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Classic film buffs, fencers, armchair adventurers, real swashbucklers, and romantics of many other stripes may debate over which film duel is the “best.” But no matter the standard, the duel between Errol Flynn as the hero Peter Blood and Basil Rathbone as the villain Levasseur in Captain Blood (1935) always makes the top few, often at number one. For me, there is no contest. There are a few far more historically accurate film duels (in fact, there are only a few historically accurate film duels at all), but none in my opinion exceed this one in sheer excitement, drama, swashbuckling swordplay, and watching pleasure.
The 1935 release, a remake of the silent 1924 film, was hotly anticipated. Newspapers and film magazines ate up the rumors, often created by Warner Bros. studio as part of its publicity campaign, regarding who would star in the film. A one point Robert Donat and Jean Muir were rumored in the LA Times to star, and later Bette Davis in Muir’s place. But it was Irish-Australian newcomer Errol Flynn who landed the lead and after some reshoots fell naturally into the role.
Costing a reported $1,000,000, the film was directed by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, and also starred nineteen-year-old Olivia de Havilland fresh from stage and film performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Basil Rathbone and an array of established character actors filled out the cast, supplemented by a number of real life adventurers among the ship crews and extras. Casey Robinson adapted the novel to the screenplay, simplifying it greatly but keeping the essentials. Released at Christmas, the swashbuckling romance was an immediate blockbuster and launched Flynn and de Havilland to stardom.
This post is a bit long and detailed, and occasionally technical when it comes to buccaneer history, fencing, and swords. Feel free therefore to jump around if you prefer, or just scroll through and check out the images. The major sections are marked. Reading the previous three “Duel on the Beach” posts is recommended but not required: In Fiction, in The Black Swan, and In Film. Some of the in-depth historical details below have been drawn from the annotations Treasure Light Press is writing for its forthcoming edition of Captain Blood.
The Novel Versus Film Duel
The 1935 duel was composed entirely from scratch, for the novel by Rafael Sabatini provides no significant detail. The author does include plenty of dramatic tension leading up to the swordfight, but for the assault itself we have only dialogue and minor notes.
[Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next header if you haven’t read the novel — or if you have and don’t need the refresher!].
In the novel, Peter Blood and the crew of his ship the Arabella, believed by their consort Captain Levasseur and his crew of La Foudre to be well on their way back to Tortuga after the capture of a Spanish ship, have in fact been driven to the island of “Virgin Magra” (see below) where they discover Levasseur about to torture the son of the Governor d’Ogeron of Tortuga.
Levasseur has kidnapped the young man and his sister, murdering a Dutch captain and seizing his brig in the process. The cruel pirate, modeled on the infamous l’Ollonois and described as having served under him, is in lust with Madeleine d’Ogeron, and she believed she was in love with him until his murderous brutality was revealed. Now Levasseur intends to hold both for ransom, with the threat of “not marrying” Madeleine first if his demands are not met. It’s a classic set up of romantic adventure, with nuance as only Sabatini can add.
But just in time, Peter Blood and a handful of his officers and crew arrive as the marplot. After distracting Levasseur’s crew with an offer to pay the anticipated ransom for the woman and her brother up front, and casting their portion of the ransom in the form of pearls before swine, Peter Blood intends to remove Madeleine and her brother to his forty-gun Arabella, but Levasseur will have none of it.
From the novel:
“Levasseur, his hand on his sword, his face a white mask of rage, was confronting Captain Blood to hinder his departure.
“You do not take her while I live!” he cried.
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead,” said Captain Blood, and his own blade flashed in the sunlight. “The articles provide that any man of whatever rank concealing any part of a prize, be it of the value of no more than a peso, shall be hanged at the yardarm. It’s what I intended for you in the end. But since ye prefer it this way, ye muckrake, faith, I’ll be humouring you.”
He waved away the men who would have interfered, and the blades rang together.”
There is really no more description of the duel except the following lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill. When, with both lungs transfixed, he lay prone on the white sand, coughing out his rascally life, Captain Blood looked calmly at Cahusac across the body.”
A decade later Sabatini made up for the lack of detail by writing “The Duel on the Beach” (1931) and the novel based on it, The Black Swan (1932), in which a Peter Blood-like hero, Charles de Bernis, fights a duel with a Levasseur-like villain, Tom Leach. I’ve discussed the duel in detail here. In fact, this fictional duel probably inspired elements of the Captain Blood film duel.
However, in the film two of the principal characters have been changed due to the streamlining of the novel for the script: Madeleine d’Ogeron has been replaced by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland) and her brother by diplomat Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson).
The Dueling Terrain in the Novel: The Dunes and Beach of Virgin Magra
In the novel, the duel takes place on Virgin Magra (the Meager — Skinny, that is — Virgin), which is nothing more than Sabatini’s joke on Virgin Gorda (the Fat Virgin) in the British Virgin Islands. Virgin Gorda is arguably, depending on one’s eye, rather skinny than fat, and meager as compared to other islands in produce.
Even so, it is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Mangrove, cactus including prickly pear, various scrub, and short deciduous trees (20 to 40 feet high) including allspice and quite a few others, made up most of the flora in the 17th century.
Coconut trees grow in small numbers on the island today but were probably not present in the 17th century. In fact, in the 17th century most Caribbean coconut palms, an introduced species, were on the Main, not the islands. Some small shrub palms up to fifteen feet tall probably did grow on the island, however. Species of Royal Palms grow on the island today but have been cultivated, and probably did not exist on there in the 17th century.
Sabatini is correct when he describes salt ponds on the island: in past centuries there were several bordered by mangrove swamps. Among the animals the visiting buccaneers might have encountered are sea turtles, iguanas, and large flocks of flamingos and ducks.
The Spanish and Dutch attempted small settlements in the mid-17th century on Virgin Gorda without success. In the second half of the 17th century Virgin Gorda was visited by loggers for boat- and shipbuilding timber, but these visitors established no permanent settlements. The island was probably also visited occasionally by salt-rakers.
In 1680 the English established small settlements on Virgin Gorda and nearby Tortola, the latter predominant, but the islands were soon raided by Spanish privateers or pirates, depending on one’s point of view. In the summer of 1687 the island was still apparently largely depopulated thanks to the Spanish raids.
A few families had probably been reinstalled at a small settlement at St. Thomas Bay, which would one day become known as Spanish Fort. Some authorities, based on period records, note fourteen free white males, a few free white females, and three slaves on the island at roughly this time. Very likely they hid from the buccaneer visitors, or at least from Levasseur and his French, were we to combine fact with fiction.
Given that Levasseur anchored his small eighteen-gun frigate La Foudre in the north lagoon, known as Gorda Sound and North Sound today, for repairs, the duel would have to be fought on one of the lagoon’s beaches. Although today there is only a significant dune presence at Savanna Bay, or as it was known in the 17th century, West Bay, there were other dune systems in the past, almost certainly some of them at the lagoon.
Hills — and a lazy lookout — would have screened the Arabella anchored to the southwest from view. Of course, Levasseur would have been advised to keep a good lookout (we know Peter Blood would have). Even so, Spanish pirates would surely have thought twice about attacking one or two stout buccaneer frigates.
Virgin Gorda in the 17th century has everything we imagine necessary for a duel on the beach between pirate captains — except coconut palms.
The Terrain in the Film: Three Arch Bay at Laguna Beach
The duel in the film was shot not on Catalina Island, as many fans often assume, but at Three Arch Bay at Laguna Beach. It is a classic Southern California vista: a sunny sandy shore amidst grand, craggy, evocative rocks. We will assume that the palm trees in the background were put there by the set designers and their crews, notwithstanding that Southern California (I lived in San Diego for twenty years and in LA for five) is known for its various palm trees, although the coconut is not one of them. The romantic vista adds to the scene, almost as a third character. The shot below is but one of many the beach was perfectly suited for, even demanded.
In fact, the location was chosen specifically to make the duel more exciting. From the original script by Casey Robinson: “The nature of our location will help a good deal here, for the fight not to be on the flat, but will range over the rocks and cliff edges of the rough country.”
Coincidentally, there is one location on Virgin Gorda that does look similar: “The Baths,” where sandy shore meets rock formations. It’s too far south, though, to answer the novel’s description of action and location, but following a novel closely has never stood in the way of Hollywood.
The Hero: Peter Blood
If you’ve read the novel or seen the 1935 film, you already know Peter Blood’s history: a physician (with surgical skill) accused of treason for treating a wounded rebel during the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years transportation as an indentured servant at Barbados. During a Spanish raid of reprisal he and a number of his fellow rebels-convict board the Spanish frigate at anchor while the crew is indulging in pillage and rapine ashore, capture it, and destroy the Spaniards in their boats the following morning. The rebels-convict escape to Tortuga, an island just off the north coast of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), and become buccaneers.
Given Peter Blood’s martial experience and Spanish imprisonment previous to setting down as a physician and eventually turning buccaneer, he would certainly be quite familiar with the French, Dutch, and Spanish schools of fence with thrusting weapons — the smallsword and the Spanish rapier — and also the cutlass given his Dutch naval experience, and would surely be able to handle a sword well-enough to defend himself in a variety of circumstances.
Importantly, the novel is a swashbuckling romance, with associated noble notions of duty, honor, and “right as might” rather than the opposite. These virtues set the stage for the duel in which Peter Blood rescues a swooning heroine in danger of sexual assault, a theme Sabatini often returns to in his novels and which often defines his heroes. Although swooning damsels are thankfully less popular today, the virtue of standing up for and defending the oppressed, whatever their sex and circumstances, will hopefully never go out of fashion — and likewise that Levasseurs everywhere will sooner or later get their just desserts via sword or otherwise.
A much more detailed history &c will be provided in Captain Blood: His Odyssey, the 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition later this year!
The part is played by Errol Flynn in the 1935 film. Although a bit young for the role at twenty-six — Sabatini’s hero was in his early thirties — Flynn didn’t depart too far from the character as described by the author.
The Fictional & Historical Villain: Captain Levasseur
The character of Levasseur, played with panache and an exaggerated French accent by Basil Rathbone, is based on two historical characters. Sabatini appropriated the name and some of the character from the real Captain François Levasseur, a Huguenot soldier of fortune, military engineer, and de facto governor of Tortuga from roughly 1640 to 1652. During his tenure he heroically repelled a major Spanish attack and despicably persecuted local Catholics in the name of Calvinism, among other crimes.
Neither the character of Levasseur nor the name was based, as a page or two on Wikipedia (far more often than not a terribly inaccurate resource on pirates and piracy, not to mention many other subjects) have stated, on the early 18th century French pirate, Olivier Levasseur aka La Buse (a nickname which might mean the “Buzzard” — the swift European bird of prey, not the American carrion eater — or “Mouth” or “Cow Dung” depending on spelling).
By his own admission, not to mention obviously, one of Sabatini’s his principal sources was Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, whose English and French editions were first published in the 1680s. The polylingual Sabatini read both. Each covers material the other doesn’t, and he found plenty of detail on Levasseur in the French. The real Levasseur (or Le Vasseur) was murdered by two of his closest associates — captains and companions in fortune hunting, practically family to him, according to Exquemelin — reportedly because he had raped the beautiful mistress, possibly also a slave, possibly a prostitute according to 17th century Caribbean historian Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, of one of them named Tibaut (or Thibaut). They intended to put an end to his tyranny.
Appropriate to his namesake fictional character, Levasseur was killed on the shore of Basse Terre, Tortuga at one of his warehouses by his two confreres and several of their associates: the eventual coup de grace was one or more thrusts with daggers. Perhaps his compadres killed him in part to protect Tibaut’s mistress — or perhaps just so Tibaut could keep her for himself. Reportedly just before he died Levasseur begged for a priest because he wanted to die a Catholic. Or at least du Tertre says he so pleaded.
More likely, du Tertre, a priest in anti-Reformation mode as all were, invented this to curry favor with his largely Catholic audience, not to mention keep his priestly credentials in good standing. Sabatini carried Levasseur’s unconscionable behavior over to his fictional French buccaneer who kidnaps the besotted daughter of the governor of Tortuga — his inamorata — and clearly intends to rape her if she resists his advances.
Sabatini also based the character on François l’Ollonois (or L’Ollonais as Sabatini spells it according the edition he studied), aka Jean-David Nau, &c — a vicious French buccaneer noted not only for his successes against the Spanish, but for his murder and torture of Spanish prisoners beyond that of most of his brutal brethren, few of whom would have cut the heart from a living prisoner and taken a bite from it, for example. That said, he was not the only French buccaneer to decapitate prisoners on occasion, and the torture of prisoners by buccaneers was common, horrid, and often at its worst in the search for plunder. Sabatini notes that the fictional Levasseur had learned his trade as the lieutenant of l’Ollonois.
A former indentured servant to a boucanier, l’Ollonois became a buccaneer circa 1660, rose quickly to command, and so served until his brutal and well-deserved torture and death at the hands of Native Americans on the Isthmus of Darien in 1669. His executioners burned and scattered his remains. Sabatini has clearly based the character of his Levasseur on both the original Levasseur and l’Ollonois.
The l’Ollonois lieutenant who would have been the fictional Levasseur’s historical counterpart was one of the following, or even all of them: Michel le Basque (Michel de Maristegui according to some scholars, the sieur d’Artigny according to du Tertre), a retired buccaneer and French officer who had captured a considerable Spanish prize not long before he commanded the ground force at Maracaibo in 1666, and commanded le Dauphin, l’Ollonois’s former ship, in 1668 (by now l’Ollonois commanded the Saint-Jean of 26 guns); the literate Moise Vauclin who commanded the buccaneer vice-admiral at Maracaibo, of 10 guns and 90 men; or Pierre le Picard who commanded a brigantin of 40 men at Maracaibo in 1666, separated from L’Ollonois in 1668, and guided Henry Morgan to Maracaibo in 1669. The fictional Levasseur’s previous experience at Maracaibo as L’Ollonois’ quartermaster or lieutenant would, of course, well-serve the plot of Captain Blood: His Odyssey.
One or more of these men probably also have served as the inspiration for Cahusec, the fictional Levasseur’s quartermaster (second-in-command, or lieutenant as Sabatini his it), whose name Sabatini almost certainly took from François de Rotondy, sieur de Cahuzac, who attacked the English under Edward Warner at St. Kitts (Saint-Christophe) Island in 1629 at the Battle of l’Anse-aux-Papillons.
Now that our brief exposition of history is complete, on to the actors, choreographers, and the film duel itself!
Actors as Adversaries: Errol Flynn as a Swordsman
It is common for Hollywood publicity machines to endow their stars with qualities and skills they don’t actually have, or to exaggerate them, and fencing skill of swashbuckling stars, with some notable exceptions, was treated no differently.
Errol Flynn has long had a reputation as a swordsman, but according to the film’s choreographer and fencing master Fred Cavens, not to mention Flynn himself, the swashbuckling actor was not much of a fencer, Hollywood promotional media notwithstanding. Cavens stated in 1941 that Flynn “fences execrably.” (Brady, 1941.) In fact, Cavens doubled for Flynn more than studios were willing to admit publicly.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer was more nuanced: “Flynn, on the other hand, did not have the discipline for constant practice. Fortunately, he was a quick study and a natural athlete, and this, together with his form and flair, made his duelling look good on the screen.” (Behlmer, 1965.) An accurate assessment, in my opinion.
Basil Rathbone, who played Levasseur and was in fact a skilled fencer, said that “Mr. Flynn and Mr. [Tyrone] Power were fine actors, we all know that, but they did not know swords… The only actor I actually fought with on screen was Flynn, and that’s the only time I was really scared. I wasn’t scared because he was careless, but because he didn’t know how to protect himself. I knew how to protect myself, but it’s like a professional fighter in boxing — fighting someone who doesn’t know how to fight. But sometimes the fellow doesn’t know how to fight will do something outrageous and you’ll find yourself injured. I stayed away from Flynn as much as I could, and, as he was eventually going to ‘kill’ me, it didn’t look bad on the screen.” (Jones, 1972.)
Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography ‘Tis Her wrote of her work with Flynn on Against All Flags (1952), “As you might expect, Flynn was an excellent fencer.” Even so, she also wrote, “I was flattered when critics said that I had outfenced Errol Flynn!” And so she had, being far more diligent at learning to fence from Cavens, and, as a woman actor in Hollywood, having far to prove to sexist producers and directors.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a swashbuckler in both film and life, also commented on Flynn’s swordplay: “‘Errol Flynn was good at staging a scene, especially in close ups, but I think he was better at other kinds of fencing,’ he added, pleased with his joke.” (Page, 1968.)
Flynn had little to say in his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways about his swordsmanship, perhaps because he was trying to avoid the stereotype that dogged him for so long. Even so, he admitted his lack of fencing skill:
“I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still and look forward, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.” In fact, this is an excellent en garde with the epee de combat, or late 19th and early 20th century dueling sword, and for that matter, with rapier and smallsword as well.
In fairness to Flynn, Hollywood fencing master Ralph Faulkner (more on him below) stated that Flynn “could memorize every movement in a sword script and remember them six weeks later.” (Folkart, 1987.)
None of this lack of fencing ability stopped the Warner Bros. or other studio publicity machines from claiming otherwise. In fact, Warner Bros. in its press package claimed that Flynn was trained for Captain Blood by “Professor Guiseppe Valcori, Italian fencing expert,” whose existence no amount of research can confirm — because he’s an invention of Warner Bros. In fact, Flynn was trained for the film by Fred Cavens.
Actors as Adversaries: Basil Rathbone as a Swordsman
Basil Rathbone, on the other hand, was a skilled, albeit non-competitive fencer. In his autobiography In and Out of Character he notes that he studied in London under famous masters Léon Bertrand and Félix Gravé, both of them gentlemen of the traditional French school. Reading their books and articles, it is easy to see how Rathbone came by his noble, elegant form. Later he studied, for five years according to Rudy Behlmer, under Fred Cavens, in Rathbone’s words “the greatest swordsman of them all,” with additional preparation by Cavens for various films.
According to his autobiography, Rathbone took up fencing “because in the early days, when I was training for to be an actor, you went for a job on the understanding that the producer knew you could fence, that you could sing and that you could dance.” He further noted, “I enjoyed swordsmanship more than anything because is was beautiful. I thought it was a wonderful exercise, a great sport. But I would not put it under the category of sport; I would put it under the category of the arts. I think it’s tremendously skillful and very beautiful.” (Jones, 1972.) “It’s the finest exercise I’ve discovered yet, requiring speed, timing, endurance.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
Rathbone had a deserved reputation as a good fencer among the Hollywood crowd. Cavens noted that in swashbuckling films the “villains, especially Basil Rathbone, are splendid fencers, but the heroes…are ineffectual.” He further said that Rathbone was able to handle himself throughout with ease [i.e. not doubled in The Mark of Zorro].” (Brady, 1941.) Even so, he also noted that, “He has excellent form and is the most colorful of all the people I have taught. I doubt that he would do well in competition, but for picture purposes he is better than the best fencer in the world.” (Behlmer, 1965.)
Fencing master Ralph Faulker described Rathbone as an accomplished swordsman (Folkart, 1987), and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stated that “Basil Rathbone was very good” (Page, 1968).
Long, Lean, and Lithe
One visual aspect of the duel that immediately stands out is that of two long, lean, lithe swordsmen — literally almost living swords themselves — engaged in mortal combat. Fred Cavens noted that “the ideal duelist is tall, lithe, quick on his feet, and with a nice swift coordination of of eye and muscle.” (Whitaker, 1936.) Both Flynn and Rathbone easily met this ideal.
Agesilao Greco, in his great book La Spada e la sua Disciplina d’Arte (1912), described the dueling sword — the spada or épée de combat — in terms that could apply not only to long sharp thrusting swords themselves, but to those who, with similar physical characteristics, wielded them, perfectly imagining the idealized adversaries in Captain Blood as played by Flynn and Rathbone:
“La spada è acuta, pungente, affilata, forbita, fatale, formidabile, lucida, nuda, fina, forte, ben temprata, nobile, perfetta.“
“The epee is pointed, biting, sharp, forbidding, fatal, formidable, shiny, naked, fine, strong, well-tempered, noble, perfect.” (Author’s translation.)
That said, there are outstanding fencers who are not only not long, lean, and lithe, but who appear awkward, lacking any sense of classical form. But it’s those built like Flynn and Rathbone who arguably look best in screen duels.
Fred Cavens put it best: “Film fencers should have perfect grace and form, qualities which are not necessary in competition… I have seen Olympic champions who had such atrocious form they couldn’t appear in pictures because audiences would laugh at them. But they would be extremely dangerous in a real duel.” (Behlmer, 1965.)
Flynn, and probably Rathbone as well to some degree, are also responsible for popularizing “6′ 2″ and 180 pounds” as the masculine ideal in height and weight. Fan pages and unauthorized biographies often list the height of both men as 6′ 2″ inches, although in fact both men appear to have been around 6′ 1″ tall. Flynn probably did weigh around 180 pounds. Rathbone in his autobiography gives his own weight as consistently 172 pounds.
But it was Flynn who really set the ideal, thanks to a 1936 article in the Los Angeles Times: “but he [Flynn] also started a vogue for handsome young six-foot-and-over-super-huskies as leading men which hasn’t been equaled before in screen history…it began to be realized how six feet two inches and 180 pounds of 26-year-old virility could knock ’em over at the box office.” (Wolfenden, 1936.)
And so it went from there. I still recall in the 70s and 80s men trying to impress women, and even other men in locker rooms, by their purported “6′ 2″ and 180 pounds.” The fact that half of them stood an inch or two shorter than me, who’s a hair over 6′ 1″, seemed to matter not at all to them.
So engrained was this ideal that George MacDonald Fraser in his comic, occasionally satirical, novel The Pyrates (1984) made his Boy Scout-ish naval hero, Capt. Benjamin Avery, “everything that a hero of historical romance should be; he was all of Mr Sabatini’s supermen rolled into one, and he knew it… For the record, this wonder boy was six feet two, with shoulders like a navvy and the waist of a ballerina…”
Fraser didn’t forget Rathbone: “gentlemen-adventurers proud and lithe and austere and indistinguishable from Basil Rathbone…” Further, the character of “Bilbo is Basil Rathbone playing a raffish Captain Hook.” The novel is an homage to the Golden Age of piratical swashbuckling books and films of the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Historically, if thrusting swords were used in a late 17th century duel among the English and Europeans other than the Spanish, Portuguese, and some Italians, they would usually have been smallswords with double-edged flat or hexagonal (or similar) rapier-like blades in form but shorter, or three-cornered blades, including Colichemarde blades quite broad at the forte. We can’t rule out an occasional “transitional rapier” (a modern term) with perhaps longer blades and possibly larger hilts.
Sabatini describes long rapiers as being used, and probably intended Spanish cup-hilts or transitional rapiers. However, the term was also used as slang for smallsword in the late 17th century, given that both swords were used for thrusting, so it could still be correct to say that “rapiers” were used. Historically, however, cutlasses would have most often been used (more on this in part five).
In the film, both swords are theatrical “rapiers” mounted with sport epee blades, known in the past as “hollow,” three-cornered, or triangular blades. They are stiffer by comparison to foil and saber blades, and show up well on screen. The hilts of both swords used in the film duel are a bit fanciful, neither corresponding exactly to historical swords. Flynn’s appears to something of a reduced Pappenheimer hilt (for example, a Norman type 67 but with no side rings), with two solid shells, a pair of curved quillons, and a knuckle guard, perhaps also resembling a shallow Spanish bilbo-hilt (Norman type 82) with smaller shells.
Rathbone’s rapier hilt appears to be nothing more than a common smallsword hilt (Norman type 112) but with enlarged shells, rings, and quillons. The sword designer — Fred Cavens, perhaps, or pirate historian and costume designer Dwight Franklin — was probably thinking of swords that would evoke “Cavalier” rapiers of some sort.
The enlarged hilts of the theatrical rapiers used provided a better film image, or so the thinking probably went, than the smaller, but more legitimate, authentic smallsword hilts. Plus, viewers have been conditioned by fiction and film to expect rapiers no matter the era, no matter how anachronistic. For filming, the larger rubber buttons or points d’arrêt were removed — more on this below!
Choreographer & Choreography
The duel was choreographed by famous swordfight director Fred Cavens. He began fencing at twelve years old circa 1899, was teaching other boys how to fence at fourteen, and graduated at eighteen from the famous L’École Normale de Gymnastique et d’Escrime Militaires de Belgique in Brussels, a school modeled on the famous French military school at Joinville-le-Pont near Paris. At twenty-one he was a full-fledged fencing master in the Belgian army.
After his service in the Belgian Army, Cavens emigrated to the US in 1919, soon after both his marriage to a Belgian dancer in an opera company and the end of World War One. He was invited by some American sportsmen, fencers we assume, to open a salle in Santa Barbara, California, leading to an introduction to various film studios, whose swordplay on camera to date, other than that choreographed by fellow Belgian master Henry J. Uyttenhove, was often little more than knife-sharpening actions, often in long shots, or was entirely doubled (which generally demanded long shots in order to carry out the deception). (Anon., 1936.)
Cavens got his start in Hollywood choreographing the swordplay for the 1922 short film The Three Must-Get-Theres, a parody of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 The Three Musketeers. The comic film is quite funny, even brilliant at times, and is possibly the best send-up of swordplay and musketeers I’ve seen. Although there are moments of common “blade sharpening” fake swordplay, most of the fencing is of outstanding caliber. In fact, director and star Max Linder was an accomplished fencer who had competed in epee, if not also in foil and saber. The film, by the way, is available on YouTube in a couple of versions, and also on a Grapevine DVD. The latter is by far the better version.
Fairbanks loved the swordplay in the comic film and first met Cavens on the set of Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, a production starring Fairbanks’s wife Mary Pickford. Fairbanks quickly hired him for Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) and then for his genre-establishing 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate the following year. Cavens also choreographed the swordplay in Fairbanks’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1929). (Behlmer, 1965.)
Caven’s had a theory of romantic realism — a bit more romance, a bit less realism, with authentic if at times theatrical fencing — for filming swordplay on the screen, a theory that worked quite well in practice from the audience’s perspective.
“For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what’s coming.” (Behlmer, 1965.) This, of course, is a form of false tempo, discussed here, that would likely get a fencer killed in a duel. But it works well for the audience — and that’s the goal.
Behlmer further quoted Cavens: “All movements — instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing — must be large, but nevertheless correct. Magnified, is the word. The routine — there must be a routine, and so well learned the actor executes it subconsciously — should contain the most spectacular attacks and parries it is possible to execute while remaining logical to the situation. In other words, the duel should be a fight and not a fencing exhibition, and should disregard at times classically correct guards and lunges. The attitudes arising naturally out of fighting instinct should predominate. When this occurs the whole performance will leave an impression of strength, skill and manly grace.”
Cavens prepared actors, ranging from Flynn and Rathbone to Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, Jean Peters, and many others, thoroughly, teaching them not only the scripted swordplay itself, but also fencing in general. Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography described her preparation for At Sword’s Point (1952): “I trained rigorously for six weeks with Fred Cavens and his son to perfect my stunts for the picture. Fred Cavens was an outstanding Belgian military fencing master and had trained all the great swashbucklers in Hollywood. He taught me intricate attacks and parries, envelopments, disengagements, and coupes. Physically, I’ve never worked harder for a role.” For The Corsican Brothers (1941), Cavens coached Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for a month prior to filming. (Brady, 1941.)
His process was described by Thomas Brady: “Cavens’s greatest value to a producer is his ability to prepare a fight with the precision of a choreographer. No impromptu bout, he says, looks truly exciting to the camera. His technique with a picture follows a regular pattern. First, with the director and the camera man, he examines the sets to be used for fights and learns in general what the action must be and how much time it shall take. Then, in the esoteric language of the swordsman he writes down every move the attacking fencer will make. For a three-minute fight in Fox’s “The Mark of Zorro,” Cavens’s “score” ran to 750 words. Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone had to memorize it… Even when Cavens and his own son fight a duel on the screen, as in “The Corsican Brothers,” they memorize a “ballet” routine beforehand.” (Brady, 1941.)
The Duel Master Scene in the shooting script by Casey Robinson includes the following notes, which depart from Sabatini for whom Levasseur was a mere thug and bully in both his life and his swordsmanship:
“The details of this duel must naturally, be worked out by an expert in this line. We wish to emphasize here the general nature that this fight must have. Usually duels in pictures are contests between some agile, brilliant, hero and a slow and dull witted, even though powerful villain. Such is not the case here. Here we must have a great fight between two truly great swordsmen, equally matched in quickness, brilliance, and skill. It is not a fight to the first advantage or the first spilling of blood, but a fight to the death. It is a vicious, terrific battle in which both men take a great deal of punishment before the final conclusion. In other words, the fight would be routined not after the order of duels that have been shown in pictures, but rather after the order of some of the great rough and tumble encounters that have made their pictures famous notably, the fight in “The Spoilers”. Thus, before the battle is finished, part of Blood’s clothes have been cut away and he is very much marked up by Levasseur’s sword.”
Note that dueling was still in vogue in France, Italy, and Hungary at the time of filming (although WWI had diminished the practice significantly, WWII would almost entirely put a stop to it), thus the comments on first advantage and first blood have more than purely Hollywood relevance. In fact, my first fencing master, an active swordsman during the 1930s and trained by the famous Italo Santelli, had fought at least one duel in Budapest in the 1930s. Fred Cavens had acted as directeur de combat for several duels and had fought as many more. (Anon., 1934.)
[Quick aside: until a couple or so decades ago, referees in modern fencing in the US were referred to as directors, from directeur de combat, the person who supervised a formal duel. Today, the term “referee” is used, the powers-that-be rather incredulously arguing that the name change would make fencing more accessible to the still largely imaginary audience. “One fool makes many,” according to the proverb.]
According to the LA Times, Cavens also trained “one hundred fifty men…in the art of being pirates at the Warner Studio” for Captain Blood. “They go to school every day for eight hours to fence under the tutelage of Fred Cavens… He is also teaching them how to climb riggings and other tricks of the trade.” (Kendall, 1935.) Certainly Cavens would have trained the pirates in cutlass-play, but as for teaching “pirates” to climb aloft, although Cavens would certainly know how this was done given his experience on Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926), we imagine Sailor Vincent (see below) or some other salty seafarer was actually responsible for this aspect of training.
Filming the Duel
Shooting a duel could take days. “These scenes take, Lord knows, how many set-ups. For instance, they will not take a long shot alone; they’ll take a master shot, then a medium shot and then take some close-ups. Any fight that lasts five minutes on the screen could easily take two days to shoot,” said Basil Rathbone. (Jones, 1972.)
According to Rudy Behlmer (1965), “When the duel is shown to the director, he, and perhaps the cinematographer, may alter the set, props and lighting. After which, the duel routine is broken up into master shots, close-ups, special angles, etc., and photographed with either principals or doubles, depending upon the actors’ capabilities and the specific shot.
There is a myth that the director Michael Curtiz engaged in swordplay himself during the filming: “Curtiz, who is quite the swordsman himself, having been a member of the Hungarian Olympic team in 1912, would fight with each of them first, to show how he wanted it done.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
This of course, is nonsense, at least regarding the Olympic Games, and probably in its entirety as well. Curtiz, although apparently fond of claiming he was on the 1912 Hungarian team, does not appear to been an Olympian. I have not found his Hungarian names (Manó Kertész Kaminer and Kertész Mihály) or anything similar among the fully detailed records of the foil, epee, and saber events from first pools to final of the 1912 Games. Even so, numerous biographies repeat the myth as fact, although occasionally the word “allegedly” is used. For good reason did Cavens, not Curtiz, choreograph the duel.
Doubling of the sword-fighting actors was common at the time, including in Captain Blood. “The villains, especially Basil Rathbone, are splendid fencers, but the heroes, according to Mr. Cavens, are ineffectual fellows when it comes to cold steel… And when the script demands that he [Errol Flynn] resort to the sword to defend his honor, Warner Brothers resorts to Mr. Cavens.” (Brady, 1941.)
However, Fred Cavens, as proved by the photo below, as well as others farther down, doubled Rathbone, not Flynn, when necessary during the duel.
Flynn was apparently doubled as necessary by Caven’s assistant, Ralph Faulkner, soon to become one of Cavens’s principal Hollywood heirs. Faulkner had been a member of the US Olympic saber team at the 1932 Games: “One of the mysteries in the competition between Poland and the United States was the removal of Ralph Faulkner, the only Southern Californian on the team, from the American line-up. Faulkner had been entered in the contest with Hungary and had succeeded in taking two of the three bouts for America in her score against that country.” (Durbin, 1932.)
A mystery indeed! [And a brief digression!] The Hungarians ruled saber for fifty years; their national saber championship was tougher than the Games themselves, so deep were the Hungarians in elite sabreurs. That Faulkner could win two of three bouts against the Hungarian team that would win gold is amazing — no other fencer at the 1932 Games won more than one bout against them (in fact, for fifty years a total of slightly more than 30 Hungarian sabreurs won nearly every elite competition in the world) — and should have guaranteed his inclusion in the bronze medal bout against Poland. However, the elitist East Coast prejudice against his Southern California roots is not out of the question, and this probably cost the US a medal: the US lost to Poland by a single touch.
One of the methods of excluding “outsiders” was via cheating by side judges and bout directors during championships: the director had one and a half votes, and each of the two side judges watching a single fencer had one vote each and could therefore overrule even an honest director. The other method, common in the first half of the 20th century, was exclusion by the committee “choosing the best fencers” or even by a team captain during events. I’m speculating, of course, but these latter two means were probably the way Faulkner, an outsider, was excluded from the bronze medal match — and entirely from the individual events in the 1928 and 1932 Games.
[Warning: further fascinating digression ahead!] In fact, until the 1950s team selection in US saber fencing was reportedly largely ruled by the “New York saber Mafia,” as many non-New York fencers called the narrow-minded, cliquish US saber fencing establishment, and a number of deserving fencers failed to make the US team due to prejudice against them, including at times race and religion. (The brilliant Herb Spector, described by one of my masters as the best saber fencer in the world in a two-touch bout, springs immediately to mind, among others.)
Faulkner himself confirmed this as the reason he was only permitted to compete as part of the US Olympic saber team in both 1928 and 1932, and not in the individual saber events: the controlling Eastern Establishment “didn’t feel a savage from out West could be superior.” (Folkart, 1987.)
The “Mafia’s” spine, at least in regard to the Olympic Games, was broken when Hungarian gold medalist saber fencers, including one of my own masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, emigrated to the US after the Soviet Union brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 during the Olympic Games. The Hungarians’ technique was so superior and clean that any cheating against them would have been far too obvious.
