So My Fella received a suspicious package in the mail. Fortunately, it was one he’d been expecting, because he’d ordered it.
Me: What is it?
Fella: It’s a movie about fencing, starring Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham*!
Me: Is it good?
Fella: (gleefully) NO!!!
And lo, he spake truth.
My knowledge of fencing is insufficient to give this film the analysis it deserves, which is why I’ve recruited My Fella as my co-author, for he is an experienced (and sexy) swordsman.
We begin with a dream sequence, which is never a good thing. And it is…I don’t even know how to describe it. No, wait, I do: it’s like a parody of the worst student film ever, except, yo, it’s for real. And, lest we forget a single frame of its ham-fisted symbolism, it becomes a recurring motif throughout the film.**
Although the sequence itself evolves as the movie progresses, all iterations share some common elements: some sort of digital wallpaper that no doubt made FX artists of the late ’80s cream their slacks; fencers punching each other in the face despite the fact that they’re holding swords; bystanders looking rather alarmed; and (I think) a cameo appearance by the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Also, much twirling of swords above heads, which — as My Fella points out — “is a great way to get stabbed,” since by doing this you are neither attacking NOR defending yourself. You’re literally just waving your weapon in the air like you just don’t care.
“This is like watching Neverwhere sober,” I groaned. “Make it stop already.”
The dubious virtue of this film is that it was not directed by, say, Andrei Tarkovsky, which means that while we were deprived of a film of actual cinematic value, we were ALSO spared the extremely long takes that command an audience: “Don’t look away; you’re just making it harder on yourself, b/c I guarantee you that the next three-and-a-half hours aren’t going to elapse themselves!”
Cut — praise Baby Jesus — to Academy Award-Winner F. Murray Abraham (AAW-FMA), exiting the subway and staggering through TriBeCa with grim, yet jittery determination. Is he being followed? Is he looking for a fix? No, he’s going to the Villard Academy, a swanky fencing club that, nevertheless, is accessible only by the sort of dingy stairwell that The X-Files would later make famous as the premier destination for getting pistol-whipped by government-issue thugs.
After ascending the staircase of grievous bodily harm, AAW-FMA enters Villard’s and takes a seat next to the actress best known as Ferris Bueller’s Girlfriend (FBG). They sit and watch fencers doing their thing.
Surveying the club, My Fella remarks, “the background fencers aren’t terrible,” although he does wonder why Villard’s appears to be an epee-only club…that is, except for when folks randomly switch to saber, sometimes in the middle of a bout.
As I said, I’m not a fencer, but even I can see that much of what goes on here is terrible — fighting without masks, handing live weapons to teenagers, having a special mezzanine level where angry duelists can work out their grievances with minimal adult supervision, that sort of thing.
While doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that My Fella is absolutely correct in dubbing it “Chekhov’s Mezzanine.” You’ll see.
At this point, we meet Villard***, played by Eric Roberts.
When he’s not brooding in his darkened office, he struts around and gives some not-great instruction to the most promising member of the student cohort: Trebor — yes, with a “B,” which is impressive, given that this was in the days before Facebook.
However, for our purposes we’re going to call Trebor $#!+head, because that’s a better descriptor. He’s got some bros, all sporting mullets, but they barely register as characters. All we really need to know is that $#!+head is, for some reason, considered to be the club’s most serious contender for Nationals.
In fact, Villard deigns to give $#!+head an impromptu one-on-one lesson:
Villard (dialogue): Contra six twice counter-riposte!
Villard (action): [according to My Fella] “[V] attacks for the knee, [T] parries 2, another low line attack, [T] parries 2. Some $#!+ happens. Circle two twice, diagonal parry two twice,” ending with the “most extraneous flick ever.”
If that made any sense, dear reader, A WINNER IS YOU. If it didn’t, all you really need to know is that Villard said one thing and did a totally different thing. Which is great for being tricksy, but probably not great for coaching purposes.
Also, My Fella points out, $#!+head “parries like a foilest.” (So now you know.)
Then, lest we forget, Villard reminds us that Nationals are important: “When you go into competition you carry three things: your mask, your sword, and my reputation.”
This is probably a good time to point out that By the Sword keeps dropping subplots like they’re hot. Also, the entire plot.
For example, everyone in this film keeps talking about Nationals, sort of the way the cast of Glee was always freaking out about Regionals. Well…
Spoiler alert: NOBODY goes to Nationals.
Which maybe isn’t so surprising. If Olympic history is any indication, the only truly skilled fencers are 90-year-old Hungarians, possibly because they in turn were trained by 180-year-old Hungarians who whipped them, starved them, and possibly carved bad words into their bare chests until their footwork was impeccable and their bladework precise enough to perform stand-up surgery on their opponents.
