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Inspiration & Drive – Sport Fencing in Films and Pop Culture

Inspiration & Drive - Sport Fencing in Films and Pop CultureSports in popular culture is often about inspiration and driving towards success. How sports can bring out the best in human nature. Whether it’s in movies, television shows, books, or even music, these themes are everywhere.

Fencing is increasingly in the spotlight in popular culture as the sport grows. Whereas soccer movie and boxing movies are everywhere, there have been few films or television shows focusing on sport fencing. Sometimes it can be hard to find what are actually wonderful depictions of fencing in films, either on the big or small screen! The Olympic level of fencing hasn’t gotten to Hollywood much just yet, but there are lots of smaller modern depictions of sport fencing.

We’ve put together some of the coolest and most interesting sport fencing mentions in movies and TV shows. Some are funny and some are touching, but what always stays the same is the heart of sport fencing as a blend of thinking and action.

Fencing in Film Right Now

The last several years have seen two major films on fencing, one released two years ago and another still in development.

Fencer

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

Image credits: IMDB, jasminemcglade.com

The just announced film Fencer is set to bring Olympic sport fencing to the movies in a whole new way. Oscar winner Casey Affleck is set to produce and take on a supporting this film written and directed by fencing champion Jasmine McGlade.

The movie will chronicle the life of Mae Wilson, a fierce athlete with Olympic aspirations as she makes her way through the grueling training regimen and sacrifices required to reach her goals. Along the way the film will offer a window into this woman’s inner struggles with acceptance and self esteem. Set to be a hearty sports film with plenty of heart, it asks big questions about what it means to compete.

What’s truly exciting about this film is the involvement of writer/director/producer Jasmine McGlade.  Jasmine won multiple U.S. National titles (Div1A, DivII, Junior, Cadet, Y14, Y12), represented the United States in multiple World Cups, and led her Harvard team to win the NCAA title for the first time in their history before retiring from competitive fencing to complete her studies. Her involvement in this film will make it more true to the sport than anything else that’s ever been brought to the screen. We can expect to see realistic sport fencing action for the first time ever in cinema, rather than swashbuckling slashing or over the top heroics on the strip. Her top level epee fencing talent can only make for a compelling and accurate representation of fencing.

As a writer, director, and producer McGlade has incredibly high credentials including the Oscar winning films La La Land and Whiplash.  Fencer is her project, and from the looks of it we can hope to have a film that does justice to the exciting and compelling nature of sport fencing. The story will be complex, highlighting the challenges of elite fencing while celebrating the beautiful intensity of it.

This film doesn’t have a release date yet, but we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as we find out!

The Fencer

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

2015’s film The Fencer has helped to lay the groundwork for what we hope will be a new wave of interest in fencing as a sport on the big screen. Though not an English-language film, the movie nonetheless made the shortlist for the Oscars and was nominated for a Golden Globe. It’s the first well received inspirational sports film about fencing, with solid reviews all around.

A period piece, the film is the tale of a fencing instructor in Estonia who must make tough decisions about how to support his fencers during the years just after WWII. It’s a beautifully told story with powerful performances from the adults and the child actors. The imagery of fencing is fantastic and the movie is compelling overall, particularly the teaching interactions between the coach and his students. This movie does a great job of illustrating the strong bond between fencers and their coaches. Fencing in the film becomes a metaphor for the struggles that we all face, illustrating how unique and powerful the sport can be.

You can find The Fencer streaming on YouTube and Google Play.

One thing to note about this recent spate of films is that fencing just doesn’t have the kind of recognition that other sports have. Imagine if Miracle on Ice had to be called Hockey Coach or Moneyball had to be called Baseball Players! Fencing movies are blunt with their titles right now because they have to be until sport fencing is more widely recognized.

Fencing films in 1990’s

During the 1990’s two major films came out that featured sport fencing. Pentathlon and By the Sword were both blessed with great casts and high production values, and both have their ups and plenty of downs. Read on to learn more about why.

By the Sword

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

When I first heard that there was a movie whose plot revolved almost exclusively around a fencing club, I was super excited. After all, there are almost no movies out there that take sport fencing as their main theme. This 1991 film starred F. Murray Abraham and Eric Roberts, both A-list movie stars at the time, in a film from a major studio. Should be a recipe for a great movie right?