And if this clear superiority didn’t stop the mischief, I’ve seen how some of these Hungarians dealt with cheating directors and side judges clearly in cahoots with the opposing fencer: they would drop the opponent to the strip with a welting chest cut, making the hit overtly clear even to the most willfully blind. (I’ve also seen the technique used once by a Hungarian Olympic medalist frustrated with the director, a friend of his — and the fencer he dropped to the ground was also a friend. Temper, temper…)
However, even as late as the 1970s the “Mafia’s” influence was still apparent to some degree, at least in the Junior Olympics, according to several fencers I knew. As a friend of mine noted at the time, he could beat any of his fellow elite junior New York competitors anywhere in the US and world — except in New York City. A bout director there even shrugged in apology to him once, after the two side judges were repeatedly, and clearly deliberately, blind to his clean touches made with undisputed priority.
Faulkner was still teaching fencing at his salle, Falcon Studios, aka the Faulkner School of Fencing, in Hollywood, when I first started learning in 1977. By then he gave lessons seated and was nearly blind, or so I was told, but his lessons were still extraordinarily instructive in blade-work. I was advised to take a lesson just to say I had, if nothing more, but never managed to do so in part because I was well-satisfied with my own swashbuckling master, Dr. Francis Zold. (I was also a college student in LA without a car.) Many Hollywood and stage fencing choreographers — Anthony De Longis comes quickly to mind — studied under Faulkner and by their own admissions owe much to him. Maestro Faulkner died in 1985 at the age of ninety-five.
But back to the filming of the duel! Flynn was noted in the production of later films as having a drinking problem on set, which in the case of swordplay would be quite dangerous.
Whether Flynn drank during the filming of the duel in Captain Blood is not noted anywhere I can find. According to Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography, “I enjoyed working with Errol because he was a pro. He always came to work prepared. He rehearsed hard and practiced his fencing sequences very meticulously with Fred Cavens… He also knew his lines, something I greatly respect in an actor. Of course, there was one glaring inconsistency with his professionalism. Errol also drank on the set, something I greatly disliked. You couldn’t stop him; Errol did whatever he liked. If the director prohibited alcohol on the set, then Errol would inject oranges with booze and eat them during breaks. We worked around his drinking. Everything good that we got on film was shot early in the day. He started gulping his “water” early in the morning and by four P.M. was in no shape to continue filming.”
Flynn himself describes in his autobiography how when filming a boarding scene during the production of Captain Blood he fell to the ground with an attack of malaria or blackwater fever. He cured the shaking, shivering weakness of the attack with a bottle of Cognac suggested, he says, by the crew. He was called on the carpet by Jack Warner the following day as the result of this drinking: “The script girl tipped me off. They had rushes of the scene I finished after the bottle of cognac. In the film I was waving the sword about like a Cossack, shouting lines that weren’t in the script, and had almost fallen off the boat. A bit of real drunken acting.”
The filming of the duel was publicized in small ways in advance of the movie’s release. The press package claimed, for example, that “Actor Breaks Three Rapiers in Duel,” which is probably true in reference to blades. Hilts might break, but are generally much sturdier. It would be surprising if spare rapiers and blades were not on set during filming. Even so, according to a press clipping, a “rush order for additional rapiers was sent out when Errol Flynn…broke three of them during the filming of scenes in which he has a duel with a rival pirate…”
Also according to the Warner Bros. publicity package for the film and often repeated as fact, Flynn “received two small wounds during his battle with Basil Rathbone.” A separate publicity clip for newspaper release noted four: the “most serious wound was on the actor’s head, slightly above the left temple. He also was cut by his opponent, Basil Rathbone, near the right eye, on the neck and on the right forearm.”
And according to one reporter, “they really drew blood too, so that Flynn had some actual wounds to be doctored after that exciting buccaneering day.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
Although injuries do occur on occasion in well-prepared, well-choreographed swordfights, those listed here are probably pure invention for the sake of publicity: Rathbone in his autobiography states that he never hurt anyone when filming any fencing scene, nor was hurt by anyone. The photograph of Flynn below shows the “wounds” — and they appear to be nothing more than those created by a make-up artist for the scene. If Flynn were wounded during the filming of the duel, it would have therefore been by Fred Cavens, and surely due to Flynn’s own error. I think it also possible but highly unlikely that Cavens would have deliberately hit Flynn as a reminder to be careful — or not to do anything too stupid or too dangerous that might hurt his film adversary. (This can, however, be an effective teaching method with a blunt tip used during an egregious error made by a student without a jacket, although not all students are suitable to this practice.)
At one point, again according to the press package, Flynn fell off a cliff at Three Arch Bay during filming:
“Flynn was doing a scene depicting a duel with rapiers between himself as Pirate Blood and Basil Rathbone, who portrays the role of Levasseur, French buccaneer and Blood’s rival. In order to give the scene added drama, Director Michael Curtiz had Flynn drive Rathbone at swordspoint onto a small ledge on the side of a cliff overlooking the bay. The cliff was not quite perpendicular, however, sloping off gently so that the ledge was about ten or twelve feet shoreward and forty feet above the water line.
“With the cameras grinding, Flynn backed Rathbone onto the ledge according to instructions. For several minutes the rapiers of the duelists flashed. Then, suddenly, a shout of dismay rose.
“Flynn had tripped on a small rock and toppled outward from the ledge. Slowly at first, he strove to regain his footing, but in vain. When he finally realized there was no chance of saving himself, he put all his power into an outward leap. He soared out from the ledge, cut cleanly into the water, missing the base of the cliff a mere matter of inches. He swam to the beach unaided.
“A less powerful man than Flynn could not possibly have put the force behind his leap to clear the base of the cliff… [He] suffered nothing worse than a slightly lacerated knee which scraped a submerged rock.” Although it’s entirely possible that the incident did take place, Hollywood clearly does love hyperbole, not only for the sake of publicity, but for its own sake.
The shooting of the duel wrapped up near dusk on the final day. Rathbone tells an anecdote (Jones, 1972) about how “Sailor Vincent,” the nominal head of the pirate extras and, according to the press package, an “all-Navy welterweight boxing champion,” asked Flynn and Rathbone near the end of a day’s shooting if they were going to wrap it up that day or give the extras another day to get paid. “Our reputations as swordsmen were at stake,” Rathbone said, and so they decided to finish the shooting that day. They were probably quite ready to get past the exhausting shooting of the duel almost certainly.
“Now what we had to do was this:” Rathbone said, “a man stood with a stopwatch, and he timed the waves coming in. There was a short routine in which Flynn had to get me, kill me, and I had to fall exactly as a wave was coming in. If I fell exactly as a wave was coming it, it would cover me with water and as it went back out again, there I would be lying on the ground with my eyes wide open. You try lying with your eyes wide open, and sea water in them without blinking. Well, we did it! Exactly to the second, we timed the swordplay which took fifteen seconds. At the end of fifteen seconds I had to fall and the wave had to come in and I had to fall into the wave. This happened exactly to the second.
“The thing that Flynn and I expected was that Sailor Vincent would come across and say, “Well, thanks for nothing!” Instead of that, all the extras applauded loudly. They were so thrilled at the sheer skill of it because this required beautiful timing and Flynn and I worked very hard on the sequence.”
After a few more shots, and with the sun soon too low at 4:30 to shoot, filming of the duel finished and everyone went home. Rathbone noted that had they failed to get the final scene correct, they would have had to shoot again the next day because he would have had to wait for a new, dry costume.
The Myth of “Sharp Tips” Used in the Film Duel
There has long been a myth that director Michael Curtiz demanded that the tips be removed from the rapiers so they wouldn’t show up on film, and therefore the actors fought their duel with sharp points. This myth, among other issues, demonstrates a lack of understanding of how practice fencing swords are constructed and used.
The rapiers used in the duel were mounted with “dry” (i.e. non-electrical — electrical scoring was introduced the following year at the Olympic Games) epee blades, which might be considered a reasonable facsimile of the “three cornered” blades of many smallswords of the 1680s. Unlike modern epee blades, which are wider at the forte (the third nearest the hilt) and thicker at the foible (the third nearest the point), epee blades for most of the 20th century tended be narrower at both forte and foible.
Practice dry epee blades were not, and are not, sharp, but instead are forged with a flat tack-like tip, often only slightly larger in diameter than the distal end of the blade. For “dry” practice in the 1930s (which was nearly all practice back then) either a hard rubber “button” was placed over the flat tip, or a point d’arrêt with three small sharp points was lashed to it with linen thread, dental floss, or very narrow (1/16″) cloth tape. There was no sharp point beneath. See the image below.
For shooting a duel scene in any film of the era, the rubber buttons or other points d’arrêt were typically removed, leaving the flat tips which made for better visuals. The flat tips are not as obvious on film but still could be dangerous, to eyes in particular, and required well-rehearsed actors for safety. The flat tips could also scratch or even make shallow cuts in the worst cases, but were not a significant threat to life or limb except, as just noted, to eyes. Typically only a wound from a broken blade might be life threatening.
However, according to some sources citing cameraman Hal Mohr (Davis, 1971, for example), the tips of the blades were broken off at Curtiz’s demand, leaving sharp points. This not only strains belief but is easily disproven. Breaking a fencing blade is relatively easy. Breaking it immediately behind the flat tip is not. It would usually require a strong cutting tool or a hacksaw blade to cut the blade just behind the tip, and would indeed leave a much more dangerous point, something no fencing master would permit in the hands of even a talented amateur such as Rathbone, much less an unskilled fencer like Flynn.
I once choreographed and engaged in some fencing with sharp, pointed scimitars for a documentary. For safety it was necessary that both of us were highly skilled with pointed and edged weapons, we rehearsed and memorized the routine thoroughly beforehand, and during actual filming we worked at about half the speed we were capable of. Anything else with sharp or pointed swords could easily have led to serious injury or fatality.
Notably, of the many original still photographs of the Flynn-Rathbone duel in my collection, at least of those in which the points are in focus, none show sharp or broken points, but instead, as expected, the typical flat points of practice epee blades. See below, for example. The photographs of the duel were taken at various stages of the its filming. The flat tips can even be seen in some of the scenes on film when watched frame-by-frame. Further, it is hard to believe that if Rathbone and Flynn had fenced with sharp points, Rathbone would not have mentioned such a dangerous undertaking in interviews or his autobiography. Again, we have a myth promoted by the Warner Bros. publicity machine and accepted at face value by much of the public.
The Musical Accompaniment
The film score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who largely created the practice of classical composition for film music. Korngold reportedly had only three weeks to compose it, and was assisted by orchestrator Hugo Friedhofer. Nearly all of the film’s music is original, with one major exception and a few minor associated additions. In addition, two minor pieces — songs sung by Spanish soldiers and seamen — were composed by Milan Roder.
The major exception, of course, was the score for the duel on the beach. Reportedly, the film’s preview had been moved up and the score had to be completed within twenty-four hours. Out of time, Korngold adapted Frans Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus to the duel, a circumstance that apparently offended his sense of artistry and professionalism. It also led him to refuse to have the credits list him as composer, and instead as musical arranger, in spite of his having composed the majority of the film score. For this reason the score was not nominated for an Academy Award, sadly. Korngold’s original film compositions — “opera without words” and “symphonic poems” — and method of scoring changed Hollywood film music forever.
According to Brendan G. Carroll, Korngold gave Friedhofer the Liszt score along with a new introduction and coda at 8:30 PM the day before it was required. Friedhofer spent the night arranging the adaptation. At 7:00 AM a messenger picked up the orchestration for copying. It was recorded that afternoon. That said, elements of the Liszt’s Prometheus also appear in the tracks “Peter is Bound — Pirates!” and “A Timely Interruption,” the latter of which is really a continuation of the former.
The 2001 Tsunami Captain Blood soundtrack (TSU 0141) above is the only one I’m aware of with the entire film score, including the duel. The thirty-one tracks provide an hour’s worth of neo-romantic swashbuckling listening pleasure. Out-of-print and now often listed at high prices by vendors hoping to make a quick extra buck, if you’re patient you can usually find a reasonably-priced copy. It’s my favorite of all the vinyl and CD Captain Blood soundtracks, and probably my favorite of all the full swashbuckler scores available on CD (or whatever else soundtracks are published via these days — I’ve never stopped listening to and collecting vinyl and CDs even as I’ve added other media to our collection, although I did long ago abandon cassette tapes).
Liszt’s Prometheus is also excellent listening. It’s often included on collections with Liszt’s Preludes, in which case you can also enjoy the overture to the old Flash Gordon film serial, a “space opera” — which was by definition a Western set in outer space. Our most popular modern version, arguably of both space operas and Westerns, is Star Wars and its many serializations. Star Wars has also taken over most of the old classic swashbuckling genres, to my dismay.
And now the duel itself. The best way to enjoy it — in fact, the only way — is to watch it. For those with an interest in the actual fencing details of the choreography, I’ve included a few annotations below. Fencing enthusiasts, feel free to disagree with my observations and assessments!
The fight really was between two true adventurers. Flynn was an Irish-Australian born and raised in Tasmania. In his autobiography describes himself in his youth as a “devil in boy’s clothing,” and after numerous misadventures leading to his eighteenth year he entered several years of seafaring adventure and fortune hunting — tobacco planting, gold mining, and various sea trades — associated with Papua New Guinea. An athlete but never a fencer, he does fondly describe playing with a sword an ancestor had taken from Captain William Bligh during the infamous mutiny, and he denounces his father for giving it away to the Naval and Military Club at Hobart.
Rathbone was the Patrols Officer of the Second Battalion of the Liverpool Scottish during WWI, and was awarded the Military Cross for heroism for his intelligence collection patrols, in particular one in which he led a small party across “No Man’s Land” into the German trenches for intelligence during daylight. At one point Baron von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron, and his Flying Circus, which included future Nazi leader and convicted war criminal Hermann Goerring, flew a mere one hundred feet overhead, strafing the British line. In the enemy trenches, Rathbone, using his service revolver, shot and killed a German soldier. Documents taken from the soldier’s pockets indicated that a retreat was imminent. Rathbone led his men out safely under heavy machinegun fire. (Rathbone, 1962.)
The duel could not have been easy to film and fight in the sand, a surface which presents its own special difficulties. The rear foot tends to slip on the lunge. Turning the foot onto its inner edge is helpful, as is pushing more outward than directly behind on the lunge with the rear foot, as is maneuvering the fight onto the area of wet compacted beach between the soft dry sand above and the wet saturated sand below, or onto an area of vegetation. But at least the implausible “pirate boots” — buccaneers and pirates didn’t wear them unless on horseback — would keep sand out!
The duel begins with Flynn wearing what at first appears to be a waistcoat but is in fact a coat with different-colored sleeves, with a baldric worn over a sash, apparently sewn or otherwise un-historically attached to the sash to keep the former from bouncing around. Rathbone is in his shirtsleeves, but likewise with a baldric worn over a sash. Eyewitness images of buccaneers in the 1680s — the only eyewitness images of any European-derived sea rovers during the Golden Age of Piracy — do show sashes on French buccaneers, but not baldrics. Sword-belts were worn instead, given their convenience, and they’re also not as hot. If a baldric were worn, it would typically have been worn beneath a sash to prevent it from bouncing around. I’ll discuss this further in part five of this series.
And now, for fun, a brief look at some of the swordplay itself. One of these days I may annotate the entire duel, but I’ve lost my old notes and haven’t the time at the moment to review it in its entirely again. A few instances will suffice for now.
The duel begins as several of Peter Blood’s officers begin escorting Arabella Bishop to a small bluff en route to their ship. Cahusec tries to restrain Levasseur but he’ll have none of it. “You do not take her while I live!” he shouts and draws his sword. “Then I’ll take her when you’re dead!” Blood replies, drawing his own sword, tossing his hat, and beginning to remove his baldric and waistcoat. Cahusec tries one more time to dissuade his captain, but fails.
Levasseur runs at Blood and thrusts in tierce. Blood parries tierce and shifts aside for additional protection against the the attack. The men move to open ground where Levasseur makes a half lunge, thrusting in quarte. Returning to his guard, Levasseur makes several change beats from quarte to tierce and back, followed by a few disengages in the same line against Blood’s en garde in quarte.
Levasseur feints outside (tierce), then inside (quarte), and finishes with a thrust without lunging in the low line, which is parried quinte (low quarte) by Blood, who ripostes with a quick extension but no lunge. Both men are clearly engaging in reconnaissance.
Now, in a wide shot, Blood traverses to his left. Levasseur attempts a wide, too obvious head feint, saber-like (this is theatrical swordplay, after all), to the inside, then cuts to the outside. Flynn makes a half-quarte parry, followed by a tierce which parries the attack, and ripostes low in seconde. Flynn parries another attack in tierce, again ripostes seconde, then attempts a head cut which is parried by Levasseur who ripostes inside, which is parried by Flynn in prime.
Flynn traverses to the left again, then attempts a flashy, and very “telegraphed,” head attack that would evolve in later films to a “triple moulinet,” which would become his signature move in his film swordplay. And every time I see it, I shout “Time him! Time him! Time him!” in my head to his adversary. Flashy, yes. And just asking to receive a time thrust in the throat!
And so it goes, all very swashbuckling and theatrical.
For the sake of time, for now at least, I’m skipping over most of the following swordplay. As the duel progresses toward the rocks upon which Levasseur will meet his end, there are a couple of long shots which looks like Rathbone and Flynn might be doubled by Cavens and Faulkner.
I do want to mention my three favorite phrases (a phrase is a complete exchange, from start to finish, in fencing, for example: attack, parry, riposte, counter-riposte, counter-attack, &c, until there is a hit or the fencers break distance). All three take place in the final moments of the duel.
First is a croisé in sixte by Levasseur, which is beautifully parried by Blood with a prime, followed immediately by the classic, and very flashy, bind-thrust riposte in tierce (or sixte) to the head, the blade arcing from low to high, almost as a moulinet, although the hit doesn’t quite land. In the right circumstances the technique can disarm the adversary. But nicely done, still!
This is soon followed by Levasseur binding Blood’s blade from sixte to septime, with Blood countering with a yielding parry in tierce as he falls. Again, nicely done!
And now the two men are face-to-face at “handy grips!” Here we have the obligatory close-up, hilt-to-hilt, deadly fury in each man’s eyes!
The adversaries quickly get to their feet, surprisingly without punching or pommeling each other, for the final engagement in which, moments after another quick, beautiful croisé in sixte parried in prime, Blood kills Levasseur by lunging off the line — an esquive or, arguably in the language of the day, a volt — and “pinking” him, to use a 17th century term, from side to side. I strongly suspect the finish was inspired by the one in the duel in Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan, published three years before.
The film duel from start to finish is just under three minutes, yet time stands still for that short time, so exciting is the swordplay and acting. A timeless scene of piratical yet noble swashbuckling indeed!
Next in the series: The Duel on the Beach in Reality!
Anon. “Frederic Cavens, 79, Taught Stars Fencing.” New York Times, May 2, 1962.
Anon. “Sealing Wax, Cabbages and Kings.” New York Times, September 30, 1934.
Rudy Behlmer. “Swordplay on the Screen: The Best of it Has Been Due to Belgian Fencing Masters.” Films in Review, June-July 1965.
Thomas Brady. “Meet Hollywood’s Fencing Master.” New York Times, October 5, 1941.
Brendan G. Carroll. The Last Prodigy: a Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Hong Kong: Amadeus Press, 1997.
John Davis. “Captain Blood.” The Velvet Light Trap, No. 1, June 1971.
Edith Durbin. “Rolph and Doug Watch Hungary Win at Sabers.” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1932.
Jean-Baptiste Dutertre. Histoire generale des Antilles habitées par les François. Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1667.
Alexandre Exquemelin. [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684.
——. [Alexander Olivier Exquemelin]. Histoire des Avanturiers Flibustiers qui se sont Signalez dans les Indes. 2 vols. Paris: Jacques Le Febvre, 1699.
Errol Flynn. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.
Burt A. Folkart. “Ralph B. Faulkner, 95, Film Swordsman, Dies.” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1987.
Russ Jones. “Rathbone.” Flashback magazine, June 1972.
Read Kendall. “Out and About in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1935.
Benerson Little. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674 – 1688. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007.
——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse, 2016.
Maureen O’Hara. ‘Tis Her. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Don Page. “Another Fairbanks Roams Sherwood Forest.” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1968.
Basil Rathbone. In and Out of Character. New York: Doubleday, 1962.
Casey Robinson. Captain Blood Shooting Script. Warner Bros., 1935.
Rafael Sabatini. Captain Blood: His Odyssey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.
——. The Black Swan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.
Warner Bros. Captain Blood Press and Publicity Package, 1935.
Alma Whitaker. “Stars Who’ve Learned Fencing for Films Make It Latest Indoor Sport.” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1936.
John R. Woolfenden. “Flock of Handsome Brutes Spring Up as Leading Men.” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1936.
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted 29 March 2022. Last updated 31 March 2022.
Originally I’d intended to write a post entitled, “Whither Modern Fencing?” and illustrate it with some of my favorite inspirational fencing images. However, the likelihood of the subject turning into a lengthy near-rant was too strong, particularly if the draft of the first few paragraphs was any indication, so in the end I’ve decided to let the images speak for themselves. The accompanying commentary may be read or ignored according the reader’s inclination. Enjoy.
1. Untitled by Aaron Siskend, from “The Most Crowded Block”
Quite possibly my favorite swordplay image other than personal ones of friends and family fencing, and if not my most favorite, then surely one of my top three. The swashbuckling adventure of youth, exactly what swordplay should always be at any age!
The lure of fencing is to fight with swords, not to participate in mere sport, at least not for most of us drawn to fencing. We want to fight one-on-one for honor, for romance, for the clash of steel-on-steel. We want to sword-fight for fun, for adventure, and, importantly, for the “All for one and one for all!” camaraderie fencing in the right circumstances can bring. These days, the purely sport mentality of too many fencing coaches, administrators, and parents often misses this fundamental truth. To paraphrase my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, “Fencing is not sport: fencing is swordplay!”*
At the end of a lecture I gave in 2020, or perhaps the year before–has it been that long?–on the history and practice of modern Western swordplay for a local continuing education program whose students were mostly retired persons, several came up afterward and, pointing to the photograph above which was still showing on the projection screen, excitedly and animatedly agreed that it conveyed exactly how they felt about fencing, even to depicting how they themselves had played at “sword-fighting” in their childhoods.
For what it’s worth, during the practical sessions on the two following weekends, these retirees proved to be some of the most apt pupils I’ve ever had, learning far more quickly and easily than much younger students. Many had wanted to learn to fence since they were kids but had never had the opportunity. Life can make dreams difficult to come true, but this is no reason to stop dreaming, much less stop trying to make them come true.
And if you can do nothing else, improvise some swords and let your inner swashbuckler take over, no matter your age!
2. Douglas Fairbanks Fencing With Kids on the Set of The Three Musketeers
Evocative not only of the silent film era swashbuckler, but also of children’s fascination with swashbuckling heroes, then and now. Who of these children would not today still tell the story of he once fenced with Fairbanks as d’Artagnan! Fairbanks created the modern swashbuckler film genre, with its over-the-top tongue-in-cheek antics, best described–other than by viewing!–in the following New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.”
A perfect description of our four-year-old, almost five now, son, too. 🙂
I still recall my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, telling me how Fairbanks and his entourage came to watch the Hungarians in the final round of the saber fencing at the 1932 Olympic Games, and saw Gyorgi Piller (one of my fencing “grandfathers,” in fact) win the gold. A few days before the Hungarians had been invited to Picfair, the famous eighteen acre estate he shared with his wife, Mary Pickford, for a large Olympic Games dinner party which featured two hundred invited guests including Charlie Chaplan, Clark Gable, and Constance Bennett.
3. The Duel Between Peter Blood & the Villain Levasseur in Captain Blood, 1935
What a difficult choice from among the wonderful publicity stills of this duel! It remains my favorite film swordfight by far: it’s from the best film version of my favorite novel of youth (and still one of my favorite books, so much so that we’re publishing an annotated edition): it’s a pirate duel on the beach; it’s for the hand of one’s beloved (although not so in the novel); the villain, Basil Rathbone, deserved to be run through for his gaudy French accent (nothing personal, Rathbone, you’re one of my favorite villains and Sherlocks, and you actually could fence well); the duel is wonderfully choreographed; and even the accompanying music is great, although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was upset that he didn’t have time to compose it himself, and was forced to use Liszt’s Prometheus at the last minute. Last, Three Arch Bay near Laguna Beach, California, here made up to look like a Caribbean island, reminds me fondly of my many days spent on Southern California beaches in my youth and as a young Navy SEAL officer.
It is films like these, and novels like those written by Rafael Sabatini and his like (Sabatini wrote Captain Blood: His Odyssey) that inspired many of us to become fencers. They also inspired a number of true swashbuckling swordsmen and swordswomen of real-life adventure, the majority of whom from the early to mid-twentieth century have already passed away, and there are sadly far too few replacements.
Just as sad, the number of true swashbuckling fencer-writers is severely diminished. Even so, I’m happy to see a few today who are following in their adventurous footsteps. “Books are good enough in their own way but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his excellent essay of advice on life, “An Apology for Idlers.” Likewise with movies and television too. Why not “take a walk on the wild side” and pick up both pen and sword as you head out the door for real adventure?
I’ve even written three of a planned five blog posts on The Duel on the Beach, greatly inspired by this duel and the one in Rafael Sabatini’s novel, The Black Swan. Here’s the first of the series: “The Duel on the Beach, Part I: In Fiction.”
4. Famed Fencing Master Fred Cavens Training Binnie Barnes for The Spanish Main
One of the last great pirate swashbucklers before the genre descended into B-movie purgatory (arguably almost elevated again to A-level status by the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, although the overweening element of fantasy disqualifies the films in my opinion), The Spanish Main’s best swordplay was not that of the star, Paul Henreid as Capt. Laurent Van Horn (combining the names of two real Dutch buccaneers, Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Vanhorn who actually fought a duel on Isla Sacrificios), but of his adversary Paul Emery as Capt. Mario du Billar, and equally that of Binnie Barnes as the anachronistic Anne Bonney. To this day I recall the first time I saw a passata soto: Binnie Barnes executed one in this film.
Fencing master Fred Cavens and his contemporaries, along with those who followed, gave us the film swordfights that have imprinted themselves indelibly on our swashbuckling psyches. Although swordswomen were in the minority, and still are, in swashbuckling films (actual history itself unfortunately tends to preclude sword-armed women except in rare circumstances), their were several worthy ones in this era, and often their swordplay was as good, or better than, the best of the male actors: Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters all did superbly creditable fencing scenes. Reportedly, Bebe Daniels was a masterful swordswoman in Senorita (1927) playing a Zorro-like character, but only two prints of the film exist and apparently neither has been digitally transferred. Not surprisingly, Cavens trained all four of these women actor-fencers and choreographed their swordfights.
And Fred, or formally, Frédéric Adolphe, Cavens? He set the standard for sword choreography in film, largely unmatched these days although through the first decade of the 21st century his descendants followed worthily in his footsteps (or rather, footwork?). And for a fact there are sword choreographers and fight directors today who can arrange exciting swordfights that evoke a sense of the reality of swordplay–if only their directors would let them.
5. The Climactic Duel in The Spanish Main
I honestly can’t claim that this image from The Spanish Main (see image and notes above) is one of my absolute favorites, but it perfectly illustrates more than one swashbuckling trope, and, more important to me, I recall complaining excitedly to one of my fencing masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, when I was nineteen years old that John Emery on the left above (though doubtless I didn’t recall his name at the time) was a much better swordsman than Paul Henreid on the right–but he had to lose! It bothered me as a fencer that a skilled swordsman must ignore so many tempo opportunities with which to skewer–to pink, to use the 17th century expression–his adversary. But scripts are scripts for a reason and far more “winners” of Hollywood duels were inferior fencers as compared to their adversaries. I’ve been unable to find anything out about where Emery learned to fence, unfortunately.
The tropes? There’s the swooning or near-swooning heroine watching two men duel to the death, although not always over her; the swordfight in the dungeon (similar tropes are the duel on the beach already noted in this post, and the swordfight in the tavern); and, above all, the duel to the death between hero and villain, often but not always at the climax.
Readers will notice one thing in common with many of these images: the fencers are often in an en garde position with swords crossed, or more correctly, with blades engaged. Inaccurately, fencers are often in a modern sixte guard rather than the much more historically accurate tierce, a reflection of their modern training. Notably, John Emery is en garde in tierce, not the usual modern sixte as his adversary is, although Emery’s tierce is probably that of saber, not historical smallsword. But no matter, it’s surprisingly correct for a genre swashbuckler.
6. Maureen O’Hara Engaging the Cardinal’s Guards in At Sword’s Point
Yet again, a difficult choice among a number of swashbuckling film stills of Maureen O’Hara, one of classic Hollywood’s greats. Here she comes en garde against several of the Cardinal’s Guards. She does a credible job taking a fencing lesson early in the film, and holds her own with the male lead, Hungarian-born Cornel Wilde who was not only a US National Champion in saber fencing, but also was selected to the US Olympic Fencing Team–until he chose to take a stage role instead!
Here O’Hara fences in riding boots, that costume accessory–“fetishwear,” a UK journalist described it–so alluring to painters, writers, and costume designers of swashbuckling flare. Here at least it’s historically accurate, for she had been riding. But if her boots are as stiff as those of the cavalry, she won’t be able to move well. In fact, cavalrymen dismounted in action would often abandon their boots in order to make their escape afoot, for the boots hindered running to an extreme degree.
O’Hara also thrusts and parries in the 1952 film with Errol Flynn, Against All Flags, really a B-level pirate flick but still fun and still better than most of the B pirate genre. Women running around with swords, women as pirate captains, women as erstwhile musketeers is nothing new in fiction or film, although some would have us believe this today. If anything, the older films–Against All Flags, The Spanish Main, At Sword’s Point, Anne of the Indies, among others–have more redoubtable women sword-adventurers than many films do these days (although some video games have rectified this in that medium). Admittedly, though, there is an unfortunate tendency for the sword-bearing female lead to either give it all up for love, and by implication, marriage, or to die unrequited so that the male protagonist can marry his true love, naturally non-sword-wielding and often demure and largely obedient to her husband-lord-and-master. I prefer independent sword-wielding women myself. I married one, after all.
7. Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies, 1951
One of a pair of well-posed publicity stills showcasing Jean Peters engaged against Blackbeard the Pirate. It’s a favorite of mine, one of three common poses in images like this: blades crossed, or one adversary attacking while one parries, or one adversary running the other through. I’m torn between the two, the other showing Peters running Blackbeard through. But this one shows her spirit better, I think.
Jean Peters, known not only for her films but, in popular star worship and gossip, for her marriage to Howard Hughes, for which she left her short but notable acting career behind, plays Anne Providence, really Anne Bonny, or at least Anne Bonny as imagined in the popular mind. I remain both astounded and bored senseless with the mindlessness with which novelists, playwriters, and filmmakers continue to elevate Anne Bonny over Mary Read, assuming anything Charles Johnson wrote about them is actually true, for most of what he wrote about the two women cannot be verified. But even if partly true, why runaway girlfriend Anne Bonny over the martial Mary Read? Anne Bonny as described by Charles Johnson’s account makes her a dilettante along for a brief piratical ride. But, if the account has any merit, Mary Read had been a soldier and fighting seaman in disguise as a man. Yet it’s Bonny who gets all the attention, which says much about what readers and viewers are interested in. A few more details on the subject can be found in The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.
The film, in spite of its many pirate clichés and bad Hollywood history, is still quite enjoyable and often more serious than the usual pirate film. But it’s the swordplay I enjoy most, brief as it is, or perhaps second most–the fierce female pirate captain remains a favorite. Peters is as good as any of her male contemporaries when fencing Blackbeard with sharps in a tavern duel, more or less, a common trope albeit probably not one in reality. Brawling in taverns, sure, even murder in taverns, but dueling was typically conducted outdoors and out of sight.
Her duel is one of the better film affrays with swords, even if Blackbeard is stoutly barrel-chested rather than tall and lean as he was in reality, and even if both adversaries are wearing those damn Hollywood boots. Peters carries off her swordplay with élan and well-focused cold-blooded anger, which can actually be quite useful for a fencer. Hot blooded anger often has poor results, but cold blooded fury can lead to victory.
As an aside regarding Howard Hughes, Disney’s film The Rocketeer portrays a Howard Hughes-like character, along with a swashbuckling actor-swordsman based on Errol Flynn and unfounded rumors that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
8. D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in the Eponymous Film, 1974
Yes, I know it’s not an image of swordplay per se, but it perfectly captures not only the camaraderie of fencers but also the moment these musketeers bond immediately prior to their fictionally famous combat against the Cardinal’s Guards. This 1973-74 film ranks high among the best, in my opinion, of The Three Musketeers and related films. It and its second part, The Four Musketeers, both starring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, et al, rank among the finest and is hands-down my favorite. I saw them when they first arrived in theaters in Los Angeles, well, Northridge to be precise, in a twin theater in the local mall. And nothing excited me more than at the end of the first to see a teaser for the continuation! (It’s not a true sequel, the film was cut into two parts due to length, for which the actors rightfully sought and got more money.)
York was perfect at the young swashbuckler d’Artagnan. Reed was probably playing himself as Athos, a perfect fit. Chamberlain was, I believe, starring in a Shakespeare play (Richard III?) I saw in the sixth grade in Seattle a half century ago, although it might have been his understudy. (“It’s Dr. Kildare!” the girls, and probably a teacher or two, gushed as we stood in line.) Decades later I saw him starring in Spamalot. (“Run away! Run away!” I still joke from the film to beginning fencers when teaching them that the retreat is their first line of defense after a good en garde.) Frank Finlay as Porthos was far too short (the character, based on Dumas’s father, was a giant) but certainly had the right attitude, and Raquel Welch was surprisingly good as Constance. Faye Dunaway was perfectly alluring, cold, and frightening as Milady de Winter. And the Cardinal? Like Reed, I imagine Charlton Heston was playing a bit of himself in the role, and flawlessly. Last, the swordplay, if often inauthentic (novelist and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser admitted this to me in a letter) was well-choreographed by William Hobbs and perfectly suited the mood of the film. Yes, Hobbs was perfectly capable of historically accurate choreography, just watch The Duellists, it’s the gold standard.
