Romancing the sword (1)

This is another favorite multi-part essay written for my “Pathless Travels” column. It was originally published in Northern Weekly Dispatch, 31 Jul 2005, and which I then reposted a few months later on my defunct blog hosted at Blogspot. The year was 2005, and the Philippines was at the height of the anti-Gloria Macapagal Arroyo protests in the wake of the “Hello Garci” scandal. With the likes of Gen. Danny Lim and Navy Capt. Sonny Trillanes giving voice to those who wanted the AFP to side with the people’s demands for regime change, some groups were becoming enamored with military or military-backed solutions. 
On the creative writing side, I was intrigued by the three-part or multi-part essay as a possible subgenre to explore, because it came to me as a nice solution to a literary dilemma. Nordis (the weekly newspaper) discouraged long pieces because it had to save on space, accommodate other columns, and encourage readership through shorter pieces. It was no New Yorker magazine, no Atlantic Monthly, in terms of available space. On my part, I wanted to explore a topic in more depth without being straitjacketed by the pressures of a regional weekly. And so the solution presented itself: a long essay in three or four parts, masquerading as column pieces.
My name is Gladiator
What is it that compels the audience to sit through all of these violent movies? Is it just some cult obsession, or is there perhaps some universal human appeal in watching scenes of bloody carnage, up close where steel blade meets sinewed flesh, if only theatrically through the eyes of the filmmaker?

Last year, I got to writing a three-part piece on a most unlikely topic: fireplaces. The title, “Romancing the Fireplace,” had a nice medieval ring to it, even though my piece actually dwelt on mundane matters like the secrets of cooking fluffy rice and saving on LPG.

With the country in a deepening state of siege, I feel now is the right occasion to follow through with another multi-part column – this time a nasty medieval piece on war, especially on using swords and other bladed weapons designed for efficient human butchery. Sounds gory to you? Read on, dear friend.

As I’ve said, I’m no film buff or professional critic,  who watches dozens of films in a month, speaks fondly of Truffaut and Kurosawa like they were college chums, and renders judgment on a film’s acting, direction and editing with majestic finality.

I’m a plain street customer who knows what he likes: stories of historical conflict. And in my list, nothing beats real-life, well-researched, and gritty war stories, like A Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon. Or war stories that follow their own surreal historicity, like the popular Lord of the Rings and Star Wars trilogies.

But let’s set aside the light sabers wielded by Jedi knights long ago in a galaxy far away. Let’s look instead at real swords that killed real people on modern Earth, not so long ago and not so far away. One way would be through movies that portray ancient and medieval battles.


This sort of film – tagged “sword-and-sandal movie” by Hollywood pundits and as “peplum” by Italian filmmakers – dates back to the early days of cinema, when spectacles such as the nine-reel Quo Vadis (1912) and the 12-reel Cabiria (1914) showed how wars were waged by ancient Rome.

The genre remained very much alive up to the 1960’s, with countless movies on historical or legendary warriors such as The Robe (1952), Ivanhoe (1952), The Silver Chalice (1954), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960, re-released 1991), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), the Hercules series, and so on. A few famous figures were even made into movies five times or more, such as Ben-Hur and Cleopatra.

The genre was so successful, in fact, that the older generation of Filipinos now suffer from surfeit viewing these Hollywood favorites because, every Lenten season when we were young, these films monopolized the only interesting but repetitive TV and movie fare for the family.


Nevertheless, for bad or good, Hollywood practically dropped the genre from the mid-1960’s onwards.

The last notable sword films of that period were Alfred the Great (1969) and Cromwell (1970). Unlike their 1950’s and early 1960’s predecessors, these two films already carried the characteristic grittiness of the hippie protest era, where film heroes unabashedly showed their bad side. (They were also among the first films that I watched on the big screen on my lonesome own, as a gangling and wide-eyed teenage introvert.)

