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From Darth Vader to Antonio Banderas, fencing in the greatest duels of literature and cinema

It is difficult to think of a discipline that more than fencing reflects the ideal (even aesthetic) of courage that Hemingway loved so much. That grace under pressure that the great American writer has pursued throughout his life, but probably thinking of sports such as boxing or traditional forms such as bullfighting, rather than the ancient art of the sword.
The charm and the scenic aspect, as well as the ritual, of the white weapon duel in fencing, has not escaped literature first and then the cinema, to give life to a genre, that of the cape and the sword.

Duels and musketeers in literature: from Shakespeare to Cervantes fencing duels

With a story that is lost in the mists of time, thanks to writers and directors, fencing lives, in short, a further phase of the secular evolution that has seen it goes from authentic martial art of the old continent to the main mode of personal defense, before starting extraordinary Olympic feats with athletes such as Eduardo Mangiarotti or Valentina Vezzali (as told in the article: The long history of fencing) And it is thanks to her presence in fencing that she has rightfully entered the collective imagination.

Courage is grace under pressure. Ernest Hemingway

Moreover, since Shakespeare's time the duel has been used as the main dramatic device (think of Hamlet's final one, in which the Prince of Denmark, wounded to death, manages to kill first Laerte and then the usurping king) and was already a founding element of great knightly poems such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso or of what is considered the first novel of the modern era: Don Quixote by Cervantes.
It was however in the nineteenth century that the sword, fencing in particular, became the absolute protagonist, thanks to the fortune obtained from the genre of the historical novel since the publication in 1819 of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and its definitive affirmation with the famous D'Artagnan, at the centre, along with fellow musketeers, of the trilogy published between 1844 and 1850 that gave fame to Alexandre Dumas.
To import in Italy similar tones and styles, even if turned into more exotic atmospheres, was instead Emilio Salgari, the creator of characters such as Sandokan and the Black Corsair, who included several times in his books different duels to the white weapon and was himself a great fan of fencing. Remaining at the end of the nineteenth century, here, again, Cyrano de Bergerac, the grumpy swordsman-poet with a very long nose invented by Edmond Rostand, who achieved an extraordinary success first in theater and then in film.

The fame of the foil did not diminish even in the following century, which opened, not by chance, with The Duel, a story by a key author like Conrad, centered on a nearly twenty-year clash between two French Napoleonic officers, which would later be the basis of the film debut of Ridley Scott in 1977. A few years later, in 1919, one of the most famous masks of the whole century appeared on the pages of the pulp magazine The All Story, that of Don Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro, the protagonist of the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley.

I was the goddam manager of the fencing team. Holden.

Fencing has recently returned to the centre of literary success thanks to Arturo Pérez-Reverte (who wrote The Master of Fencing in 1988), who between 1996 and 2012 wrote a series of seven novels set in seventeenth-century Spain starring the swordsman Diego Alatriste. Leaving the genre, it is even more surprising to discover that the young Holden Caulfield was the manager of the fencing team of his school, as he himself declared at the beginning of the cult novel for several generations of J.D. Salinger, published in 1951.

Green Island Corsairs and Star Wars

No less fortunate than literature is the relationship between fencing and cinema, if already in 1910 a first duel is staged in the Jerusalem Liberated by Enrico Guazzoni, with Amleto Novelli in the role of Tancredi. The swashbuckling films were then enormously successful in Hollywood, thanks to Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920s (formerly D'Artagnan in 1920 in one of the first film adaptations of Dumas' novel and the first Zorro in the history of cinema the following year) and Errol Flynn in the following decade (who imposed himself as the swordsman actor par excellence thanks to films such as Captain Blood and The Legend of Robin Hood), up to Stewart Granger, who in the final of Scaramouche of 1952 stages what is considered one of the most beautiful and exciting duels of the genre.


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But the stars who in the following years have held swords and foils on the set are countless: from John Wayne (who in The Conqueror even plays Genghis Kahn) to Burt Lancaster (The Corsair of the Green Island), up to Robert De Niro (in Mission) and Kevin Costner (Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves), passing through Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams (both in Hook - Steven Spielberg's movie). And no less than they have made actresses of the calibre of Grace Kelly (in The Swan), Sophie Marceau (Eloise, D'Artagnan's daughter) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who duels with Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro), not to mention Madonna, unlikely teacher of James Bond fencing played by Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day.

No difficulty will ever dazzle me, my only fear is the impossibility. D'Artagnan


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Beyond the skill of the actors, it is right to remember, finally, the many masters of fencing who helped to choreograph with precision the countless duels present in the cinema since its inception. This is the case of Bob Anderson, a British fencer who died at the age of ninety in 2012, who during his long career has worked with Errol Flynn in The Prince of Scotland and Sean Connery in From Russia with love, through Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick and Highlander by Russell Mulcahy, to get to The Lord of the rings by Peter Jackson, but that for all will always be the Dart Vader of the mythical scenes of duel with the laser sword of Star Wars.

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