The 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Walter Abel and Paul Lucas, is also quite creditable. The aforenoted notable Fred Cavens choreographed the swordplay, with a young Ralph Faulkner doubling some scenes. Faulkner would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading fencing choreographers, largely succeeding the retiring Cavens. Faulkner was still teaching in Los Angeles in the late 70s when I first learned to fence: in his 90s, I believe, his legs and eyesight failing, he taught admirable lessons from a chair, and was the inspiration and early master of at least one Hollywood fencer-choreographer gentleman I’m acquainted with. Sadly, I never was able to get away to get a lesson from Faulkner, if only to say I’d had one.
The 1939 comedy-drama version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes (previously noted in The Spanish Main), and the Ritz Brothers is quite good as well, the Ritz faction providing laughs even while staying true to the core of the story. There were laughs in the 1973-1974 version by director Richard Lester and novelist-screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser as well, although these two films cannot be classified as comedies. I have great fondness for Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 version (see photo above), given its role in helping create the modern Musketeer genre, and similarly for the 1948 overwhelmingly much too bright Technicolor with almost gaudy stage costumes version starring Gene Kelly, mostly because it was played at the Pacific Coast NCAA fencing banquet in Los Angeles in 1978, in old school fashion with a 16mm projector set up in the room.
I still to this day can’t bring myself to watch most, perhaps all, of the modern film and TV versions, spoiled as most are by a juvenile brat pack mentality or by hyper-exaggerated melodrama, not to mention their steampunk- and video game-inspired costumes. (Will swashbuckling costume designers ever return to historical accuracy, not that it’s often been a priority anyway?) And, frankly, the swordplay is usually terrible as well, both in authenticity and, worse perhaps, basic choreography.
While on the subject, I should add the two most notable film versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, given that Cyrano is a cadet in a guards company, much akin to the musketeers of the King and Cardinal (in fact, there are even a series of novels by Paul Feval fils placing Cyrano and d’Artagnan together): the 1950 version starring Jose Ferrer (in English) and the 1990 version, which I first saw in a small theater in La Jolla, California, starring Gerard Depardieu (in French). Both are outstanding versions of the play, each with its own style. I might prefer the French version just a touch more than English, but it’s a difficult choice to make.
One day I want to watch the play from a box, as Cyrano does in the play. And like Cyrano, I’ll be sorely tempted to call down to the stage if the acting is bad, although this was in fact just a pretext for the large-nosed swordsman. A duel on the stage and grounds immediately afterward would complete the daydream. For fans of the play or films based on it, try Cyrano, My Love (Cyrano, Mon Amour), its a comedy in the vein of Shakespeare in Love (that is, not historically accurate but enjoyable to watch) about Edmond Rostand writing his famous play. As of the original date of this post, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Also check out Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah: the swordplay, of tennis racquet versus golf club, in well-choreographed and enjoyable.
9. Obi-Wan Kenobi Versus Darth Vader in Star Wars, 1977
I first saw this film in the summer I graduated from high school. I’d seen the full page color ads in the Sunday LA Times entertainment section, and was already well-enticed. A substitute teacher saw it the week it was out and his description, something to effect of “Entertaining if lightweight, generally pretty cool” only increased my desire to see it. And it did not disappoint, at least not to a seventeen-soon to be eighteen-year-old romantic adventurer in the making.
I don’t recall where I saw it the first time, either in San Diego, California or Huntsville, Alabama. I saw it once or twice again that fall of 1977 at the long-since demolished Plitt Twin Theaters in Century City, LA, with its, for the time, state of the art sound system: you could hear the sounds of Vader’s ship above as it docked, just as the defending soldiers look up in the film. Already fans in the theater had lightsabers that lit up slowly from hilt to tip as in the film, which gives some idea of the effect on pop culture the film was already having. I was entranced with the film! It was, and remains, escapism at its best.
All this said, as enjoyable as the film was and is (and to hell with Lucas for not releasing the original version on Blu-ray, but instead the updated version with awful added special effects), I’ve never regarded it as anything more than what it really is: a space opera, which is nothing more than a Western set in outer space. It’s the updated version of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials–Westerns in space–from the 1930s I watched as TV reruns when I was around eleven years old. The science of Star Wars is bad, the tactics are ludicrous (suicidal on all sides), the dialogue in any other setting often silly or even cringeworthy. Didn’t Harrison Ford tell Lucas something to the effect of, “You can write this sh*t but you can’t say it!”? Still, I suppose it’s better than the modern dull suburban party conversation, as a journalist acquaintance put it, that passes for dialogue in costume TV and film these days (and in too many historical novels too).
So, not for me arguments over canon, which is in any case nonsense given how popular films and sequels are written (on the fly, to maximize profit, and to some degree to satisfy or gratify egos), or whether which sequels are great and which terrible, or misogynistic whining about any of the versions celebrating women. I’m a fan of strong women, therefore of the last three of the series, not to mention that our five-year-old sees his mother as the sword-fighting Rey. I could add a rant here about sexism in action films and their audiences, but there are plenty of writers who’ve already done it better.
I could also rant at length about the idea of the “hero’s journey” given that I find it unrealistic: the ideal Joseph Campbell gives us, and which influenced Star Wars, or so I hear, gives us villains as well as true heroes. Further, in my experience this is not how heroes and heroism are made. The hero’s journey is a device of fiction, not fact. It may make for good storytelling, but it also helps prop up autocrats of all sorts, including the worst of them. After all, to their supporters they’re heroes whose hero’s journey validates their autocracy and other misdeeds.
But back to swordplay! In the film it’s pure well-choreographed Hollywood, but no matter: the swords and swordplay are flawed fantasy that match the film well. And the idea of the old master facing his student is something of a trope too, but it’s done well in this film, if not quite so in the sequels, even given the mystical silliness of the Force. For me, I was soon introduced to someone who might be a real Jedi master, in the form of my first fencing master whose adventures and escapades could rival those of Obi-Wan Kenobi–and Dr. Zold’s were real. Likewise those of my second fencing master, Dr. Hamori. Mysticism and magic swords are always appealing but it’s long study, practical ability, and character, plus a good dose of good Fortune, that really make the difference in swordplay, and for that matter, life.
Today, modern “Olympic” fencing in the US and France, and probably other places, have showcased “lightsaber” fencing to some degree, primarily as a recruiting lure. Modern fencing, as noted above, has forgotten why most fencers want to fence. Star Wars and its fans have not. Modern fencing needs a strong return to its swashbuckling roots, although I’m cynical about the prospect. I don’t like the term “Olympic fencing” but it’s apt, for the FIE (the international governing body), not to mention USA Fencing, will do almost anything to keep fencing in the Olympic Games, even if it means turning fencing into little more than a game of audience-friendly tag. If fencing or any sport can’t draw an audience–pay the bills–it’s out. And the governing bodies are unwilling at any cost to lose the cachet–and money–that being an Olympic sport brings, sadly.
The best that can be said of the swordplay of the Star Wars franchise is that it’s exciting to watch and, importantly, inspires swashbucklers as once the old costume historical swashbucklers did (and still do for those who watch them). For this alone it can be forgiven its flaws.
10. The Duel on the Cliffs in The Princess Bride
There’s no need to describe this image, nor even the accompanying dialogue, so well is this film known among romantics and swordplay enthusiasts. I doubt any of the hundreds of beginning fencers I’ve taught in more than twenty years have not recognized any reference I’ve made to the film. (And for that matter, to Monty Python and the Hold Grail, too.)
No, the dialogue references to fencing masters don’t actually reflect the swordplay of the moment, and yes, it’s all entirely Hollywood fencing. But it’s beautiful Hollywood cinematic swordplay! Perfect for a fantasy film. I’m still hopeful to see–even influence or have control over–historically accurate swordplay in remakes of some of my favorite films, but such accuracy is not required for all films.
As for fencing left-handed? (If you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the film you’re probably an unlikely exception, but to help you out, the dialogue associated with the film above refers to left-handed fencing. “I’m not left-handed either…”) There are a number of reasons to learn to fence with the off or non-dominant hand. Foremost, it helps keep the body balanced. Fencing is a notoriously one-sided sport, with obvious imbalances in strength and flexibility that develop within a year or two. Spending a third to half of one’s time fencing opposite-handed will prevent this, for the most part. Second, it helps “rewire” your nervous system, creating new pathways. A more balanced body and mind, in other words. Third, if your dominant hand or arm is injured, you can easily switch to the other side while healing, short-term or long-term. Last, if you ever become a fencing teacher, it will enable you to give lessons with either hand to the benefit of your students. The downside? It limits your practice with your dominant hand, with which most fencers prefer. And it may take a few years before you become near-equally proficient with your non-dominant hand/side.
Most importantly, you can join the ranks–indeed, the trope–of ambidextrous fencers! I’ve only known one truly ambidextrous fencer (Dr. Ted Cotton of Loyola University in New Orleans, he’d wear two gloves and choose which hand to fence with based on which might prove stronger against his adversary at the time), and only a few who could fence nearly as well with the offhand as with the dominant.
11. Swordplay in Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme
There’s probably far more choreographed swordplay in the theater than in film, simply due to volume, but we seldom recall theatrical swordplay the way we do film swordplay, no matter how well done–and often it’s quite excellent. Like the theater itself, theatrical swordplay tends to be highly stylized, with larger, slower actions the audience can follow.
A few years ago when my wife and I visited my old master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, in Budapest, he took us to an outdoor performance of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Margit Island. Subtitles–or rather, overtitles?–were in Hungarian, although most Hungarians in the audience probably spoke English. That said, Shakespeare is difficult for most native speakers, and usually frustratingly obscure to English as a second language (or third or fourth) speakers. Only Americans seem to hold the arrogant position that one need ever know only one language. We were a bit disappointed in the duel in the final act, for it was over far too quickly. Perhaps as fencers we expected more, perhaps we were conditioned by the Laurence Olivier film version to expect more. Still, it was an enjoyable evening. By chance we also ran into Kristina Nagy, a noted HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer, during intermission. Only a day or so before she had shown us around the famous fencing salle at Semmelweis University.
The image above, illustrating the fencing scene (Act III, scene 3) between M. Jourdain and Nicole the maid in a nineteenth century production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme (1670) is a favorite of mine not because it illustrates stage swordplay, but because it captures Molière’s satire on swordplay (and of course, the bourgeoisie) in general. A few lessons do not a fencer make, much less a combat swordsman or swordswoman capable of effective swordplay in duel or battle. Further, arrogance can lead to defeat, can even be fatal were the swords sharp. Here, M. Jourdain is easily hit by Nicole. I’ve seen a lot of fencers fall victim to the “magic sword” fallacy: a few small victories and they forget that fencing requires patience and focus always. You can’t just walk out and wave your sword around and expect it alone to hit your adversary or achieve your victories just because you believe you’re more skilled. “But I’m better than he is!” is one plaintive excuse I’ve often heard from losers, along with, “But I take so many lessons a week from so and so!” (FYI, you don’t need that many lessons.)
In fencing as in warfare arrogance can be fatal. A single mistake is enough. An old SEAL Master Chief I worked with at SEAL Team THREE used to say that, “Even a toothless old man sitting in an outhouse and armed only with an old muzzleloader can still kill you if you’re not careful.” And that “ignorant” with a sword? Beware, for he or she is likely to ignore all the conventions you’ve been taught to expect–and hit you in spite of all your lessons, skill, and previous successes.
Francisco de Quevedo has a similar hilarious scene in his picaresque novel Historia de la Vida del Buscón, Llamado Don Pablos, in which a student of La Verdadera Destreza (The True Art: Baroque swordplay insufferably infused with geometric circles and other esoterica unnecessary to the teaching of swordplay but much beloved by those seeking “secret knowledge”), with his angles and arcs, is comically defeated by a soldier lacking in the true art. Quevedo himself, one of Spain’s greatest literary icons and treasures, was a proponent of the Destreza Común, or common swordplay. Quevedo once humiliated Don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez, the leading master at the time of the school of La Verdadera Destreza, in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat.
An end note on the play: many years ago I would disparage the patronizing use of “Bourgeois” by social elites, including in the play which is nonetheless quite funny. I found the attitude offensive: I don’t believe in social castes, including the nobility de facto or merely perceived. Today, after decades of dealing with certain elements of the middle and upper middle class–many of whose members are socially elitist, the American bourgeois, so to speak–, I’m much less sympathetic, equal now to my antipathy toward all social elites and social climbers. That you’re the “Director of Pomposity at Such and Such Corporation” has no bearing on how I’ll regard your behavior or your teenager as a fencing student, nor will it make your teenager a better fencer–or you a better person. There is a positive side to such bourgeois behavior, however: the comic relief is never-ending. Or, put another way, a wonderful font of material for a writer.
12, 13, 14, & 14a. Three by Howard Pyle
Here I simply couldn’t choose only one of Howard Pyle’s famous paintings of swordplay, so well do they depict swordplay not only in the popular mind, but often in the my mind of fencers themselves. For those of us who grew up on swashbucklers, they evoke how we see ourselves. Pyle’s influence on swashbuckling film, including pirate films, is enormous. His iconic images are imitated even today.
The scenes are similar: one adversary lunging, the other parrying, easily the most evocative of fencing actions, and easily posed, even if fencers seldom look so good. Spectators are inevitably in the background, although many duels were fought without witnesses in the late 17th century. We imagine the Dominican friar kept largely quiet during the duel in the first image (in fact, he tried to stab John Blumer in the back after the duel), likewise the gentlemen in the second which has a rather unusual arrangement for the era, more typical of duels in the late 19th century in Pyle’s era. Would pirates have kept silent during a duel? We don’t know, in spite of all my research into the subject of piracy. The only similar duel was between the aforementioned Dutchmen and was over so quickly that it’s unlikely anyone had to time to say much of anything. We do know that in the late 17th and early 18th century some public duels, particularly among soldiers, had noisy spectators: some chided Donald McBane for retreating so much. His retort was to imagine what they’d do in his place.
Until recently, anything more than polite applause from spectators, and silence from fencing masters or coaches, was mandatory in fencing. Today it’s often noisily noisome. Spectator comments are distracting to both fencers, as for that matter is coaching, not to mention that coaching also informs the adversary, not just the coach’s student, and flies in the face of the tradition that fencing should be a single combat between fencers alone.
Of course, fencers remain forbidden to talk to each other during a fencing bout, although often they do in fiction and film, and should–at least if the dialogue is well-written!
The story accompanying the first image does have fairly detailed swordplay, as does the third. The first, “In the Second April,” is apparently set in the late 18th century although the historical allusions the author tosses about are eclectic and often anachronistic or fanciful. The story opens with a reference to a 1670 treaty as if it has just been signed, then transitions to references to George Guelph, who might be George I, II, or III. John Bulmer–the Duke of Ormskirk–claims to have studied under late 18th century fencing master Angelo, then tells his adversary that he is clearly of the school of Boisrobert, strong in attack but weak in parry. (A possible inspiration for the exchange in The Princess Bride?) Boisrobert (also Bois-Robert) and Berthelot are two fencing masters named by Alexandre Dumas in Sylvandire, a romance set during the reign of Louis XIV, and also in Le Chevalier d’Harmental (co-authored with Auguste Maquet) set in 1718. In the latter romance a character is recommended to change fencing masters, giving up Berthelot for Boisrobert, with accompanying advice on giving ground when necessary and parrying in time, suggesting an emphasis, French school-wise, on parrying. James Branch Cabell more or less reversed the teaching of the fencing masters. Boisrobert and Berthelot appear in no records of fencing masters I have reviewed.
15. The Duel on the Beach by N. C. Wyeth
Perhaps the most evocative image of imagined pirate swordplay, in particular the duel on the beach. Given that I’ve already written an extensive blog post about this image and the story and book it illustrates (The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan), I’ll keep my comments short. So much a favorite of mine is it, that I’ve a copy on canvas nicely framed. The image above is taken from the short story that soon afterward was turned into the novel The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. The painting was not commissioned for the story, however.
In spite of its historical inaccuracies, I can’t imagine a more romantic image of swordplay!
Now, on to a few historical images…
16. A Pass in Tierce, with the Unarmed Hand Used for Opposition, Late 17th Century
I’m including a sample or a few of my favorite historical fencing images, although again there are far too many to post them all. Up first is perhaps my most favorite, or at least is tied for the top three, that of a pass made while thrusting in tierce while using the unarmed hand to oppose the adversary’s blade. The thrust was probably preceded by a bind in tierce. The reality of swordplay is that the unarmed hand should be brought into play to minimize the possibility of an “exchanged thrust” or double touch, notwithstanding the argument of many masters of the past two to three centuries that the sword alone is sufficient to both attack and defend. But enough of technical issues.
Beyond its swashbuckling imagery, I particularly like that the fencer on the left is black, for black fencers were far more common than is generally known. I even wrote an article for American Fencing magazine on the subject some years ago, “The Black Fencer in Western Swordplay (Spring, 2011).” The scarf on the black fencer’s head is typical of a gentleman when not wearing a wig, and not, as some have suggested, an indication in this instance of piracy or African culture. The fencer on the right is a fop, easily discovered by the comb fashionably tucked in his wig, and perhaps by the two pigtails of his wig as well. Both men have discarded their scabbards in order to fence more unencumbered, although their rencontre is clearly hasty enough that they have not discarded their coats. Or perhaps they hope their coats will prove a bit of protection against thrusts. Certainly it was advised to keep one’s coat on when engaged with an adversary armed with a cutting sword.
The image is one of a number in a series by Marcellus Laroon, a Dutch artist in London who was proud of the scars he bore from his own dueling. He’s best know for an exceptional series of detailed images of the working London poor, The Cries of London.
17. A Duel Somewhere in France, by Louis François du Bouchet circa 1670.
For two or more decades this classic swashbuckling image churned quietly in my fencing subconscious until one day recently I realized, as I was rereading The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, that it quite probably inspired the scene for the duel on the beach in the finale. I even wrote a blog post about it, “The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.”
The drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. Bouchet is best known for his Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893).
If nothing else, the image provides the wishful swashbuckler with hours of inspiration in swordplay, including imagining exactly what the two swordsmen are doing. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the extreme position of the sword-hand of the swordsman on the right strongly suggest an attempted angulation (cavé) after being parried, although the hand in supination (quarte) would be more common and more functional in most cases, although a bit slower going from full pronation to full supination. Of course, we assume they’re swordsmen: perhaps one is a pre-Mlle. La Maupin, the famed opera singer and duelist…
18. The Fencing Master, late 17th Century
Although as little as ten percent of a fencer’s development might be laid at the feet of the fencing master (this point was originally made to me by noted fencing master Kaj Czarnecki in 1980), it is a critical ten percent that lays the foundation for everything else, including independence on the strip, and, ideally, in life. Many of my fondest fencing memories are of lessons in which I was taught not only technique, but also tempo, tactics, strategy, patience, perseverance, focus, and strength of will. Lessons from my masters, Dr. Francis Zold and Dr. Eugene Hamori, also advanced my already romantic swashbuckling inclinations. Rafael Sabatini captured the romance of the fencing lesson in Scaramouche (1921):
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte… Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce… Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes… O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
It’s little different today, at least in traditional clubs and salles.
The French fencing master above is wearing a padded (with horsehair, probably) leather plastron to prevent bruising from repeated thrusts. One may fence for hours with scarce a bruise, but a student hitting the same spot repeatedly during the same exercise will bruise even the thickest skin eventually, often sooner than later. His shirt is tied at his waist, outside of his breeches rather than being tucked inside, probably so the shirt doesn’t ride up. Both hands are gloved, possibly for giving lessons with either hand, but certainly for protecting the off-hand when using it to parry or oppose. His shoes are of a sort used by fencers and masters for at least two and a half centuries: the toe of the lead shoe is open to prevent jamming or bruising the toes or toenails when lunging (a problem even today if shoes are ill-fitting and the floor has a good grip). Likewise the thick short socks worn over the stockings are to prevent blisters and other injuries to the feet. In the master’s pocket is a handkerchief, its use obvious. His wig, or possibly hair, is tied at the nape of the neck to keep it out of the way. Hats were often worn while fencing indoors, and were formally doffed and donned as part of the salute. Note that sword saluting was a practice only of the fencing salle, not of the duel, or at least not among the French and those who followed their practices.
19. A German Salle d’Escrime
An 18th century exhibition in a German fencing salle. It captures much of the allure of swordplay, and more than hints at the sound of blade on blade. My blood has always quickened with excitement at that sound, especially when heard from a distance. There is no other like it! The entire atmosphere of a fencing club is electric. In fact, parry strongly enough or get hit hard enough on your mask, and you’ll even smell ozone.
Multiple weapons are at play in the image: long- or great sword, smallsword, sword and dagger, German dusack, halberd, and quarterstaff. Given the directors or marshals (aka referees in modern fencing parlance), it is clearly a competition. The boxes and grandstands are filled with spectators, and there’s even a drummer, probably to assist with announcements such as the beginning and ending of bouts. Notably, there are no fencing masks, which would not come into regular use until the 19th century. Some of the participants are taking refreshment. Such a display today is more akin to a HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), sometimes known as WMA (Western Martial Arts, whose name cynics claim was created by North Americans so they wouldn’t feel left out) tournament, with its broad variety of historical weapons, even if the greatest focus is on the longsword. Frankly, although HEMA is still sorting itself out (and learning that a lot of things, competitions and judging, for example, are not as easy as its members originally thought, and that the theoretical and practical foundations of modern fencing are actually quite sound), its participants seem to be having a lot more fun than many modern fencers who tend to take themselves and their sport far too seriously. O parents! Why must you spoil swordplay for your children! Perhaps that’s the key: parents seem largely absent from HEMA, at least by comparison to modern Olympic fencing…
20. A Family of Fencers
A family, certainly, the likely father holding a rapier or transitional rapier, the boy holding a dagger or toy sword, the mother holding a set of keys. Does she fence too? I hope so. As much as I love fencing and teaching fencing, I’ve probably had as much or more fun fencing for fun with my four children over many years, particularly when they’re little and fully embrace the swashbuckling fun of swordplay. And my wife? The best bouts I’ve ever fenced were with her. One went eleven minutes of intense fencing before the first touch (she got it). Club members stopped fencing to watch! The FIE be damned: fencing doesn’t need a touch or more per minute to be interesting.* It just needs bouts consisting of focused fencing that leads to moments of furious fencing. How many touches are scored is immaterial. The anticipation of touches alone is far more alluring to audiences than attempts to force fencers to score quickly. Ah, “what fools these mortals be!” Or certainly some of them.
*A relatively new rule penalizes fencers during direct elimination bouts if a touch isn’t made within each minute. The rule is almost universally loathed. It was created to force fencers to be more aggressive, epee fencers especially, on the theory that aggressive fencing is more likely to draw the audience fencing needs to remain an Olympic sport. Frankly, the IOC is ruining sports and sport. Think the IOC isn’t all about money? Just take a look at its attitude toward the Tokyo Olympic Games during the pandemic, last summer and at present. Why do sports put up with this? Money, prestige, and, to paraphrase Casanova, most people are feckless when push comes to shove.
21. Women Gladiators, 17th Century
A painting I enjoy because it shows women gladiators, or duelists, or fencers (depending on the interpretation), and because my wife and I saw it in the Prado, an art museum that should not be missed by anyone visiting Madrid. Women have fenced and otherwise fought with swords not only for centuries, but likely millennia. Surely Atalanta, or at least the women who inspired her creation, fought with a sword at times on the voyage of the Argo!
What the painting depicts remains up for debate. Early interpretations suggest a rendering of the famous 1552 duel in Naples between Isabella de Carazi and Diambra de Petinella. Later analysis suggests this to be unlikely. Another theory is that the painting is an allegory of the conflict between Spain and Naples. Another theory is that it is an allegory of “Counter-Reformation feminine virtue over courtly vice.” The Prado considers it most likely that the work was part of series of paintings depicting scenes of the ancient world. Women gladiators were relatively common in ancient Rome, after all. The Prado has a second 17th century painting with the same title, Combate de Mujeres, attributed to Andrea Vaccaro, for the the History of Rome series for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.
22. Sport Epee a Century or So Ago
Another image I’ve done a blog post on, so I’ll likewise keep my comments short. Why one of my favorites? Because it shows that little actually ever changes in fencing or in life. Criticisms of modern fencing notwithstanding, epee of more than a century ago looked a lot like it does today. And the drawings–caricatures–are so accurate they make me laugh. “Plus ça change…” See “Sport Epee Humor” for more details and translations, including comments that might otherwise go here.
23. Le Duel Guillou-Lacroix, 1914
Dueling, the origin and foundation of modern competitive fencing (even if modern fencing is in the process of forgetting this) and the inspiration for most stage and film sword combat, not to mention much of our swashbuckling dreams, is really, or was really, an absurd practice that proved little more that the courage to engage in single combat. A critic once pointed out that the most common soldier in combat faced more dangers and proved to be of far greater courage. Nonetheless the practice of dueling persisted for centuries and the romance of dueling still persists.
In reality most fencers never fought a duel even when the practice was prevalent, epee duels were often fought by men with little or no fencing experience, and most of the best duelists were not the best sport or “salle” fencers. Still, dueling still attracted a fair number of skilled swordsmen, and occasionally swordswomen, even among those considered rational and well-aware that the practice was ultimately a perverse one, my first fencing master included.
The photograph above is by far my favorite among images of real dueling. The tension is clear: these men are fighting with weapons capable of killing, even if they hope to avoid that end and settle the affair with a minor or wound or two, as epee fencing was largely designed to do. Both men are skilled fencers, yet, as is common in photographs of actual fencing, they don’t have the look of posed images of fencing technique.
The duelists are Robert Guillot (left) and René Lacroix, and the reason for the combat a “polemique de presse“–an opinion piece that attacked an individual or institution. Such writings were in fact the most common source of duels in the early twentieth century. This encounter was one of those almost joyously celebrated in the press: expert swordsmen; a large audience; famous fencers and fencing dignitaries in attendance, assisting, and officiating; and a lengthy duel exhibiting “sang-froid” and expert technique. One expert fencer in attendance claimed it was one of the most beautiful duels he had ever seen.
The duel lasted five reprises or periods, each apparently directed by a different directeur de combat. By the end of the third reprise, M. Lacroix had twice wounded M. Guillot in the arm. Even so, M. Guillot continued for two more reprises until, unable to hold his epee anymore, an end was called by the attending doctors. The technique of the duel was classic: counter-attacks, doublés, envelopments, esquives du bras, beat attacks, straight attacks, dérobements, and conventional parry-ripostes. If M. Guillot persisted in his low guard, it’s not surprising he was hit twice in the arm.
Most nobly, the duelists, in a practice that continues among a few of us in sport fencing today, used their left hands to point out their adversaries near misses where the point put a hole in the shirt or brushed the skin. Many fencers I find will not do this today, fearing to give their adversary any advantage. But it’s a noble practice indeed to point out how close your adversary came to hitting you, as it helps their fencing. “Plaqué!” one should shout when the adversary’s point hits flat, meaning, “Almost! You hit flat! Adjust your point control! Next time you’ll hit me!”
In many ways this duel epitomizes what many of us would like to see return in modern fencing: a wide variety of technique, a “hit and not get hit” mentality, and a strong sense of honor and fair play. In fact, most modern epee touches are double touches, even if the machine indicates only a single; the other touch is simply “late” but would in reality still make a wound. The tendency to turn swordplay into a game of tag rather than of “hitting and not getting hit” has been the bane of fencing for millennia.
24. New Orleans Nostalgia
I debated whether to include any personal images in this post, but in the end decided that a few are appropriate. If I regret not posting any in particular, it’s group photographs showing the strong camaraderie of fencing over more than four decades. Some of my best friends and best times have been associated with fencing. But group photographs in the context of this blog might be less meaningful except to those in them, so I’ve somewhat sadly omitted the images.
The photograph above is one of my favorites for several reasons beyond that it’s an early image of me as a fencer. (O vanity, O vanity!) Cool old school uniforms were still around, including the classic “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” high thread count canvas jacket with silver buttons I’m wearing, and the leather and canvas glove as well. The former are no longer authorized for wear (a blade might slip between the buttons, the authorities say) and the latter are no longer made, although Prieur still makes a beautiful leather finger-and-palm glove of exceptional quality, and also an all leather coaching glove of similar quality. The mask the fencer on the right is wearing is an old school three weapon mask. Similar masks today are worn only by some fencing teachers and HEMA fencers. The extra leather on the mask above is there to absorb saber cuts. It’s been replaced today by synthetic materials. Three-weapon fencers were common back then, and by that I mean three-weapon fencers who could fence one weapon exceptionally well and the other two very well. A rare thing today, indeed.
I also love the photo because it illustrates how unique en garde positions are: to this day I can recognize each of the fencers by their en gardes alone.
Further, a couple things are missing from the photograph, and I wish they were missing today: obnoxious parent spectators and strip-coaching coaches. With the emphasis on youth fencing today has come the parent spectator, often annoying, too often distracting. And with coaching now permitted during fencing, at least in the US, has come the loud-mouth ego-centric coach driven to make his or her presence known. ANY form of coaching during a bout was illegal back then, and coaches–more often than not they were legitimate fencing masters–had better things to do than hold their students’ hands. In fact, those two gentlemen on the strip? They would have adamantly refused any assistance even were it legal.
Still, I remain hopeful! Tournaments in which the modern fencing-as-business, win-at-all-costs to keep the parents’ checks coming coaches, not to mention “fencing parents,” are absent run quite smoothly, there is little if any coaching–everyone wants to win or lose on their own merits and fortune–and fencing’s roots, of swordplay for swordplay’s sake, for one-on-one competition without outside assistance, remain intact.
As for the city in which the photo above was taken? There is no place in the US more romantic than New Orleans to fence.
25. A Fencing Lesson in New Orleans
Certainly a favorite of mine: my wife taking a lesson from my–and in many ways, now her–fencing master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, during a visit to New Orleans a few years ago. For me, it was an opportunity to watch and learn, and also to be critiqued and learn as I gave lessons under observation. In fact, after a long lesson from him, Dr. Hamori had my wife take a lesson from me under his watchful eye. No independent study can ever teach as well as such hands-on instruction and practice under the eye of a great teacher.
I was taught by example and by direct lesson that the fencing master’s ultimate purpose is, beyond instilling mere fencing skill, to set the student free: to endow the student with the ability think and act independently under pressure. Unfortunately, today too many modern “coaches” have abandoned this noble duty, instead binding students to themselves to the point that many are unable to fence skillfully without their coaches at their sides. Whiplash might even be the most common fencing injury today, so quickly do some fencers’ heads snap to look at their coaches after each touch. Modern fencing was originally based on the idea of single combat in a duel, in which assistance was forbidden and spectators and fencing masters were expected to remain silent. Not so today in sport fencing where bouts often seem to be as much a duel between coaches’ egos as between two fencers, to quote Dr. Hamori.
Much of the fault lies with the governing bodies and their ready acquiescence to coaches and parents, the former often engaging in loud antics designed to reassure the latter that they’re getting their money’s worth, and of course, to ensure that those checks keep coming. USA Fencing, for example, in recent years has actively promoted coaching during bouts, as noted above, in spite of the obvious problems–interference with referees and fencers, &c–this would create, not to mention that it’s against the rules in international competitions, and was until recently in US competitions. This forced USA Fencing recently to issue a Code of Conduct for Coaches, but without acknowledging its significant role in the problem, of course, nor even with a hint of irony. But codes of conduct work only as well as they are (1) taken sincerely to heart, and (2) strictly enforced.
Traditionally, a fencing teacher acquired teaching skill either through a university-level fencing master’s program or via a formal or informal apprenticeship under an accredited fencing master, usually with some years experience as a successful fencing student and competitor as a prerequisite. Fencing-teachers-to-be were typically selected for their combination of fencing and teaching aptitudes. I’ve known more than one Olympic fencing medalist who has admitted to me that he was a terrible fencing teacher and wanted little to do with the practice. Such honesty is unusual these days.
This traditional teaching-training format is often truncated or even ignored today; anyone can call themselves a coach, after all, and many do in spite of their lack of education or ability. And where it was once considered worse than rude to give unsolicited advice, and if solicited, to give advice beyond one’s understanding, such is commonplace now, although accounts from past centuries suggest it’s always been something of an issue, given human nature and the foolish arrogance and insecurity it often produces. Doubtless the Internet’s culture of “know little or nothing experts” and “my opinion is as good as anyone’s” has bled into this area today.
Even so, worldwide the traditional form of training fencing teachers, up to and including masters, still runs strong, and in the US the United States Fencing Coaches Association is doing what it can to support this important method, although it to is under siege, in part by apathy, in part by the logistics of time and money, in part by the ascendancy of “the coach” rather than “the maestro.” Now to answer the question that must be popping up in some readers’ minds: how did I learn to teach fencing? I was mentored for twenty years by Dr. Eugene Hamori, my second fencing master, after I’d been a fencer for twenty-one. I teach much as he did and also a bit as my first master did, although doubtless less skillfully, in a style derived from Italo Santelli, his proteges László Szabó and Lajos Csiszar, and from Gyorgi Piller via László Borsody. It’s a heritage to proud of.
26. Singlestick Without Jackets!
Practicing singlestick at full speed with a very old friend! For protection we wear only masks (we don’t really want our heads broken), gloves, and light elbow pads (mostly to avoid chipping the humerus or ulna). Why so little protection? Because, even if we do our best to limit ourselves to light and moderate blows, we’ll still often get hit hard enough not to want to get hit. It’s a good way of training, of trying to hit and not get hit. We prefer singlesticks even though some of the modern synthetic backswords are better training weapons, because this was the traditional method of training for backsword and broadsword in the 17th and 18th centuries. Oddly, many practitioners today of smallsword and backsword use replica weapons, albeit blunted, rather than period foils or singlesticks even though this was not the practice in the era of these arms. In other words, their “authentic” practice is inauthentic.
Modern fencers could learn much from practicing with less protection, in particular about not getting hit. Some masters in past decades, and probably some today, had some or all students take lessons without jackets. Some fencing teachers object to this, because it’s useless unless you hit the student when he or she makes a mistake. But that’s the point! These old masters did hit the student who made an egregious error. And they hit hard! And the students remembered it! Such students make few errors. Still, although the practice has merit if not abused, at least for some fencers, it is generally considered unsafe at full speed by many Olympic style fencing teachers today. I’ve only used it regularly with one student, a former member of the Polish national epee squad (his master was Bohdan Andrzejewski, the 1969 Epee World Champion) who had always received his lessons without a jacket, and insisted I give him lessons this way. He made the fewest errors of any student I’ve ever had. I’ve also decades ago seen noted epee master Kaj Czarnecki, who recently passed away, hit unjacketed Army pentathletes hard on the breastbone if they flèched without taking the blade or having a full tempo over their adversary. They didn’t make many mistakes either.
