Fight scenes in this modern era of film are rarely thought of in story-telling terms. Since Bruce Lee and his ilk began dazzling us with incredible athleticism and choreography, fight scenes have become more and more like the song and dance numbers of the 50s and 60s: self contained spectacles with little concern for expanding a film’s plot or world. Characters leap into chaotic battles on the flimsiest of pretences or affronts. So long as they’re compellingly shot and arranged, fight scenes usually achieve what they’re looking for. That being said, great fights can reach rare heights when imbued by the meaning and weight of careful plotting.
Drama is in the stakes and the consequences, and never are either more immediately and viscerally apparent than in the heart of battle. Nothing is as fundamentally understandable as the threat of violence and looming death. As such, a fight scene is one of the simplest forms of drama there is. When two opposite, contrasting wills are pitted against each other, the conflict is obvious. And the more a person stands to lose, the more a fight means.
In all fights, bodies are at risk. Blood stands to be spilled, and bones risk getting broken. But in great battles, there must be even more at risk, and greater sacrifice required. Codes of honour and precious ideologies must be tested. Consider perhaps the greatest Martial Arts movie of all time, Legend of the Drunken Master. Obviously, the choreography and creativity of the fights is astounding, but each scene also has an emotional undercurrent. Due to his profound respect and love for his father, Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) resists drinking alcohol. But his entire community is fascinated by his drunken boxing, and constantly enable his alcoholism when a battle demands extra skill and flair. Every drink becomes a moral and personal sacrifice, with consequences within his family. Drunken Master understands a fight ought to be more than just an obstacle. It should be a culmination, a moment where emotions run high, ethical resolves are tested, and dreams are either achieved or shattered.
Inevitably, films give us a rooting interest in the form of a protagonist. The more credible an opponent, the more insurmountable the conflict the protagonist is met with, the greater the drama. Victory is hardly satisfying when it was never in doubt. On some level, an audience needs to be able to believe that the hero might lose. That’s why Jackie Chan has achieved success that has eluded others from his generation. Jet Li, Tony Jaa, and Donnie Yen much prefer painting themselves as the alpha male, but in his willingness to play the clown, and in taking ten times the punishment he dishes out, Chan harkens back to the lovable tramps perfected by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Pulling for the underdog is just inherently more appealing, and it takes a lot to trick a sophisticated audience into believing the protagonist has a chance at failing. Chan may or may not succeed, but he certainly tries as hard as he can.
Rob Roy may not be a particularly famous or beloved film, but those who know it know it for one thing: the climactic battle between Robert Roy McGregor and Archibald Cunningham. Roger Ebert called it the greatest sword fight of all time, which should put it pretty high up in any list of film’s great battles. Though the choreography is tense and exceptional, what truly distinguishes this duel is a well crafted narrative that imbues each swipe with tension and anticipation.
Anyone who knows anything about Scottish history (i.e. seen Braveheart) knows that there’s some long standing friction between the Scots and the English. In Trainspotting, Renton laments the Scottish plight:
“It’s SHITE being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low, the scum of the fucking earth, the most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English, I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy!”
Rob Roy is the ideal of how the Scots see their ancestors: powerful, noble, and intensely honourable. Archibald Cunningham, meanwhile, is the ludicrous epitome of how the Scots viewed their oppressors: effete, smug, and preposterously foppish.
Cunningham does everything in his power to impede the prosperity of Roy’s humble community, hunts Roy when he is forced into becoming an outlaw, and even rapes and impregnates Roy’s cherished wife. So in many respects, Rob Roy is the ultimate dramatization of a long standing historical conflict, at least from the Scott’s point of view.
Wisely, Rob Roy keeps it’s hero and villain from truly squaring off until the film’s absolute climax, where Roy must duel Cunningham for the entertainment of some English Lords. Though Roy towers over him, the diminutive Cunningham dominates thoroughly, proving too quick and skilled. Roy takes countless wounds, and all seems lost. Finally, Cunningham takes a moment to taunt, placing his sword beneath Roy’s throat.
With righteous fury, Roy grabs Cunningham’s sword in his bare hand. Cunningham tries to pull away, but Roy’s grip is vice-like. Roy rises up, swings down his mighty sword, and cuts down through Cunningham from his shoulder all the way down to his waist.
Rob Roy genuinely frustrates its audience by having its hero so thoroughly dominated by the weaselly Cunningham. The film successfully paints Roy as totally superior, but then convincingly sets him upon a seemingly insurmountable task. When Roy prevails, the result is uncommonly, and brutally satisfying.