Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Combat Theory 02: He's Dead, Jim

Last night, I watched the movie Arena while I was folding laundry. (This is not an uncommon combination of activities, unfortunately. The days when I could set aside time and fully devote my attention to a movie belong to a distant and possibly mythical past; life with children does not permit such an abundance of free time.) While I don't intend to review the entire movie, I am going to talk about it in terms of writing (or in this case, choreographing) realistic fight scenes. The fight that I'm using as an example takes place in about the first three minutes of the movie, so the spoilers should be minor and inconsequential; nevertheless, there are spoilers. You have been warned.

I should also point out that there's going to be some discussion of violence and injury here, so if that sort thing squicks you out, you really shouldn't read any further.

Right, so: the movie opens with two men fighting in a faux-Roman arena. One man is armed with a pair of swords, shaped roughly like the Roman Gladius but about twice as long. The other is armed with something that I'd consider a voulge - a type of polearm with a large, cleaving blade on one end.

My first impression, of course, was: This is not an even match. They're on open ground, and the polearm has a clear advantage in reach. To have any chance at all, the swordsman is going to have to avoid getting killed long enough to move closer so he can launch attacks of his own - not easily done. And if he does get close enough to attack, he's going to have to kill or disable his opponent quickly, before the polearm clobbers him. If the guy with the polearm gets in a successful attack, then the battle ends even more quickly. So, either way, I'm not expecting a long fight.

But the choreography cheats around this problem, and does so reasonably subtly: with lots of maneuvering and dodging and throwing kicks or punches at strategic moments. There are even a couple of disarms, as the swordsman manages to disarm the polearm guy, only to have the polearm guy take one of his swords away. (This pretty clearly indicates that they're both vastly better at unarmed and disarming techniques than they are at actually using their weapons, but never mind that.) Also, in the course of this, they manage to slice each other up a bit - though, this being Hollywood, nobody actually goes into shock from pain or loss of blood.

Finally, though, the one with the polearm manages to knock down the swordsman, reclaim the voulge, and bury the cleaver-blade in the swordsman's kidney, parallel with the spine. (It's not really an attack, at that point; it's a splitting-logs-with-an-axe sort of motion.) The fight is finally over.

Boy, howdy, is it over.

However, at this point the fellow running the games surveys the audience to decide whether the fallen gladiator should live or die. This was where my Suspension Of Disbelief collapsed like a pup tent in a hurricane.

The defeated gladiator has just had one side of his torso smashed open with a polearm. At the very least, the blade has almost certain split his kidney in two. Given the size and shape of the blade, it's probably done a number on his intestines as well, and quite possible more: split one or two of the lower ribs, sliced across the diaphragm, punctured a lung. It missed the spine, so he's probably not paralyzed, but even with immediate attention from an expert trauma team in a fully-stocked emergency room and the best first-world antibiotics available, I'd give him no more than a one-in-four chance of survival. Probably less than that; I'm guessing, here. An EMT or the right sort of medical doctor could give you a more accurate estimate.

So asking the audience if he should be spared is, in all likelihood, a bad joke. If he's not dead already, he's almost certainly in shock and bleeding out: well on the way to dying. (And, by the way, every second you wait on the audience response is a second closer to him being dead.) The blade of the voulge may be tamponading the worst of the internal bleeding, but that won't last long.

Even if he did manage to survive, he'd be looking at months, maybe years, of recovery and rehabilitation before he could even consider fighting again. And that's assuming that his injuries didn't cripple him in one fashion or another.

Real fights to the death tend to be over very quickly, especially when weapons are involved. This is why most sport fighting has some equivalent of the Queensbury Rules, and why a lot of historical duels made allowances for stopping at first blood. Otherwise, you lose a lot of fighters to death or maiming. Armed combat generally isn't about two men wearing each other down until one or the other can't continue; that's much more the province of unarmed fighting. Fights involving weapons tend, by nature, to involve much more decisive injuries. There are exceptions, of course; but that's the way to bet.


  1. It's not as one-sided as you might think. While the polearm has the reach and power, the two swords have speed and dexterity. After watching any number of SCA matches, I'd put them about even, with a slight advantage to the guy with the swords.

    That said, you're correct that a "real" fight like that would last one, or maybe two, attack- parry- riposte- riposte combinations. And the way you describe it, the loser is definitely dead and waiting for thumbs-up or thumbs-down is a pure formality.

    Best literary gladiatorial combat I've seen is in the "Rome" section of E. E. "Doc" Smith's "Triplanetary".

  2. Oh, it's not completely one-sided... but I'd like to point out that SCA Heavy Fighting forbids a number of things that I'd consider basic polearm moves - or at least they did twenty years ago, back when I was active. And they restrict those movements precisely because they're likely to get someone hurt. (SCA combat also assumes - or assumed - that both fighters wear the equivalent of chain mail armor, which changes what they consider an effective attack.)

    There are certainly circumstance where the weapons would become more evenly matched, or even give a clear advantage to the swords: trees or other obstructions that limit the longer weapon's movement, for example. But we're talking about a flat, open area with the fight starting from outside of fighting range. Assuming the opponents are roughly equally skilled, I'd bet on the guy with the polearm every time. It's not that the swordsman can't do it, it's just that he's got to cross a fairly significant area where he's close enough to be exposed, but not yet close enough to attack. And if the polearm guy has any sense, he'll keep the swordsman at a distance and kill him there.

  3. From what I recall of anime and martial arts movies, the Japanese traditional tale is that the man with a sword needed to be 3 times as skilled as the one with the spear to win.

    For my vote, it would come down to leg speed and reactions. I don't see any way a sword held in one hand could block or intercept a two-handed polearm swing; there would just be too much inertia to overcome. The only chance the swordsman would have is to get inside the reach of the polearm between attacks, at least blocking against the shaft reduces the leverage advantage and gets him in range to strike.

    And despite movies or barbarian berserkers, I believe polearms traditionally are best used more defensively- making huge wild swings tends to leave you open to counterattack. Short, tight cuts or stabs will keep your target at a distance; once you have a good opening you can try for a finishing blow. Or just jab at your opponent's front leg- once he loses mobility you can back off and wait him down.

    From what practice I've had with a bokken, a two-handed grip on one longer blade actually gives you much better control and speed- the distance between your hands gives you leverage to move the blade around quickly. It would take longer to move the tip of the sword with a single-handed grip. I never progressed to one-handed techniques.


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