Out of respect for my dear departed Pop-Pop, I should probably mention that non-fencing Hungarians are, for the most part, rather sweet and polite and not at all sadistic. Mine was the manager of a supermarket for like, four decades. He never once fought a duel.
Also, and I really hate to sound like Amy Chua, but…American kids just don’t have that kind of drive, whether they be motivated by fear or the pursuit of excellence. OR, as in the case of Villard, weird unresolved Daddy issues, which must be acted out late at night, alone, in the club, while stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat.
Yeah, I don’t know, man.
Anyway, moving swiftly on.
Right, so there’s Villard and his lackey, non-Villard. FBG wants to train with Villard, but NO DICE.
“The maestro trains champions,” says non-Villard.
“That’s why I’m here,” insists FBG.
Meanwhile, AAW-FMA — who has introduced himself as “Max Suba” — announces HIS intention: to teach.
Villard puts him through his paces and concludes, “No, you’re terrible at fencing, but you can be the janitor.”
(Ok, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s true: AAW-FMA cannot fence his way out of a burlap sack; neither, however, can Eric Roberts. It’s not their fault, necessarily, it’s just that fencing ability is really tough to fake, probably because it is a really tough sport to master.)
By the way, Villard’s staffing situation seems weird. How does such an elite club manage to have only two instructors? And only one set of electric scoring equipment? Yet somehow, this place can employ a full-time custodian? Except that, apparently, it didn’t…that is, until Eric Roberts saw fit to hire AAW-FMA off the street after only a cursory interview and no background check.
And thus AAW-FMA becomes the creepy, functionally alcoholic janitor with the rap sheet and the anger management problem who slightly terrifies children.
And as he’s cussing at kids from the sidelines for making a mess, I’m like, what the hell accent is that? Sometimes he sounds like he’s a.) hungover, b.) in considerable pain, and c.) from Far Rockaway, which — combined with his general dishevelment and air of disorientation — suggests that maybe he got on the wrong train and ended up in Lower Manhattan after a three-day bender or perhaps a fight with one of the lesser gangs in The Warriors.
But SOMETIMES, especially when he loses his temper, he sounds like my father that time he threw a phone at me — not a cell phone, either, but like a wall-mounted landline phone with a cord — for, apparently, being a jaggy little neb$#!+.
Anyway, I was intrigued by those strangely familiar cadences****, so I went to Wikipedia and BINGO: F. Murray Abraham was born in Pittsburgh, which is not far from Uniontown, where my dad was born and raised.*****
As for Eric Roberts’ accent, I have no clue what he’s aiming for. Perhaps he’s not. Aiming, I mean. That’s probably the kindest assumption to make, since he sure as $#!+ isn’t HITTING any of North America’s several dozen major regional accents.
Meanwhile, ROMANTIC SUBPLOTS ENSUE.
Ferris Bueller’s Girlfriend (remember her?) and $#!+head hook up, then break up the very next day after $#!+head tells her that he can’t afford any distractions from his mediocre fencing.
“We should keep our distance,” he says, which is A FENCING JOKE! Get it? GET IT?
After which FBG and her BFF****** sit in someone’s living room, complaining about commitment-phobic men while drinking Wild Turkey straight out of the bottle even though they are, like, 15.
Incidentally, I don’t know if this is better or worse than AWW-FMA’s romantic subplot, in which he decides that one polite exchange in the aisles of a bodega is sufficient grounds for stalking a jogger through Battery Park, manically chatting her up until she surrenders her phone number, and then courting her with a heartfelt confession — and this, btw, is his A-game — of “Shucks, I like your pretty face, which is why I have to tell you that I’ve been ‘out of circulation’ = I just got out of prison, where I served a 20-year sentence for homicide.” And, because this is New York, AWW-FMA’s love interest is like, “What? OMG gimme the deets!” And then he’s all like, “Idk, I was young and stupid. Obvs I don’t murder people anymore.” And she’s like, “That’s good.”
Again, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
After a bit of practice and some after-hours coaching, AAW-FMA reveals his hidden fencing talents (so hidden, they’re undetectable) and is assigned a ragtag group of beginners to train. Now, if this were a normal movie, with a normal story arc, this plotline would have been introduced 40 minutes ago, in order to flesh out some of the characters and set them up as the scruffy, lovable underdogs who serve as the counterpoint to Villard’s Career Tributes.
This is not that movie.
Instead, AAW-FMA introduces his crew to the joys of synchronized fencing*******, while Villard, a propos of nothing, decides that the best way to decide who’s going to Nationals is to have a round robin “inter-salle” [sic] tournament, where everyone in the club competes against everyone else.
At this point, My Fella started laughing. When he’d caught his breath and dabbed the tears of mirth from his eyes, he explained:
“Ok, there are 16 fencers on the board. If each of those 16 people fences everyone else, that adds up to 120 bouts. (Also, there are way more than 16 members of this club.) Anyway, if you factor in, say, 5-8 minutes for set-up and break-down, that’s something like 16 straight hours of fencing, which does not happen.”