After watching it I understood why it wasn’t a big box office success despite the talented cast. Frankly, the plot was that of a typical second rate martial arts movie – an eccentric but immoral coach willing to win at any cost, a stranger with well hidden skill and a dark past, family revenge and a bit of redemptive honor and enlightenment at the end. I’ve seen these kinds of sports films with my sons enough to know the plot by heart, so it’s easy to think of this same movie happening in some Shaolin Temple or California town instead of an NYC fencing salle. The main story was stocky and unrealistic as were all of the background romances but hey, that’s what you’d expect from an average martial arts movie right?

The real hope was for some solid fencing action on film, and By the Sword delivered on a few of them. The whole reason to be excited was that this film would be about the sport of fencing exclusively and that ninety percent of the film would take place in the fencing salle. The film does deliver there with real epees, fencing uniforms, scoring machines, fencing private lessons, group classes, fencing bags, footwork and target drills, and a final competition on a raised piste with referee, hand signals and pool sheet that recorded the scores in the way that it actually happens. Also interesting was that in most cases the fencers performed actions the way they look in the sport – lunges, foot and arm touches, fleches, and relatively narrow blade actions.

But we know that Hollywood is Hollywood, and would be impossible to name the movie By the Sword and not show combat sword fighting and a bit of a blood. In what looks like a scene filmed when their fencing consultant went out on a lunch break, the movie director took a liberty to ask epee fencers to switch to sabre and do long wide swings because it looks so cool on a camera. The last real duel in the climax of the movie came in the true Hollywood swordfighting tradition and had plenty of good looking, if totally unrealistic, swordfighting action.

The bottom line is that anyone who is a fencing aficionado should watch this film for the sole reason that there aren’t many fencing movies out there for you to indulge yourself in.  It got 3 starts from me, out of which 2 are for the fencing 🙂

You can find the full film streaming on YouTube and have a look for yourself!

Pentathlon

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

This 1994 movie actually centers on the Olympics, including fencing during the pentathlon event. It’s hard to call it an inspiration film, as it stars Dolph Lundgren as an East German gold medalist who is on the run from his psychotic Neo-Nazi coach. Definitely a thriller with a kernel of sport holding it together.

The plot of this film goes over the course of many years, starting in the run up to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Lundgren’s character is being trained by a hard line coach who believes in using any and all methods to win, including doping and cheating. He runs his athletes with an unforgiving iron fist. Lundgren wins the gold medal in the pentathlon, then flees to the United States. After the fall of the Berlin wall, he ends up working as a cook in the back of a restaurant. When his boss finds out that he’s an Olympic gold medalist, he decides to train this former athlete to get back into the Olympics. Cue the traditional sports training montage, which is an interesting turn as Dolph Lundgren was the villain in Rocky IV. The maniac, Neo-Nazi trainer finally catches up with Lundgren’s character for a final showdown that’s classic action film all the way. As for fencing in the film, it’s there even if it’s in short supply as fencing is only one of the five sports of the pentathlon.

I can’t leave you without a few fascinating facts about the film’s star. Lundgren actually came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar to MIT, he originally set out to be a mechanical engineer. Movies and modeling called him away before he could complete his studies. On another fencing connection, following his involvement with this film he went on to be the team leader for the U.S. Modern Pentathlon team in the 1996 Olympics! That’s right, he actually participated in the real thing. During the games he was responsible for managing the team’s eating and training habits.

You won’t find this movie streaming anywhere, but you can get a copy of the DVD online. However you can see some pretty cool video of star Dolph Lundgren practicing epee fencing for the movie on the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.

Fencing to show character

One of the biggest reasons that fencing is integrated into a character is to depict that they are both refined and intellectual while also being unique and cool. Fencing injects a mystique into characters as it’s always viewed as a sport that develops the mind, sharpens the wit, and symbolizes a high status of honor or nobility within the culture. Fencing is often mentioned in passing to instantly invoke these qualities without the need for much explanation.

Slowly we’re seeing the notion of fencing as this easy mark of a character evolve from sword fighting to sport fencing. In this last section we highlight a few pointed examples of how sport fencing in popular culture has been used in film and television to instantly highlight the nature of a character.

Brooklyn 99

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

Brooklyn 99 is a television comedy currently in its sixth season. It centers on a police station in New York City where the officers are constantly faced with complex whodunits and outlandish behaviors. One of the main characters is Captain Raymond Holt, played impeccably by actor Andre Braugher. In the second season it’s revealed that Holt is an avid fencer, a hobby that supports the trait of refined toughness inherent in his character.

