Martial art movies are not just about flamboyant kicks, rapid-fire punching, and great one-liners. I love a good slugfest and a furious kick showdown as much as the next person, but the fights that really make me sit up and take notice are done with swords.
In a previous article, How Do You Make Combat Beautiful? I talked about the art of Tate, which is the art of on-screen sword fighting. While that is an art specific to samurai movies, and some of them are on my list, sword fights in films are not limited to just an irritated ronin flashing a blade. Whether the film features actors fighting with a katana or a sabre, these are five of the best martial arts sword fights in movies…Well, to me, anyway.
Sword of Doom (1966)
If you are a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, then you will love director Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom. The film is rife with blazing swordwork and stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the brooding and ruthless samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue. There are so many great sword battles in this movie that it is hard to choose just one, but to me, the most unusual and interesting one is the ambush on the walking path. After defeating his opponent in a duel, Nakadai walks calmly and meditatively down a path cloaked in lingering mist, slaying all the avenging challengers that were waiting in ambush for him. Attackers come from every conceivable angle and are defeated in nothing short of a poetic bit of fight choreography. Check it out, you won’t be sorry.
Sanjuro is a Kurosawa film and is the sequel to Yojimbo (1961). The scene to check out is between Toshiro Mifune and the previously mentioned Tatsuya Nakadai, who frequently played the villain to Mifune’s heroes. Viewers familiar with Western films will immediately see the similarity to gunslingers having a duel in the middle of town. The two samurai face each other for so long, that if it weren’t for the swaying fabric of the costumes in the background, you would swear that your movie’s stream was locked and you need to reset your WiFi. But then, with lightning speed, the two warriors draw. There is enough blood to fill half the elevator in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Although it is the shortest of all the fights listed, it has great suspense and makes a lasting impression. (Watch Yojimbo too.)
The Octagon (1980)
My favorite Chuck Norris movie is The Octagon. The action is excellent, (It’s Chuck Norris, after all) and it is the first time I remember seeing ninjas. The entire last quarter of the movie has Norris fighting an endless number of black-masked warriors, and he dispatches them all with an entertaining variety of techniques that still hold up today. The last fight is with masked villain Kyo played by the always-excellent Richard Norton. Both Norris and Norton start with katanas and then Kyo/Norton switches to Sais. Ultimately, the fight progresses to kicks, punches, and some well-executed throws. It should satisfy any martial arts fan. It’s got it all.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Why Conan? you may ask. Although it’s not a martial arts film per se, Arnold Schwarzenegger exhibits some great sword technique no matter what you call it. Conan the Barbarian has many great fight scenes with bladed weapons, and the cast trained extensively with Karate Master, Kiyoshi Yamasaki.
The fight in the palace, with Conan and his band of thieves camouflaged in dramatic black and white body paint, is a thrilling piece of sword-swinging action.
Arnold/Conan squares off with sword-wielding guards, as well as axe-swinging and war hammer-smashing henchmen of the evil Thulsa Doom. The action is solid and the sword work will not disappoint. Take note, no CGI.
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Aside from being in the lore of Batman as the movie that Bruce Wayne and his parents saw the night his parents were killed, some may not know of The Mark of Zorro. When viewers think of fencing, they may not immediately regard it as a martial art, but aside from it originating in the West, I don’t see why not. In The Mark of Zorro, starring Tyrone Power, the climactic duel between Power and frequent Errol Flynn adversary, Basil Rathbone is a stunner of technique and great choreography. The parries, lunges, and ripostes are exquisitely performed. While there is no fountain of gore, the action is well done and one can easily see the influence that western fencing has had on other martial arts.
There is no doubt that the primal energy of a hero and villain fighting with swords on film will always be exciting. Whether it is Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai or even Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, the clash of weapons, done with precision, energy, and drama, will always be a cinematic winner.