the non-sensical spinning move leaves the attacker open to a potentially lethal counterstrike (above right). About the only situation where spinning might be risked is if the swordsman is surrounded by opponents. But at that point the fighter is in serious trouble. Unless of course they are part of a choreographed movie fight (below right) where for some bizarre reason the more numerous opponents always fail to use their overwhelming numbers to mob the hero. Instead, these fights tend to resolve into a series of one-on-one skirmishes in which miraculously the hero (nearly) always prevails.
A variation on the spinning attack is the powerful cut directed at an opponent in a wide slashing arc. To achieve speed and maximum power, the swordsman will often start with their weapon behind the head or shoulder meaning their body is twisted laterally to the left or right. While the swordsman's body need not rotate fully round as in the spinning attack, when the cut is delivered it might follow an arc of travel up to 180 degrees. Yet, as before, the attack is so obviously telegraphed that it becomes highly susceptible to a counterattack. Moreover, if the cut misses the intended target, then the swordsman is not only vulnerable but has the added problem of overcoming the blade’s momentum in order to recover into a defensive position before the inevitable counterstrike. Of course, if the blow does land it may inflict serious damage but, as with the spinning attack, it is far easier for a competent fighter to dodge or frustrate.
What’s a shield for? Another equally bizarre move seen on screen is neatly encapsulated in the screenshot below from a fight sequence in the film ‘Troy’ (2004). The iconic duel between Hector (Eric Bana) and Achilles (Brad Pitt) is fast, exhilarating and very dramatic. Indeed, it is considered by those in the know as one of the better choreographed movie fights. But the image rather neatly illustrates how not to protect yourself with a shield. You will often see actors and extras swing their swords at an opponent while simultaneously throwing their shield backward or out to the side (cf. ‘Achilles’). Such an odd action has two rather unfortunate effects: removing the shield’s obvious protection and exposing the fighter to a counterattack. In one respect this is somewhat akin to throwing your shield away (which is yet another bizarrely dumb move frequently seen on film).
Considering the screenshot once more, what exactly is ‘Hector’ doing? Like his opponent, he too has apparently forgotten what a shield is for. Rather than defending himself and receiving ‘Achilles’ cut on his shield, ‘Hector’ has chosen to risk damaging his sword - which would have been made of relatively soft bronze in the Homeric period and prone to chipping - with an edge-on-edge parry. Moreover, since ‘Achilles’ has thrown his shield backward and is wide open to a counterstrike, had ‘Hector’ used his shield he would be in far better position to attack. So why do that? Perhaps it is something akin to another trope whereby our ‘hero’ or the lead characters forego wearing protective helmets just because filmmakers think audiences might not recognise them. Or perhaps the director is trying to show how courageous and skilled the fighters are; they are so brave they do not need shields. More likely it is simply a case of the actors and extras being wholly unfamiliar with how to carry one and, more significantly, have not been trained or shown how to do use one. That said, if you have ever witnessed sparring between two fighters wielding shields, it is often not very exciting. If both fighters know what they are doing, then the number of openings for an effective cut or thrust are severely limited by a shield. In movie terms, it would be a dull fight so that may explain why shields are often poorly employed or discarded altogether.
This means that far too often shields just seem to be there for show. So why carry one if you are not going to use it, after all shields can be heavy, bulky items to lug around for no reason. Yet they are also a very handy item to have in combat. A robust shield complements the swordsman’s or swordswoman’s armour as an extra layer of protection. They can be used to parry an opponent’s cuts and thrusts, are a useful defence against arrows and can absorb a lot of punishment. What is more they can also be used offensively. Shield edges can be punched into an opponent’s throat, face or body to distract, wound or even kill. Most centre held shields (some Roman period examples are shown below) protect the user’s hand with a metal boss, typically of iron or bronze. The boss, in combination with the weight of the shield, can also be used offensively to punch an opponent. So, shields are not just for show, they are both defensive and offensive weapons. Why on earth would anyone get rid of their best defence, the one item that enhances their chances of survival?