The practice does have its limitations: some of us with thick skin or heads will soon start slipping into bad habits as our concern over hard hits diminishes. For a similar reason did we, when I was a Navy SEAL, train 80 to 90 percent with live rounds. They’re not only more realistic training for real combat, but they make you pay attention in a way non-lethal training cannot. Similarly, old masters training students for duels often had the students remove their shirts. The master, whose epee had a point d’arrêt with one or more sharp prongs, would hit the student if he made an egregious error. One fencer, training for a duel, set up a practice sword, sharp-pointed, and practiced his beats and binds against it so that he would lose his fear of a naked point, something sport fencing had never conditioned him to.
Amusingly, a few of the boldest fencers with a heavy saber or backsword I’ve ever met melted into timidity when asked to fence without their heavy fencing jackets. A couple declined to participate. Another said he was cold and put a fairly heavy street jacket on, then ignobly proceeded to fence against those wearing only T-shirts. Protection against hard blows is necessary for regular practice, but it also inspires an unrealistic forwardness–aggressive attacks that hit hard while ignoring the possibility of getting hit–in some fencers.
I also recall an old fencer whom I knew for decades, Joe Dabbs, who told me about traveling with, I think, the Swedish CISM (military) Fencing Team through Europe back in the 60s. While practicing with the French Team, I think it was, two of the French fencers had a disagreement. Their coach or officer ordered them to strip to their jockstraps and put on fencing masks and gloves. Then, armed with fencing sabers, they fought a “duel” of sorts. I’ve seen what a skilled fencer can do with a saber through a fencing jacket (a nasty welt from shoulder to gut that dropped the recipient to the piste). I can imagine what one could do to bare skin. Hopefully the two French “duelists” made friends again over a bottle or two of wine or one of brandy afterward.
27 & 28. Fencing Before & During the Pandemic
One of fencing’s great joys is fencing with friends and family. I’m still fencing with a friend I first fenced in 1979, and my wife and I have had some of our best bouts fencing each other over the past dozen or more years. It usually takes five or more minutes for the first scored touch between my wife and me–we disregard competitive fencing limits on time for our bouts–and once it took eleven minutes. My old Greek friend Elias Katsaros, just noted, and I now fence each other fun, with French grips and in true “hit and not get hit” form, seeking clean, clear single touches as if we were dueling. We also often go a few minutes without a single touch, often also drawing spectators, so focused and active is the fencing: I with my beats and binds, he with his straight-arm counter-attacks and occasional coups de chat. No score is kept, nor necessary.
The pandemic put a stop to much of this for a year. Yet the year off was a sabbatical of sorts, a time to review theory and teaching methods, redevelop and renew footwork, update fencing equipment, rediscover old swashbuckling novels, write letters and send books to old fencing friends, and more. I’ve written already (“Of Sacrifices Great and Small”) that fencers should not bemoan the year off: fencers have for millennia had to absent themselves from swordplay for reasons of national or international crisis, war and pestilence predominant among them. Fencers I know in Europe and Latin America seem to have handled this better than fencers in the US have on average, surely for cultural reasons.
A few years ago while visiting my fencing master and old friend in New Orleans, I mentioned that getting some of our students to try competition was somewhat difficult. I don’t push competition on those who aren’t interested, but competing occasionally is good for the fencing soul, at least during the early years. “No, Ben,” he replied with a friendly sternness. “Fencing is foremost about friendship and camaraderie. If they want to compete, fine. If not, fine. Let them enjoy fencing and fencing friendships first.” This advice came from an Olympic gold medalist and one of the last of the the thirty-odd Hungarian fencers who for half a century won almost every major saber medal in the world. I see fewer and fewer clubs these days with this traditional sense of camaraderie and, frankly, great parties, we had “back in the day,” but enough of us are still around to carry on the tradition. And do.
29. Raising a Swashbuckler!
So, you want to raise a swashbuckler? Or as likely, have no choice? Well, there is a tried and true method. Start them early on fencing lessons, surely? Nay! Not at all!
Rather, let them run and jump and climb and swing from ropes from their earliest years! Play games with them: tag, chase, and hide-and-seek! Let them throw and catch balls, right and left-handed–practice both! And catch coins and marbles for dexterity. Let them climb stairs and walk on balance beams–and fence on balance beams! (Or at least such as you and they safely can.) Encourage them to play (safely) with sticks, the most natural of pretend swords. They’ll need little encouragement except for safety!
Let them play in forts and treehouses, and imagine them as pirate ships and spaceships! Using a foam sword, teach them the Princess Bride sword trick of tossing a sword into the air with a foot and catching it in the hand. It’s actually an ancient trick, but one that even a three-year-old (our son above proved it) can learn to do well–and especially, have fun doing it. And swordfight with them using the same safe swords! Let them experiment, let them leap and spin and try out all the sword techniques they’ve seen on TV and in film–it won’t hurt them at all.
Fencing lessons? Wait until they’re at least ten. Although children can be taught to fence earlier than ten, it must be done carefully, slowly, and most importantly, it must be fun! Not, as is common, merely as part of a process that’s little more than a cash cow to fund a fencing business. If your child does start before the age of ten, make sure the program is one that emphasizes rudimentary fencing skills, exercises, games, and, especially, fun, and is taught by a kind and gentle teacher.
And competition, if they’re interested? Wait until they’re at least thirteen or fourteen with a year of instruction and practice behind them and limited expectations their first year. And parents, listen well: leave those wagging fingers, stern looks, and shouting at home. A child’s love of fencing, not to mention the development of fencing skill, is easily lost if competition is introduced too early or overemphasized. “Yes, you often are,” I once told a huffy, quite arrogant, and visibly annoyed helicopter parent in answer to her question, “Oh… So parents are the problem?” We never saw her again, and we lost no sleep over this.
Equally important, encourage your children to read anything they please. And while they’re at it, introduce a few books of adventure with swords: Dumas, Sabatini, Cervantes and their many descendants down to the present. Every culture has a form of noble courageous swashbuckling trickster adventure, often sword-in-hand. Let your children discover it!
And while you’re at it, take a look once more at the first photograph in this blog: it’s what fencing is all about, after all.
*What he actually said to me in 1977 was, “Fencing is neither art nor science: fencing is fencing!”
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. All rights reserved by the creators of the personal photographic images above: written permission is required before any use. Blog first posted May 20, 2021. Last updated July 8, 2021.
I distinctly recall first learning of Richard Lovelace’s poetry in Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini (“Stone walls do not a prison make, // Nor iron bars a cage…”), and three years later spending a fair amount of time on the Cavalier Poets as taught at Mt. Miguel High School, San Diego, by the wonderful Mrs. Louise Simpson, easily the finest and my favorite of several outstanding English teachers I’ve had.
What barely post-pubescent adolescent male doesn’t, or at least some of us didn’t decades ago, wish for a moment he could write lines as Cavalier Poet Robert Herrick did–“That brave vibration each way free, // O how that glittering taketh me!” in “Upon Julia’s Clothes”? Yes, it’s surely classified as an objectifying poem today but I didn’t recognize this at the age of seventeen, I simply found such brave vibration quite attractive. I still do. Lovelace’s poems I regarded at the time, and may still, as purely of my definition of the romantic ideal–of the combining of the physical and metaphysical, second only to the poems of John Donne.
Richard Lovelace (1618 – 1657) was an English cavalier, poet, and soldier. At sixteen he wrote The Scholars, a comedy performed at Whitefriars. The son of a soldier who died in battle when the poet-to-be was nine years old, Lovelace became a soldier too. A devout follower of the Royalist cause, he worked loyally with both pen and sword to sustain the reign of King Charles I. The young poet fought as an ensign against Covenanting rebels in Scotland in 1639, and in 1642 he was imprisoned by Parliament after presenting it with the “Kentish” petition for restoring the rights of the king. During his confinement he wrote what might be his most finest poem, “To Althea, from Prison.” Its most famous line is quoted above.
The terms of Lovelace’s parole and bail prevented him from engaging in the first fighting of the Civil War and also ran him into debt. He joined King Charles I at Oxford in 1645, and after the city’s surrender he went formed a regiment and went abroad as its colonel. In 1646 he was wounded in French service during the siege of Spanish-held Dunkirk. In 1649, after a delay caused by a second imprisonment upon his return to England in 1648, he published a collection of poems, Lucasta, and a decade later his brother published a posthumous edition of his poems. It is generally held that Lucasta was Lucy Sacheverell, who married another upon a false report of Lovelace’s death caused by his wound at Dunkirk. Lovelace died depressed and in poverty, surely due in part to the beheading of his beloved king, and perhaps the loss of his love as well.
Other than the poems below, I could find nothing on his experiences as a fencer, although given his social standing and military career, he would doubtless have been instructed in fencing and probably experienced, at least on the battlefield (a far more dangerous arena than the field of honor), in the swordplay of deadly combat. His poem, “The Duell,” which I include at the end, clearly proves his familiarity with the process of the duel and technique of swordplay.
I’ve gone back and forth over the years, as I have with much poetry and fiction, on whether I agree or disagree with Lovelace’s apparent worldview in his poems, compared as it were with my own life experiences. Stone walls do and do not a prison make, and my senses of honor and love simultaneously agree and disagree with Lovelace’s: “I could not love thee (Dear) so much, // Lov’d I not Honour more.” I thought often on these and similar lines during my naval service, attempting to reconcile them with my reality. Honor, I found, is a concept too often distorted, abused, and even in its purest sense, of standing up for justice and equality, too often entirely absent. And some of those I’ve often heard prate about their personal honor had none at all. I balance this internal conflict by finding that honor, like love, is shaped by the vessel.
Further, I’m no monarchist, much less a pining one. Politically I’m anti-authoritarian rule, including anti-monarchy, unlike Lovelace who was willing to suffer in prison for his loyalty to his king. I’m even suspicious of the lesser sort of modern constitutional monarchs. Democracy, as they say, is the worst form of government, except of course for all the others.
At best it’s little more than recreational speculation, no matter how intelligent, to predict how one of us today might have believed and behaved in centuries past, but in the seventeenth century I’d hope to find myself a reasonable progressive, who, while grudgingly, even sadly, accepting the popular violent overthrow of an unjust king who unlawfully usurped his parliament to rule without it, would yet try to prevent the excesses the act might lead to, particularly the replacement of a king-in-fact with a king-de-facto–of one tyranny with another. Too often rebellion or revolution via civil war against tyranny leads not to political revolution but to mere status quo–more tyranny–under a different name. And I’ve never been a fan of Puritans or any extremists of faith or flag any more than I have of monarchs and autocrats no matter their politics.
Likewise, perhaps I’d have been a Whig who would have encouraged the arrival of William and Mary to take the English throne in order to strengthen Parliament, but would not have supported the Monmouth adventure three years prior, even quoting Horace as Rafael Sabatini’s Dr. Peter Blood did: “Quo, quo, scelesti, ruitis?” I would have had to imagine true democracy, given the era. Or join the buccaneers, making the trade-off of accepting a local democracy in return for the government-encouraged predation on others, often innocent Spaniards.
In today’s political landscape, I find myself a left-center independent who stands against all attempts to undermine American Democracy and replace it with autocracy. Our wannabe autocrat is mostly quiet for the moment, but his enablers high and low, lacking in both honor and respect for democracy, have yet to admit defeat. The eternal fight for justice and equality, of trying destroy the ancient, ugly, ruthless ideology of “might as right” coupled to “those who are different are by definition enemies,” goes on.
But none of the forgoing has stopped me from reading and enjoying Richard Lovelace’s poetry to this day, even if I don’t entirely agree with it on all points. I’d find little to read, not to mention few friends, were I to demand agreement in all areas.
Last, as a swordsman I’m delighted to read any poetry associated in any way with swordplay. Art and arms once went hand-in-hand, letters and arms in particular, and a fair number of fencers, male and female, have been adept with both pen and sword. This seems less so today, unfortunately, perhaps due these days to the heavy emphasis on fencing as a sport rather than as a practice or accomplishment as part of a broad education in the humanities.
But no matter. On to the poem!
First, the original version in Pallas Armata: The Gentlemen’s Armorie. This fencing book ostensibly includes a treatise on rapier play, but it’s really an early treatise on an incipient new school of fence, French-based, that would be developed in depth over the next few decades. The treatise was written just beyond the end of the rapier era in France, England, and other, but not all, countries as shorter, lighter “transitional” (a modern term) thrusting swords, and an associated transitional technique that retained some of the old, came to be. Already the incipient new swordplay, based as it was on the new fashion in swords, was on display in the form of an emphasis on “single rapier” rather than on rapier and parrying dagger, and with an emphasis on some two tempo techniques (the beat-thrust, for example) in addition to the common single tempo techniques that made up much of rapier technique. Although the author “G. A.” makes much use of Italian terms–stringere/stringered, cavere/cavering, for example–his technique appears to be largely French-derived, noting of course that all schools of fence steal from each other, and likewise also develop similar techniques via parallel evolution.
The book also includes instruction on the “sword”–the broadsword and backsword, that is. The straight-bladed cutting sword, the backsword in particular, was in fact the traditional English sword and far more useful on a battlefield than the rapier which was really more of a gentleman’s badge of status and walking or “street sword,” as its successor the smallsword soon would be as well.
The dedicatory poems, all by friends associated with Oxford, Cambridge, or Gray’s Inn (one of the four Inns of Court for the care and feeding of lawyers and the even more annoying species, lawyers-to-be), are inscribed to the author, “G. A.,” whom historian of the sword and sword masters J. D. Aylward identifies as most likely Lovelace’s friend Gideon Ashwell.
I’m going to take a pass on writing anything remotely resembling literary criticism in regard to the poem other than what I’ve already done above. These days, in reviews or criticisms you’re likely to learn far more about the critic than the writer or their writing. Perhaps it’s always been this way, but amplified now by the Internet and various associated social media. I know too well how difficult it is to write and publish anything these days, at least via a traditional press, so I tend to give most writers a pass, at least on their writing itself (their ideas may still be fair game), and ignore their critics. And for that matter, mine as well.
So, finally (you say), the poem:
To the Reader.
Harke, Reader, would’st be learn’d ith’ Warres,
A Captaine in a gowne?
Strike a league with Bookes and Starres,
And weave of both the Crowne?
Would’st be a Wonder? Such a one
As would winne with a Looke?
A Schollar in a Garrison?
And conquer by the Booke?
Take then this Mathematick Shield,
And henceforth by its Rules,
Be able to dispute ith Field,
And combate in the Schooles.
Whil’st peacefull Learning once agen
And th’ Souldier do concorde,
As that he fights now with her Penne,
And she writes with his Sword.
A. Glouces. Oxon.
As J. D. Aylward notes, in spite of Lovelace’s mention of mathematics, Pallas Armata’s instructions actually avoid the mathematical–i.e. geometrical–convolutions of some earlier French and current Spanish (destreza verdadera) forms of rapier swordplay. Although there is nothing revealing about swordplay per se in the poem, it does make an excellent comparison of the overlap between arms and letters (provided, of course, that one actually applies one to the other). Lovelace’s “The Duell,” an allegory on a combat with love, has more references to the technique and process of swordplay and dueling than the poem above in fact.
The poem, with minor but notable revisions, was reprinted in 1649 in Lucasta by Richard Lovelace, but oddly not in the posthumous 1659 edition:
To my truly valiant, learned Friend, who in his
booke resolv’d the Art Gladiatory
into the Mathematick’s.
HEARKE, reader! wilt be learn’d ith’ warres?
A Gen’rall in a gowne?
Strike a league with Arts and Scarres,
And snatch from each a Crowne?
Wouldst be a wonder? Such a one,
As should win with a Looke?
A Bishop in a Garison,
And Conquer by the Booke?
Take then this Mathematick shield,
And henceforth by its rules
Be able to dispute ith’ field,
And Combate in the Schooles.
Whilst peaceful Learning once againe
And the Souldier so concord,
As that he fights now with her Penne,
And she writes with his Sword.
Poetry of the sword is difficult to find, but thankfully not poetry by those who practice the sword. The romance of the sword itself –or perhaps the romantic notions that lead one to the sword, among other passions–has long inspired poetry and prose, not to mention film. May it yet continue to do so.
Finally, because it alludes to swordplay and its traditions, not to mention to the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miquel de Cervantes, here is Lovelace’s poem, “The Duell,” an allegory. Note the language of the duel and swordplay: affront, challeng’d, the choyce of equal lengths and points, pass, falsify, true distance!
Love drunk, the other day, knockt at my brest,
But I, alas! was not within.
My man, my ear, told me he came t’ attest,
That without cause h’d boxed him,
And battered the windows of mine eyes,
And took my heart for one of’s nunneries.
I wondred at the outrage safe return’d,
And stormed at the base affront;
And by a friend of mine, bold faith, that burn’d,
I called him to a strict accompt.
He said that, by the law, the challeng’d might
Take the advantage both of arms and fight.
Two darts of equal length and points he sent,
And nobly gave the choyce to me,
Which I not weigh’d, young and indifferent,
Now full of nought but victorie.
So we both met in one of’s mother’s groves,
The time, at the first murm’ring of her doves.
I stript myself naked all o’re, as he:
For so I was best arm’d, when bare.
His first pass did my liver rase: yet I
Made home a falsify too neer:
For when my arm to its true distance came,
I nothing touch’d but a fantastick flame.
This, this is love we daily quarrel so,
An idle Don-Quichoterie:
We whip our selves with our own twisted wo,
And wound the ayre for a fly.
The only way t’ undo this enemy
Is to laugh at the boy, and he will cry.
Plenty of collections of Lovelace’s poems are available, particularly in reasonably priced used or antiquarian editions. My favorite, and perhaps most complete, is Lucasta: The Poems of Richard Lovelace, edited by William Carew Hazlitt, 1864 or 1897 (and later) editions. There are numerous small editions of Lovelace’s most famous poems, and Scolar Press (1972) has a facsimile reprint of the original 1649 edition.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted March 2, 2021. Last modified March 10, 2021.
As can be seen from the illustration, not much has changed!
But a little history first before I translate the captions. Modern sport epee is the direct descendant of a form of dueling swordplay created largely by Jules Jacob in the 1870s. Jacob, recognizing that foil as it was practiced at the time had become largely useless for actual combat, took what was essentially smallsword technique, along with what useful dueling practice that could be derived from classical foil fencing, itself descended from smallsword practice in both of its forms (for the duel and for “school play”), and created a dueling technique focused on longer distance and attacks and counter-attacks to the arm. Thus the epee de combat or dueling sword, as it was usually termed, was born. Or, as some described it, there were now both the modern school (epee) and the classical (foil).
By focusing on longer distance and attacks to the arm, this new technique had the quite useful advantage of minimizing the likelihood of killing one’s adversary. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which law and society might look the other way if someone were killed in a duel, were long past. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, dueling was not only unlawful but a duelist who killed his adversary (duelists were nearly always male, thus the masculine pronoun) was almost certain to be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, military officers sometimes excepted thanks to the rather insular world of military law and command. In fact, one early epee master noted that no sword was better designed to avoid killing one’s adversary!
Within a decade or two, though, a sport version of dueling swordplay was introduced and soon rivalled the foil, at least in France and Great Britain. This new fencing weapon, based as it was on the duel as devised for gentlemen, was paradoxically democratic. Only pools in which all fencers fenced each other to determine the winner–the potentially best duelist–would suffice! We can thank early epeeists for the pool system that was, sadly, largely done away with a couple decades ago except for early seeding rounds, replaced by our direct elimination system that in the early twentieth century was denounced as anathema. “A lottery!” detractors cried.
And indeed [digression warning!] the direct elimination system is a lottery, or at least a half-lottery in which the two best fencers in a tournament often meet before the final, leaving the gold medal bout often rather dull. The excuse for the elimination of the pool system was cheating, and in fact there often were fencers who threw bouts for countrymen or even for money once they had won enough bouts to ascend to the next round. The real reason, though, was the IOC’s desire to have a competition that would lead to a final of two rather than six or eight. This is more dramatic, or so goes the reasoning. But, as I warned, I digress!
Early sport epeeists attempted to emulate the duel as much as possible. Unfortunately, with sport epee came the advent of the “poolist”–the fencer for whom technique unsuitable to the duel, gamesmanship in other words, was all that mattered. With stiff blades that would stop an adversary’s advancing arm, coupled with an emphasis on counter-attacks, angular ones in particular, the poolist used technique that in a duel would be suicidal. The French governing body, composed largely of foilists with a disdain for practitioners of the dueling sword, quickly sided with the sport fencers against epeeists promoting a purely dueling form of swordplay.
The reality is that counter-attacks to the body are unlikely to stop a fully developed attack: the blade will usually pass into and even through the body rather than arrest it, making a double touch, possibly fatal, likely, unless the counter-attack has been coupled with stout opposition or a displacement. Worse, angular counter-attacks to the arm will almost never stop a fully developed attack with a real sword: here again there is the near certainty of a double touch, except in this case the attacker receives a wound to the arm while the counter-attacker receives a possibly mortal thrust to the body.
Notably, most of the best duelists with the epee were not the best sport fencers. Dueling required a sang-froid which sport fencing did not and does not.
So, on to the translations! Reading left to right from the top:
The power and the grace. These are typical forms seen even today. Grace on the left was a common style based on counter-attacking with a straight arm. Seldom seen anymore, its finest practitioners were always very difficult to deal with. My old friend Elias Katsaros, who’s also an artist and recently retired Greek iconographer who took 2nd at the Greek nationals in the early 1960s, is easily the best I’ve ever seen in this style. He used to give nationally-ranked epeeists fits long after he had abandoned serious competition. We still fence occasionally, French grips only (with fine Prieur leather-palmed and -fingered gloves), and he’s as difficult a swordsman to defeat today as he was when I first fenced him in 1979.
The [punny] parry of “cocsyxte.” “Pouce!” here means “Truce!”
The flèche. Yes, the flying or “Polish” flèche has been around for a long time, probably centuries. I have references to two forms of flèche from the late 17th to early 18th century, in fact.
M. Brandanloeil, Judge: “If you’ve passed your opponent, Monsieur, don’t fart!”
The offensive and the defensive. Again, two types still seen today.
The offensive caricature is of the “croucher” who primarily uses angular attacks and counter-attacks to the arm, usually as the opponent attacks or upon the opponent’s preparation. The technique would be foolish with real swords for it would not typically halt the attack. The croucher is still around, although he (I’ve rarely, perhaps never, seen women using the technique, although I’ve seen some use low angular attacks as part of a broader technical range) is less common than when I first learned to fence forty-three years ago. It is most often a style of epeeists without much formal training or those who lack the focus to be taught formally. Second intention via a false attack to draw the angular attack or counter-attack, followed by a parry-riposte or bind thrust in octave, or a powerful beat in seconde followed by a high thrust with fleche, have usually worked well for me against crouchers, as has a fleche in tempo, often made as a second intention action, to the body as the croucher withdraws his arm after a failed attack or counter-attack. I’ve had less success with counter-time (a counter-attack against a counter-attack) due to the severe angulation crouchers use, and their extensive experience against counter-time.
Fencers tend to forget that the common counters to a technique often don’t work against fencers who are expert in the technique. Many times, for example, I’ve heard fencers claim that so and so has a strong quarte, therefore a feint to quarte and disengage to sixte is the solution, only to find themselves hit anyway–because the adversary is quite familiar from experience with this solution. Similarly, attempts in epee to use compound binds made in opposite directions against an expert straight-arm counter-attacker often don’t work because, again, the adversary is quite familiar with these obvious tactics from experience. In many cases, it’s what they want you to do!
The defensive form depicted is commonly adopted by very tall fencers who generally counter-attack with body displacements and long retreats. This technique is a bit more suitable to dueling as well, provided the fencer immediately follows his or her counter-attack with a quick retreat and a parry. Unfortunately, many practitioners of this style simply remise rather than parry, which would, again, often lead to a double-touch in the case of real swords.
More fencing history and technique posts to follow… 🙂
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted December 21, 2020. Last updated December 30, 2020.
Perhaps the only swashbuckling novel whose narrative arc rests entirely upon the near-certainty of a duel at the climax, Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan epitomizes the duel on the beach: a desert isle and a ship careened; a pair of expert swordsmen who hate each other; a damsel’s safety, even her life, depending upon the outcome; an audience of pirates as Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth painted at their finest; and, above all, at atmosphere of tropical romance amidst danger.
Famed novelist George MacDonald Fraser, in his introduction to Captain Blood: His Odyssey (Akadine, 1998), referred to The Black Swan as “an almost domestic story of the buccaneers.” The only other novel to come close to such “domesticity” is Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier–but it has no climactic duel.
Let me note right now that (1) this blog post is not a review–I thoroughly enjoy the novel, it’s one of my favorite “summer” reads, especially at the beach–but more of an abridged annotation. Further (2), this post is divided in two sections: background and annotations, so to speak, regarding the novel itself, followed by a detailed dissection of a singular technique employed in the duel.
The first section has some spoilers, but not so many as might ruin the first-time reading of the novel. Even so, if you haven’t read the book, you might still to choose to read it now and then return here. And then re-read the novel, it’s certainly enjoyable enough to deserve a second time around.
However, if you haven’t yet read the novel, PLEASE DON’T READ THE SECOND PART ON THE DUEL ITSELF! Read the novel, then return. I’ll place a second warning just prior, just in case. Reading Part One of this Duel on the Beach series is also helpful but not required.
Background & Annotations
The Black Swan was based on a short story, likely written simultaneously with the novel itself, by Rafael Sabatini, called “The Duel on the Beach,” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Sabatini’s short stories, excerpts, and “pre-novels” were published widely in both “men’s” and “women’s” magazines. “The Brethren of the Main,” upon which Captain Blood: His Odyssey was based, was serialized in Adventure magazine, for example, for a largely male audience.
The Famous Wyeth Painting
The novel is often closely associated with N. C. Wyeth’s famous painting, shown above and below, used on its US dust jacket. Secondarily, and unfortunately, it is often also associated with the 1942 film of the same name, which takes such extraordinary liberties with the novel as to be the same story almost in name only. The film deserves little if any further discussion here.
Wyeth’s painting evokes the action of the climactic duel, if not entirely accurately. The close parrying of hero Charles de Bernis and the animal-like aggressiveness of villain Tom Leach are graphically represented, but the actual technique of both depicted fencers leaves something to be desired for expert swordsmen. It’s more representative or symbolic than accurate, although–as I will be the first to point out–one could argue that the swordsman on the left may have just made a close, shortened parry as he stepped forward into an attack. But no matter, at least not for now.
More importantly, a couple of principal characters, whom we would expect to be in the painting, Major Sands in particular, are missing. Further, it is difficult to tell the color of the clothing of de Bernis on the left–is it the “violet taffetas with its deep cuffs reversed in black and the buttonholes richly laced with silver” (and apparently with claret breeches) which Sabatini early on confuses with a suit of pale blue taffetas worn by this “tall, slim, vigorous figure of a man”? De Bernis, for what it’s worth, wore the violet at the duel.
Still, the woman in the painting might be Priscilla Harradine, the love interest, wearing “lettuce” green as she does at all times, duel included, in The Black Swan other than in the opening scene, although the bright orange doesn’t fit. Further, the woman in the painting has the correct “golden” hair, and pirate Tom Leach, on the right, wears the scarlet breeches of his faded scarlet suit, as in the novel, including at the time of the duel.
Still, it’s not as accurate a representation of the novel’s duel as we would expect from a commissioned painting, even though most dust jacket and frontispiece art is often inaccurate.
And there’s a reason for this: the painting was commissioned neither for the 1931 story nor the 1932 novel. Rather, it was commissioned in the mid-1920s by Carl Fisher, a wealthy American entrepreneur. N. C. Wyeth completed the painting in 1926. Two of Fisher’s friends are depicted as pirates watching the duel, one of whom is John Oliver La Gorce of The National Geographic Society (more details here) and into whose hands the painting passed, and from his eventually to the Society.
Some suggestions have been made that Sabatini may have written the duel scene to somewhat correspond to the painting. This is entirely possible, but I don’t think it is necessarily so except in broad strokes, as we’ll see momentarily, and also later in the discussion of the duel itself. The trope of pirate duels on the beach leads all of them to look much alike, in other words, thanks in large part to Howard Pyle. (See Part One for other examples.)
The positions of the swordsmen in the “Duel on the Beach” painting are almost identical to those in an earlier N. C. Wyeth work shown immediately above, also named, or at least captioned, “The Duel on the Beach.” Wyeth painted it for Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), a swashbuckling romance of Elizabethan privateering.
I strongly suspect Wyeth’s later “generic pirate sword-fight on the beach” painting that become the cover of The Black Swan was originally intended, at least in part, to suggest the duel in Captain Blood: His Odyssey. The clothing of the figure on the left might even be the “black with silver lace” of Captain Peter Blood.
Wyeth’s dust jacket and frontispiece for Captain Blood: His Odyssey, shown below, bolster my argument, as do the two single lines describing the duel in it [SPOILER ALERT]:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”
Even so, again there are details lacking that we would expect: the buccaneers are not divided into two groups representing the two crews (Blood’s and Levasseur’s); Cahusac and the pearls-before-swine do not figure prominently among the spectators; Governor d’Ogeron’s son is missing; two ships rather than one show up in the background (the Arabella was anchored out of sight); and most importantly, Mademoiselle d’Ogeron and her lustrous black hair is missing–as already noted, the woman in the painting has blond hair.
Even more to the point (pun half-intended), perhaps Sabatini re-clothed his hero from sky blue to violet to match the painting–and then he and his editor forgot to correct all instances. It wouldn’t be the first time harried writers and editors have let errors go uncorrected.
Thus, at best, in spite of my best hopes and desires, the painting may have merely been inspired to suggest the duel in Captain Blood. The original “Duel on the Beach” painting, by the way, an oil on canvas 48 by 60 inches, was sold at auction by Christie’s in 2012 for $1,082,500.
The Duelists: Charles de Bernis & Tom Leach
The novel’s hero is Charles de Bernis, former buccaneer and close companion of Henry Morgan. Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia, author of Romantic Prince: Seeking Sabatini and Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, considers the character to be ultimately an iteration of Captain Peter Blood, probably Sabatini’s favorite of all those he created.
De Bernis is more or less a French gentleman, if a bit of a fortune hunter or adventurer originally, which all flibustiers by definition were. And indeed a fair number of flibustier leaders were gentlemen, most notably Michel, sieur de Grammont, who played so commanding a role in many of the great French buccaneering actions of the 1680s.
Barring the boots Sabatini and so many authors of his era dress buccaneers in–a trope or myth, there were no horses to ride aboard ship, thus no need for boots of “fine black Cordovan leather,” nor any evidence that seamen, including buccaneers, wore them–Charles de Bernis in real life would have otherwise dressed much as the author described him.
The image above is a near-perfect fit for Charles de Bernis. Please note that the cavalier is wearing “stirrup hose,” not boots. Stirrup hose was variously popular from the 1650s in the Netherlands to as late as the 1680s in parts of Spanish America. In France, it seemed largely, if not entirely, out-of-style circa 1680, and de Bernis likely no longer wore it.
Sword-belts were also common by this time, although many gentlemen did still wear baldrics as Sabatini’s hero does, of purple leather stiff with silver bullion. That said, eyewitness images of 1680s buccaneers (they do exist, I discuss them here) shows sword-belts, not baldrics. But this is a mere quibble.
So perfect is this illustration that I suggested it to Firelock Games (likely with the fictional Charles de Bernis in the back of my mind), and Miami artist Peter Diesen Hosfeld then used it as the basis for the French flibustier commander for its tabletop war game Blood & Plunder.
Popular illustrations and covers for the novel are rarely accurate, although this one for the 1976 Ballantine Books mass market paperback (the first I read, in fact), comes closer than most, and could have taken its inspiration from the author’s description along with images such as the one above:
As for red-suited Tom Leach, the villain, his name and something of his character may have been inspired by the fictional Captain Edward Leach of the East India Company, who out of greed betrayed his fellow passengers to pirates, and was, in poetic justice, murdered by the same pirates. Captain Leach, a fictional character, was invented by artist and author Howard Pyle in The Rose of Paradise (1887/1888), his first pirate novel.
However, there are two likely authentic 1680s candidates for his inspiration, both of whom Sabatini, an avid researcher, was probably aware of, given that their exploits are well-documented in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies.
The first is Joseph Banister, an indebted English sea captain turned pirate who slipped away at night with his 36-gun Golden Fleece, a former merchantman, under the cannon of the forts at Port Royal, Jamaica, escaping with little damage due to his surprise flight. But his piratical adventure would be relatively short-lived.
In June 1686 while careening his ship at Samana Bay, Hispaniola he was discovered by the pirate hunters HMS Falcon and HMS Drake. The men-of-war expended nearly all of their powder pounding the pirate ship to pieces. Banister’s temporary shore batteries (which [SPOILER ALERT] Tom Leach should have erected at the Albuquerque Keys) returned fire but failed to stop the men-of-war.
His ship lost, Banister and a few of his crew set sail with the French flibustier crew of a nearby flibot (the French term for a small flute) of one hundred tons and six guns. Parting soon afterward aboard a captured sloop, Banister was soon run to ground by the Royal Navy and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Drake in sight of Port Royal, Jamaica in 1687.
As a noteworthy aside, the flibustiers Banister briefly consorted with soon set sail for the South Sea (the Pacific coast of South America), plundering until 1693 and leaving behind a journal of their escapades. In 1688, while attacking Acaponeta, Mexico, these French pirates unfurled a red flag of no quarter–the pavillon rouge, the pavillon sans quartier–of special interest: the red flag bore a white skill with crossbones beneath, the only instance of the skull and bones being flown by late seventeenth century buccaneers or flibustiers. It is possible, even likely, though, that it was flown at other times as well.
However, no matter his piracies, Banister was nowhere near the villain that Tom Leach is. Leach murdered captured crews, but not so Banister. But there was a 1680s pirate villain who was a closer match to Leach in villainy: Jean Hamlin, or more correctly Jean Amelin whose real name was Pierre Egron.
In desperate need of extra time for numerous projects, I’ll cheat and quote, with some paraphrase and revision, from the original draft of The Buccaneer’s Realm (Potomac Books, 2009), along with some added details from the Dictionnaire de Flibustiers Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser:
In 1683 Hamlin, a Frenchman commanding two sloops, captured the merchantman La Trompeuse (The Deceiver) from a French Huguenot, conman, and thief named Paine, and embarked on a piratical rampage. Or so goes the version of the story in English records. In French records, Hamlin inherited the ship from French buccaneer Nicolas Amon, known as Grénéze, when he gave up command in order to command another vessel on a voyage to the South Sea.
