Here’s the thing about swords in movies

We all have some thing that we get weird about on television. For a lot of people, it seems to be swords and guns. They don’t think that the way fights are portrayed on TV is realistic. And I daresay they’re right. I have been watching The Musketeers, and it is a rollicking adventure show, but it is absolutely fuckin’ outrageous in terms of the clothing, the politics, the … the everything. And the sword fights are absolutely full of people spinning around to attack an opponent from the opposite side.

I am … there is every reason to suspect that I am the worst sword fighter in the world. I guess I have practiced a few times with weapons for re-enactment, but a) I usually used a different weapon, and b) in re-enactment you are trying not to hurt people. Without training, experience or physical fitness to rely on, I am willing to bet that I am pretty terrible in a sword fight.

But if we are fighting and you spin around like that in front of me, I will stab you in the goddamn back. I may not be the world’s greatest swordsman, but I’m not asleep. Currently, anyway.

And people get very upset about this kind of thing, and I understand that. It can feel frustrating. The thing is …

… I want you to watch a TV show or film set in the modern day. Wait for a bit in which a character has some information that they need to communicate to another character and watch what they do. If it’s most dramas or procedurals, the character will do something that no person in real life would ever do. They will go talk to that character in person without calling them first. So someone who wants to talk to you will get in their car, drive for — how long does it take to get from one side of most towns to another? Plus return trip, let’s say, what the heck — half an hour minimum, and then park, and go to your house and knock on the door, all on the off chance that you’ll be home.

Does that sound like something an actual person would do? It does not. But it’s much more dramatic and interesting to have a conversation between two actors rather than just showing some guy with his phone up to his ear. It makes dramatic sense if not actual sense sense.

And that’s using the telephone, something pretty much everyone knows how to do. If they don’t care about getting using the telephone right in the face of dramatic necessity, how much do you think they care about whether or not it’s a good idea to turn your back on someone in a sword fight?

I am still going to complain about Vikings, because I am me. And because it can be fun sometimes. But I’m going to try to keep it in perspective.

Here’s the thing about swords in movies

The effectiveness argument

Many years ago, when I lived in Durham, I happened to discover one day that there was a wargames show on. I went and had a great time, and one of the things that I remember was playing in a Trojan War game being run by a guy called Nikolas Lloyd. I later discovered that he had a web page, and these days he is making a series of YouTube videos. There are a lot of good ones, including lots about what reenactment can teach us about the practicalities of using ancient weapons and armour. His style is great, very charming and clearly sincere. I approve. If you are interested in ancient warfare and/or its portrayal in popular culture, I think you should watch a few — and they’re usually nice and short.

Here is one, about mail:

Now, as it happens, I quite agree with him that mail armour must have been more effective than some people would like us to believe. But while that’s true, my inclination in general is to treat the argument ‘people used it, and therefore it must have worked’ with a big-ass grain of salt. Obviously, this does not apply to loads of things that people used assiduously and/or spent huge amounts of money on for centuries. Astrology, for instance, or bloodletting. Really just the whole of medieval medicine. And there are tons of examples of this happening even when lives were at stake. So I’m not sure that the empirical evidence of people’s own eyes is necessarily a guarantee of a change in their behaviour. You would hope, but I’m not sure.

The effectiveness argument