The Highlander Taught Me How to Sword Fight
Inside a large hall at Los Angeles Convention Center, I'm practicing a sequence of sword movements alongside 21 other people. Step one: Aim for the hip. Step two: Protect your head. Step three: Aim for the shoulder.
There are more steps to follow, a series of offensive and defensive movies derived from a fight scene in the movie Blade. We're learning combat for the camera, not for real life, and it feels like dance class, albeit one where half the choreography involves wielding a wooden sword in ways that will leave my weakling arms sore the following morning.
Leading the class is Adrian Paul, a swashbuckling actor if there ever was one. Paul spent much of the 1990s on the television series Highlander, on which he played Duncan MacLeod, an Immortal who has lived for centuries roaming the world and engaging in battles with others of his kind. The premise of Highlander is that "there can be only one." That means one Immortal who will eventually polish off the others in a succession of battles that leave the losers headless and the winners awash in a lightning storm of new power. Throughout the series' six-season run, Paul engaged in choreographed combat that jumps back and forth through time, crossing oceans from Europe to North America, and taking place everywhere from rural battlegrounds to urban environments.
Some of those fights were incredibly complicated. Paul mentions that some of his favorites were the most difficult to perform, as in the episode "Duende," where he had to use a longsword and dagger at the same time. He likens that to patting your head while rubbing your stomach. "It was totally foreign to me when I did it," he says.
Years ago, people had suggested that the L.A.-based actor release a sword-fighting video. He wasn't keen on that idea. But Paul has a charity called the PEACE (Protect, Educate, Aid Children Everywhere) Fund, which raises funds for individual children in need and partners with other groups to support various causes that affect young people. Last year, PEACE Fund was running a campaign to benefit an individual child when someone suggested that Paul do a sword demonstration as a fundraiser. He put together the event at a fan convention in Sacramento. About 30 people attended and they were able to raise the needed funds. Moreover, Paul got some great feedback. He went on to test the concept at a few more small conventions before officially launching the Sword Experience at a winery in Temecula in April. Paul is working to expand the Sword Experience to work with corporations to raise money for the PEACE Fund. He developing a "team-building" component to the program, since the Sword Experience involves developing trust between partners.
Actor Adrian Paul (in the red shirt) is known for playing sword-wielding Duncan MacLeod on Highlander. Now he's bringing sword workshops across the country.
Courtesy of the Sword Experience
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Since then, he's held workshops in the United States and United Kingdom, in each teaching a fight scene designed to fit the surroundings. Sometimes the Sword Experience can take place in picturesque locations, like lofts or old barns. Other times, it takes place in bland convention centers.
Paul's interest in swords began before Highlander, but he started training hard when he got the role. "The minute I picked up a sword, it felt so comfortable in my hand," he says. Over the years, he has studied various styles of swordfighting and martial arts.
On Highlander, Paul worked with Bob Anderson, the Olympic fencer who spent much of his career coordinating fight scenes for film and television. Paul says the late Anderson was a mentor to him and taught him some valuable lessons about cinematic fighting. "You take a space and create a fight around it," Paul says he learned from the master. "Whatever the space is, you create the fight. I thought that was a great thing."
That's also the lesson Paul has brought to his traveling Sword Experience events.
Today's event is part of Stan Lee's Los Angeles Comic Con (formerly known as Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo), a weekendlong gathering of pop-culture fanatics. The day's events get underway in a nook that's set a long corridor's walk away from the rest of the events. We're secluded from the barrage of cosplayers and vendors who will, no doubt, turn up in photo after photo from the event. Here, the crowd is dressed to move and cameras are prohibited. The images that filter out of this room come from the Sword Experience professionals, who appear to be pretty good at getting the shot without taking blows to the head.
The class starts out with 42 people; only 10 of them have some level of previous sword experience. We're divided into pairs seemingly based on skill level and height. Then, our pairs are split and we move into two different large groups, with each one practicing a different sequence of movements. Ultimately, we'll be brought together to weave our newly acquired skills into a fight scene.
Onscreen, sword battles are a thing of a beauty. The actors swing and dodge with the grace of ballet dancers and the strength of home run hitters. Paul himself has a background that brings together sports and dance. He played rugby and semipro soccer and danced before he launched his acting career. All that plays into swordfighting. "I've been cut and beaten up so many time during sword fights," he says. "I got into a lot of fights when I was playing rugby, so that was the aggression side of it. Then I learned how to control that by doing martial arts. The dancing gave me the flow, and that's what gave me the flow and understanding, so there's a mixture of everything."
It takes a class just to realize how hard staged combat is. Just when I think I've nailed a swing, Paul walks by and corrects my form.
At the end of the session, some of the students opt to perform in front of the camera. For me, this was time to just watch and see what it looks like when all of those tiny, precise movements work together. After a break, we return to the hall, which is now dark, save for spotlights that direct our eyes to the middle of a stage that was just erected. Smoke is pumped across the stage as pairs of performers run through their sequences. The light shines on their faces as they grunt and strike and block. They give and take cinematic blows for the camera that's capturing these performances. And, no matter the skill level of the performers, it looks like fun, even if it does leave you sore the next day.
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