The Arena One cannot leave a discussion on swords and movie fight scenes without mentioning the iconic fighter’s showground: the Roman arena . Gladiatorial games are a whole subject in themselves, but our focus is on historical inaccuracies on film and TV. With that in mind, in scenes set in the Roman amphitheatre it is quite common to show a mixed audience of men and women dramatically baying for blood. Despite our modern egalitarian outlook, political correctness was not a thing in ancient Rome’s very patriarchal society. That is not to dismiss women’s status or role - there were many powerful Roman matrons - but things were done differently in the past and content makers should not alter history just because it is uncomfortable or does not match modern ideals. To do so is disingenuous and misleading. So, what is the problem with depicting a mixed audience of men and women sitting together?
Put simply, Imperial law. In the reign of Emperor Augustus a strict hierarchy of seating was introduced to Rome’s amphitheatre. He had become exasperated by an insult to a senator who had attended the games in Puteoli to whom no one offered a seat in a crowded house. Augustus issued special regulations to stop this disorderly and indiscriminate fashion of spectating at the games. Our source for the introduction of a strict hierarchy comes from Suetonius’ account of the lives of twelve emperors and specifically ‘The Life of Augustus’:
‘In consequence of this the senate decreed that, whenever any public show was given anywhere, the first row of seats should be reserved for senators. He [Emperor Augustus] separated the soldiery from the people. He assigned special seats to the married men of the commons, to boys under age their own section and the adjoining one to their preceptors; and he decreed that no one wearing a dark cloak should sit in the middle of the house. He would not allow women to view even the gladiators except from the upper seats, though it had been the custom for men and women to sit together at such shows. Only the Vestal virgins were assigned a place to themselves, opposite the praetor's tribunal.’
C. Suetonius Tranquillus, ‘The Lives of the Caesars: The Life of Augustus’.
Ignoring the elitism of an edict clearly favouring Rome’s wealthy patrician class, we cannot truly know how strictly the ruling was enforced outside Rome and in the Empire’s wider provinces. One might realistically expect the seating arrangements in amphitheatres miles from the Emperor’s gaze to be somewhat more relaxed. Yet if a scene is set in the Flavian Amphitheatre, more commonly known as the Coliseum, in the heart of the city of Rome, then more attention should be paid to separating men, women and slaves and thereby more accurately reflecting our historical source.
And finally…This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, bon appétit.
British Dressage (2021), ‘The History of Dressage’, Available online (accessed January 14th, 2023).
Connolly, P., (1986), ‘A Reconstruction of a Roman Saddle’, Britannia 17.
Keegan, J., (1993), ‘A History of Warfare’, New York: Random House.
1. In filmmaking, Foley is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to films, videos, and other media in post-production to enhance audio quality. These reproduced sounds, named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, can be anything from the swishing of clothing and footsteps to squeaky doors and breaking glass. Foley sounds are used to enhance the auditory experience of the movie. Foley can also be used to cover up unwanted sounds captured on the set of a movie during filming, such as overflying airplanes or passing traffic.
2. Anna Komnene (Greek: Ἄννα Κομνηνή, December 1st, AD 1083 – 1153) was a Byzantine princess and author of the Alexiad, an account of the reign of her father, the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos. The Alexiad is the most important primary source of Byzantine history of the late 11th and early 12th centuries.
3. ‘On Horsemanship’ (Greek: Περὶ ἱππικῆς, peri hippikēs) one of the two treatises on horsemanship by the Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC). The second work by Xenophon on horsemanship is Ἱππαρχικὸς, usually known as Hipparchikos, or ‘The cavalry commander’.
4. Historic European Martial Arts or HEMA refers to the research, study and practice of historical fencing and European martial arts.
5. The male pronoun is used in the general sense (much as ‘actor’ is now applied to both sexes in the entertainment industry) and should be read as some form of bias. More generic terms such as ‘swordsperson’ or ‘swordfighter’ just do not sound quite right. However, where the fighter is female, then ‘swordswoman’ will be used.
6. ‘Gladiator’ literally means ‘sword-fighter’ (Latin: gladius, ‘sword’).