Furthermore, My Fella explains, it’s impractical: in terms of organization, it would be better to have 3 or 4 pools with direct elimination — and even then, this would still take several hours.
BUT THIS IS THE WAY IT HAS TO BE. Why? Because Villard has suddenly realized that the man who calls himself “Max Suba” is not who he claims to be. In fact, he’s the very same man who killed Villard’s father in a duel twenty years ago!
Predictably, Villard freaks out: Who hired this guy? (Um, YOU DID. Moron.) And how did he manage to infiltrate Villard’s? (By walking in and asking for a job, which you gave him without bothering to check his references. Moron.)
At no point does Villard consider that maybe he’s the one to blame for his situation. Instead, he confronts AAW-FMA at his apartment (how did he know where AAW-FMA lives, given that — until now — he’s been perfectly content not knowing anything at all about his own employee) and says, “I know who you are (at last) and also you’re a huge disappointment to me.”
But, as all sociopathic fencing coaches know, the best cure for disappointment is A CHAOTIC, FREEWHEELING TOURNAMENT in which all the kids get to unwittingly fight a multi-pronged proxy battle on behalf of their feuding coaches, without the benefit of armor/weapon inspections and under the supervision of exactly ONE referee. No, no. Not dangerous or ill-advised at all.
Oh, I should mention: this is the part where $#!+head tries to murder FBG because she scored a touch off him in a bout, which clearly she only did to make him look bad and not because they were competing in a sport where hitting your opponent is pretty much the entire point.
He doesn’t get a chance to kill her, though, because AAW-FMA intervenes and does his Scared Straight routine (i.e. learn from my mistakes and DON’T stab people to death with rapiers because of jail), followed by a scene in which he berates Villard for teaching his students to be psychopaths.
And Villard responds with, SHUT UP YOU KILLED MY FATHER and NOW LET’S DUEL TO THE DEATH ON THE MEZZANINE!
Which…oh Lordy, I wish they’d reached this point an hour ago, before I lost interest in the entire film.
And…away they go! They fight up and down stairs, making use of both walls and banisters. Sadly, there are no lit candles in sconces OR chandeliers, because then they’d have achieved the trifecta of swashbuckling cliches.
Eventually, the duel ends. Both men are battered and bruised; neither is dead. Nevertheless — and despite 20 years of pent-up family melodrama — both parties have come to some kind of understanding and suddenly it’s cool, they’re not mortal enemies anymore. (I guess?) But then again, they’re not really besties either. They’re some weird third thing.
“Now this lesson is over,” says Villard.
FIN. Credits roll.
Me: So why did you order this film from…where was it, the UK?
Fella: Because it’s not available in the U.S.
(Which doesn’t exactly answer my question, tho’ to be fair, I didn’t exactly ask my question…)
Me: Why? Was it banned?
Me: Should it have been, do you think?
*For some reason, My Fella always refers to this actor as Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham, like he’s a lord and its his official title. Which, hey, maybe it should be.
**If I had to come up with an SAT-style analogy for this particular idée fixe, it would be DREAM SEQUENCE : YOUR BRAIN :: INEXPLICABLE, INERADICABLE (BLOOD?) STAIN : GREASY SHAG CARPET IN DOWNMARKET LEASE-BY-MONTH RENTAL
***a.k.a. “the Maestro,” like he’s the male lead in some awful piece of post-50 Shades of Grey erotica wherein the arrogant, fabulously wealthy, metrosexual fencing master coerces his naive 21-year-old intern into the mildly transgressive thrills of borderline domestic abuse.
****Also, strangely compelled to knuckle-up and shout, “That all you got?”
*****So yeah, enjoy your chipped ham and melk n’at, f*cking yinzers.
******Who is the only other female fencer in the film; her role is to a.) help FBG fail the Bechdel test, and b.) don the mantle of “the slutty one” — which is quite an accomplishment, as we never see her doing anything except going to fencing class. Seriously. She doesn’t f*ck anyone. In fact, when one of the fencing boys propositions her, she’s like “Nope.” See what I mean? TOTAL skank. Nevertheless, she is blonde and pretty and a teenager and NOT the female lead, so OF COURSE she must be a young lady of loose morals. Even AAW-FMA gets in on the slut-shaming, suggesting that she hold her weapon as she would some dude’s penis. Nice coaching, Max. ಠ_ಠ
******Personally, I think this ought to be a thing. Maybe even an Olympic-level thing a la figure skating. My Fella strongly disagrees because he is SUCH a snob when it comes to the way of the sword.
[EDIT: Since I originally posted this, My Fella has pointed out that I neglected to mention Eric Roberts’ amazing collection of shirts, ranging from the infamous black v-neck…
…to all the pretty, pretty blouses
I sincerely apologize for the oversight.]