Friday, June 27, 2014

Two Stood Against Many

"Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important!"  
- Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Scenes depicting a battle of a few brave heroes against a horde of enemies continue to be used in fiction, being drawn to such stories seems to be in human nature. The pathos, sympathy for the underdog, admiration of skill and bravery, all add to the appeal.

Doing such a scene in film is difficult for various reasons, most related to the fact we as viewers recognize certain aspects going against what we perceive as "realistic". 

Film makers get away with some of them - in massive battles there always seems to be a space around the hero, a few metres of air to allow for fancy moves and to give him time to recover while enemies approach one by one.
Still, there are different approaches and layers to such a scene and watching several of my favourites, I thought about them and why they do or don't work.

1) Intent and confidence 

This is such a subtle thing, but fairly important in my opinion. Holywood movies sometimes suffer for this, because stuntmen playing the bad guys are simply much more skilled than the hero played by a famous actor. The years of training and muscle memory show in their movements - the hero supposedly slaughtering multiple enemies with ease has to be carefully photographed from specific angles and helped by frequent cutting between shots, to hide flaws and enhance the way his moves look and feel. At the same time, the baddies move much better and have to visibly restrain themselves to not rush all in at the same time, they have to telegraph their moves to a ridiculous degree etc. They're also very determined to run at the hero and die, no matter how many of their comrades were butchered before their eyes.

Watching Japanese chambara movies recently, I noticed this aspect of them to be rather different. 

Watch this clip of Toshiro Mifune's samurai roles. Mifune being the protagonist is extremely good at being confident, the ultimate badass. He changes between cocky, goofy and serious, but look at the way he moves - low centre of gravity, upright body, look of disgust on his face. Now watch the baddies - lowly gangsters and stoic samurai, they notice their comrades being cut down, they waver, flail their arms and shuffle and fall back in fear. This is how you put many enemies around the hero and not get him swarmed instantly!

2) Movement

Nothing looks more fake than the hero standing in one spot and having the enemies run into his sword one by one. Most successful one-against-many scenes have the protagonist move around a lot. 
- you need to minimize the amount of enemies able to strike you at once. Move to make them get in each other's way, move to a place where they can only reach you one by one etc.
- if you strike them first, you win. This is related to intent - it takes experience and training to get over the fear of being hurt. Most people will not rush in on you. This is a very interesting part of group dynamics and psychology. Watch videos of riots or police training for riots and you'll see what I mean. Or, if you've ever participated in fighting games/sports like SCA, you know what I mean. Even if it's not your real life at stake, you move without thinking - stay closer to a friendly group, don't get surrounded, have someone else to take a hit for you etc.

Warning, this is a very disturbing video of real people getting seriously hurt!!!
(violence starts around the 7th minute)

In this clip, a single man armed with a knife manages to stab several (!!) policemen carrying guns before they take him down. Even trained professionals don't always respond as we'd expect. How does he manage such a thing? It's odd, he just runs from one guy to the next real fast and stabs them. Same way Toshiro Mifune cuts down those gangsters.
In this video a supposed boxer takes on multiple opponents in a street fight. Notice the continuous movement and how he moves them as well, to always keep just one guy in front.

So what are some successful examples of a good use of movement/intent/confidence trinity? 

Conan and the battle of the mounds does it well. Both Conan and Subotai hit and run from incoming enemies and they use the complex battlefield to break line of sight, ambush and avoid getting mobbed.

The landing attack in Troy is also quite good. Brad Pitt is helped by camera angles and shot cuts a LOT though. He's an athletic guy, the choreography is very fine, but some time ago I've seen this fight being shot in a behind-the-scenes video and it looked much less impressive, almost silly. Notice he also moves all the time - running, turning and (famously) jumping.

You can see great emphasis on intent and fighter morale as well as a lot of hero movement in old samurai movies - Hideo Gosha's for example:   - Sword of the Beast  - Three Outlaw samurai

I've been thinking about the ways I could use this in illustrations, because last stand and one-against-many scenes are very common in fantasy art. Perhaps some of the enemies might be visibly wavering, shaken or terrified? It's easy to settle on a very static "none shall pass" pose for the protagonist, because it's simple to build a powerful composition around it. But perhaps I could try something more dynamic with a hero in the middle of a movement?

What are your favourite one-against-many scenes? Got any examples of really bad ones? Share in the comments! :)

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written! Most movies, it's really just choreographed like ballet; extremely graceful moves to appear fast and focused. It's lovely, but really, it's more like watching dancing, and though I love to watch it, it's not very real. Like the giant samurai fight in the first 'Kill Bill' film (though I admit, that one if really fun to watch) That street fight demonstrates perfectly what one against many has to do; get from point to point to point to point again and again with the ability to see the next nearest threat as quick as possible. I can't even begin to think of how many movies give the hero that large fighting space, like you mentioned, that is too conveniently large for fancy sword work.