Romancing the sword (2)

This is Part 2 of another multipart-part essay written for my “Pathless Travels” column. It was originally published in Northern Weekly Dispatch, 7 Aug 2005, and which I then reposted a few months later on my defunct blog hosted at Blogspot. Read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.
The year was 2005, and the GMA broadcast network had scored a big hit with the sword-and-sorcery TV series Encantadia. Sword battle movies were on the comeback trail worldwide, from Hollywood to China, and the genre seemed to appeal to Filipino sensitivities. But were they really unlocking insights to our own history as a people fighting against colonial powers?
War, that most horrible practice invented and mastered by humanity, remains nevertheless a fascinating subject in literature and art throughout the ages. It is as though people hope to exorcise the immense guilt of organizing mutual slaughter, the utter terror of violent death, and the frenzy of close-quarters combat, by making them the topic of literature, painting and sculpture, music and theater, games, and in our day, through film.

War, that most horrible practice invented and mastered by humanity, remains nevertheless a fascinating subject in literature and art throughout the ages. It is as though people hope to  exorcise the immense guilt of engaging in mutual slaughter, the utter terror of violent death, and the frenzy of close-quarters combat, by making them the topic of literature, painting and sculpture, music and theater, games, and in our day, through film.

I fell into such a morbid fascination with war at a young age. I guess it was expected of most boys of our generation. After all, we read about war in comic books and trading cards (the teks we were addicted to as kids, before the text of the cellphone era). We watched it on television as regular family weekend fare; remember Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders in the TV series Combat? We played in the street with toy guns and swords, and formed teams that competed in informal neighborhood war games using slingshots and paper pellets, in lieu of basketball tournaments.

But that wasn’t enough for me. My childhood obsession with vicarious war ran deeper. At 10, among my most treasured books were several military books given by older cousins. One was a thick and richly-illustrated US ROTC training book. Another was a US Army manual of artillery and infantry weapons. Still another was a two-volume compilation of World War II stories.

I devoured the stories, the details of weapons and tactics, and spent long hours playing out the battles, either mentally or with the help of small plastic soldiers on the pillows-and-blanket terrain of the bedroom, complete with intricate tactical maneuvers that I imagined must have been second nature to infantry COs. From high school onwards, a modest allowance enabled me to buy more books on war history and to watch more war films on the big screen.


Reading through my collection of war books, it took me extra effort to stare at real-life photos of dead soldiers, twisted as they were into grotesque poses and staring back with dreamy half-closed eyes. Even now, some combat death scenes replay themselves with persistence inside my head, usually that of a wounded grunt that turns talkative and incongruent while others desperately patch his bleeding chest, until he lapses into shock and dies in the arms of his comrades. (This “soldier’s death up close” sub-genre is explored to the fullest in films like Platoon and Saving Private Ryan.)

Nothing prepared me, however, for the full-adrenalin scenes of massed sword battles and close-up carnage pioneered by Alfred the Great (1969) and later perfected by the recent batch of sword-and-sandal, sword-and-armor, and sword-and-sorcery films (BraveheartJoan of ArcGladiator, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Last SamuraiKingdom of Heaven, et al.).

Even with repeated viewings, they never fail to wrench me deep in the guts – the way war drums and battle yells signal the start of the massed assault by phalanxes of sword and spear, accompanied by thunderous hoofs of cavalry, all in a mad dash towards a deafening crash as the two opposing waves of soldiery consume each other in screaming, mindless slaughter.

With racing heartbeat and sweating palms, I grip my viewer’s seat and watch every excruciating detail. Sharp steel hacking into flesh and bone. Men and horses heaved asunder by the sheer impact of the assault, into waiting lance points. Croaks and groans of sweating, grappling, dying men. The nauseous sight of butchery on the dusty battleground. I, the moviegoer, am a futuristic reporter in the middle of the battle, shielded from the carnage by a sheer time-warp bubble. But I force myself to watch it all.


I have a question, though.

Now, modern conventional wars are generally more violent than ancient wars, in terms of the extent of death and destruction. On D-Day alone of the 1944 Allied invasion in France, which is depicted with terrifying authenticity in the film Saving Private Ryan, most estimates place total Allied dead at around 5,000, German dead at about 10,000, and French civilian dead (mostly through Allied bombings of Norman cities and towns) at a whooping 19,000. That’s a total of 34,000 deaths on a single day of blood and ruin.

In comparison, in the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge where Scottish forces under Wallace slaughtered the medieval English army, the total casualty was less than 6,000 killed (mostly English, plus some Scots and local civilians).

Yet why does it seem that movie scenes of sword battles affect us more than those of modern firefights? Why do most of us flinch and turn our eyes away from scenes of sword blades or spear points running through flesh, but not so much when movie soldiers are hit by bullets or shrapnel? I don’t know about you, but at least it does so in my case.


While we try to search our collective psyche for scientific reasons, let me offer a simplistic explanation:

When we were kids (and up to now among rural children), handling bolos, knives and other bladed or pointed tools for daily chores was a routine skill. Accidental cuts and pricks were not uncommon. We were familiar with the pain and the blood. Sooner or later, most of us learned to avoid them, but the primal pain remained in our subconscious, as a constant reminder to wield our bladed tools (or weapons) with great care.

In other words, more people have experienced injury by blade-like or spear-like objects, at some point in their lives, than people who have been wounded by bullets or shrapnel. The traumatic memory of the former is thus embedded in more people. I think it is this common pain that is so easily evoked by cinematic sword battles.


Now here’s the twist.

I now observe less and less kids in the urban areas undergoing the same experience, the routine use of knives having been relegated to the kitchen, to kitchen-bound housewives, “house-bands”, and househelp. In a crowded city street, for example, carrying a bolo no longer signifies that you’re a hard-working farmer; it makes you – in the eyes of cops at least – a potential criminal if not an outright crazed fanatic.

More and more, urban kids see the reality of swords and long knives only in comics, films, computer games and fantasy cards. They have only the barest idea of the physical skills and careful use that these tools or weapons require. Young generations are losing the normal caution and queasiness associated with sharp steel blades. They are vicariously enjoying them more and more through movies and games suffused with surreal magic.

In short, swords and knives are increasingly receding from the reality of younger generations and becoming more and more part of fantasy. To urban youth, our Muslim brothers are now seen not as fierce wielders of kris and kampilan, but of DVD and VCD.


“Is that the reason why Encantadia is so popular now?” asks Kabsat Kandu.

My spunky neighbor is of course referring to the current GMA7 primetime blockbuster. This sword-and-sorcery series, reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings, is now becoming serious discussion theme even in university classes.

And he is exactly right on the mark. Elementary school kids now know a lot more about Princess Pirena than about Princess Urduja. They now know more about the magical kabilan than the historical kampilan.

We will have to explore this question further and hopefully find more answers than I am now able to provide.#

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