Amon had captured La Trompeuse, 200 tons and 16 guns, at the Isle of Roatan. Originally a French merchantman contracted to ferry soldiers, poor young women destined to become wives, and sundry goods and supplies to Cayenne, it was commanded by a Pierre Pan, a French Huguenot (Protestant). Learning of the first dragonnades in France — Louis XIV ordered dragoons quartered on French Huguenots in order to harass them into turning Catholic — Pain took the ship from Cayenne to Barbados, then to Jamaica where he contracted it to English merchant traders.
Hamlin set sail on a brutal voyage or outright piracy. He soon captured an English ship, informed the crew he was a pirate–not, mind you, a buccaneer or flibustier–, tortured some of the crew, impressed some, plundered the ship, and let her go. He soon captured several other English vessels, then sailed to the Guinea Coast and captured eleven slavers and three boats, plundering them all.
At Cape St. John the pirates divided the spoil, and, quarreling, separated into two companies, part remaining with Hamlin, part choosing to serve under an Englishman named Thomas Morgan (no relation to Sir Henry and probably a false name). Hamlin’s usual tactic was to fly an English Jack and commission pendant as if he were an English man-of-war, come alongside as if seeking a salute, and fire a broadside. Indeed, Hamlin’s strategy and tactics were identical to those of the early eighteenth century Anglo-American pirates who flew the black flag: attack weaker merchantmen, preferably by ruse. Most significantly, Hamlin and his crew referred to themselves openly as pirates, not buccaneers, filibusters, or “privateers.”
Hamlin was noted for torturing prisoners and otherwise brutalizing them, and for cutting men down “left and right” when he boarded ships. The violence often seemed in retaliation for any resistance.
Throughout his piracies he was protected by the corrupt Danish governor of St. Thomas, although after one return to St. Thomas, the HMS Francis entered the harbor and burned his ship in spite of being fired upon by the Danish fort. Some of Hamlin’s ship-less crew volunteered to serve Captain Le Sage, others Captain Yanky (Jan Willems). Soon enough, the governor of St. Thomas sold Hamlin a sloop with which he reportedly captured a Dutch frigate of thirty-six guns, renamed her La Nouvelle Trompeuse (the New Deceiver), manned it with sixty of his old crew and sixty new men, and continued his depredations. Some claimed that the ship was outfitted in New England, a colony well-noted for its Protestant piety and hypocritical support of piracy.
Other sources indicate that the ship was instead Hamlin’s consort, the Resolution commanded by Thomas Morgan. The ship had been chased aground at St. Thomas by the HMS Francis, whose crew cut its masts down and abandoned it. Hamlin soon refitted the frigate and sailed south, plundering mostly small prizes along the coast of Brazil. At one point, in a fit of rage and revenge, he cut the nose and ears from a captured priest, forced him to eat them, then murdered him. Or more likely, a sadistic crewman who acted as chief torturer — René Marcart, known as Vaujour, along with his assistants “La Fontaine” and Guillaume Belhumeur — did the deed while Hamlin supervised.
Some of his crew were so appalled at this abuse of a priest that they quit the ship in Cayenne. One of them, Jean le Mont, slipped away from Cayenne to Dutch Suriname — and was hanged for piracy. Four others who made it back to St. Thomas, including forced surgeon Samuel Beloth, made a similar mistake of sailing to Dutch Suriname where they thought they might lead a better life than at St. Thomas, and escape charges of piracy as well. The three pirate seamen were hanged for piracy and Beloth was forced to serve as a surgeon without pay indefinitely.
In his final act of piracy Hamlin had captured a small Portuguese ship and carried her into St. Thomas where he forced some of her Dutch crew to serve with him, even as the governor of St. Thomas forced some of the captured crew to draw lots and hanged the losers. Hamlin, who can rightly be called the first of the true pirates of the Golden Age — only the black flag was missing — was never captured.
In fact, he settled at St. Thomas, that Danish slave colony (they were all slave colonies, but St. Thomas was settled by Denmark specifically to profit from the slave trade) and occasional pirate haven, under his real name, and until his death owned a cacao (chocolate) plantation and raised a family with his wife, Barbara Rambert, who bore him three children.
Make Hamlin an Englishman, and not quite as lucky, and we almost have Tom Leach.
The Swords: The “Rapier” aka The Smallsword
In the novel, the duel is fought with rapiers. This is mildly problematic, as by this time the true rapier was still carried only Iberians–Spaniards and Portuguese–and by some Italians in areas under Spanish rule. The smallsword, with its shorter, lighter blade and smaller hilt, was the common dueling sword among gentlemen and those so pretending.
However, word usage comes to our rescue: Sabatini’s “rapier” remained in use in the British Isles as a word for smallsword. In fact, the English tended to refer to the Spanish rapier as a “spado,” from espada.
Although the cutlass was the common sword of late 17th century mariners, there are a few accounts of those who carried smallswords. Given that Charles de Bernis is something of a gentleman, and Tom Leach prides himself on his swordplay, we can imagine the duel, historically and realistically, as Sabatini described it.
[BRIEF SPOILER ALERT!] Charles de Bernis prepares for the duel by secretly practicing with the pompous Major Sands. In the book, the men use their real swords for practice, each with a pear-shaped wooden tip added to blunt the weapons. This is historically inaccurate, and almost certainly Sabatini, with his experience of fencing, knew this, but went with a simple plot device instead to keep the narrative clean and simple.
Read sword blades were never intended for practice with blade or target contact. They are tempered differently than practice blades, the latter of which are designed to flex many times before breaking, as well as to flex in order to take up some of the energy when hitting.
Real blades were and are usually much stiffer in order to maximize penetration–a too flexible blade might not penetrate thick clothing, cartilage, or otherwise deeply enough to cause a serious wound. Further, the use of real sword blades for practice will severely nick the sharp edges (if sharpened–not all smallsword blades were, but the nicks will still eventually damage the integrity of the blade) and significantly increase the risk of breaking a blade. In other words, such practice will ruin a fighting sword blade.
Practice swords called foils were used instead of real thrusting swords, and there were several styles in use at the time. The French “crowned” style was prominent in many schools. Pierre, the servant of Charles de Bernis, could easily have hidden the foils beforehand, making the scene more historically accurate. Hopefully the island was large enough, or the pirates busy enough, not to hear the clash of steel on steel–it travels far and there is no other sound quite like it.
The Dueling Ground: Maldita Key
The duel and much of the rising conflict leading to it takes place on the northernmost of the two Cayos de Albuquerque while Tom Leach’s pirate ship the Black Swan* is being careened there. The islands do exist, although their geography doesn’t entirely match that described in the novel, which for reasons of plot must take certain liberties. It might also have been quite difficult for the author to get accurate details of these small out-of-the-way keys.
There is, however, plenty of beach for dueling on the real island.
Located off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Belize south of Santa Catalina (Providencia, Old Providence) and San Andres Islands (roughly twenty-five miles SSW of the latter), the two small principal Albuquerque keys are actually part of Colombia (with a small military presence on the north key). The keys are ringed with reefs: technically, the islands are part of an atoll with a large lagoon at its center. Some old English charts list them as the S.S.W. Keys. The keys are roughly 250 to 300 yards apart, and Cayo de Norte is perhaps 200 yards across. Passage to its anchorages is difficult. Both keys are covered in coconut palms.
Cayo del Norte, where the action takes place, is named Maldita Key in the novel, meaning cursed or damned, probably a name of Sabatini’s creation given that I’ve not found the name referenced anywhere else. This isn’t the only time he invents or changes a place name. Similarly, Sabatini has imagined the island as larger, with higher elevations in places than the roughly 7 feet maximum elevation of the real island, and with a hidden pool of fresh water large enough to swim in.
Having once lived on Old Providence Island until the Spanish sacked it and forced the interloping settlers from it, buccaneer Charles de Bernis would have been familiar with the keys to the south.
The Duel Itself
LAST WARNING! SPOILER ALERTS! If you haven’t yet read the novel, you should stop, read The Black Swan, and then return.
The duel as described by Sabatini is about as well-written as a sword duel can be: exciting, well-paced, and largely rooted in reality. As such, I’m not going to comment further except to discuss and dissect the singular unconventional technique used by Charles de Bernis to kill his adversary.
Several years ago in a long-running conversation with Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia as she prepared her second volume, Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, we had numerous discussions about swordplay in his novels. One point of discussion was what the de Bernis technique might actually have been.
I was never satisfied with the answer, discussed below, I gave her. Then one recent evening, while rereading the duel as part of some research into my annotations for Captain Blood, the answer struck me. I realized I had been mistaken in every analysis I’ve done on the duel, and knew immediately what de Bernis had done—and where Sabatini almost certainly found his inspiration. It was right under my nose all along, a purloined technique lying literally in plain sight for two decades or more, but my mind had categorized it such that I had not yet made the connection. Please excuse my excitement and fencing vanity as I make my argument.
For what it’s worth, this separate blog on The Black Swan was inspired by a recent long e-letter to Ruth Heredia on the subject.
The pertinent details: at the end of the duel, Leach makes a sudden and sneaky (sudden and sneaky are expected in swordplay) long low lunge in the “Italian” style, snake-like, with one hand supporting him, to slip under the guard of de Bernis. This was in fact both a French and Italian technique in the late 17th century, although by Rafael Sabatini’s era it was largely confined to the Italian and was generally considered as such. Sabatini notes in the novel that no “direct” parry could deflect this attack once fully launched. While this may not be entirely true (see below and also the note at the end of this blog), a very low attack like this is quite difficult to parry, making an esquive (see also the discussion below) of some sort highly useful in defending against it.
Further, an attack made with the body and hand so low can only have as its torso target the lower abdomen or the groin, making it a ruthless, dishonorable attack when this is the intended, as opposed to accidental target — an attack suitable to Tom Leach’s venomous character.
As Leach lunges, de Bernis disappears from the line of attack. “Pivoting slightly to the left, he averted his body by making in his turn a lunging movement outward upon the left knee.” It was a “queer, unacademic movement” that “had placed him low upon his opponent’s flank.” De Bernis then passed his sword through Leach.
We require six conditions for the answer:
- A pivoting movement that averts the body.
- It must outward upon the LEFT knee (we assume almost assuredly that de Bernis is a right-hander).
- It must be a “queer, unacademic movment.”
- It must place him low upon his opponent’s flank.
- It must put de Bernis in position to pass his blade “side to side” through Leach.
- It must require TWO tempos, one for the pivoting movement, and one for the thrust into Leach’s flank.
As already noted, I was never satisfied with any conclusion I’ve come to. Of course, it could be that Sabatini left his description somewhat vague on purpose, and I’ve considered this as a possibility. However, my best guess was some form of intagliata, a term used by some nineteenth century Italian masters for an “inside” lunge off the line. In other words, if you’re a right-hander, you lunge toward the left, or inside, removing your body from the direct line of attack or riposte and placing yourself upon your adversary’s flank.
The intagliata is a member of a group of techniques known in French as esquives, or in English, dodgings or body displacements for lack of more elegant expressions. The two principal esquives are the inquartata and the passata soto, both of which are primarily used as counter-attacks in a single tempo, designed to avoid the adversary’s attack while simultaneously thrusting, preferably in opposition (closing the line to prevent the adversary from hitting) or with bind (pressure on the adversary’s blade to prevent it from hitting) and removing the body from the line of attack.
They may also be used in two tempos, parrying and displacing in the first tempo, and riposting in the second. Single tempo counter-attacks without esquive often result in double hits, even when opposition is attempted, for the fencer often fails to predict the correct line or uses inadequate opposition. Body displacement increases the protection. It’s a backup, in other words.
Other esquives include the cartoccio or forward lunge while lowering the upper body; the rassemblement or very old school “slipping” as it was called; the “pass” or crossover forward bringing the rear foot forward in front of the lead foot; the simple backward lean; a lunge to the inside with rear foot (arguably a form of the pass); the various leaps or voltes to the side noted by some late 17th and early 18th century masters (seldom used now due to the narrowness of the fencing strip); and the lunge to the outside (to the right for a right-hander) off the line. My personal preference for dealing with Leach’s style attack is to retreat with a crossover (lead leg passing behind read leg) — if possible — while counter-attacking to the head (and, in historical weapons, using the offhand to attempt a parry), or making a hard lowline parry (see the technical note at the end). Note that if attacked in tempo as one advances, this is a difficult attack to counter without also getting hit.
I considered and even tested all of these. None entirely met the conditions. In particular, none were considered then as un-academic, although it could be argued that the leaps to the side are considered so today and likewise in Sabatini’s era. But the leaps met few of the other conditions. Compounding the problem was Sabatini’s use of the word “outward” which I, with nearly 45 years fencing and studying swordplay past and present, and 25 teaching both, took at first to mean “outside,” which in fencing terms means, for a right-hander, to the right. In fact, Sabatini appears to have meant the word conventionally–outward rather than inward. One problem solved!
Yet the major problem still remained. In the 1935 film version of Captain Blood there is one option depicted, probably drawn from an interpretation of The Black Swan is my guess — a volt to the left with the leading right foot, followed by the rear — but this too is actually an academic movement, a form of intagliata, again really nothing more than “lunging off the line.”
I remained distracted by the question: what other possible, conceivable two tempo movement — a pivot and lunging movement outward upon the left knee, followed by a thrust, probably via a lunge — would fit? What esquive could it be if not an intagliata? What might work yet be unorthodox? Importantly, what might be documented — not imaginary — in this category? In other words, how did Sabatini develop this scene, what was his inspiration?
I think almost certainly right here:
On the right a swordsman has made a very long low lunge. His hand is not on the ground as it commonly was, but this is immaterial. On the left is a swordsman slightly off the line, bending inward slightly, WITH HIS LEFT (REAR) LEG BENT IN A SOMEWHAT LUNGING MANNER.
This left fencer’s position appears bothersome to fencers not well-versed in fencing history (most aren’t, in fact). What does it depict? It might well be just a lean backward onto the rear leg to avoid a sudden low attack, or a failed retreat — the 17th century French school advocated keeping most weight on the rear foot, forcing most retreats to be made by crossing over, front foot moving first to the rear, passing the rear foot en route. (In fact, a parry combined with a crossover retreat is perhaps the safest counter to a long low lunge.) Or, it might be something more conventional, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
What’s important is what Rafael Sabatini might have thought it was!
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it depicts a fencer who has just pivoted off the line slightly in a lunging fashion in order to avoid a long low attack, as described by Sabatini. If so, to execute this, de Bernis need, as described, only pivot slightly to the left on the right or lead foot as he simultaneously leans back into a lunge on the left leg. This places him out of the direct line of attack and also out of range — and he has a tempo to do this as the low attack is made.
In fact, the parry shown in the detail above is a natural one against a long low attack, and would help protect de Bernis as he made his next movement, by providing some opposition — but it would almost certainly not have stopped the attack, or at least such conclusion might be drawn from the image. The exceptionally low attack might easily “force” most parries, as it has here.
In other words, parrying with the hand held at the usual height of the en garde position makes it difficult to apply forte (the strong third of the blade nearest the hilt) against the middle or, preferably, foible (weak third of the blade at the tip end), so necessary for an effective parry. In the detail above, the foible or middle of the parrying blade has been applied against the forte of the attacking blade, rendering the parry largely useless. It is likely that Sabatini’s statement to the effect that there is no direct parry that can stop such an attack once fully launched was inspired in part by this image. (See the technical note at the end of this blog for more detail, including on at least one unconventional parry that can deflect such an attack.)
But let us return to the unusual esquive. Because Leach is now subsequently off-balance — for a full second, fortunately — de Bernis has a second tempo in which to run him through, almost certainly with a conventional lunge. In fact, such long low lunges have a distinct disadvantage: they’re slow to recover from conventionally, that is, to the rear, leaving the fencer in danger. Likewise, if the fencer recovers forward, he (or she) may be at dangerously close distance. As well, poor balance is typical of this long lunge although there are some rare fencers who can manage it well, at least on hard floors.
Importantly, does the technique of Charles de Bernis work?
I’ve tested it — and it does! It is also historical, it is also unorthodox — and its imagination by Sabatini from the drawing, brilliant. It would only require that the fencer using be familiar with lunging with his left leg — having experience fencing left-handed, in other words, would help. And a fair number of fencers, although probably not a majority, did practice at times with the off-hand.
In fact, if the technique were deliberate, it would fall into the category of “secret thrusts,” which were nothing more than legitimate, if unorthodox, technique that was known to but a few fencers and was useful only in rare circumstances. And once it’s found useful, the unorthodox becomes the orthodox, in everything, not only in fencing.
The inspiring drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. The small collection of his drawings is well-known to historians of seventeenth century France. More importantly, there are some thirteen volumes of his memoirs, dating from 1681 to 1712, first published in the late 19th century: Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893). Sabatini would doubtless have run across these volumes of memoirs of the French court in his researches, and from them his drawings, if not otherwise. I’ve found copies of the swordplay image in both the British Museum and Rijksmusem.
So, there we have it! Or do we? I think almost certainly this is Sabatini’s inspiration. But does the drawing actually represent what the author described?
Almost certainly not.
The two images below are from Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The first shows the long lunge in use, or at least promoted (it requires great flexibility), at the time, although not as long as the extreme lunges above, along with the en garde. The second also shows the common French en garde of the 1660s and 1670s, with most of the weight on the rear leg and the lead leg almost straight.
Vestiges of this en garde remain in some of the French schools today. A few years ago, although Olympic gold medalist Dr. Eugene Hamori had been mentoring me as a fencing teacher for two decades, he had not given me a fencing lesson since 1981. As I came en garde very upright, almost leaning back, a position I’d picked up from years of giving fencing lessons, he immediately said, “That’s a beautiful French guard, Ben. Now lean forward a little bit, like a Hungarian.”
We find this unbalanced French en garde not only in de la Touche’s work, but in other images as well, as shown below. The guard does have the advantage of keeping the body well back and even permitting one to lean back even farther — the first commandment of swordplay is (or should be) to hit and, especially, to not get hit. But the guard has the disadvantage of limiting mobility, including a slower attack (but then, that’s not what the French school was most noted for anyway at the time).
Most French schools would soon place less extreme emphasis on this heavy rear foot position, although it would remain in use to a lesser degree for another century.
So there’s an end on it, yes? Sabatini’s inspiration and its reality?
Or is there more?
In my experience there always is. Below, from Alfieri, here’s a swordsman leaning backward, weight on his rear leg, to avoid a thrust while thrusting in turn. It doesn’t take much to imagine the addition of a small lunging movement off the line with the rear leg. In this case, though, the fencer on the right has made a single tempo movement, thrusting as he simultaneously evades an adversary who has rashly ventured too close, or has been tricked into doing so. Tom Leach provides no such opportunity. 🙂
Still, I think we have Sabatini’s original source above in the du Bouchet drawing, and therefore the “queer, un-academic” technique of Charles de Bernis as well.
However, the most useful lesson, at least fencing-wise, from the novel may be the admonition derived from the following lines:
“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”
In this time of pandemic, fencers may improve their footwork, increase their flexibility and strength, study strategy and tactics, and so forth. But it takes free fencing — practice with an adversary — to maintain the most important components of fencing speed: the sense of tempo and the ability to react without hesitation. Without these, raw speed is worth next to nothing sword-in-hand.
Next up in the series: the duel on the beach in film!
Technical End Note on Parrying Leach’s Low Attack: Arguably there are five parries that might possibly deflect Leach’s blade: septime, octave, seconde, quinte (low quarte), all by different names in the 1680s and some not really even in much use at all; and a largely unfamiliar vertical parry made straight down, noted in some of the old Italian schools, and in particular by Alfred Hutton in his famous fencing text, Cold Steel. He describes the parry as being effective against an upward vertical cut toward the “fork” aka the groin.
Such vertical and other below the waist cuts are the reason, by the way, that the modern saber target is limited to the body from the waist up. This is due to the Italians who made the rules more than a century ago, intending by them to protect their manhood. Yet the myth of the saber target “being limited to above the waist due to the saber being a cavalry weapon, and you wouldn’t want to hurt the horse,” persists in spite of being arrant nonsense. In fact, the modern “Olympic” saber derives from the light dueling saber of the nineteenth century, and it was used in duels afoot. As for not hitting the horse or below the waist? Such blows were commonly permitted in duels among many various schools and peoples, and always in warfare.
Below the waist attacks, especially to the knee, have long been common with cutting weapons, but somewhat less so with thrusting weapons, at least when the legs are target (the area below the ribs is in fact an excellent target with real thrusting weapons), due to the fact that a thrust to the legs is rarely incapacitating, unlike a cut, and leaves the attacker’s head and torso wide open for a possibly fatal counter thrust. Thrusts to the groin, besides generally being considered dishonorable when intentional, may easily miss and slip between the legs, leaving the attacker open as just noted. In my experience, fencers hit in the groin by thrusting weapons are usually at fault, having parried late or insufficiently, or used a yielding parry incorrectly, and in both cases thereby carrying the attacking blade to the groin.
This vertical downward hard beat-parry is used unknowingly by some epee fencers today, at least among those who know how to use beats and beat parries (many these days can’t use them effectively), who if asked would probably define it as an incomplete seconde. I use it and find it highly effective against hard-driven low attacks.
In order for any of the first four of these parries to be effective against a low thrust, the parrying hand must be lowered significantly in order to bring forte to foible, making for a slow parry. If the parry is begun after the attack has developed, instead of at its initiation, often by anticipating it, it will likely prove ineffective.
However the last parry described, if correctly timed and made with a powerful beat with the middle of the blade on the attacker’s foible or middle, can be highly effective against such attacks, capable of being forced only with great difficulty. Even so, Sabatini is correct when he writes that such a low powerful attack is not easily parried, at least not conventionally.
Hutton notes that septime is also effective against low vertical upward cuts. I have not found this to be the case with low thrusts made by lighter weapons such as the foil, epee, and smallsword — it is easy to angulate around the parry — but he is surely correct in the case of cuts with the cavalry saber, or even the nineteenth century dueling saber, with their heavier blades.
* The pirate ship Black Swan may be the ultimate inspiration for Disney’s Black Pearl (rather than the Wicked Wench). Details here…
Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First published 10 September 2020. Last revised 26 July 2022.
It’s all too easy to imagine a duel on the beach between pirates or, as fiction and film often have it, between pirate captains. A sandy beach, palm trees, spectators often including both pirates and a woman in distress, a tropical sea and sky–a duel is mandatory in the genre if only because the setting demands one.
This blog post is part one of a likely five part series on the classical piratical duel on the beach, a pirate trope too evocative to pass up and one based to some degree in reality too. Only the trope of the tavern sword brawl is as prevalent, but not as romantic.
Up first is a look at the sandy duel in fiction. Part two examines the duel described by Rafael Sabatini in The Black Swan, in particular the origin of the hero’s singular technique. Part three reviews the duel on the beach in film, part four takes a close look at the most famous fictional duel on the beach, that depicted in Captain Blood (1935) starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and part five (yet to be written) will discuss the historical reality of the duel on the beach.
In particular, we’ll look not just at some classic swashbuckling episodes, but also consider how genres and tropes are created, and how misinterpretation often not only leads us astray, but also, at times, to authentic historical discoveries.
It’s entirely likely that I’ll also throw in a blog post each on the inquartata, the flanconnade, and also the intagliata and similar techniques of “lunging off the line,” given their prevalence in swashbuckling fiction and film (not to mention their utility in historical and modern fencing). I’ve already written one for the same reason on The Night Thrust; or, More Politely, the Passata Soto. I’ll likely also write a brief post on Dutch knife fighting for reasons noted just below.
The series is also part of an effort to encourage outdoor fencing, especially at the beach or seaside. (Don’t worry, any light rust is easily removed from blades! In fact, two or three hours in a sea breeze will start to rust carbon steel.) Not too long ago the FIE (the international fencing body) in its infinite [lack of] wisdom did away with outdoor tournaments in epee, at least as sanctioned events, and national bodies followed suit. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, sanctioned outdoor fencing tournaments should seriously be reconsidered, not to mention that they’re also a lot of fun for their own sake. Some of my fondest fencing memories are of outdoor swordplay, both competitive and recreational, and their associated celebrations.
So where to begin? It seems almost too easy. At least half the blame lays with the highly enjoyable illustrator and writer of out-sized piratical myth, misconception, and trope (and even some fact!), Howard Pyle, several of whose students–N. C. Wyeth and Frank E. Schoonover in particular–followed closely in his swashbuckling-illustrator footsteps.
However, before we get to Pyle in detail, we need to note the existence of an old ballad called “Dixey Bull” or “The Slaying of Dixey Bull” which describes a duel on tiny Beaver Island (near modern Pemaquid Beach, Maine) between a pirate captain and local fisherman. The ballad was first published in 1907 from oral tradition dating possibly as early as circa 1725 based on its mention of the “skull and cross bones,” language used, and its description of swordplay consistent with early to mid-18th century prizefighting and broadsword technique. The song was sung in Maine and environs, was apparently well-known by seamen and fishermen, and their wives and daughters, and it’s entirely possible that Howard Pyle was aware of its existence.
Dixie Bull was the first-noted pirate of New England and the northeast coast of North America. In 1632 some Frenchmen in a pinnace robbed him of his trading stock of blankets, “ruggs,” coats, &c, for which he sought reprisal at sea in his own small craft. Failing to make good against the French he plundered some local Englishmen, thereby turning pirate. In 1633 three deserters from his crew said he’d gone over to the French, although he is believed to have eventually returned to England.
In the ballad, which has no known basis in reality, as is the case with many ballads of the era, Dixey Bull is challenged by local fisherman Daniel Curtis to a duel with broadswords. If Bull wins, he and his crew keep their stolen treasure. If he loses, the pirate crew returns the plunder and sails away. Wounded, but with a trick worthy of one of Rafael Sabatini’s heroes or the best of those of swashbuckling Hollywood, Curtis kills Bull. Of course, no such duel ever took place: pirates would never offer up their plunder on a point of honor. Whether or not the ballad influenced Howard Pyle is unknown but certainly possible.
Although Howard Pyle painted several sword duels, two of them by the seaside, it’s his “Which Shall Be Captain?” (shown above the Dixie Bull images) that may be the significant culprit, and it shows no obvious connection to the duel between Bull and Curtis. In the painting, two pirate captains struggle against each other with daggers to determine who will command. The notion of dueling for command is false, however, to be discussed in more detail in part five (or if you can’t wait, you can read about it in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths). Put simply, captains and quartermasters were democratically elected. Even lesser officers required the approval of the crew. Dueling was never considered or acted upon as a means to gain command.
Likewise false, or at least uncommon as far as we know, is the use of daggers in duels on the beach. In fact, among buccaneers the musket was usual dueling weapon although some fought with cutlasses. However, there may be a possible exception among Dutch and Flemish seamen, who like many of their adventurous compatriots ashore had a habit of knife fighting, often using their hats in the unarmed hand for parrying. The style of fighting appears to have been more cut than thrust, notwithstanding the Dutch term “snickersnee,” which means to stick or stab and thrust, which Lewis Carroll turned into the snicker-snak of the vorpal sword. (See Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know for more information on cutlasses, including a bit on dueling.)
Even so, the only authenticated duel between buccaneer captains was between two Dutchmen–and they used cutlasses. Again, more on this in part five.
A duel on the beach between Dutch pirate captains is likely not what Pyle intended though, unless they were Dutch buccaneer captains of which there were in fact a fair number, more of them in service among French flibustiers than among English buccaneers. Their names are legend: Laurens de Graff, Nicolas Van Horn, Michiel Andrieszoon aka Michel Andresson, Jan Willems aka Yanky, Jacob Evertson, and Jan Erasmus Reyning among many others.
No matter his original intention, Pyle’s scene-setting has been imitated as homage, sometimes even copied, in numerous films as well as in illustrations for swashbuckling tales.
However, Pyle’s painting can only ultimately be said to have inspired the trope to far greater prominence, for a decade earlier, in 1899, Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold was published, a romantic novel of ladies, gentlemen, settlers (or invaders), Native Americans, and pirates. Notably, Howard Pyle painted the frontispiece, and, more on this later, Johnston’s works were a significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, author of Captain Blood and many other great romantic, often swashbuckling, novels.
Pyle’s painting of the duel for command, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, takes place on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. All three duels are described not in terms of fencing technique but via the hero’s thoughts and emotions as he fights–and easy way to avoid describing actual swordplay. Side note: the hero’s second adversary is a Spaniard (the best blade in Lima) and the third is the “man in black and silver”–almost as if the duel takes place in The Princess Bride. I won’t add the duel in The Princess Bride to this post, although I’m sorely tempted, as it takes place not on the shore but on the cliffs high above.
The entire composition of Pyle’s painting has been copied by many illustrators and filmmakers, including Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and Michael Curtiz in Captain Blood (1935).
As for the action itself, duels in fiction and film require high drama. It helps if the hero and his adversary are equally matched, although often the hero ends up hard-pressed but prevails in the end, often by stratagem. Occasionally we see the hero who is always in control, whose swordplay is so exceptional that the villain comes soon to realize he (villainous duelists are almost always a he, thus the pronoun) is entirely outmatched. Here the drama derives from the villain realizing he’s going to lose and be rewarded as he so richly deserves.
Depicting swordplay in fiction can be difficult, or rather, is actually quite difficult. Explain too much and you lose drama and tempo. Explain too little, and the duel is reduced to vague nonsense, even if dramatic. Using a few modern fencing terms has been the refuge of many novelists–but modern terms lack the flavor, and often the correct historical technique, to adequately depict a historical duel. And even in this case only fencers will actually understand what’s going on. In other words, to understand fencing you must be a fencer (and this is part of the reason, in spite of the FIE’s attempts at dumbing down fencing, why it will never be, and frankly should not be, a great spectator sport). But writers often cheat and describe swordfights only in vague terms or through the protagonist’s mental state.
In related fashion, writers often forget, or far more likely haven’t learned, that fencing on a shoreline causes changes in footwork and agility. Fencing in sand tends to slow the action down a bit, footwork in particular. Lunges are slower because the foot slips even in the best-compacted damp sand. Of course, if the beach is rocky, as in Captain Blood (1935), or covered in various beach and dune plants, this may help prevent the foot from slipping although it may also increase the risk of tripping and falling. Fencing in shallow water can diminish the lunge or even negate it.
Further, sand gets in the shoe, which can affect footwork. Sand is also readily available for villainously throwing in the adversary’s eyes. And, as in the case of all outdoor fencing on uneven ground, there’s always the chance at taking a special form of tempo, that of the brief surprise when the adversary accidentally steps in a hole or runs into a bush or trips over driftwood, or is maneuvered into doing this. Distraction, however brief, can be fatal.
There are partial remedy for these hazards, which I’ll discuss in part five, and, like running in the sand, you’ll at least in part naturally adapt to the best technique over time. (Thanks Bear Mac Mahon for your brief comments and reminders on fencing in the sand. 🙂 )
Sadly, seldom does any of this make it into fictional accounts of duels on the beach. But no matter! It’s the ring and spark of steel on steel while the sun glints off sand and sea we’re after. Which, by the way, is another issue with fencing on the beach: glare, which can easily be used to advantage by maneuvering the adversary into position with his face facing sun and sea, or even a sandy sea breeze…
On occasion there artwork of a duel on the beach unassociated with a published story, and even when discovered there is often something of a written description associated with it, as with Frank Dadd’s “The End of the Game” published in The Illustrated London News:
The duel on the beach also makes its way into pirate pulp fiction, as in these novels by Donald Barr Chidsey (the rhythm of whose name makes me think of Simon Bar Sinister):
The duel on the beach has had a fair amount of depiction in other print media as well, including trading cards and comic books:
A duel over buried treasure below, with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting.
Below, a duel for command–a myth, as is the duel or affray over buried treasure.
The trading card above probably owes as much to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926) as it does to Howard Pyle and various fiction, as shown below–but then, The Black Pirate owes much to Howard Pyle, purposely so according to the film program. We’ll discuss the duel in this film in more detail in part three.
There is a duel on the beach–well, not the beach but on higher ground on tiny Beaver Island, for the “ledges” (rocks) ran down to the water–in Clothes Make the Pirate by Holman Day (1925), a comic pirate novel. The duel is based on the fictional encounter between Dixie Bull and Daniel Curtis but is fought here between two tailors, Tidd and Sneck, both of them impersonating pirates (the former pretends to be Dixie Bull), and the two tailors merely pretend to fight, working out the details while briefly hidden behind some spruce trees during the engagement.
Of course, one of the great duels on the beach is depicted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922) by Rafael Sabatini, in particular the dramatic build-up and famous dialogue. But alas, the duel itself is described in only two lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”
In part four we’ll look further into this most famous of duels as it was depicted in the 1935 film starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone.
Numerous illustrators have tried their hand at the duel, some more successfully than others, historical accuracy (and even fictional accuracy) often to be desired.
This is a good opportunity to segue to several tobacco card illustrations of duels on the beach. Up first is Captain Blood, although based entirely on the duel in the 1935 film.
Although I can’t discover any connection to specific works of fiction per se, three of Don Maitz’s paintings of swordplay on the beach evoke classic swashbucklers and the paintings of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth. Mr. Maitz is a famous illustrator, perhaps most noted for his depictions of Captain Morgan for the rum of the same name. Copies of his works can be purchased here.
The purportedly authentic duel between Mary Read and a fellow pirate who was threatening her lover (or at least Charles Johnson so claimed, but he lied often in his 1724-1726 chronicle of pirates) shows up in an Allen & Ginter Cigarettes trading card, circa 1888. I’ve included it here as the account may well be fictional.
Norman Price illustrated this duel in The Rogue’s Moon by Robert W. Chambers (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1929), yet another prolific (roughly one hundred novels, short story collections, and children’s books) popular genre writer already forgotten less than a century later. The story is enjoyable enough even given its light genre and Chambers’s style. It is action-filled and interspersed with scenes of mild titillation, and includes several major characters of the era (Blackbeard among them) in prime appearances, with pirates as the story’s villains. The protagonist is a cross-dressing, seeking-revenge-against-pirates, older teenager named Nancy Topsfield. The novel pretends to a background of historical accuracy, which is in fact, as with most of the genre, only superficial at best.
The duel is brief but exciting, and follows the manner described by Charles Johnson as in use by the early eighteenth century pirates of the black flag: pistols followed by cutlasses. Read’s sword is a “Barbary” or “Arab” blade, which might be a nimcha (of which were some naval captains who owned these swords, usually as trophies) but which the illustrations suggest is more likely a scimitar (or shamshir if you want to be pedantic–but scimitar was the common word in use by Europeans at the time). In either case her blade looks curved enough that she needs to hook her thrust. The duel ends with a near-decapitation.
