Thursday, September 16, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Fight Choreography of Rob Roy

Hey, folks. Michael C. here from Serious Film with another overlooked contribution to film greatness. This time out let's look at a favorite of mine going back to my teenage years: the fight choreography of Rob Roy (1995).



William Hobbs is the Marlon Brando of movie sword fighting. He is the guy who blasted away years of mannered and artificial fight choreography and brought it down to Earth. A fencing advisor with credits ranging from The Duelists and Dangerous Liaisons all the way back to Olivier's Othello, one would be hard pressed to find a memorable sword fight from the last fifty years which Hobbs did not have a hand in creating. Out of that lifetime of memorable scenes his masterpiece is undoubtedly the climactic duel from Michael Caton-Jones' Rob Roy. It is a scene that doesn't just sit atop the list of great movie sword fights, but deserves prominent mention in any discussion of the cinema's all time great action sequences.

On a technical level the staging feels like the closest approximation of the real thing ever put on film. Rob Roy leaves in all the elements that the classic Hollywood sword fights left out: the grueling physical effort, the intense concentration required to avoid being killed in the blink of an eye, the long pauses interrupted by a flurry of violence, the courage it takes to even approach someone whose sword is drawn. Nobody is dropping quips in between the action here.

Mind you, I have nothing but love for the great fencing matches of Hollywood's Golden Age. I was raised on Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. But the work of Hobbs in this field has the same effect as the method acting revolution -- after this nothing can be the same.


Hobbs' brilliance is to make the fencing matches more about the characters than the violence. In the case of Rob Roy, I can't recall another fight scene where the strategies of the opponents can be so clearly understood. We know that Tim Roth's Oscar nominated "Cunningham" perilously outmatches Liam Neeson's "Rob Roy". Yet Cunningham has learned the hard way not to underestimate Rob, who can be powerful and dangerous given the slightest chance. So unlike every other movie sword fight where the audience merely watches for the killing blow, here we follow along as the Neeson and Roth try to outthink each other, Cunningham trying to exhaust Rob with a series of small wounds, and Rob hoping to survive long enough to take advantage of Cunningham's overconfidence. It's a mental duel as much as a physical one.

Hobbs must have known he had a once-in-a-career opportunity on his hands when he was presented with the script. Most movie sword fights spring up suddenly; characters are in them before they know what's happening. Rob Roy's climax involves an arranged duel to the death. It unfolds deliberately, with a sense of pervasive dread. Hobbs takes full advantage of the opportunity, and he, along with the rest of the filmmaking team, crafts not just a milestone in fight choreography, but an unforgettable dramatic scene as well.

You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or read his blog Serious Film.

11 comments:

Volvagia said...

I mentioned Heathers costume design, but you may not have looked at the comments on the last entry. If I was ever to say, "The movie IS the costumes", Heathers is the movie I'd be talking about. Seriously, I look at most costume dramas and, well, the costumes seem just like "something to wear." I'd argue that you know the personality of each character in Heathers by the colour they wear and their exact mood by the SHADE of what they are wearing at a particular moment. Costuming as performance shorthand. Genius.

Michael C. said...

I didn’t get around to mentioning it because it was a bit off topic, but I wanted to highlight just how good the physical acting of Neeson and Roth is here. It’s the kind of acting that is often overlooked. Roth and Neeson don’t just duel convincingly, they fight in character.

NATHANIEL R said...

michael c -- totally agree. i never understood why people didn't like this movie more in its year. I was quite fond of it and when you said you were doing this for a column, i knew it'd be a goodie.

i also quite like the swordfight between will & captain jack in the first pirates of the caribbean but more for comedic reasons. But it's also very well choreographed.

so many action scenes are so sloppy nowadays but this one. GREAT.

mrripley said...

You know i always thought john hurt deserved the oscar nomination more than roth,is there another under appreciated uk actor on this planet more than mr hurt!

Michael C. said...

I think a lot of it had to do with being overshadowed by Braveheart. Sometimes two movies just become unfortunately linked and these two Scottish hero stories came out within two months of each other. Rob Roy was easier to overlook because Braveheart had epic scope, and Caton Jones is not an auteur of note. Personally I wouldn't trade this sword fight for all of Braveheart's battle scenes. Conventional wisdom be damned, Rob Roy was my favorite film of '95.

And Tim Roth may just give my favorite male supporting performance of the 90's give or take Samuel L. Jackson.

Silencio said...

Word, I'm a big appreciator for fight choreography. However you've drawn my attention to sword fighting, which is cool; I've been more focused on hand to hand and more directly martial arts-related work. Thanks.

Caroline said...

Random: Who is the girl second from the right in your Film Experience blog title photomontage? It's been bothering me for awhile. I recognize her but can't quite put my finger on it.

NATHANIEL R said...

Caroline -- that's Julie Christie in her youth.

Volvagia said...

Oh, when I looked closely I said thought, "Either that's The Darling or I'm confused and that's Down By Love."

my pants are old said...

nat, you should add Nicoel Kidman to the best actress top 5 predictions, lionsgate picked the movie and will distribute it in november-december.

OSCARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Simon said...

This might be my favorite period piece, for this scene. So beautifully done, nothing so out-of-character illogical, just brilliant. And, of course, Tim Roth.