Getting Medieval on Hollywood
It’s a pretty good time for fans of the Fantasy genre. Thanks to big headliners like the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the Elder Scrolls franchise, it’s easier than ever to get a fix of some classic swords and sorcery (and boob, thanks to GoT).
When you remove the magical elements your options get even more ridiculously varied; from shows like Vikings to games like Mount and Blade or War of the Roses.
All of this is unquestionably a good thing, and definitely helps satisfy my particular brand of Geek cravings. After all, I like this stuff so much that I spend a few weekends every summer running across fields all over Britain dressed like a Viking and hitting stuff with axes.
Yes, I’m a reenactor; that peculiar brand of history nerd sitting somewhere between LARPers and Cosplayers on the modern Geek continuum. I could spend all day enthusing about this particular hobby and how much I enjoy it but I want to talk about something else so allow me to summarize:
They let me hit people with axes.
With that out of the way, I hasten towards my point. See, one of the drawbacks I’m starting to notice about immersing myself in the early medieval period for so long is that it’s stopping me enjoying the recent glut of Epic-tainment (patent pending) on our screens.
Why? Well, because Hollywood (and the Games Industry) doesn’t seem to have a clue how the whole ‘swords’ part of Swords and Sorcery should work. For example…
3) Shields Up!
The Hollywood Version: A shield is a useful accessory to paint with pretty pictures and then drop when the fighting starts. After all, you wouldn’t want it to get in the way of looking cool.
Offenders: Game of Thrones, Vikings, Viking: Battle for Asgard
The Reality: Shields are so useful that we still use them today. After all, you don’t see a lot of Riot Police issued with mighty two-handed truncheons or a taser in each hand. From pretty much the first moment one human tried to kill another with a pointy stick, we’ve been trying to put stuff in the way of that stick. So far, a large square or rectangular object you hold in one hand has proved hard to beat. However, by watching fight scenes in some of the above you’d think they’re just a minor part of the wardrobe. Honestly, when was the last time you watched a fight where a character who starts with a shield actually ends the fight with it in hand?
This is particularly jarring in shows like Vikings that are based, at least loosely, on historical figures and cultures. The simple fact is that once the Romans had curb-stomped every disorganised rabble they faced no one had any doubts about the benefits of fighting in tight formations or ‘Shield-Walls’. This remained the dominant method of fighting until the Normans came along and found new and interesting ways to curb-stomp people using horses. Besides the formation benefits shields also have the advantage that they’re cheap protection even a peasant could make and believe me; if you were some poor schlub forced into fighting for your lord you’d take every bit of protection you could get.
When they got it right: How to Train Your Dragon. “If you have a choice between a weapon and a shield, take the shield!”
2) Let me Axe you something…
The Hollywood Version: Axes are enormous, double-bladed monstrosities that should preferably look like someone has ripped the wing off a 747.
Offenders: Skyrim, Dark Souls, Conan the Barbarian.
The Reality: Here are some pictures of actual axe heads. These are from the Viking period, so probably ‘Peak-Axe’ in terms of their use in battle. These particular examples are from the Museum of London.
Yeah, they’re not very big. Even the big ‘Dane-Axes’ in the middle are wide but incredibly thin. See, not only do we have the wrong idea about how axes should look, we also tend to have the wrong idea about how they’re used with most depictions in movies, TV or games showing single crushing blows that take forever to finish and kill by battering the opponent down.
In reality, while an axe does have an element of battering to it, the best axes take advantage of speed and leverage to deliver a lot of force into a compact, concentrated area. A competent fighter using one of these axes, particularly a larger two handed weapon, is unlikely to have kept it still for very long in a fight, trying to maintain the momentum until it could be delivered into a strike. Slamming it down into the floor is a quick way to get stuck and an even faster way to get killed.
Also, I’m afraid that the double-bladed (‘bitted’) axes only appear in the West as ceremonial devices. There are a couple examples out East in places like Turkey, but even here they don’t seem to have a lot of longevity. Eventually people did put two weapons on an axe shaft, but they always added different tools rather then two of the same; an axeblade and a warhammer were a common pairing in the later Middle Ages.
When they got it right: Dragonheart. “Keep swinging. One. Fluid. Motion.”
1) Katanas are basically Lightsabres
The Hollywood Version: An old man hunches over a mystical forge, folding red hot metal over and over until he holds aloft a blade. With one swing he cuts a boulder in two.
Offenders: The Last Samurai, Baldurs Gate, Kill Bill.
The Reality: Let’s get something out the way first: Yes, Japanese sword makers did fold sheets of metal over and over again while hammering them together into a single edge. Now, did you ever wonder why?
Well, it boils down to the material they used ‘Tamahagane’ which sounds lovely and mystical in Japanese. Want the Western word for it? Pig Iron.
Yes, due to the geology of Japan and a lack of decent Iron, the raw materials going into those legendary Katanas were of a quality that later smiths wouldn’t touch in the West. The folding allowed Japanese Swordsmiths to trap carbon in-between the layers and thus make the blade more sturdy while retaining the flexibility needed to not shatter the moment you swung it. Unfortunately, this made for an unusually fat blade at the back, where the actual fold is, so cutting straight through anything is difficult, if not almost impossible.
Further, the famed cutting edge on a katana takes a lot of work to maintain and the minute it struck a surface more solid then human flesh it ran the risk of being ruined. To overcome this, samurai trained to strike quickly at exposed areas like the throat rather then risk striking another sword or armored opponent and possibly damage their blade.
This poor material wasn’t a unique problem to the Japanese however. Early European smiths had much the same problem to overcome; low quality iron and few technologies to improve it. Their solution was to heat up rods of iron and twist them around each other before hammering them flat. This method was called Pattern Welding and it too trapped Carbon in the blade to give it some extra strength…and it gave you two distinct cutting edges rather then just one.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on some of the common sins in Games and Movies. Feel free to let me know how wrong I am below or on twitter!
“Making you a better Geek, one post at a time!”