Although Price’s drawings and paintings of men in the story are reasonably historically accurate by the low standard of popular illustration, he takes pop culture liberties with the leading female characters. He and Chambers dress Mary Read as a typical 1920s/1930s Hollywood starlet-type of pirate, sometimes termed “pirate flapper” and derived most likely from Douglas Fairbanks’s style of dress in his 1926 The Black Pirate. Female pirates were commonly depicted in this fashion during this era, ranging from magazine ads for sterling flatware to Hollywood studio portraits.
Given the rarity of known pirate duels, it’s not surprising that so few are depicted in various literature. However, at least one is. The famous duel, familiar if you’ve read the French edition of Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, or other related French texts (or even some of my books), between Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Van Horn at Isla Sacrificios near Veracruz in 1683 is also depicted on a cigarette card. However, given that this duel actually occurred and we have period accounts of it, we’ll save further description for part five. Whoever illustrated the duel below had not read the rare eyewitness account (unsurprising at it is neither easily found nor easily deciphered) although he or she may have read a secondary account, possibly Exquemelin’s.
All of this rather meandering exposition of the duel on the beach in fiction is leading us to a single novel that epitomizes it above all others: The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. And, given its role and singular technique, I’ll devote part two of this series to it entirely.
An honorable mention of sorts must go to George MacDonald Fraser’s comic novel The Pyrates (Collins 1983 & Knopf 1984). It’s one of my favorite pirate novels. It’s a campy, loving, satirical send up of pirate fiction and film, including Captain Blood: Fraser was a fan of Sabatini as I was and remain (and as well of Fraser). My attachment is also due in part due to the fact that when I first read it I was a somewhat cocky young naval officer, Navy SEAL, and swordsman recovering on a San Diego beach from an injury received on a Hawaiian beach during deployment.
Fraser’s duel on the beach scene is not traditional. Instead, it is a blindfolded duel between the super Sabatini-esque hero, Benjamin Avery, and the anti-hero Colonel Thomas Blood, a character based on the real quasi-gentleman who stole the English Crown jewels and whose name Sabatini appropriated for his honorable hero. Soon abandoned by the pirates who set them en garde on Dead Man’s Chest (an islet or cay in the Virgin Islands and the inspiration via author Charles Kingsley for said lyric in Treasure Island), the two adversaries fence comically in hoods, with swords tied to their hands and a small bell as well to cue them.
A line or two captures the spirit: “Even Black Sheba, concerned as she was for Avery, could not repress a smile as he came academically on guard, extended himself in a perfect lunge, and fell slap into the surf.”
I’d have to do a more detailed survey of recent fiction to adequately note any other significant renderings in fiction of duels on the beach. At the moment, only one comes to mind, that depicted by famous Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte in El Puente de Los Asesinos (2011), part of his excellent Capitán Alatriste series. Alas, there is no English translation. The first six were translated, but not the seventh due to low sales, an indication of where the genre–especially “upmarket” swashbucklers–is today, replaced largely, and sadly, by fantasy.
Much if not most of the swashbuckling fiction that does make it print today tends to fall into the “writing by trope” category with inaccurate historical detail (a problem with much historical fiction in general today, to the point that many authors have accepted fictional tropes as historical fact and will vigorously, even hilariously, defend them) and “dialogue as might be spoken by modern suburbanites at a cocktail party” (likewise a common problem as a journalist friend pointed out), or is sadly relegated to small ebook and print-on-demand presses with little if any access to brick-and-mortar chains and independents. I remain hopeful that this will change. And if I bother to dust off Fortune’s Favorite, the sequel to Fortune’s Whelp, I’ll let you know–it has a duel on the beach in it. In the Caribbean. Naturally. 🙂
On a more positive note, I’ll close with two watercolors of pirate dueling on the beach, by one of the most famous American painters of all: Andrew Wyeth, son of illustrator N. C. Wyeth, around the age of twenty.
And last, well, just because it’s a beautiful beach painting in the pirate genre by Andrew Wyeth…
A couple of notes on the duel at Teviot beach by Howard Pyle: Aficionados of fencing history will note that Pyle clearly took his inspiration from late 19th and early 20th century epee duels, many of which were photographed, and some even filmed. In the late 17th century it would be unusual for there to be a directeur de combat (someone who monitors the fight, in other words, and ensures that no villainy is perpetrated). Further, seconds often fought too, and spectators were absent more often than not.
Even more critically, both swordsmen are in sixte rather than tierce (although one might argue that the fencer on the left is actually correctly in carte, perhaps having just been parried to the outside line by a circular parry). Sixte, not yet called by this name, was not unknown but was disregarded by most masters and fencers in spite of its utility in closing the “light” (hole, open target) revealed in tierce. Sixte is a weaker position and requires more blade set and wrist angulation (some of the latter was later relieved by modifying the way the grip was held) than tierce, which is a stronger position physically and whose point falls naturally toward the adversary’s shoulder. The guards shown in the painting are more typical of fencers in Pyle’s day (and in ours as well).
POSTSCRIPT for members of the Huntsville Fencing Club: post-pandemic we’ll [finally] host a rum tournament on the beach. 🙂
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published September 1, 2020. Last updated May 16, 2022.
“Nous avions autre chose à faire durant la mortelle épreuve que de croiser le fer ‘pour rire.'”
[“We had other things to do during the deadly ordeal than to cross blades ‘for fun.'”]
—Poet and muse Emma Lambotte writing of the disbanding of “the Ladies’ Fencing Club of Anvers” at the beginning of WWI. Many of the fencers volunteered to serve as nurses during the war. The club was never reinstituted. From Lambotte’s essay L’Escrimeuse (Paris: Éditions du Nord, 1937).
Some reflections for those who have been unable to return to fencing, or to any passionate pursuit for that matter, or are disappointed that things are not the same.
Put plainly, this is not the time to bemoan any temporary loss or abatement in fencing practice, however passionate you feel about swordplay.
Worldwide, we’re living amidst an obvious historical moment that affects everyone. In the US, we’re amidst an even greater one: a pandemic combined with great social change and political consequence. It is a time of great personal, moral, and political danger.
This isn’t the first such moment in modern history, nor for many of us not the first in our lifetimes. And for many of us it probably won’t be the last.
For fencers who are missing the sport, or have had their participation reduced, it’s a time to remember that swordplay is not going away, no matter that its principles have long been under siege by a sport mentality. If you haven’t already returned to it to some degree, you will be able to one day.
Further, you should remember that no matter how much swordplay means to you, there are more important things in life–and what’s most important about fencing is its connection to these important things.
I came of fencing age in an era in which, for many of us, swordplay was still strongly associated with a sense of honor and associated duty, unlike today in which many competitors and their coaches regard it as pure sport where winning at almost any cost is expected. (Happily, though, many “average” competitors still prefer to view it traditionally.)
It was this traditional sense that drew me when I first started fencing more than forty years ago. Many of our fencing masters back then, not to mention many of the veterans we fenced with, were true swashbucklers who, although they competed in fencing, saw swordplay as something beyond mere sport.
A few had actually fought duels, while others had trained duelists. Some had served in the military in the final days of the sword on the battlefield. Many had lived through the trauma of two world wars. Some had fought in them. Others had escaped or fought against repressive regimes in the manner of adventures as might be found in a novel by Dumas or Sabatini.
At the very least, most had been trained by those who had come of age in an era where the sword was still a weapon both of the military and of the duel. Many were true adventurers with a powerful sense of duty and honor, of moral, rather than legal, right and wrong.
Many had proved themselves of great moral and physical courage, though none ever mentioned this. You had to learn it from those who had long known them.
All understood that fencing competition was ultimately a mere substitute, not an end in itself. Medals, although fun to compete for, were in many ways secondary, and their value ultimately illusory. A drawer filled with dusty old fencing medals is in its essence exactly that, nothing more. It is only the acts that earned them, and the context in which they were earned, that matter.
My first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, pointed this out to me more than forty years ago when he noted that most people only remember who came in first place, and then usually only in regard to the Olympics and World Championships, and then often not for long. Aladar Gerevich was one of the world’s greatest athletes, yet most sports fans have no idea who he was. Nor, sadly, do most fencers.
In other words, not only were we expected to fence honorably and regard medals as the ultimate illusions they are–mementos of transient fortunate, often happy, moments–but we were expected to carry this expectation of honor and duty far beyond the strip. Camaraderie, derived from mutual respect and shared experience, bolstered this.
Even today one can easily judge a fencer’s character off the strip by their behavior on the strip. If a fencer, coach, or referee will game the system or cheat on the strip, they’re likely do so everywhere else they think they can get away with it. Those you can trust on the strip under pressure can probably be trusted off the strip.
In practice, this associated sense of honor and duty meant that some of us, as I did, gave up promising competitive potential for military service, or the Foreign Service, Peace Corps, medical volunteerism, or even simply to provide for a family or care for loved ones.
Several fencers I know had to give up significant competitive potential due to injuries received in the line of duty. Others had their participation upended by war, revolution, natural disaster, economic failure, accident, or disease. Similarly for aspiring fencers: I’ve had many beginning students in their sixties and seventies whose delay in learning to fence was commonly due to decades of circumstances beyond their control.
Some fencers fared even worse for their open embrace of service. I still recall a poignant story Dr. Zold, a Hungarian, told me forty or more years ago, about an American epeeist he knew well. When war was declared, the American fencer volunteered for military service and was commissioned as a naval officer. He was killed in action aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. He was not the only such fencer.
Dr. Zold, who was no stranger to dueling and its associated sense of honor, himself put aside active swordplay for an even more dangerous, and far more noble, practice, which was to assist Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape Hungary after the country was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1944. To have been caught doing so would have resulted in torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo. Wallenberg himself was abducted by the Soviet Secret Police at the end of the war and, two years later, reportedly murdered in custody.
Today, right now, some fencers are taking leave of their beloved sport, and even of family, to risk their well-being, possibly their lives, in support of others in peril from disease or injustice.
Again, we all need to remember that fencing will not be diminished forever. Our passion and practice will return in full measure. Many of us have often had to miss fencing for months or even years at a time for a variety of reasons. We always came back to it, and it to us.
In the meantime, if it’s not yet safe or practical for you to return to fencing, there’s still much you can do. You can read and study, stay fit, do footwork, practice if you have a partner at home.
One of the great lessons I’ve learned both from fencing and from particularly hazardous naval service was to be prepared for change. You may have expectations, you may have a plan, but in a fencing bout as in life our expectations and plans are often thwarted. We must always be prepared to adapt, and especially to carry our experience forward with us as life changes.
Fencing, if you pay attention, has many lessons useful in life’s trials.
Thus there is always more we can do. Simultaneously, as fencers past have done and some at present are already doing, we can seize upon fencing’s great virtues–honor and duty, camaraderie and respect, risk-taking, the courage to stand and fight alone–and via them try to make this world in danger a better place.
We need heroes today and everyday, and fencing, at its best, helps make them.
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published July 2, 2020. Last updated (Lambotte quotation) October 14, 2020.
Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer, Colonel Randal Holles, too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.
It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.
Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.
In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the Diary of Samuel Pepys, shows numerous parallels with today’s Covid-19 pestilence. After all, people don’t change. They lie, they deny, they seek supernatural counsel, they indulge in quackery, they hoard, they exploit, they scapegoat, they profit from the death of the members of some groups over others.
And yet, many rise above the baser nature of humanity, and behave nobly, with great courage and sacrifice.
And, romance though it is, Fortune’s Favorite shows this hopeful, uplifting side of humanity amidst death and the panicked fear of it. Even so, and sadly, our modern experience with the Covid-19 pandemic has proved Sabatini, not to mention historical chroniclers, too accurate in their descriptions of humanity in time of a deadly pandemic.
The protagonist is based on Gervase Holles (1605 – 1675) and his family. Plot details concerning widows and profane exchanges appear to be based on those of his father, Frescheville Holles (1575- 1630), but Randal himself is likely based on Gervase’s son, Sir Frescheville Holles (1642 – 1672). Sir Frescheville, originally an officer of militia and afterward a privateer captain, was, similarly to the narrative in the book, appointed to the navy thanks to the patronage of George Monck, Duke of Albemarle. Sir Frescheville, commanding the HMS Antelope, lost an arm at the Four Days Battle, was knighted afterward, became Member of Parliament for Grimsby, later mayor of Grimsby, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was killed in action in 1672 while commanding the HMS Cambridge at the Battle of Solebay. There was no real Randal Holles by name. Futher, no Holles appears on the death warrant of King Charles I, unlike in the book, given that the real Holles family were supporters of the royal prerogative, not Parliamentary rebels against the king.
Finally, and notably, the novel has an excellent description of swordplay in action too!
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published March 30, 2020. Last updated February 18, 2021.
Cutthroat Island finale, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis, right) versus Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Carolco, 1995.
In advance of my forthcoming series on “The Duel on the Beach,” a fun look at the Hollywood trope of swordplay in the rigging.
We can probably blame Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the trope’s ultimate inspiration. In the novel [Spoiler Alert!], Jim Hawkins climbs aloft aboard the schooner Hispaniola to escape the murderous pirate Israel Hands, ultimately burning the salty thug’s brains with a brace of pistols. Why the hungover, perhaps even still-besotted, sea-thief didn’t simply use a musket to murder the lad is unknown. Perhaps he was too fogged by rum to think of it, or he didn’t have a musket at hand, or knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the bold lad. More likely, it’s simply a much better scene to have a murderous pirate armed with a knife slowly climb aloft while his victim waits at the extreme point of retreat.
“One Step More, Mr. Hands” by N. C. Wyeth for the 1911 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Doubtless inspired by Treasure Island, Charles Boardman Hawes includes a scene of fighting aloft in his Newberry award-winnning novel, The Dark Frigate.
But the primary origin of the trope, whether for Mr. Stevenson or Hollywood in general, is almost certainly the simple fact that the masts and rigging are too enticing not be used: a vast network or “jungle gym” overhead with boundless possibilities. It’s simply impossible to ignore the setting towering aloft above a vessel’s decks. It’s a nautical gymnasium begging to be used! And so it often has.
Before going further, we should quickly examine what sailors did, and still do, aloft. They set, take in, and furl sail. They hoist spars and masts aloft, and strike the same as necessary. They stand lookout. They man the tops in battle, enabling armed seamen to fire on the enemy below. They make repairs. They skylark.
Although fighting aloft was routine–men firing from above at men below–there’s no evidence of anything other than with firearms, grenades, and sometimes swivel guns occasionally fired at the enemy also aloft. No swordplay on yards, in other words. Note that in the painting below, no one aloft is wielding a sword, nor are there lines rigged from which to slide down or swing across (another popular but false Hollywood pirate trope).
Actual fighting aloft would look something like this:
The painting just above, although it has many accurate details (including the grappling hook hanging by chain from the yardarm (although it should have two lines attached), appears to be rather romanticized, with seamen sliding down a forestay, another with his cutlass between his teeth, details lacking in the previous two images.
But when it comes to film, The Black Pirate (Vitagraph, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks set the standard for action aloft–but not for swordplay aloft, of which it alas had none. The film included circus-like aerial stunts and a famous scene in which Fairbanks slips a sword or dagger into a sail and slides down its face, cutting the canvas as he does. The stunt was repeated in Against All Flags (Universal-International, 1952), The Goonies (Warner Bros., 1985), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney, 2006), although in the the last film it appears heavily CGI’d.
In Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) starring Errol Flynn, the action aloft is more mundane, although it does include some brief swordplay, and includes a lesser trope: pirates sliding down on ropes during boarding actions, swinging from ship to ship, and occasionally from yard to yard, none of which actually occurred to ship to ship combat. Still, it’s fun.
In Against All Flags (Universal International, 1952) Errol Flynn as Brian Hawke climbs aloft via the lubber’s hole (for shame!) to cut down the main-yard. He’s lucky the pirates were lazy, otherwise the yard would’ve been slung with chain in time of battle and his rapier of little use in cutting through. When he sees pirates coming at him from aloft and alow, rather than fight them he escapes instead, using Douglas Fairbanks’s famous technique. The film was remade, almost scene for scene, as The King’s Pirate (Universal, 1967), but an acrobatic escape was substituted for the sword-in-sail trick. Against All Flags was one of Flynn’s last films, certainly one of his last good ones (arguably a tie among these last films with Crossed Swords, The Master of Ballantrae, and a more serious film, The Warriors). Against All Flags also starred Maureen O’Hara in her last swashbuckler. She’s as dashing as Flynn in the film, and as good if not better with a sword.
The Crimson Pirate (Warner Bros., 1952) showcased Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills aloft, but lacked swordplay:
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had plenty of action aloft, including an homage to Treasure Island:
But the real action was between Pan and Hook on the main-topsail yard:
And also in Return to Neverland (Disney, 2002):
The action is included on the Disney theme park attraction:
And even in the Disney theme parks Fantasmic! show:
The trope also made it into a series of Dominica Peter Pan postage stamps in 1980, shown below as a Disney pin:
But it was Cutthroat Island (Carolco, 1995) that did it’s best to include a sword fight in earnest on a yard aloft. The film was a box office bomb. Even so, Geena Davis did a creditable job, and the soundtrack is excellent.
Not to be beat, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End included swordplay between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow on a yard aloft during a storm while dueling ships were whipped around at the edge of a giant maelstrom:
The Adventures of Tintin (Columbia Pictures et al, 2011) featured animated if improbable-but-exciting swordplay aloft:
Swordplay, or at least swords, aloft has continued in recent pirate films. Below is Son Ye-jin as Captain Yeo-wol in The Pirates (Harimao Pictures, 2014), engaging in aerial swashbuckling.
The trope made its way even into the recent Thugs of Hindostan (Latina Pictures, et al, 2018), a pirate-ish, Bollywood, stick-it-to-the-English Indian film:
Action aloft also made its way onto television in the form of the final episode in season four of Black Sails, in a scene in which I as historical consultant had some input.
But the trope has found its way into more than just film. A significant but largely unstudied contribution to pirate culture is that of various collector’s cards: tobacco, bubble gun, and arcade. Typically inspired by popular illustration, film, and general cliché, the cards often include images of swordplay and other fighting aloft, invariably via contrived circumstances often involving pirates or merchant seamen attempting to escape aloft. In the 1930s card just below, failed mutineer-pirates retreat aloft to little avail.
Below, in a 1930s Holloway Pirate Treasure trading card, merchant seamen flee aloft to make their last stand, again to no avail.
Below, a Swedish/French bubble gum card dating to the 1930s. This time it’s not a merchant seaman retreating aloft, but a duel over the plunder on a night “full of stars, the air calm, the sea tranquil.” One of the pirates, Mulrooney, has hidden a brace of pistols in the rigging. He drops his cutlass and climbs aloft, followed by his armed adversary Hawkins. Mulrooney, in most dishonorable fashion–even for a pirate–arms himself with his hidden pistols and shoots Hawkins dead.
Comic books are another significant source of modern pirate culture, and like the cards above they typically reinforce existing tropes. Here the sword fight is on the bowsprit, one man armed with an anachronistic rapier (unless he’s an Iberian or perhaps an Italian under Spanish rule) with quillons in the wrong place, the other armed with an anachronistic “soup ladle” cutlass.
And it’s even made it to a book cover!
And even onto a 1000 piece puzzle!
But just how easy would it be to fence aloft on spars? It wouldn’t be. By way of experiment I’ve attempted footwork on a balance beam, much as in the photograph below but with much less danger. At first it’s not easy to maintain balance and any “fencing” done is best done by way of slow choreographed movements. Put simply, I fell often, more even than the time more than forty years ago a friend and I fenced with sabers at midnight in New Orleans under live oaks on a carpet of acorns (it was a mast year). Still, after a bit of practice one can move conditionally well on a flat beam–but still not sufficiently to prevent a likely fall. A rounded spar would be much more difficult to fence upon.
Aerial fencing, usually on rooftops or on beams or scaffolding attached to them, and usually as stunts or photo opportunities, is not uncommon:
Any real fencing on a beam or spar would obviously quickly result in a fall. Many years ago I saw a fencing high wire act performed at the Ringling Bros & Barnum &Bailey Circus: it was composed of simple, if impressive, choreographed movements, as expected.
In similar fashion, the modern aerial troupe Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performs a tightrope fencing act on tour, including this past summer at the Miami Seaquarium:
But could swordplay aloft have happened in reality? Even rarely? The answer is akin to that of the myth of buried pirate treasure. Did pirates bury treasure? No, although it’s possible to find a rare instance of a couple of shipwrecked pirates burying their plundered shares to keep other pirates from stealing it. Further, it’s possible to imagine a rare similar but more significant exception, for example the shipwreck of pursued pirates who bury their plunder to prevent a pirate hunting landing party from finding it. But there’s no evidence anything like this ever happened. Similarly, there’s no evidence of swordplay aloft among pirates or anyone else at sea, as thrilling and pregnant with possibility the prospect is. Even so, it’s possible to imagine a rather contrived, but still possible, circumstance. Hollywood does it all the time.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2019-2022. Last updated August 5, 2022.
Useful advice and commentary, by category, for swordsmen and swordswomen. I’ve collected these over almost fifty years from a variety of sources, ranging from books published over several centuries to fencing masters and even to my own observations.
Some of these quotations are repeated in my post, Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments, along with other advice and commentary. Please note that the list below is not complete, and never can be. I will, however, update it as convenient.
Except where noted, the English translations from the original French are mine.
A long detailed list of fencing books can be found here.
On the Virtues of Fencing
“And moreover, the exercifing of weapons putteth away aches, griefes, and difeafes, it increafeth ftrength, and fharpneth the wits, giuith a perfect iudgement, it expelleth melancholy, cholericke and euill conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is vnto him that hath the perfection thereof, a moft friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, hauing but only his weapon about him, it putteth him out of all feare, & in the warres and places of moft danger it maketh him bold, hardie, and valiant.”
—George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599
“If you master the principles of sword-fencing, when you freely beat one man, you beat any man in the world. The spirit of defeating a man is the same as for ten million men.”
—Musashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645. Musashi, Japan’s kensei or “sword saint,” fought and won more than sixty duels before retiring as a hermit to write his famous masterpiece on swordplay and strategy. Of course, what readers often miss is the implication: that you don’t have to have a brilliant understanding of the “Way” in order to fence well—Musashi himself admits that he didn’t understand the true Way until after he had fought all of his duels—but certainly it would help.
And in the West, a similar sentiment:
“J’asseureray que celui qui est instruit dans les armes, ayant du cœur, réussira contre cent mal adroits; j’entends l’un après l’autre, nullus Hercules contra duos.”
“I will assure that he who is instructed in arms, having a stout heart, will succeed against one hundred clumsy swordsmen; [yet] I hear often that there is no Hercules against two [other swordsmen].”
—André Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, Le maistre d’armes: ou, L’exercice de l’epée seule, dans sa perfection, 1686. My translation. The admonition that no one is a Hercules against two adversaries is often written as “No Hercules against the multitude.”
“[B]ecause, when a vigorous and brisk Officer, hath perhaps Disabled or run one Enemy thorow, and is actually commanding [grappled with] of another; there steps in a Third, who endeavours to knock him on the head, or Cleave him down; for, Ne Hercules quidem contra multos.”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714. Here Hope takes the opposite–and certainly more correct view, swashbuckling films notwithstanding–view that it is difficult, if not impossible or at least highly unlikely, to succeed against multiple adversaries attacking at once. Unlike in Hollywood where enemies are trained to attack one-at-a-time per the script, multiple adversaries tend to attack simultaneously. Hope suggests that the hanging guard might defend against two adversaries while a thick leather gauntlet in the non-dominant hand might defend against a third. But with offense comes at least one opening for the several adversaries…
“When you count all the benefits of swordsmanship, there are so many, encompassing the virtues of heaven and earth.”
—Yagyu Muneyoshi, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
“So doeth the Art of Fencing teach us to defend our Bodies, from the Assaults and Attaques of all Adversaries, whether Artists or not, who in respect of the cruel designe they have against our Bodies, may in some sense be accounted Devils, it also teacheth us not to be deceived by the fallacious Quirks and Tricks of Artists when we are engaged with the which do represent the cunning subtile Allurements of the World.”
“[Y]et all Gentlemen should practice it, & have an esteem for it, if it were for no other reason but this, that it is a most pleasant divertissement, and an Innocent, Healthful, and Manly Recreation and Exercise for the Body, and although a Man could reap no Advantage by it for the Defence of his Body; yet that its very keeping a Mans joynts and members nimble and cleaver [clever], and in a ready trime [trim], as it were, for any other Divertisement or Exercise, as Tenice, Dancing, Riding, &e. should make it Esteemed and Practised by all who are above the rank of Clowns.”
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694
“Nothing can give a greater Lusture and Enoblement to the most Excellent and Bravest Persons, than an absolute and perfect Qualification in the true Knowledge and Skill in Weapons.”
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711
“Indeed I am perfectly of opinion, which is corroborated by numberless persons who have experienced the utility of fencing, that for the navy it should be considered as one of the most essential branches of a nautical education, and ought to be encouraged by Captains and Commanders as much as possible. The ship’s company should, every one of them, be compelled to understand the use of the sword familiarly, previously to their going abroad, and should continue practising it at all times on board; for they have, if possible, even more occasion for fencing than the army, because, in general, they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“Glancing fearfully about, I took up the weapon, finding it play very light in my grasp for all its size; and having wielded it, I held it that the moonbeams made a glitter on the long, broad blade. Now as I stood, watching this deadly sparkle, I trembled no longer, my side fears were forgotten, a new strength nerved me and I raised my head, teeth clenched in sudden purpose so desperate bold indeed as filled me with marvelous astonishment at myself; and all this (as I do think) by mere feel of this glittering sword.”
“There remains then always your sword, friend Adam; with this you may win the fame, the fortune—or the grave so honourable. Ha, it is true, when all other fails, there remains always—the sword!”
—Jeffery Farnol, Over the Hills, 1930
Defining Fencing & Swordplay
“Fencing is neither art nor science. Fencing is fencing!”
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977
Eugenio Pini, quoted in László Szabó, Fencing and the Master, 1977
“The use of arms doth much differ in these times. I hear now the single rapier is altogether in use: when I was young, the rapier and dagger. And I cannot understand, seeing God hath given a man two hands, why he should not use them both for his defence.”
—William Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658
Mr. Higford makes an excellent point: the reality of real combat with thrusting swords is that the unarmed hand must come into play, if only in opposition in order to prevent angulations and other continuations of attacks and ripostes, not to mention to use in extremis as a parry or by grasping to defend oneself. Only in highly regulated formal duels—those of the 19th and early 20th century epee de combat, for example—may this practice be proscribed (and, of course, in sport fencing). See also Sir Wm. Hope immediately below.
“That if a good and dexterous Sword-man have no other design but Defence of his own Person, and not the Destruction of his Adversary’s also, that then his Sword alone, assisted by a judicious Breaking of Measure [retreating], is…sufficient to defend him: But again, if he design to Offend [attack] as well as Defend, then there is an absolute Necessity to make use of his left Hand for his Assistance; otherwise his Adversary, continually redoubling his Thrusts irregularly and with Vigour upon him, he shall never almost have the Opportunity of Thrusting, his Sword being in a manner wholly take up with the Parade, by endeavoring to make good his own Defence…”
“There is a vast difference, betwixt assaulting in a School with Blunts, for a Man’s Diversion, and engaging in the Fields with Sharps, for a Man’s Life; and whatever latitude a Man may take in the one, to show his Address and Dexterity, yet he ought to go a little more warily, and securely to Work, when he is concerned in the other: For in assaulting with Fleurets [foils], a Man may venture upon many difficult and nice Lessons, wherein if he fail, he runs no great Risque, and if they take not at one time, they many succeed at another: But with Sharps, the more plain and simple his Lessons of Pursuit [attack] are, so much the more secure is his Person; whereas, by venturing upon variety of difficult Lessons, he very much exposes himself, even to the hazarding of his Life, by his Adversary’s taking of Time, and endeavouring to Contretemps [an attack into an attack or a simultaneous attack, often resulting in a double touch], which are not so easily effectuat [sic, “effectuated,” i.e., “executed”] against a plain and secure Pursuit [attack].”
“[T]hat it clearly appears, that what goes under the Name of Graceful Fencing, is for no other use, but only for such, as, for Divertisement, counterfit a Fight with Blunts, who only Assault in the Schools with Foils.”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method, 1714
“And, though none might suspect it from his clumsy bearing, he is a noted swordsman.”
—John Dickson Carr, Most Secret, 1964. Many excellent fencers appear clumsy or ungraceful, or lack classical form.
“I enjoyed swordsmanship more than anything because is was beautiful. I thought it was a wonderful exercise, a great sport. But I would not put it under the category of sport; I would put it under the category of the arts. I think it’s tremendously skillful and very beautiful.”
—Basil Rathbone, interviewed by Russ Jones for Flashback magazine, June 1972. Modern “Olympic” fencing might be much improved if more fencers and their teachers took this attitude. Rathbone was without doubt the best of the non-competitive Hollywood fencers.
“Briefly, our method could be expressed in this sentence: ‘The best parry is the blow.'”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Épée, 1936.
“The most efficacious means of fighting are offensive actions—above all attacks. In all weapons the majority of fencers score the largest amount of hits by attacks…”
—Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing, 2005
However, according to many of the French and derivative schools, old and new, note the following two quotations…
“…but also procures to himself the advantage of playing from the Risposte, which of all Methods of Fencing is the most commendable, and safest, but then, as I have said, it is only to such as are Masters of the Parade; which is a quality rare enough to be found, even amongst the greatest Sword-men.”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714. In other words, the method of relying foremost on the riposte is ideal—but only if you have the rare ability of mastering it. My own preference is for a patiently aggressive balance of offense and defense, added to judicious use of second intention actions which provide the opportunity to both attack and riposte. See especially the quotes on patience below.
“It is more dangerous to attack than to parry. Instead of waiting you let yourself go. And the great difficulty is to know how to let yourself go far enough without going to far.”
—Baron de Bazancourt, Secrets of the Sword, 1900 (English translation by C. F. Clay of the original 1862 French edition.)
“Dans les salles on discute la valeur des méthodes; qu’il s’agisse de radaellistes (école réformée d’Italie) de méridionaux (obscurantists de l’antique école napolitaine) ou de pinistes, on donne á notre école cet avatage de ne pas exiger une musculature extraordinaire: un tireur italien doit être un hercule, un tireur français peut être…une femme.”
“In the salles the value of the methods is discussed; whether they are Radaellists (the reformed school of Italy [named for the famous Radaelli]), or Southerners (obscurantists of the ancient Neapolitan school), or Pinists [named for the famous Pini], we argue that our school has the advantage of not requiring extraordinary musculature: an Italian fencer must be a Hercules, a French fencer can be…a woman.”
—”Rapière,” “L’Illustration,” 28 May 1892
“La spada è acuta, pungente, affilata, forbita, fatale, formidabile, lucida, nuda, fina, forte, ben temprata, nobile, perfetta.“
“The epee is pointed, biting, sharp, forbidding, fatal, formidable, shiny, naked, fine, strong, well tempered, noble, perfect.”
—Agesilao Greco, La Spada e la sua Disciplina d’Arte, 1912
“The genius of the French school is, of course, opportunist. In theory, every move of the adversary is acted on as it is made. The Italian fencer relies more on deductions from what has passed, and on premeditated schemes of attack and defence. Hence the diversity of the spirit in which the systems of opposition are conceived.”
“For the practical realist there is the duelling sword [the epee]; for the stylist there is the foil; for the imaginative and the artistic there is the saber. But some sense of reality, some sense of style, and some sense of artistry is essential to the practice of any one of the three weapons.”
—Percy E. Nobbs, Fencing Tactics, 1936. One might add the Hungarian school to his description of the Italian, given its heavy Italian influence and similar attitude toward tactics.
“La scherma, come l’aritmetica, no sopporta opinioni; essa è un fatto governato da leggi sicure, fisse, esperimentate, le quali se pure tollrano qualche leggera variante all loro forma esteriore, sogliono rimanere integre nella sostanza, perchè conducono sempre allo stesso, allo identico resultato. Insomma: la scherma nostra è come una bella signora la quale muti d’abito: la persona resta sempre la medesima.”
“Fencing, like arithmetic, does not tolerate opinions; it is a fact governed by sure, fixed, tested laws, which, even if they tolerate some slight variation to their external form, usually remain intact in substance, because they always lead to the same, identical result. In short: our fencing is like a beautiful lady who changes her dress: the person always remains the same.”
Eugenio Pini, Tratto Pratico e Teorico Sulla Scherma di Spada, 1904
“L’escrime est une science expérimentale, soumise à des lois immuables comme las physique et la chemie. Chaque movement y a son importance, sa signification, et on peut en verifier les consequences, les avantages et les inconvénients. L’escrime est une art; certaines natures, particulièrement douées, y sont parfois prepares, predestines; mais il faut s’appliquer assidûment pour atteindre à la perfection.”
“Fencing is an experimental science, which operates under immutable laws just as do physics and chemistry. Each movement has its importance, its significance, and one can verify the consequences, advantages, and disadvantages. Fencing is an art; certain natures, particularly gifted, are sometimes prepared, predestined, but it is necessary to apply oneself diligently to achieve perfection.”
—Dr. Achille Edom, L’Escrime, le Duel & l’Épée, 1908. My translation.
“L’art des armes ne consiste pas, contrairement à ce qu’a dit Molière, “à donner et à ne pas recevoir”; mais à ne pas recevoir d’abord et à donner ensuite, si l’on peut.”
“The art of arms consists not, contrary to what Molière said, ‘to give and not to receive,’ but at the outset to not receive and to give subsequently, if one can.”
“Il ne doit y avoir qu’une école d’escrime, celle qui prepare le tireur aussi bien pour l’assaut public que pour le terrain. En un mot, j’estime que l’escrime doit rester un art, mais il ne faut pas qu’elle demeure sans utilité pratique.”
“There must not be but one school of fencing, that which prepares the swordsman as well for the public assault [sport] as for the terrain [duel]. In a word, I deem that fencing must remain as an art, but it must not remain without practical use.”
— Anthime Spinnewyn, L’Escrime à l’épée, 1898. My translation.
“[I]l y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret et l’escrime de l’épée, l’escrime de la salle et l’escrime du terrain.”
[T]here are two forms of fencing, foil fencing and epee fencing, the swordplay of the club [sport fencing] and the swordplay of the [dueling] ground.
“N’est-ce pas là une indication de plus qu’il y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret, sport admirable, mais exercice de convention, et l’escrime à l’épée, méthode de combat?”
