There is one fewer giant in the world of cinema.
Earlier this month, we lost fight director and swordmaster William Hobbs. He’d spent most of his 79 years going back and forth between stage and film, using his background as a competitive fencer to teach everyone from Peter O’Toole to Keanu Reeves how to duel.
Early on in his theatrical education, he realized that the stage-combat traditions he was expected to inherit were, in his view, seriously lacking. As he saw it, they failed to convey, and carry the continuity of, the drama on either side of the fight; the play would stop, the swords would come out for a while, and then the play would start again. The fight may have been entertaining enough, depending on the skill of the performers and the inventiveness of the combat director (and the time and attention devoted to choreographing and rehearsing the scene), but the action of the swords would be largely separate from the action of the drama.
This, Hobbs thought, was a missed opportunity. The swordplay (or other combat) could, and should, contribute to the story. Each participant comes to the fight as an individual — not just with variable expertise, but also their emotional state, and their relationship to the person they face across their blade. All of this, Hobbs asserted, can and must be communicated in the fight.
Adding to the problem, he felt, was the fact that actors weren’t properly trained in handling their weapons. At his academy, he kept hearing that actors felt they were sufficiently skilled with their blades, even though he knew, with his history as an Olympic-level fencer, that they were not. In fact, as an actor in the program, he was required to learn only four positions, which would then form the basis for any staged duel; he later said the administration deemed this satisfactory for mere “grace and deportment.”1
When Hobbs began directing fights, he changed that. He demanded commitment from his actors, training them in sufficient depth to execute all sorts of attacks and defenses, depending on their character’s preferred weapon and level of technical expertise. And he specifically reminded his actors to allow their characters to inform their fighting, maintaining their emotional throughline and applying the language of objectives and tactics to the choreography the same as any other rehearsed material. He even went so far as to include emotional beats in the staging, where the audience would understand each character’s progressive state of mind through particularized action, their growing confidence or their mounting frustration depending on how the fight was going for them. It wasn’t just a thrilling physical display until the killing blow; each fight, Hobbs said, was its own mini-story, in the context of the larger piece. And he accomplished all of this while still keeping one eye on technical accuracy, never drifting too far into unrealistic cinematic fantasy.
It seems obvious now, but at the time it was revolutionary, and as Hobbs’s reputation spread, his perspective became enormously influential. He summed it up in the mid 1990s, while working on a production at the Royal Opera House in London. “It’s about thinking through the character, not through spectacle,” he said. “A fight has got to grow out of the situation of the play.” He also said that in his choreography, he would be considering only “the move I feel is right for the character,” connecting it directly to his training as an actor. “You are not doing pyrotechnics for the sake of being pyrotechnic.”2
Soon, Hollywood came calling; after a handful of credits, he got everyone’s attention with two Musketeers movies for director Richard Lester. And then he had his real breakthrough, training the actors and choreographing all the fights in Ridley Scott’s feature film debut The Duellists. It’s unfairly considered a minor work in Scott’s filmography, but as a milestone in cinematic swordplay its importance can’t be understated. It’s astonishing how clearly the characters are conveyed purely through action; if you fast-forward through and watch only the fights, you’ll find you almost don’t need the rest of the movie, the dialogue and the exposition, to understand exactly who these two men are and what they want from each other.
Hobbs’s most famous fight is the climactic duel between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth in Rob Roy, and it’s absolutely a corker. And, again, it’s perfectly in Hobbs’s wheelhouse an expression of character and drama first and foremost, even while it’s packed with technical interest for the swordplay aficionado. Roth is a nobleman, highly educated, who chooses to fight with a rapier; Neeson is a battlefield brawler who brings a basket-hilted broadsword to the floor. Roth is also a sneering sadist who toys with his opponent, while Neeson is fighting solely for his family’s honor and has nothing to lose. Director Michael Caton-Jones presents the face-off without any musical score, recognizing that Hobbs already built the soundtrack using the metallic percussion of the blades. It’s a masterpiece.
For my money, though, the scene where Hobbs really shows his expertise and creativity is the final duel in Dangerous Liaisons. It’s much shorter than the fight in Rob Roy, but it carries a similar clarity of character, and an even greater freedom of artistic intent. The movie’s basic idea is to contrast this elegant, opulent world, filled with polished, highly-mannered people, with the vicious savagery that lies just beneath the surface. These French aristocrats are refined, cultured, pridefully superior, but they are unspeakably cruel in their attempts to torment and literally destroy one another. So, for the swordfight, the obvious choice would have been to lean into the elegance, showing them thrusting and parrying and accepting their fates with noble reserve. But Hobbs — to quote Tony Wolf, who worked on the fights for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies — “always sought to surprise his audience and took the less-obvious path.”3 His staging of the duel is shockingly rough, with physical immediacy and real violence, as an illustration of the masks being torn away, of the truth of these people being undeniable in an actual life-and-death situation. When you think about all the different ways this could have been done, Hobbs’s work here is a revelation.
For further reading, I highly recommend Hobbs’s book Fight Direction for Stage and Screen. Some of it is technical, intended for creative artists in the field (the extended discussion of competing notation systems for recording combat staging is fascinating for experts, but will be a lot of tedious “inside baseball” for non-performers), but at several points in the book Hobbs takes the reader in precise detail through the design and artistic intent of one of his cinematic fights. You don’t have to be a fencing master to understand how Hobbs describes the personalities of the participants in the various duels, and the way he’s designed the action to reflect their characters; and it’s illuminating just how often he repeats the basic point that the success of the fight as a scene relies less on the actors’ technical facility with the blade and much more on their commitment to acting the fight.
William Hobbs was a master of his field, rivaled in importance and historical influence only, perhaps, by Bob Anderson. Check out his credits here, and be awed by your recognition of his incredible work in everything from Robin and Marian, Excalibur, and Ladyhawke to Flash Gordon, Depardieu’s Cyrano, and Shakespeare in Love. And then, tonight, tip a glass for one of the behind-the-scenes artists whose name not enough people know, but whose work changed film storytelling forever.
Please enjoy this terrific behind-the-scenes featurette, in which Hobbs discusses his work on the underrated 2002 adventure film The Count of Monte Cristo.
- Richard Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, p. 247
- The New York Times, 2 July 1995