Then a decade later, Hollywood fully replaced history with high fantasy. So-called “sword-and-sorcery movies” became box-office hits, such as the Conan the Barbarian series (1981 onwards – I never watched any), Highlander series (1986 onwards – only mildly interesting), and Excalibur (1981, a surreal rendering of the King Arthur legend). The only notable historical sword movie of this period, King David (1985), flopped. The sword-and-sorcery genre itself tapered off by the 1990’s.

Why did the history-based genre die out in the late 1960’s, to be replaced by 1980’s fantasy-based sword-and-sorcery movies? I don’t know. I suspect the underlying causes had to do with the Vietnam War era and the post-Vietnam syndrome.


Lately, however, history-based sword-and-sandal films are enjoying a resurgence. Some observers say the genre returned with Gladiator (2000), with Russell Crowe as Maximus – a Roman legion general who escapes a murderous imperial coup and makes a comeback as an avenging gladiator. (I watched the VCD three times until someone “borrowed” it without my permission. Grrr.)

The trend actually began several years earlier with Braveheart (1995) – a memorable story derived from the real-life exploits of Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s most popular and revered national hero, a revolutionary mass leader who fought side by side with his troops on the frontlines. I think it helped that Wallace was portrayed by Mel Gibson, who seems to wallow in the cult of the bloodied hero or martyr.

Despite its usual Hollywood revisionism, the film ranks very high in my list because it tells how, in the late 13th century, the son of a minor clan notable led and built up a peasant-based guerrilla army to liberate Scotland from cruel British rule under King Edward I Longshanks. The movie preserved the basic threads of the historical Braveheart, all the way to Wallace’s having been weighed down by double-dealing native feudal lords. (I watched the movie three times and devoured all the details, flinching only at the final execution scene when Wallace is hanged, drawn, and quartered before a big London crowd.)


Next came two Joan of Arc films (both in 1999), about another medieval war of liberation, led by the maiden warrior of Orleans – a French peasant girl guided by a messianic ideology. One was the full-length film The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc, the other was the CBS mini-series Joan of Arc. Despite criticism that they were full of inaccuracies, I adored both films because of their historical heroine – not to mention falling head over heels with Milla Jovovich and LeeLee Sobieski.

After these films, and spurred by the success of Gladiator, came a Grecian double treat that no sword-and-sandals aficionado could refuse: Troy (2004), a cinematic retelling of the timeless Homeric tale about the Trojan war and its superhuman heroes and gods, and Alexander (2004), a sweeping if somewhat exhausting account of how the Hellenic city-states grew into an empire through Alexandrian sword, fire, and intellect.

In these past few years came three other films with oddly similar tales of heroic swordsmen being sucked into civilizations about to fall: The Last Samurai (2003), set in the fading years of feudal Japan; King Arthur (2004), an attempt to historicize the Celtic legend, set in the fading years of Roman Britain; and Kingdom of Heaven (2005), about the fall of Christian Jerusalem in the fading years of the Second Crusade.

You guessed right. I saw them all, and watched them again and again.


At this point, Kabsat Kandu — who didn’t share my virtues of patience and subtlety but was able to follow me thus far — rattled off some surprisingly lucid questions:

First, he asked, what is the reason behind the recent revival of sword-and-sandal films? Is it of any social significance?

Second, he said with a chiding tone, how could you sit through all of these violent movies? Is it just some cult obsession? Or is there perhaps some universal human appeal in watching scenes of bloody carnage? Have we become voyeurs of violence, staring up close where steel blade meets sinewed flesh – if only theatrically through the eyes of the filmmaker?

And third, he concluded with a ring of conviction, why are you telling your readers all these? Is it of any use in the public drive to oust GMA, now the favorite topic of perhaps half of all columnists throught the land?

“Oh, but remember,” I lectured Kabsat Kandu as he peered at the computer screen over my shoulder, “this is a multi-part article.” And so, dear readers, like my pesky neighbor here beside me, you will have to visit this page again next week for some answers. # Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


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