“Isn’t this more of an indication that there are two forms of fencing [with thrusting weapons], foil fencing, an admirable sport, but an exercise of convention, and epee fencing, a method of combat?”
—Arthur Ranc in the preface to Le Jeu de l’épée by Jules Jacob, 1887. My translation.
“Gallant bearing, disdainful valour, all that is very well in its way, ‘but the thing, Sir, is to hit your man without being hit yourself.’ That is the wisdom of ages.”
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903.
“But delightful as good foil-play is, both to performers and lookers-on, it is neither the real sword-fight nor even a reasonably complete preparation for it.”
—Charles Newton-Robinson in “The Revival of the Small-Sword,” 1905, in The Living Age.
“‘Henry Durie,’ said the Master, ‘Two words before I begin. You are a fencer, you can hold a foil; you little know what a change it makes to hold a sword!'”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae, 1889
De Meuse. — “L’assaut à l’épée de combat doit être l’image la plus complete possible du duel. Or, dans un duel, on ne donne jamais qu’un seul coup d’épée.”
Berger. — “Quelquefois deux et trois. Après une petite blessure on ne s’arrête pas.”
De Meuse. — “The dueling sword bout ought to be the closest image possible of the duel. However, in a duel, there is never only a single epee thrust [wound].”
Berger. — “Sometimes two and three. After a small wound one does not stop.”
—From the Troisième Congrès Internationale d’Escrime, 1908. The Congress was called to determine rules for fencing as sport. Unfortunately, the argument of M. De Meuse failed due to the opposition of foilists who dominated the Congress. They believed epee—the “modern school”—was largely degenerate as a separate weapon and that no special preparation was necessary. These gentlemen had already long since accepted the argument for sport fencing, based on foil fencing as an exercise in technique (much of it useless in actual combat), as something beyond combat and unnecessary to emulate it. In fact, foil had long been proved inadequate for actual combat. See the next quotation.
Renard. — “Nous avons tort de nous mettre dans l’idée que l’assaut est l’image du combat. Je fais de l’escrime comme sport et non pour me batter (marques generals d’approbation) et, autant que possible, pour faire quelque chose de bien. Il ne s’agit pas seulement de toucher.”
Renard. — “We are wrong to put forth the idea that the assault is the image of combat. I fence for sport and not to get battered (general marks of approval [from others]) and, whenever possible, to do something to benefit myself. Fencing is not only about getting the touch.”
—From the Troisième Congrès Internationale d’Escrime, 1908. M. Renard is correct that no bout or assault can be the image of actual combat; no training or practice can. However, from this point forward the idea of all fencing as entirely a sport pastime began to take root and was the death knell of sport fencing as the emulation of actual combat as opposed to sport fencing as pure sport. It’s only grown worse a century later, with foil and saber now entirely artificial. Epee too has it’s artificialities–all forms of swordplay do–but it remains far closer to actual combat than foil or saber, notwithstanding that in many epee exchanges both fencers are hit, even if only one touch is counted. My translation.
“In competition many irregularities occur in connection with the attack. More and more competitors abuse and exploit the incorrect attitude of the judges, who qualify as an attack every advance of the fencer done with invitation or blade lowered, that is, without a threat, although with great speed. Their judgement goes against the fencer who keeps distance to avoid a fleche, although he begins the actual attack with the threat of his weapon. This decision releases a very dangerous, evil “spirit from the bottle”, because–on the basis of the “end justifies the means” principle–more and more competitors depart from the correct, learnt path and abuse the situation. This endangers the entire foundations of fencing, especially of sabre, which rests on realistic conventions.”
“Education, persuasion and the setting of examples and even severe lessons must be used to put an end once and for all to these deviations which threaten the existence of fencing.”
–László Szabó, Fencing and the Master, 1977
The spirit and deviations are unfortunately, and almost unconscionably, long since out of the bottle, and have turned foil and saber into a mere game of tag, and even epee too. The solution is to enforce the convention of legitimate threats with the blade in foil and saber (as opposed to the ludicrous sophistry that substitutes today, permitting attacks in invitation aka “bent arm”), and in epee to lengthen the time within which a double touch may be made, the last of which would force epeeists to focus once again on the ideal of hitting and, importantly, not getting hit.
“The answer is easy. The great art of swordsmanship consists in laying successful snares, such as making your opponent expect the attack exactly where it is not intended. To deceive his expectations, to break up what he combines, to disappoint his plans, and to narrow his action; to dominate his movements, to paralyse his thoughts, represent the art, the science, the skill, and the power of your perfect swordsman…”
—Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911. Burton was a swordsman, explorer, linguist, scholar, spy, and translator of The Arabian Nights. He was the first non-Muslim to make the Hajj to Mecca, doing so in disguise. As a swordsman he was known as a fierce fighter, with numerous combats in the field.
“C’est une mine si féconde que cette lutte d’adresse, d’habileté, de science, de coup d’œil, d’énergie, de jugement, où toutes les facultés intellectuelles et physiques s’emploient à la fois et se viennent mutuellement en aide.”
“And after all the art of fence does furnish a most interesting fund of conversation—the art of skillful fighting at close quarters, which implies a knowledge of theory combined with a trained power of execution, which taxes eye and hand, vigour and judgment, and brings into play every faculty of mind and body, each doing its part, and each in turn supplementing and reinforcing the other.”
—Baron César de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l’Épée, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.
“[Early epeeists] were realists who preferred the romantic to the classic.”
—R. A. Lidstone, Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre, 1952. Ever have I been a romantic realist.
“The real fun of fencing is in working out one’s own ruses: sometimes by inspiration on the spur of the moment in a hotly contested bout; and sometimes at leisure, in the watches of the night, for the discomfiture of some difficult opponent who has had the better of it during the day.”
“After a friendly bout is over one carries away the recollection of a few good things well done. It is easy, often too easy, to forget one’s discomfitures. Incidentally, both fencers have revealed their characters to one another, as well as their physical abilities and mental powers. To know is to understand; thus friendships are made.”
“The essence of the game [looseplay, free fencing] is to interest, not to overpower, one’s adversary, and to outwit with a well executed and theoretically fatal cut or thrust. Then, there is a good laugh; whether at one’s own expense or at that of one’s adversary, does not matter. It is by finding out how a hit was made, as much as by trying to make hits, that one learns what fencing means.”
—Percy E. Nobbs, Fencing Tactics, 1936.
“Not so, Anthony, my faith—no! Your murdering tool is cowardly pistol or blundering musketoon whereby Brutish Ignorance may slaughter Learned Valour and from safe distance. But, as Mind is greater than mere Body so is the rapier greater than any other weapon, and its manage an exact science calling not only for the strict accordance of hand, eye and foot, but for an alertness o’ the mind also.”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940. Farnol was a fencer and his descriptions of swordplay are accurate.
MAÎTRE D’ARMES: …tous le secret des armes ne consiste qu’en deux choses: à donner et à ne point recevoir; et, comme je vous fis voir l’autre jour par raison demonstrative, il est impossible que vous receviez, si vous savez détourner l’épée de votre ennemi de la ligne de votre corps; ce qui ne dépend seulement que d’un petit mouvement de poignet, ou en dedans or dehors.
JOURDAIN: De cette façon donc, un homme, sans avoir du coeur, est sûr de tuer son homme et de n’être point tué?
MAÎTRE D’ARMES: Sans doute.
MASTER OF ARMS: …the entire secret of arms consists but in two things: to give and not to receive; and, as I demonstrated to you the other day, it is impossible that you will receive, if you have turned your enemy’s sword from the line of your body; and this depends only on a small movement of the wrist, either inside or outside.
JOURDAIN: In this fashion, then, a man, with no courage, is sure to kill his man and not be killed?
MASTER OF ARMS: Without doubt.
—Molière [Jean Baptiste Poquelin], Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1673. One of France’s most famous playwrights, Molière is poking fun at both the bourgeois and at anyone gullible enough to believe that swordplay is a simple matter.
“…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either be Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…”
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694. True then, true later, true today in all forms of swordplay. Notwithstanding modern idealistic classical and historical fencers who believe, via an imagined nostalgia, that the swordplay of past eras was more correct and useful for the encounters with real blades, Hope, not to mention close study, dashes this notion. Double hits are the bane of swordplay, and it is difficult to eradicate them entirely in both play and competition. And, given the large number of accounts of duels in which both antagonists were wounded in contre-temps or “exchanged thrusts,” it was clearly a problem in actual combat as well.
“It is a prejudice to think that swordsmanship is meant solely to slash an opponent. It is meant not to slash an opponent, but to kill evil. It is a way of allowing ten thousand men to live by killing a single evil man.”
—From the Heiho Kaden Sho (Family-Transmitted Book on Swordsmanship), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.
“The accomplished man does not kill people by using his sword; he lets them live by using his sword.”
—From Taia Ki (On the T’ai-a), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.
Far more courtesies and expectations of behavior than are given below may be found here: Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments.
“The salute is an usage established in all the fencing schools, in order to preserve the politeness that we owe to one another.”
—J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized /L’Art des Armes Simplifié, 1771. Note the phrase in all the fencing schools; the salute was generally not used in a duel or rencontre, at least not among the French and their disciples.
“It is a polite custom to salute your opponent with your blade before the bout, and to offer him your hand at the end.”
“Once the fencer has taken the guard position, he must be considerate of his opponent. Neither fencer must talk during the bout. Fencing requires the greatest possible attention, and this may not be diverted in any way or for any reason except by fencing tactics.”
“In fencing against an opponent who acknowledges your superiority, sportsmanship demands that you do not make the most of your advantages; rather should you assist his swordplay as much as possible, and avoid placing him in a painful or ridiculous position by over-emphasizing your superiority.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932
“Don’t show any sign of bad temper if you are the loser.”
“Don’t get conceited, or be haughty, if you are the winner.”
“Don’t forget always to be modest and courteous.”
“If your adversary should prove far superior to you, do not show discontent or bad temper; do not be disheartened, keep up your style and do your best, no matter how badly you may be beaten. Take your defeat in the right spirit, it will help to improve you; take it as a lesson you needed. Remain always the ‘correct gentleman.'”
“Not shaking hands with an adversary after a match or a rencontre is a great lack of courtesy, and should be reprimanded. Saluting an adversary previously to the beginning of a bout should be done before placing the mask on the head.”
—Félix Gravé, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934
“Une simple observation pour terminer: à l’épée comme au fleuret, le silence est de rigueur. La parole est aux armes, dit-on; c’est-à-dire que, seules, la tête el la main doivent agir.”
“A simple observation to end with: at epee as at foil, silence is mandatory. One lets the weapons speak; that is to say, the head and hand must act alone.”
—Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Félizet], Traité de l’épée, 1884.
“No Scholar nor Spectator without a licence from the Master, should offer to direct or give advice to any of the Scholars, who are either taking a Lesson or Assaulting…First, because without permission they take upon them to play the Master; And secondly, because they reprove oft-times their Commerads for the same very fault they themselves are most guilty of, although perhaps not sensible of, which when By-standers perceive, they smile at them (and with just reason) as being both ignorant and impertinent; therefore it would be a great deal more commendable in them, to be more careful in rectifying their own faults, and less strict in censuring others.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
“Upon their first appearance upon the Stage, they march towards one another, with a slow majestick pace, and a bold commanding look, as if they meant both to conquer; and coming near together, they shake hands, and embrace one another, with a chearful look. But their retreat is much quicker than their advance, and, being at first distance, change their countenance, and put themselves into their posture; and so after a pass or two, retire, and then to’t again: And when they have done their play, they embrace, shake hands, and putting on their smoother countenances, give their respects to their Master, and so go off.”
—Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, 1673. Ligon is describing Portuguese African slaves brought to Barbados, who are fencing expertly with single rapier and rapier and dagger in the manner of Jeronimo Sanchez de Carranza. But for the respects to their “Master”–their owner–the description is a perfect one of how fencers should comport themselves during a bout, from beginning to end.
On Becoming a Fencer
“The way is in training.”
“The essence of this book is that you must train day and night in order to make quick decisions. In strategy it is necessary to treat training as a part of normal life with your spirit unchanging.”
—Musashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645.
“For Fencing is an Art which depends mainly upon Practice, and who ever thinks to acquire it any other way, is I assure him mightily mistaken, and the more a man practice and with the more different humors, so much the better for him…”
“[S]o that let the greatest Artist in the World forbear but the Practice of it [fencing] for a twelve month, although I confess he can never loss [lose] the Judgement he hath acquired, yet he will certainly when he cometh to practice again, find his Body and Limbs stiffer, and his Hand and motions both for Defence and Offence, neither so exact, nor by far so swift, as if he had been in a continual Practice, I mean at least once a Week or Fortnight…”
“[T]here is as much difference betwixt taking a Lesson, or playing upon a Masters breast, and Assaulting or performing the same Lessons upon your Commerads, as there is betwixt the repeating of an eloquent Discourse already penned, and the composing of one.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
“Finally, Practice is the Marrow and Quintessence of the Art, for without that, a Papist may soon forget his Pater-noster; but by frequent Practice, a Man gains much experience daily, and is continually improving his Skill. This being the last Observation, and one of the chief, no Opportunities of Practising ought to be neglected.”
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711
“This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness; for nothing requires a man to exert himself more than sword-defence, and it is as difficult to attain such an air of intrepidity without much practice, as it is difficult to become perfectly expert in the art.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809.
“Si vous voulez devenir un véritable tireur, certainement il vous faudra de longues années de travaux, de méditations sévères, d’exercices incessants.”
“If you would be an accomplished swordsman, you will certainly require years of hard work, close application, and incessant practice.”
—César de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l’Épée, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.
And yet, reality too often sets in, past and present:
“Souldiers in a Battel or Attack, do not regularly alwayes observe this [correct] Method [of swordplay]: and most part thrust on any way, without troubling themselves much with the Tierce, Guart, or Feint; but make use of their Swords to attack or defend themselves, according to the small talent that God Almighty has given them.”
—Louis de Gaya, A Treatise of the Arms and Engines of War, 1678
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practiced skill.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood, 1922
“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”
—Rafael Sabatini, The Black Swan, 1932
“[A] man can never be called a compleat Sword Man, untill he can Defend himself with all kindes of Swords, against all sorts his Adversary can choose against him.”
—Sir William Hope, The Compleat Fencing-Master, 1710.
“L’escrime est une maîtresse capricious et frivole; elle résiste longtemps à ses adorateurs, mais, à ceux qui ont su la posséder, elle reserve des joies incomparables.”
“Fencing is a capricious and frivolous mistress; she long resists her suitors, but, to those are able to possess her, she reserves incomparable joys.”
—Dr. Achille Edom, L’Escrime, le Duel & l’Épée, 1908. My translation.
“For double hits are misfortunes, verging on crimes, and it is not in the lesson, but in friendly looseplay that one must learn to avoid them; or at least not be to blame when they occur.”
“One wastes one’s time and opportunity in going fast with them and piling up a score of hits. If one resolves to give only hit for hit, but to be careful that all the hits one gives have been worked for with due preparation, the bout with the less expert can be very fruitful indeed.”
—Percy E. Nobbs, Fencing Tactics, 1936.
“Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as at five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my fencing friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they still consider themselves mere tyros in their art.”
—R. G. Allanson-Winn, Broadsword and Singlestick, 1911
“Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
—Merlin speaking to Wart, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, 1958
“The more you understand fencing, the more you will enjoy it. This particularly applies to the novice for, like all highly skilled games, it is easy to be put off by the chore of having to begin right at the beginning.”
—Bob Anderson, All About Fencing, 1963. Mr. Anderson was a British Olympic fencer and Olympic coach who became Hollywood’s leading swordplay choreographer, following in the footsteps of Fred Cavens and Ralph Faulkner. The fencing in Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and Alatriste are but three of his many film works. He died in January, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably left out of the In Memoriam tributes at the 2012 and 2013 Oscars.
“The next exercise that a young man shall learn, but not before he is eleven or twelve years age, is fencing…”
—Lord Herbert of Cherbury, 1624, quoted in J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms, 1956. The stated age at which to begin fencing is valid today. Although children can be taught earlier, it should be done as fun physical preparation for learning to fence, not instruction in fencing itself with the goal of competition. Unfortunately, youth fencing, often beginning as young as six years (or even younger!), is modern fencing’s cash cow; it pays the bills, and as such children are pushed into competition before they’re physically or psychologically prepared, leading to burn out. Over-pressured by parents living vicariously through their children and coaches looking for “champions,” they lose their love for swordplay or never come to love it at all.
“[G]enerally speaking, few persons, except those of liberal education, ever think of, much less learn, the Art of Fencing, and they, of course, are understood to be familiar with the French language.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“To be in possession of what you know, you must be in possession of yourself.”
—le sieur Labat, L’art en fait d’armes, 1696, from Mahon’s translation entitled The Art of Fencing, 1734
“For, Anthony, he that would be a true sword-master must first be master of himself, then of his blade, so shall he be master of his adversary. You follow me, I hope?”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940
“Well, a man is as he is trained.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
“Fencing, like other sciences, cannot be degraded to a mechanical art, that may be infallibly practiced by a receipt; nor can it be thoroughly and completely acquired by only reading a book on the subject.”
“At the same time, I earnestly caution the intelligent young amateur, before he adopts any of these new methods of executing the different movements, &c. in Fencing, to submit them to the test of the strictest examination, and to determine, if possible, how far they appear to be consistent with reason and practicability.”
“[T]he pupil, who I wish at all times to make use, but not too hastily, and without partiality, of his own judgement, and not upon every occasion to take for certain evidence any proposition upon the authority alone of a master, merely because he is a master, or that the same may be found in print.”
“They are shown both methods, and after a proper demonstration of their respective merits, I always leave it to their own judgment, to practise that which they find by experience to succeed best. It is on this principle alone I wish all my observations to be weighed. I detest the maxim of acting upon mere authority, without any convincing proof.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“This is what made him a great coach: he taught strategy and tactics, not just attacks and parries. He taught you how to analyze your opponents, get inside their heads, figure out what they would do, what were their strengths and weaknesses. He taught you to have confidence in yourself, to work hard, to settle for nothing less than the best you could do. He knew how to coax, insult, and inspire his students to achieve ever greater heights of success.”
—Roger Jones, describing Lajos Csiszar in an article, 2000. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés, and coached Dr. Eugene Hamori after he defected to the US during the 1956 Olympic Games (and after the Hungarian saber team won gold). From an article by Roger Jones, 2000. Jones was one of Csiszar’s US students as well as a member of the 1955 and 1957 US epee teams, an alternate to the 1956 Olympic team, a longtime AFLA/USFA/FIE official, a strong vocal opponent of gamesmanship and cheating, and, of course, like many male students of Santelli, Szabo, Csiszar, Zold, and Hamori, a gentleman and a swordsman. A US Navy Reserve Captain, an author, and an icon of the plastics industry, he passed away in 2014. As with most of my “old school” fencing friends and acquaintances, I had great conversations with him, from which I learned much. My favorite anecdote of his concerned an international fencer who once approached him to throw a bout to him, an unfortunately common practice at the international level, so he could advance. Roger had lost too many bouts to advance. Roger was incensed by the suggestion and defeated his adversary, denying him the ability to advance and putting him in his rightful place. Csiszar was elated: “You fought for your honor!”
“While training, the pupil should naturally practice and experiment ignoring for the time being the question of his powers of hitting, so that he can constantly enrich his knowledge and skills.”
“Fencing lessons built up systematically, practice under bout-like conditions, exercises “au-mur”, conventional exercises, exercises designed to parry attacks, bouts, systematic free fencing, unlimited bouts, bouts fenced until 5 or 10 hits [and today, 15] and competitive fencing constitute the framework within which the fencer can grow to the stature of a competitor.”
—Imre Vass, Párbajtörvívás, 1965, from the first English translation, Epee Fencing, 1976
“American fencers and coaches should understand and build their program on the fact that the coach’s role is only 10 percent of the total effort. Fencers must rely on themselves in training and in competition. Coaches should not try to ‘sell’ themselves to the students. Students must become independent.”
“[Smaller competitions are] ‘practice competitions,’ where the fencer does not necessarily have to win, rather, he should use a wide variety of his moves while checking and following his progress. On major competitions, the fencer should always try to win, and go all out to win, ‘even if he only has one move…'”
—Kaj Czarnecki, American Fencing, Jan/Feb 1980. Maitre Czarnecki, who passed away in 2018, was a Finnish Olympic epee fencer and fifteen time Finnish and Scandinavian champion, winning in all three weapons. He was a leading coach in Sweden, helped train Johan Harmenberg, and eventually became one of the epee coaches at the US Modern Pentathlon Training Center at Fort Sam Houston. I heard him make similar remarks during an epee clinic at the Mardi Gras Fencing Tournament in New Orleans that spring. Too few coaches take these views today, with the result that many fencers are anything but independent on the strip or elsewhere. Many coaches prefer to have their students bound too closely to them–and to take credit for their victories, if not always their losses.
“Always combine footwork with techniques being practiced.”
“Footwork and more footwork. Speed and more speed.”
“Develop these qualities
1. Smoothness 2. Ease 3. Accuracy”
“To find stillness in movement, not stillness in stillness.”
—Bruce Lee, from his notes on “Incorporating fencing principles,” quoted from Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way, compiled and edited by John Little, 1997. Bruce Lee studied both Western boxing and Western fencing, and incorporated some of their principles in Jeet Kune Do.
“[I]n the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
—Shunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970. That is, keep your mind open and don’t fall victim to your knowledge or success.
“Bonus homo semper tiro.”
“A good person is always a novice.”
—Derived from Martial XII.li.2. See Suzuki above.
The En Garde: Three Not Incompatible Opinions
“The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable. They were the scholars of John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him. This exercise is most necessary for you, and also excellent for your health.”
—William Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658
“This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness…”
“In whatever attitude you may think it necessary to present yourself facing your adversary, if your mind is prepared to attack and defend, you will be, properly speaking, ‘on guard.'”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“In your en garde you must lean forward slightly and thereby appear to be always in motion, as if you are always attacking. When your opponent looks at you, he or she must believe you are constantly attacking no matter what you are doing.”
— Dr. Eugene Hamori, as best I recall, to me forty years ago, to my wife within the past five.
On Patience as a Fencing Virtue: Epeeists, Take Heed!
“’Prevail by patience,’ is the motto of my house, and I have taken it for the guiding maxim of my life.”
—de Bernis, in Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan, 1932. The novel builds to a duel at the climax.
(Patience conquers, to conquer or prevail via patience.)
—Old motto and the likely Latin version of the motto of Charles de Bernis, Sabatini’s hero in The Black Swan. Used by the Huntsville Fencing Club until replaced with the motto below.
Patientia ferox vincit.
(To conquer or prevail via a fierce or warlike patience.)
—Modification of patientia vincit based on my experience fencing and teaching fencing, for the Huntsville Fencing Club and Salle de Bernis, 2012
“Patience need not be passive!”
—To my fencing students, circa 2005 to the present.
“L’assaut en un coup demande de la prudence, mais non de l’inactivité.”
“An assault for one touch demands prudence, but not inactivity.”
—J. Joseph Renaud in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; épée, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par Léon Lécuyer, 1913. Compare with Patientia Ferox Vincit and “Patience need not be passive!” above. I discovered this quote in April 2013, proving, yet again, that there is little original in fencing, and none of us are as original as we think we might be.
“Errors of distance, overeagerness, foolhardiness and impatience, are faults for which every épéeist of experience is on the look-out in his opponent’s game. More, they are faults which the épéeist will try to bring about in the unwary swordsman.”
—Roger Crosnier, Fencing with the Epee, 1958. As or more important, in my opinion, than watching for or inducing these errors in the opponent, is preventing them in oneself.
“Patience is the first virtue of an épée fencer.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Épée, 1936
Notwithstanding the necessity of aggressive patience in epee, or in any dueling sword, with the introduction of a severe modern “non-combativity” rule that forces epeeists to fence aggressively–put simply, there must be a touch scored within a minute or there is a penalty–, the often foolish and feckless fencing powers-that-be are undermining the very essence of swordplay itself. Action in fencing is not composed of touches but of physical and intellectual maneuvering. Some of the most exciting bouts I’ve ever fenced or watched have had few touches scored. My wife and I often go eight or more minutes without a touch (eleven minutes once), and an old friend of mine, a truly classical epeeist, and I often go several minutes without a touch–and in both of these examples other fencers typically stop to watch. A lack of prodigious scoring doesn’t equate with spectator boredom. If it did, no one would watch baseball or soccer, or for that matter, golf. Why the rule change? It’s pressure from the IOC: if sports don’t draw enough spectators (i.e. advertising dollars), they’re out. Fencing officials, elite coaches, and elite fencers are abandoning fencing’s core values for the sake of the cachet of the Olympic Games, which in fact field only a small number of fencers as compared to the World Championships.
“A l’épée, il faut savoir attendre.”
“In epee, one must know how to wait.”
—Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Félizet], Traité de l’épée, 1884. The translation is by Brian House from his excellent English version, The Dueling Sword, 2009
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication during a lesson, 1978
Fencing Qualities, Techniques, & Tactics
“La fortune aidait souvent la valeur un peu téméraire.”
“Fortune often aids valor that is a bit reckless.”
—Capt. René Duguay-Trouin, Mémoires, 1741. Duguay-Trouin was a famous late 17th and early 18th century French privateer and naval officer who once captured a ship by boarding it, then engaging the enemy captain single-handedly, sword-in-hand, forcing him to surrender in the style of the great Hollywood swashbucklers. He was a duelist (bretteur) when young, and later brought at least one fencing teacher (a master’s assistant) aboard his ship in order to improve his crews’ fighting ability. He later had a rencontre in the street with the fencing teacher, a fight that was anything but academic. The quotation may derive from audentis fortuna iuvat, later written by Virgil as audaces Fortuna iuvat (Fortune aids the bold). Similar is the SAS motto, ‘Who Dares Wins.'” My translation.
“Dans le noble exercice des armes, ce n’est pas aux audacieux que sourit la fortune, mais aux persévérants.”
“In the noble exercise of arms, it is not the audacious that Fortune smiles upon, but on those who persevere.”
—Anthime Spinnewyn, L’Escrime à l’épée, 1898. My translation. Compare with Duguay-Trouin above, and with the admonitions of Francis Zold and Nobuo Hayashi below.
“Joignez dans le combat, la valeur à la prudence, la peau du Lion à celle du Renard.”
“In battle let valour and prudence go together, the lyon’s courage with the fox’s craft.”
—le sieur Labat, L’art des armes, 1696. The English is from Andrew Mahon’s translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734.
“The man in the periwig, whose every movement was as swift and light-footed as a cat’s, lowered the sword point.”
—John Dickson Carr, The Devil in Velvet, 1951
“Fencing without Judgement, is just like a Watch without a Spring, a Neat piece of Work with a great many fine Wheels, but without any Motion, the want of which maketh her useless.”
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694
“[T]he true Art of Sword-defence depends, in great measure, on judgement in deceiving the adversary’s motions, and in not being deceived by his.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“For what are all strategems, ambuscades, and outfalls but lying upon a large scale?”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
“Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fencer’s skill in tactics is displayed to a large degree by the ability to mislead an opponent, to recognise the opponent’s intentions and to discern any attempts to be mislead.”
—Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Fencing Actions—Terminology, Their Classification and Application in Competition,” n.d.
“Double-dealing is the basis of swordsmanship. By double-dealing, I mean the stratagem of obtaining truth through deception.”
—From The Death-Dealing Blade, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
“A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honor, or even when reduced in its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.”
—Joseph Conrad, The Duel, 1908. Conrad’s story was based on the actual tale of a long-running series of duels between two Napoleonic officers. It was later made into an excellent film, The Duellists, 1977.
“Be simple, be smart. Don’t move your weapon until you are ready to use it… then SHOOT! Let the younger fencers become eager and make mistakes. Against the older ones, use your speed and strength. Remember, mano de ferro, braccio di gomma—have a hand of iron and an arm of rubber.”
—Italo Santelli, quoted by Lajos Csiszar quoted by Roger Jones, [1950s] 2000.
“Always keep a Spring in our Arm and Wrist, to make your Thrust go the quicker, and your Parie the more sure, and as soon as you have done either, Recover them again.”
—Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728.
Ratón que se sábe mas de un horádo, présto le cagé el gáto.
The cat soon catches the rat that knows but one hole. [More literally: the mouse who knows more than one hole soon escapes the cat.]
—proverb quoted in John Stevens, A New Spanish Grammar, 1725
“Rouse me not.”
—The Conisby family motto, from Jeffery Farnol’s swashbuckler Martin Conisby’s Vengeance, 1921. Some fencers, myself included, fence well when “roused” or angered, at least for a while, although historical the usual advice has been to keep one’s anger and temper reined in. If one is to fence angry or in fury, let it be cold-blooded rather than hot-blooded. See also Dr. Eugene Hamori’s advice to me below.
“One last bit of advice for the strip: Get MAD at your opponents, at the director, at the world, etc., when you fence and quit apologizing for yourself.”
“But if it works for you, then do it.”
—Dr. Eugene Hamori, personal correspondence, 1995
Anger is not recommended for hot-tempered fencers, but for cold-blooded ones who can focus their anger–and it won’t last forever, this focused anger. You’ll still have to rely on cool-headed technique most of the time.
“Your opponent, when struck, is bound to transform himself. When struck, he thinks, ‘What’s this! I’ve been struck!’ and may get angry. If he gets angry, he becomes resolute. If you relax at that moment, your opponent will strike you down. Regard the opponent you’ve struck as a furious boar.'”
—From The Life-Giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato. I’ve warned cocky fencing students not to anger they’re opponents unless they know beforehand that the opponents will lose control. Many, as noted above, will not. It’s a fine lesson for a cocky student to be soundly beaten by an adversary he or she has angered.
“And, remember, there is nothing bad in fencing, provided that it succeeds.”
—Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911. See also Eugene Hamori above. It should be noted that Burton is, in the case of salle fencing and dueling, speaking only of honorable fencing, certainly not the gamesmanship and “cheating within the rules” far too many fencers, albeit a minority thankfully, consider fair play.
“[The epee or duelling sword] is a democratic weapon in that the less skillful fencer always has a chance to win; but it is an exacting task for a fencer consistently to achieve distinction in duelling sword unless he combines a fundamentally sound technique with the instinct of strategy.”
—Julio Martinez Castello, The Theory and Practice of Fencing, 1933. The same may be said of the smallsword or any dueling sword.
“Épée fencing requires a special technique, courage, opportunism and concentration of effort in the highest degree. It is the highest expression of the art of fencing, because it alone is based on the conception of hitting the opponent without oneself being hit… Litheness, agility and speed, which are the essentials for the successful épéeist, are largely based on his footwork… Épée fencing is par excellence a game of timing, tactics and bluff… Subtlety, bluff and courage are salient features of this game… While caution is essential with the duelling weapon, the best devised moves will come to naught unless the épéeist possesses courage to risk everything when the right opportunity presents itself.”
—C-L de Beaumont, OBE, in Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport, 1960
“There is in steel a subtle magnetism which is the index of one’s antagonist.”
—Rafael Sabatini, The Suitors of Yvonne, 1902
“Here was a man whom much and constant practice had given extraordinary speed and a technique that was almost perfect. In addition, he enjoyed over André-Louis physical advantages of strength and length of reach, which rendered him altogether formidable. And he was cool, too; cool and self-contained; fearless and purposeful. Would anything shake that calm, wondered André-Louis.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
“NOVEL: Pshaw! Talking is like Fencing, the quicker the better; run ‘em down, run ‘em down; no matter for parrying; push on still, sa, sa, sa: no matter whether you argue in form, push in guard, or no.
MANLY: Or hit, or no; I think thou alwayes talk’st without thinking, Novel.”
—William Wycherley, The Plain-Dealer, 1674. The lines are satire. Captain Manly is an honest plain-speaking fighting seaman who serves “out of Honour, not Interest,” while Novel is “a pert railing Coxcomb,” or in other words, an ass, and clearly no swordsman either.
“Be not over elated at the thrusts you hit with, nor despise those by which you are hit.”
“Never set any value upon any thrust you give, before you examine whether it was well given, without any danger attending it.”
“Study the danger and advantage of every thrust you make.”
—Andrew Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771.
“We consider being in tune bad, being out of tune good. When you and your opponent are in tune with each other, he can use his sword better; when you are not, he can’t. You must strike in such a way as to make it hard for your opponent to use his sword well… The point is to stay out of tune with your opponent. Out of tune, you can step in.”
—From The Death-Dealing Blade, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato. In other words, don’t match your opponent’s rhythm. And if you do, you must be prepared to strike just before your opponent intends to strike, breaking tempo in this manner. This principle–“Fence out of tune!” is one I constantly instill in students’ practice.
“C’est une chose si difficile à prendre que lest temps, l’épée à la main, que je ne conseille a personne de s’y trop hasarder.”
“Taking tempo is such a difficult thing to do, sword-in-hand [i.e. with a real sword], that I do not recommend anyone risk it too much.”
—André Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, Le maistre d’armes: ou, L’exercice de l’epée seule, dans sa perfection, 1686. My translation.
Such tempo actions, seldom recommended by duelists, make up much of modern epee. My first fencing master, who had fought at least one duel, once pointed out to me the dangers of tempo actions with real swords, particularly in counter-attacks: they will not stop fully developed attacks. Even a time thrust to body might stop the forward motion of an attack only if it strikes the breastbone, base of the ulna, or possibly forehead, targets to small to risk. The danger is even greater with counter-attacks to the arm when the adversary has launched a strong attack. Nonetheless, even in the 17th and 18th centuries, many swordsmen used time hits. See immediately below, and also all quotes by Sir Wm. Hope.
“I bound his Sword and made a half Thrust at his Breast, he Timed me and wounded me in the Mouth; we took another turn, I took a little better care, and gave him a Thrust in the Body…”
Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728. Time thrusts, in this case a disengage from a bind, when used wisely in this era were made in opposition and typically with the unarmed hand closing the line as well, in order to ensure maximum safety. Mouth wound notwithstanding, McBane killed his adversary, a boastful Gascon.
“This last fault of drawing back the hand on the attack, or in plain terms, stabbing, deserves a word by itself. It is perfectly fatal to good fencing…Before delivering his point, the stabber checks the onward movement of the blade by drawing back the hand, and therefore loses all the space and time wasted in first withdrawing the hand from the starting-point and then returning to it. While this process is going on, all the opponent has to do is to straighten, which is clearly quicker, as it is all on the way. No sane man would dream of laying himself open in such a way if he were engaged in fighting for his life…”
—Henry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899. Unfortunately, this technique of “stabbing” (i.e. “bent arm attacks” or “attacks in invitation”) and the dangers it holds to the user were swords real, is now considered an acceptable form of attack—in fact, it is the most common—in modern foil and saber fencing, to the point [pun half-intended] that neither weapon much resembles actual combat anymore, but are more akin to a game of tag with steel rods, all governed by a set of esoteric rules pandering to an imaginary audience.