What’s so cool about having this character as a fencer is that it does show off the dual intellectual and physical nature of sport fencing. He’s also old enough to be a veteran fencer, which is nice to see.

You can find “The Wednesday Incident”, Season 2, Episode 16 of Brooklyn 99 on Hulu.  

Star Trek: The Next Generation

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

It doesn’t get much more iconic in terms of pop culture than Captain Picard of the Star Trek: The Next Generation. He guided the crew of the starship Enterprise through space adventures in seven seasons on television, followed by four feature films.

Picard took sport fencing into the 24th century with biofeedback tech and a vision of futuristic fencing gear, which actually can be seen now with introduction of wireless fencing. This hobby was a recurring theme for Picard, who had foil or sabre bouts with Riker, Data, and Guinan through the run of the show. There were even action figures made of him with his sword! The sport of fencing matches well with the thinking but tough character of this captain, who is as famous for drinking earl grey tea and reading books as he is for fighting alien bad guys.


Recently Patrick Stewart, the actor who played Picard, signed on to do a standalone television series centering around the character. Will he take up the sword again on screen? We can only hope! You can find Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix. Look for the “We’ll Always Have Paris” (Season 1, Episode 23) and “I, Borg” (Season 5, Episode 23).

*It’s worth noting here that Commander Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek series was also a fencer, though it was for combat training and not for sport. The picture of actor George Takei fencing without a shirt from the episode “The Naked Time” is one of the most iconic pop culture images of fencing. You’ll find this episode of Star Trek on Netflix, Season 1 Episode 5.

- Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

The Swan

Inspiration & Drive - Sport Fencing in Movies and Pop Culture

Grace Kelly was a mega star in the Golden Age of Hollywood and of course true royalty after she married the Prince of Monaco and became a princess. One of her most famous roles was in the 1956 film The Swan. In it, her character takes a fencing lesson. To make it more believable, Kelly took fencing lessons with European fencing champion Jean Heremans in preparation for the film.

Though she isn’t directly focused on sport fencing, it’s notable that the film takes place in 1910, just after the start of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 and just before women were admitted into Olympic fencing (foil only) in 1924. Women fencers wore exactly what Kelly is wearing in the film to compete in 1924.  Showing that fencing was part of a well rounded woman was a big mark for the sport at the time.

You can check out the fencing scene from The Swan on Youtube or stream the entire film on Amazon.

Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory is one of the biggest television shows in history, with it’s nerdy cadre of characters pushing the boundaries of science and technology while having fun doing it.

During one episode, the four main characters decide to take up sport fencing as a way to get healthy and active. What’s wonderful about this episode is that they delve deep into the mechanics of fencing, making jokes about which side of the body is dominant and all of the fencing terminology.

This show is all about uber intelligent individuals, and the idea of sport fencing as physical chess works extremely well in this setting and with these characters.

You can find “The Perspiration Implementation” (Season 9, Episode 5) on CBS All Access.

These are of course only a few of the representations of modern sport fencing in popular culture. We can’t wait to see how fencing gets more airtime as the sport grows and becomes more popular!

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2 Comments

  1. R

    “Sunshine” is a 1999 historical drama film directed by István Szabó and written by Israel Horovitz and Szabó. It follows five generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, originally named Sonnenschein (German: “sunshine”), later changed to Sors (Hungarian: “fate”), during changes in Hungary, focusing mostly on the three generations from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. Istvan and Adam both join the Jewish-run Civic Fencing Club. Adam becomes the best fencer in Hungary, and General Jakofalvy invites him to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to join the nation’s top military, non-Jewish, fencing club. While Adam and Istvan are converting, Adam meets Hannah, who is converting at the request of her fiancé, and woos her into marrying him. Adam wins the national fencing championship two years in a row and goes on to lead the national team to the 1936 Olympic gold medal in Team Sabre in Nazi Germany, becoming a national hero in Hungary. Istvan’s wife, Greta, pursues Adam until they start a secret affair. The central male protagonist of all three generations is portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. The film’s stars include Rachel Weisz and John Neville, with the real-life daughter and mother team of Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris playing the same character across a six-decade storyline. The fencing is realistic.

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