Swords can do the talking

Times Staff Writer

What audiences expect of Jerry Bruckheimer action movies, he delivers: They’re fast, flashy and dedicated to the principle that no explosion is too big.

Thus it may seem that the next Bruckheimer project to sail into theaters, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (due July 9), is a little low-tech for the producer of “Top Gun,” “The Rock,” “Armageddon” and “Black Hawk Down.” Pirate ships, after all, move no faster than the wind can push them, and the flash comes from the buccaneers’ gold-toothed smiles.

But the sheer precision of an old-fashioned swashbuckling sword fight can create an undeniably spectacular effect.

“I’ve always wanted to do a pirate picture,” Bruckheimer explains. “I just loved, growing up as a kid, watching ‘Treasure Island’ and Errol Flynn movies, and I thought we could make something that was kind of fun for today.”


“Pirates,” the Walt Disney Co.'s latest attempt to cash in on the familiarity of its theme park attractions (after last year’s “The Country Bears”), stars Johnny Depp as a rogue pirate who teams with blacksmith Orlando Bloom to rescue damsel Keira Knightley from a Geoffrey Rush’s crew of ghostly pirates, cursed to appear as skeletons when seen in moonlight. This being a Bruckheimer movie, there are explosions, of course, but mostly there’s sword fighting, and lots of it.

“It’s all about the speed and the style of the blade and the way that they kind of sing, so the blades are communicating as opposed to just clashing,” says Bloom.

Singing blades and blinding speed can require great concentration from even an experienced swordsman, but for an actor still becoming acquainted with the sword as well as his lines, there’s always the risk of punctuating dialogue with a bloody gash or worse. Luckily for the cast, this production came with a Bruckheimer-size budget of a reported $125 million. The kind of money ordinarily lavished on blasting caps was spent on expert training.

Bob Anderson, an 80-year-old Englishman with impressive swashbuckling credentials -- he showed Errol Flynn a thing or two when they worked together on the 1953 film “The Master of Ballantrae” -- was brought in for four weeks during shooting to lend his wisdom to the cast and crew. Anderson’s “still very light on his feet,” Bloom says. “He was up there showing us how it was done.”

For all his experience and the admiration he inspires, Anderson displays an English gentleman’s sense of humility.

“We’re all standing on the shoulders of those who went before us,” he says. “In other words, don’t take too much credit for what you’re doing, because somebody else gave it to you and you’re adding your bit of talent.” He’s quick to credit his assistant sword master, Mark Ivie, who worked with stunt coordinator George Marshall Ruge and director Gore Verbinski to choreograph the dozen or so sword fights in the film. Two centerpiece duels -- one a playful show of skills between Depp and Bloom in a blacksmith’s forge, and the other a battle in the three-story-high cave set involving Depp and Bloom against the crew of undead pirates -- took five months for the trio to plan, and that was before the actors ever showed up.

Planning a movie sword fight is not as easy as giving an actor fencing lessons, a prop sword and a few marks to hit on the ground. The considerations include weapon choices, fighting style and personal flourishes added for the character.

“In ‘Pirates’ we use a lot of cutlasses,” a short, thick curving sword, Ivie says. “We have a lot of sweeping movements, cutting movements. What we tried to do was contrast the different styles. Orlando’s style is much more classically trained. Johnny’s character, who is a pirate, has a much more ‘anything goes’ kind of style.”


Each sword-fighting move has a name, and during preparations for a fight, the names being called out and the graceful movements they correspond with can make the actors seem more like burly ballerinas than scurvy seadogs with thirsty blades. Once the moves are set, though, and the fight is brought up to full speed, the effect is hardly as peaceful as a ballet.

“When the director says ‘Action,’ you pretty much go all out,” Ivie explains. “The adrenaline that happens just takes it that much more over the top. By the end of the fight, you’re like, ‘I want to kill this person.’ ” Adding to the challenge was the use of visual effects to create the skeletal look of the enemy pirates. Entire duels were filmed with just half the fighting duo at a time, each half having to imagine their interaction with the other, and re-create the movements perfectly. Other fights were simulated without any weapons.

Allowances for movie technique aside, sticklers for veracity will note that the variety of fighting styles used in the film are as true to the historical period of the 18th century as possible. But stunt coordinator Ruge has to admit, “In the real world, there was a lot of negotiation we don’t read about.”

But no matter how well-planned and executed the sword fights are, there’s still a curse to contend with, one that has nothing to do with gold doubloons or ghost pirates. What it does involve -- the astronomical budgets of Hollywood pirate movies and their tendency to sink at the box office -- is more than enough to shiver the timbers of the heartiest of studio executives.


Witness the performances of last year’s “Treasure Planet,” and the notorious 1995 Geena Davis-Renny Harlin film “Cutthroat Island,” or even recent Oscar winner Roman Polanski’s 1986 shipwreck, “Pirates.” Bruckheimer charts his own course into these troubled waters, backed by an impressive track record and an impressive crew.

For consultant Anderson, who’s logged more movie hours in his career than anyone else on the film -- this is his 50th year in show business -- the fates of those other films are just part of the cycle. “When I came into the film business, they were doing pirate movies -- Burt Lancaster and the pirate movies he did. Then knights in armor were the phase for a couple of years. Then gradually it went to guns and fast cars, which reigned supreme for a very long period. Then it started coming back. I can vouch for it by the fact that I haven’t stopped working for the last 10 years.”

And it now appears that cycle will turn once again. Bruckheimer recently announced the start of his big-screen version of “King Arthur.”