“The flexibility of the foil will enable an expert fencer to produce effects that may dazzle the uninitiated, while they are well understood, and known to be mere sleight-of-hand tricks by those familiar with the exercise… If an expert fencer makes a rapid pass over his opponent’s guard, striking his foil near its centre, with force, against that of his opponent, he can spring the point of his foil from ten to eighteen inches, according to the flexibility of his blade; whereas if he makes a cut with a sword, using equal force and striking with the edge of his blade, he can not spring the point of his weapon the hundredth part of an inch.”
—Matthew J. O’Rourke, A New System of Sword Exercise, 1872
In other words—take note, those of you who belong to the significant sub-set of classical fencers whose understanding of fencing history is of the cherry-picked and ideologically fanciful variety—the flick has been around a long time. For good reason did foilists in the 19th century, and even into the early 20th, wear fat fencing gloves thickly padded with horsehair. In fact, it’s impossible to entirely get rid of the flick, given the need for practice weapons to have flexible blades. Many of the 19th century foil blades I’ve examined, including some in my collection, have ridiculously flexible blades.
I’m no fan of the flick, for it’s a purely sport technique that has no place in real combat or in swordplay intended to emulate it as much as possible. I’ve included the quote above primarily to note the failure in common knowledge of fencing history: the use of the flick in modern fencing (a bit less so in foil now but still common in epee) is often cited by “classical fencers” as a reason modern fencing is “impure.” Well, so then was 19th century foil…
“Never give up!”
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977-1978. This was one of his admonitions to all of his students.
“A man never gives up! A man dies first!”
—Nobuo Hayashi, my judo and jiujutsu teacher, 1979 or 1980. Sensei Hayashi was brought up before and during WWII in the old jiujutsu, had trained to become a Kamikaze pilot, and won the Japanese university judo championship in the late 1950s. His anecdotes, like those of my fencing masters, were delightful. He shouted this comment after a student, attempting to escape him on the mat, simply gave up. As I recall, Sensei Hayashi also ordered the student to leave the dojo/gym. It was in fact largely impossible for his students to escape him on the mat, although he would permit it on occasion if a technique were impeccably executed, at least by some of his more advanced students. By accident and his inattention I once slipped loose and almost escaped: he laughed, hauled me back, and twisted me into a pretzel. He had great regard for fencers and swordplay, both Japanese and European, and, seeing me under the tutelage of my fencing master one afternoon, I think he was thereby inclined afterward to indulge my learning in perhaps a paternal fashion.
“Ne tirez l’épée que pour servir le Prince , conserver vôtre honneur ou défendre vôtre vie.”
“Draw not your sword, but to serve your king, preserve your honor, or defend your life.”
—le sieur Labat, L’art des armes, 1696, from Andrew Mahon’s translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734
“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, 2000. The quote dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier.
“To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, ‘the things that will destroy American fencing are victories at any price, prestige at any price, expenses first instead of honor first, and love of subsidies and the state-supported athlete theory of ‘amateur sports.'”
—Roger Jones, “Poor Technique?” in American Fencing, March 1966
“It is happily true that in England we no longer curb the indiscreet utterance of undisciplined lips with cold steel, nor adopt the crude method of letting in light upon the mind through a hole in the body.”
—Henry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899
“So in their own sense Duelling cannot properly vindicat[e] any opprobrious epithet, but that of a Coward.”
—Wm. Anstruther, Essays, Moral and Divine, 1701
“I mention these to caution you on all occasions to be on your Guard, and not to trust any man whatever who is your adversary. For many have been deceived by not taking care of themselves in these cases, tho’ their adversaries have been men of strict honour, as they thought, and that they would not be so base and villainous as to be guilty of any thing below the character of Brave Men and Gentlemen. Experientiæ Docet.”
—Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728. McBane, a Scot, was a veteran soldier wounded several times in action, as well as a swordsman, duelist, fencing master, occasional pimp, and prize fighter. He is also the man for whom “Soldier’s Leap” is named in Scotland. Good advice not only for a duel, but for life in general. Experientiæ Docet is an abbreviated form of Experientiæ Docet Stultos: Experience Teaches Fools. McBane appears to be making a subtle joke at his own expense.
“The honor of some adversaries can never be relied on safely. In a selfish or revengeful spirit, many persons might be disposed to commit assassination, for which reason, friends and time are always indispensable.”
“No boast, threat, trick, or stratagem, which may wound the feelings, or lessen the equality of the combatants, should ever enter into the contemplation of a gentleman.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. The first quotation is in the vein of McBane, above. Many have honor in the mundane, when there is little risk to life, limb, property, money, or reputation; far fewer have honor where there is much risk or peril.
“Eh bien! les duellistes poitevins qui ont laissé à bon titre le renom d’adversaires dangereux, Bourbeau (un cousin de l’ancien ministre), Lemaire, le fameux de Pindray — jen passe — n’étaient pas classés parmi les forts tireurs. Je le tiens de mon vieux professeur, le père Nerrière, un maître de l’école de Lafaugère que M. Legouvé a peut-être connu et qui m’a répété plus d’une fois que de Pindray, redoutable, terrible sur le terrain, n’avait travaillé sérieusèment à la salle qu’après ses duels les plus retentissants.”
“Well! The duelists of Poitou who have left good title to being renowned as dangerous adversaries, Bourbeau (a cousin of the former minister), Lemaire, the famous de Pindray—I pass over others—were not classified among the strongest fencers. I learned from my old professor, Nerrière the father, a master of the school of Lafaugère that Mr. Legouvé has perhaps known and who told me more than once that de Pindray, deadly, terrible on the field of honor, trained seriously in the salle only after he had fought his most sensational duels.”
—Arthur Ranc, in the preface to Jules Jacob’s Le jeu de l’épée, revised by Émile André, 1887.
In other words, the best sport fencers did not usually make the best duelists. See also the quote below.
“I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field.”
—Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling, 1868.
“To avoid those Desperate Combats, my Advice is for all Gentlemen, to take a hearty Cup, and to Drink Friends to avoid Trouble.”
—Donald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728. Again, good advice in general.
More From the Latin
Forwarned is forearmed.
—quoted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Recognize an opportunity.
Seek the truth.
Make haste slowly.
Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.
Either I shall find a way or I shall make one.
Pen & Sword
“Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, —ou faire un vers!”
“For a yes, for a no, to fight, —or write a verse!”
—Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897.
“La plume s’associe fréquemment á l’épée…C’est que la littérature est une escrime intellectuelle et la polémique, á plus forte raison: arguments et objections y cliquettent autant que lames d’acier.“
“The pen is frequently associated with the sword…This is because literature is an intellectual fencing and controversy, even more so: arguments and objections click and clatter as much as steel blades.”
—Emma Lambotte, L’Escrimeuse, 1937. Mme. Lambotte was a noted Belgian poet and the muse and patron of painter James Ensor—and a fencer as well.
“Tomando ora la espada, ora la pluma.”
“Now taking up the sword, now the pen.”
—Garcilaso de la Vega, Égloga III (v.40), early 16th century. Garcilaso was a 16th century Spanish soldier-poet and true Renaissance man. He died in 1536 of wounds suffered in battle at Le Muy, France. Armas y lettras—arms and letters—is a common theme in 16th and 17th century Spanish literature.
“Nunca la lanza embotó la pluma ni la pluma la lanza.”
“The lance never blunted the pen nor the pen the lance.”
—Sancho Panza in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
“I’ll make thee glorious by my pen,
and famous by my sword;”
—James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “I’ll never love Thee more,” 1642 or 1643. Sir Walter Scott reversed glorious and famous, apparently not appreciating the attachment of glory to the pen. Montrose, a Scottish hero, led a guerrilla campaign through the Highlands against Cromwell’s forces. In the end he was hanged, instead of being beheaded as was due given his rank. His body was decapitated after his death, and his head was piked at the Tollbooth in Edinburgh.
To the Reader.
Harke, Reader, would’st be learn’d ith’ Warres,
A Captaine in a gowne?
Strike a league with Bookes and Starres,
And weave of both the Crowne?
Would’st be a Wonder? Such a one
As would winne with a Looke?
A Schollar in a Garrison?
And conquer by the Booke?
Take then this Mathematick Shield,
And henceforth by its Rules,
Be able to dispute ith Field,
And combate in the Schooles.
Whil’st peacefull Learning once agen
And th’ Souldier do concorde,
As that he fights now with her Penne,
And shes writes with his Sword.
A. Glouces. Oxon.
—Richard Lovelace, the famous cavalier poet, in the preface to Pallas Armata: The Gentlemen’s Armorie by G. A. (probably Gideon Ashwell according to sword scholar J. D. Aylward), 1639
“…the penny siller [silver] slew mair souls than the naked sword slew bodies.”
—Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, 1818. Not the pen, but something like it in that it can be used for both good and evil.
“[H]ow much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.”
—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621
“Pen and sword in accord.”
—Japanese, 17th century or earlier.
—Literally, “Hey there!” Often shouted during a vigorous exchange ending in a successful touch, or at least it once was until recently. More embarrassingly, it is sometimes shouted in expectation of a touch that ultimately fails. In Cyrano de Bergerac is the shout “Hé! Là donc!”—that is, “Hey! There thus!” Many old French masters and fencers believed in absolute silence during swordplay, while many Italians permitted some expressions. An occasional Hé là! or similar ejaculation is acceptable in my opinion; anything else is boorish.
“Hé là, Pamela!”
—Dr. Francis Zold, in lessons he gave throughout his life. I once asked Chaba Pallaghy, an elite Hungarian and US fencer and international official who knew Dr. Zold well, what it meant, he said it was simply something that the gentleman, scholar, and swordsman said. So many times I heard him say this in my lessons when I did something well. It is as imprinted upon my fencing soul in the same manner as, “One more, one more, yes, very nice,” as spoken by Dr. Eugene Hamori in his lessons to me.
“When a young Country Gentleman comes to Town, and Steps in to a Fencing-School, and hears a Master desire his Scholar to Play Feint a La Teste, Botte Coupe, Flancanade, Under Counter; or to Dequarte and Volt; he is amazed at these Terms, and is perswaded, that there is a kind of Conjuring Magick in the Art…”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714
“Mardieu, depuis le temps je me serois mis en garde, j’aurois gagné la mesure, je l’aurois rompue, j’aurois surpris le fort, j’aurois pris le temps, j’aurois coupé sous le bras, j’aurois marqué tous les batemens, j’aurois tiré la flanconade, j’aurois porté le coup de dessous, je me serois allongé de tierce sur les armes, j’aurois quarté du pied gauche, j’aurois marqué feinte à la pointe et dedans et dehors, j’aurois estramaçoné, ébranlé, empiété, engagé, volté, porté, paré, riposté, carté, passé, désarmé et tué vingt hommes.”
“God’s Death, in the time it would take to put myself on guard, I would gain the measure, retreat a step, surprise the forte, take the tempo, make a coupé beneath the arm, make all the beats, make a flanconnade, make a thrust below, lunge in tierce in opposition, make an inquartata, feint with the point inside and outside, make a cut, concuss my enemy, invade, engage, volt, thrust, parry, riposte, chase, pass, disarm, and kill twenty men.”
—Chasteauforte, in Cyrano de Bergerac’s Le Pedant Joué, 1654, written in 1645. Chasteauforte takes a beating while he talks about his prowess as a swordsman. The character probably derives from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, the boastful cowardly soldier, and from experience as well. As the Spanish might put it, He who boasts of it did not do it. If you want to be taken seriously, prove yourself with deeds, not words.
Mardieu is an exclamation deriving from mordieu or mort de Dieu = God’s death. Surpris le fort is to be found nowhere else in the literature of sword; it may be intended to indicate grasping the adversary’s blade at the forte with one’s hand, a common technique when grappling. It may also indicate a prise de fer or even simply a proper thrust, fort against foible. Or, it may be satire, suggesting that Chasteauforte is so foolish a fencer as to attempt with his own blade to seize the fort of his adversary’s, rather than the foible.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac was a redoubtable swordsman who fought literally dozens of duels and affrays, and reportedly once singlehandedly routed a mob of a hundred or more. He also had a large nose, and was a famous French writer whose work includes the story of a trip to the moon, one of the first science fiction and fantasy novels. Rostand’s Cyrano is a Gascon, based on his name, de Bergerac. However, the real Cyrano was a Parisian. My translation.
“Enter Petro drest like a French Fencing Master.
Pet. Signior Barberacho has sent me to teach you de Art of Fencing.
Sir Signall Buffoon. Illustrissimo Signior Monsieur, I am the person who am to learn.
Tickletext. Stay Sir stay,—let me ask him some few questions first, for Sir I have play’d at Back-Sword and cou’d have handled ye a weapon as well as any man of my time in the University.
Sir Sig. Say you so Mr. Tickletext, and I‘faith you shall have about with him
[Tick. Gravely goes to Petro.
Tick. Hum—hum—Mr. Monsieur—pray what are the Guards that you like best?
Pet. Monsieur, eder de Quart or de Terse, dey be both French and Itallian; den for your Parades, degaements, your advancements, your Eloynements, and Retierments: dey be de same;
Tick. Cart and Horse, what new found inventions and words have we here,—Sir I wou’d know, whether you like St. Georges Guard or not.
Pet. Alon—Monsieur, Mette vous en Guard! take de Flurette.
Sir Sig. nay faith and troth Governor thou that have a Rubbers with him.
[Tick. Smiling refuses.
Tick. Nay certo Sir Signal,—and yet you shall prevail;—well Sir, come your ways?
[Takes the Fluret.
Pet. Set your right foot forward, turn up your hand so—dat be de Quart—now turn it dus—and that be de Terse.
Tick. Hocus Pocus, Hicksius Doxius—here be de Cart, and here be de Horse—why, what’s all this for, hah, Sir—and where’s your Guard all this while?
Sir Sig. Ay, Sir, where’s your Guard, Sir, as my Governour says, Sir, hah?
Tick. Come, come, Sir, I must instruct you, I see; Come your ways, Sir.—
Pet. Attende, attende une peu—trust de right hand and de right leg forward together.—
Tick. I marry Sir, that’s a good one indeed: What shall become of my Head then, Sir? what Guard have I left for that, good Mr. Monsieur, hah?
Pet. Ah, Morbleu, is not dis for everyting?
Tick. No, marry is not it, Sir; St. George’s Guard is best for the Head whilst you live—as thus, Sir.
Pet. Dat, Sir, ha, ha—dat be de Guard for de Back-Sword.
Tick. Back-sword, Sir, yes, Back-sword, what shou’d it be else?
Pet. And dis be de Single Rapier.
Tick. Single-Rapier with a Vengeance, there’s a weapon for a Gentleman indeed; is all this stir about Single-Rapier?
Pet. Single-Rapier! What wou’d you have for de Gentleman, de Cudgel for de Gentleman?
Tick. No, Sir, but I wou’d have it for de Rascally Frenchman, who comes to abuse Persons of Quality with paltry single Rapier.—Single Rapier! Come, Sir, come—put your self in your Cart and your Horse as you call it, and I’ll shew you the difference.”
—Aphra Behn, The Feign’d Curtizans; or, a Night’s Intrigue, 1679. Satire on a fencing lesson and fencing language, in other words, with sallies against French masters and backsword versus smallsword or, as it is called here, single rapier. Aphra Behn was the first professional woman writer in the UK. She was also briefly a spy.
“For at Broad-Sword, all the Blows, Chops, Strokes, Pitches, Thro’s, Flirts and Slips, are perform’d over the Point of the Sword, unless you fall to the Leg: But at Small-Sword, all Thrusts, Passes, Pushes, Assaults, Essays and Passages, are commonly made under the Shell, (unless it be Cart or Ters over Arm,) close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon, with a Longe, or you cannot reach to do Execution.”
“The next thing I shall proceed to, is to the Terms of Art and Variety of Assaults, Pushes, Thrusts, Essays, Passes and Passages, all which are lodged under the Notion of True and False Play. True Play is a clean made Pass, Push, Assault or Thrust, directly perform’d, without change or alteration of the Point of your Weapon at any part or place of your Opponent you discover lies most open, or in answering your Opponent from his Assault. False Play or Falsifying, I call Quibles, Dazzels, Feints, Fallacies, Shams, Decoi’s and Enganuo’s, all which I shall explain in their Order.”
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711. Much of Mr. Wylde’s charming fencing vocabulary is his, and his alone.
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte…Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce…Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes…O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
Revenge with a Sword
“Honor and revenge have no alliance; therefore, reparation for offence or injury, is all that can be fairly sought for, or conceded.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. In other words, a duel must be fought for the sake of honor alone. A combat for the sake of revenge is a mere single combat, yet should, paradoxically, still be fought with honor, at least until the villain, Hollywood style, betrays his honor, which is probably why the rencontre is being fought in the first place.
“Oui, s’écria-t-il, voici la fille de Nevers!….Viens donc la chercher derrière mon épée, assassin! toi qui as commandé le meurtre, toi qui l’as achevé lâchement par derrière!… Qui que tu sois, ta main gardera ma marque. Je te reconnaîtrai. Et, quand il sera temps, si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!”
“Yes, cried he, here is the daughter of Nevers!….Come therefore and search for her behind my sword, assassin! You who have commanded murder, you who have achieved it by backstabbing cowardice! Whoever you are, your hand has my mark. I will recognize you. And when the time comes, if you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”
—Lagardère, in Paul Feval’s Le Bossu, 1857. Feval, along with Dumas (who probably inspired him) et al, helped establish the swashbuckling genre in literature. He also wrote a series each of vampire and crime detection novels. The phrase, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” became proverbial in France. My translation.
“In both men the same grim determination prevailed. The opponent must be killed; there could be no half-measures here.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
“The next morning, Inigo began the track-down. He had it all carefully planned in his mind. He would find the six-fingered man. He would go up to him. He would say simply, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and then, oh then, the duel.”
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973
“I shall write villain upon him with my rapier’s point.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead.”
—Peter Blood, in Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, 1922. Captain Blood engages Captain Levasseur in a rencontre on the beach of Virgin Magra, Sabatini’s joke on the name of Virgin Gorda. In the novel the duel is but briefly described, but is one of the highlights of the 1935 film version with Errol Flynn. The film duel appropriates for its finale the trick of fence described in Sabatini’s The Black Swan. The duel was filmed at Three Arch Bay, just south of Laguna Beach. Naturally, the duel, only briefly described, is over a woman’s honor on the one hand, and over her possession on the other.
“‘Proud and insolent youth,’ said Hook, ‘prepare to meet thy doom.’
‘Dark and sinister man,’ Peter answered, ‘have at thee.'”
—J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy (also Peter Pan, Peter Pan and Wendy), 1911.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
—Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.
“MERCUTIO O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
TYBALT What wouldst thou have with me?
MERCUTIO Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine
lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you
shall use me hereafter, drybeat the rest of the
eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pitcher
by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your
ears ere it be out.
TYBALT I am for you.
ROMEO Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.
MERCUTIO Come, sir, your passado.
“MERCUTIO Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
—Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1. The “book of arithmetic” reference is to forms of rapier play emphasizing geometry, the extreme form of which was the Spanish verdadera destreza mocked by poet and playwright Francisco de Quevedo.
“HAMLET This likes me well. These foils have all a length?
OSRIC A hit, a very palpable hit.
LAERTES A touch, a touch, I do confess ‘t.
HAMLET Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
More from Swashbuckling Literature & Film
“Villain, unhand the Lady, and defend thy self. [Draws
Have at thee—St. George for England.”
—Lovewell in Love and a Bottle by George Farquhar, 1698
“Un pour tous! Tous pour un!”
“One for all! All for one!”
—Alexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844. The lines are often misquoted or poorly translated as “All for one and one for all!”
“Les coquilles tintent, ding-don.
* * *
Prince, demande á Dieu pardon!
Je quarte du pied, j’escarmouche,
Je coupe, je feinte…
Hé! Là donc!
(Le vicomte chancelle; Cyrano salue.)
A la fin de l’envoi, je touche.”
“The shells ring, ding dong.
* * *
Prince, ask God for pardon!
I thrust in fourth, I skirmish,
I cutover, I feint…
Hey! There thus!
The viscount staggers; Cyrano salutes.
At the end of the refrain, I touch.”
—Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897. My translation. The phrase “Je quarte du pied” is not found in fencing language, at least I haven’t so far. Translated directly, it might mean “I put the foot more in fourth position” which is meaningless, or “I parry [or thrust] in quarte standing still” (du pied [ferme]), which makes much more sense. A reasonable translation might also be that of making a quarter turn, or inquartata. The verb quarter is only found in French in late 19th century fencing language as far as I can tell, meaning to place the arm or sword more in the fourth position. Escarmouche means to skirmish–to aggressively reconnoiter, in other words.
“Without more words they fell to and for a space there was no advantage to either blade. Peter was a superb swordsman, and parried with dazzling rapidity; ever and anon he followed up a feint with a short lunge that got past his foe’s defence, but his shorter reach stood him in ill stead, and he could not drive the steel home. Hook, scarcely his inferior in brilliancy, but not quite so nimble in wrist play, forced him back by the weight of his onset, hoping suddenly to end all with a favourite thrust, taught him long ago by Barbecue [Long John Silver] at Rio; but to his astonishment he found this thrust turned aside again and again. The he sought to close and give the quietus with his iron hook, which all this time had been pawing the air; but Peter doubled under it and, lunging fiercely, pierced him in the ribs.”
J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy, 1911
“He heard them, wheeled about, flung off his coat, and disengaged his sword, all with the speed of lightning and the address of the man who for ten years had walked amid perils, and learned to depend on his blade.”
“‘You fence skillfully,’ said he, sneering, ‘too skillfully for an honest man. Will you now tell me without any more of this, precisely what the Princess Sophia was doing here with you?'”
—Rafael Sabatini, “The Tragedy of Herrenhausen” in The Historical Nights Entertainment, 1917. The story concerns the Swedish Count of Konigsmark and his affair, physical or otherwise, with the Princess Sophia Dorothea, wife of the unfaithful and crude yet intellectually enlightened Georg Ludwig, ruler of Hanover in Germany and the future George I of Great Britain. Most historians believe the Count was murdered on the order of Georg Ludwig. His brother is credited with inventing the colichemarde blade although the form was around before him. If the brother had any part in its more modern invention and use, the inspiration may have come from some of the by light, well-balanced Spanish rapier blades thick at the forte, or even from some of the rapier-style colichemarde blades found in some Dutch or German transitional swords. Konigsmark might be credited with naming the blade perhaps because he wore one, thereby popularizing it.
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
“Oh, you are surely mad! M. de La Tour d’Azyr is reputed the most dangerous sword in France.”
“Have you never noticed that most reputations are undeserved?”
“The slender, wickedly delicate blades clashed together, and after a momentary glizade were whirling, swift and bright as lightnings, and almost as impossible to follow with the eye.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921. The gift of laughter quote was added to a Yale dormitory during construction in the 1930s, then ordered covered over with ivy when it was discovered by Yale dons that the quote was from a “mere” popular novelist. It has since been restored.
“The light of guttering candles fell upon the two small-swords where they lay, the one glittering brightly, the other its murderous steel horribly bent and dimmed…”
—Jeffery Farnol, Sir John Dering, 1923
“Clash and ring of vicious steel that flickered in close and deadly action; stamp of feet and hiss of quick-drawn breath; skill and scorn of death against murderous craft and imperious will. To and fro, up and down, back and forth, they fought with no stay or respite now, changing their ground with nimble volts and dexterous passes, while slowly yet surely, Adam compelled his enemy in the one direction.”
“Sir,” he sighed, “as one swordsman and maître d’armes academique to another, I do here acknowledge a palpable hit and cry: ‘Touché!’ Indeed, you have tongue nimble and unexpected as your sword. Sir, I can appreciate wit, I can admire swordcraft, but though you possess both, I regret to say you prove yourself so extreme detestable that I propose to rid myself of you once and for all.”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940
“Rash, you think? Precipitate on both sides? Absolutely, the pair of them going off at half-cock like that, in a place where both were imposters and liable to have to do some awkward explaining–aye, but when two such as Black Bilbo and Long Ben Avery cross swords, d’ye see, then sense and reason take wing, wi’ a wannion, and naught’s to matter save the bright eyes and whirling point o’ th’adversary. There isn’t an instant to draw a breath, or spit a curse (like “Ha, villain!” or “Government ponce!”), or mess about with the furniture, for this is world title stuff, from prime to octave, high lines and low, wi’ imbroccata, stoccata, alongez, and all that jazz, the two lithe figures shuffling, gliding and lunging with what looks like a bright buzz-saw flickering and clashing between them, too fast for the eye to follow.”
—George MacDonald Fraser, The Pyrates, 1984
“Kiss my steel!” cried the gallant gaily, and the little Milburn, seeing the chance to deliver the best riposte in the whole encounter, cried: “Kiss my arse!” and died happy.
—George MacDonald Fraser, The Reivers, 2007
“Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo Montoya: Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capo Ferro?
Man in Black: Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo Montoya: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have!
* * *
Inigo Montoya: You are wonderful.
Man in Black: Thank you; I’ve worked hard to become so.
Inigo Montoya: I admit it, you are better than I am.
Man in Black: Then why are you smiling?
Inigo Montoya: Because I know something you don’t know.
Man in Black: And what is that?
Inigo Montoya: I… am not left-handed.
Man in Black: You are amazing.
Inigo Montoya: I ought to be, after 20 years.
Man in Black: Oh, there’s something I ought to tell you.
Inigo Montoya: Tell me.
Man in Black: I’m not left-handed either.”
—Dialogue from the film The Princess Bride, 1987. The fencing masters named are real, but the associated tactics are mere Hollywood, likely intended as homage or just mere color. The duel was choreographed by Bob Anderson. In the novel, this dialogue does not exist. Instead, the masters and tactics are part of the narrative description. Author and screenwriter William Goldman also mentions “McBone,” a likely deliberate alteration of, or error for, Scottish swordsman Donald McBane.
Truly ambidextrous fencers are rare. In more than forty years I’ve met only one, Professor Ted Cotton, although my wife Mary Crouch could likely become one if she so chose, one of the founders of fencing in Huntsville, John Jordan, could also fence well enough left-handed, two of our current members routinely switch hands, and I myself can fence tolerably well with my offhand and have begun to use it regularly. Professor Cotton would wear a back-zip jacket and had a body cord down each arm, and would fence his opponents left or right as he thought best. Italian epee great Edoardo Mangiarotti, a right-hander, was taught to fence left-handed by his father in order to give him a competitive advantage, but it is said that he could fence just as well right-handed.
Copyright Benerson Little, 1977-2022. First posted December 19, 2018. Last updated July 27, 2022.
Just for fun: Samurai underwater combat! Imagined underwater fighting, both via surface supplied air (“deep sea diving”) and free swimming descents, during the very real Battle of Yalu River in 1894. Japanese forces defeated a Chinese fleet in a very close battle during the First Sino-Japanese War. The underwater imagery is, of course, quite imaginary but also quite cool.
“This subterfuge is termed a Night-Thrust; being a short method of deciding a skirmish in the dark.”
–Andrew Lonergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1777.
But Edward was no longer there, or at least not where Lynch expected. Completely covered by the inky darkness, Edward had lunged backward, his left hand dropping to the ground, his body bending inward, his blade shooting forward at Lynch’s belly: the Italians called this passata soto, but some of Edward’s English contemporaries called it the “night thrust” for its utility in the darkness.
Benerson Little, Fortune’s Whelp, 2015
The Classic Passata Soto or “Night Thrust”
A staple of many Western fencing texts since the Renaissance, the passata soto, or passata sotto, also known variously as the sbasso, sottobotta, and cartoccio on occasion, the various dessous of the French masters of the smallsword and the passata di sotto of the modern, is usually defined as a counter-attack made by lowering the body while simultaneously thrusting, extending the rear foot in a reverse lunge, and placing the unarmed hand on the ground for support. Occasionally the technique is recommended as an attack with a true lunge, rather than a reverse. Andrew Lonergan provides an eighteenth century definition and exercise of the passata soto under the name of night thrust:
“On Guard in Quarte; and disengage a Quarte-over-the-arm [modern sixte]. I now batter [beat] with a Tierce; and begin to advance my left foot to form my Pass upon you in Tierce. Now when you see my left foot move, slip your left foot back, so as to pitch yourself on that knee; stoop your head so that your arm now turned into a Segonde may cover it, hold your left hand extended toward the ground, that it may sustain you, in case you should totter; thus my point will pass over your head, and I shall fall upon yours.”
And his reasoning why such “athletic” techniques should not be abandoned:
“Though these methods of Disarming, and Passing, Volting, and that of the Night Thrust, seem to be almost abolished by the refiners of these arts; I cannot conceive why a man, who is naturally strong and active, should not avail himself of such advantages, especially when improved by our athletic exercises, so engaging to an English subject, and forbidding to all others.”
In the old Italian schools, the body was usually bent at the waist. In some of the old French, the body was lowered by a very low reverse lunge. The adversary may be hit either with the extending arm or by impaling upon it, or both.
In terms of the modern French school, the “passata di sotto” is classified as an esquive, specifically une passe dessous with the back leg extended or both legs deeply bent.
With real weapons, the adversary is ideally impaled, usually in the belly which is, were the swords real, a good place to hit because there are no ribs and cartilage to potentially prevent the point from entering or otherwise diminish its penetration. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that in some cases belly wounds may be more quickly incapacitating.
A very long low lunge which made going forward might slip under the adversary’s guard, as in Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Black Swan (1932), and which made in reverse might serve aid a counter-attack by lowering of the body. (An analysis of the duel in the novel may be found here: The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.)
Long low lunges like this are often identified with, or confused with, the passata soto. Note, however, that fencing language is highly malleable and definitions vary: one master’s passata soto might include only the classic reverse lunge with a bend at the waist, while another’s may include any lowering of the body in attack or counter-attack. Most masters, however, consider it to be a counter-attack with esquive, the body lowering in place or with a reverse lunge, and not a long low lunge forward.
The passata soto is not without significant drawbacks, which is probably why Lonergan recommended its use at night and nowhere else. Foremost, it must be well-timed. Too late, and the fencer attempting it may get hit in the face, neck, or upper torso. Too soon, and the fencer attempting it throws away the advantage of the surprise mandatory to its success. Used too often, and the adversary may learn how to trigger it with a feint, and then take advantage of the poor position the classical passata soto leaves the fencer in.
And it is this poor position that is the major drawback of the passata soto, in particular with real weapons. With the unarmed hand on the ground, the torso bent sideways, and the rear leg extended well behind, the fencer is in a bad position for defense after a failed attack or, even if the swords were real, after impaling the adversary. Few wounds are immediately incapacitating, including ultimately fatal wounds: many duelists and battlefield swordsmen were wounded or killed after giving an adversary a fatal wound. Even with a mortal wound to the heart, an adversary may live as long as ten seconds. Even assuming an average of four, that’s plenty of time to even things up.
In the case of dry (non-electric) weapons, the judges and director (referee) will determine whether a hit was made, whether it was in time, and whether a hit on the fencer who ducked is valid via rules regarding replacing of target. In the case of electrical weapons, the machine will make the determination in epee, and the machine and director in foil and saber.
For the fencer armed with a rapier on poniard, placing the poniard-armed hand on the ground is giving up half of one’s offense and defense, to be replaced by almost blind trust.
From the position of the passata soto, a prime or lifted sixte/septime beat or bind, or a St. George parry or opposition (modern saber quinte) accompanied by the use of the unarmed hand to help ward off the adversary’s blade, plus an urgent recovery forward or backward, all performed near-simultaneously, is the only viable option if the passata soto has failed to hit or otherwise halt the adversary.
Such recovery, however, is invariably slow, and a loss of balance may ensue if the unarmed hand is removed from the ground too soon to assist in parrying or opposing, for example. Further, the long low position leaves the fencer vulnerable if the arrest fails, whether by missing the adversary or failing to immediately incapacitate him. In particular, the head, neck, and subclavian area are exposed. Fatal thrusting wounds can be given in any of the three areas. It’s likely that execution at night might alleviate some of these weaknesses in the technique, but it would need to be a dark night with little ambient light.
Historical Techniques Similar to Passata Soto
There are better methods, past and present. In particular, these methods, while not reducing the target quite as much, leave the fencer in a much better position should the counter-attack fail, or, with real weapons, should the adversary be hit but not be immediately incapacitated. Some masters, Sir William Hope for example, believed also that a lowered position better-protected the torso.
In general they consist of a lowering of the body to a lesser degree, often with a parry or beat first, or with a thrust in opposition. Below are a series of images depicting this in various forms over time.
The Passata Soto in Film
The passata soto is seldom shown in film, unfortunately, but here are two of the very few associated examples:
The Passato Soto in Modern Fencing
In modern competitive fencing, the technique is still occasionally seen in its classical form, in particular against a flèche, but more often is seen in the modified form of “squatting.” This is not a new technique! It was noted by Jean Joseph-Renaud more than a century ago. He correctly–as expected–notes that the latter form is easier.
In the spring of 1978 I saw it well-used by a University of Southern California epeeist–I made up the weakest third of the USC epee team, having fenced for less than a year–at a large collegiate meet at the University of California San Diego. The score was la belle (4-4), with no time limit for the final touch as I recall. (It was a nice rule that, of no time limit for the last touch! It’s long since been sadly abolished in the name of expediency…)
Suddenly both fencers stopped and pulled off their masks, but for no reason other than that they had heard the bell on the adjacent strip and, their adrenalin up for the la belle touch, mistook it for theirs. The young director… Hold on for a moment. Today the director, from directeur de combat, the person who “directs” a duel, is called a “referee,” solely because the foolish powers that be thought it would make fencing more spectator friendly… Seriously.
But back to our anecdote. The young college-age director, rather than enforcing the halt and putting the fencers back on guard, said “I didn’t call halt!”
You know what surely happened next. Without putting masks back on, immediately the opposing team’s fencer flèched while ours dropped into a beautiful passata soto. We got the touch and the bout. Neither fencer, thankfully, was hit in the unprotected face. Or at least that’s how I recall it happened.
In modern usage, although infrequently seen, is a form known as the “turning” passata soto. The description is best left to R. A. Lidstone:
In competitive use, the modern form most often takes the form of ducking or squatting, shown below. Ducking has been used for at least seventy-five years in modern fencing.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated August 5, 2022.