Remember on The Witcher when Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) pinned a guy to a door and then decapitated him with one clean slash of his sword, earning the nickname “the butcher of Blaviken” and convincing you at home that this was a show worth watching for at least a couple more episodes?
WiC remembers. Polygon does, too, and wanted to get to the bottom of whether that kind of thing could really happen. To that end, it sought out the advice of Gregory Mele, the founder of the Chicago Swordplay Guild and an expert on medieval- and Renaissance-era close-quarters combat, for counsel.
“It’s believable that he’s a fighter,” Mele said of Cavill, who does a lot of his own stunts. “Geralt (in the show) is armed with a fairly short longsword, a fantasy equivalent to a form of the sword that might have existed around 1400 A.D….[It has a] two-handed hilt on a blade no longer, or not much longer, than a one-handed sword, creating a weapon that is suited to use in one or two hands, which means you can also use in on horseback, or, if you must, with a shield. I think the blade is still a touch short, but as fantasy swords go, it’s reasonably realistic.”
The fight scenes are fast-paced, dynamic and Henry Cavill has proven in Superman, Immortals, Justice League, etc, that he has a lot of physicality and can handle fight choreography. They have designed a ‘style’ for Geralt: powerful slashes, usually made after he parries (what is called a hanging parry), straight thrusts and then quick transitions to a reverse grip, often holding the sword by the forte (base of the blade), with his hand wrapped around the guard. From here, he uses thrusts and in close slashes. He usually moves from one grip to the other in conjunction with pirouettes.
Okay, so it looks like the show gets a passing grade!
However, Mele did find some fault with the show’s action scenes, particularly in the way that Cavill held his swords in a reverse grip; that is, he holds his hands with his thumbs pointing away from the blade. “There IS some documentation for using a longsword in a reverse grip,” Mele said. “More often this was done on horseback, where the sword was drawn when the lance broke and then just thrust into someone (and forgotten) like a giant dagger. But there are a few techniques where the longsword is actually used in a reverse grip — found primarily in 15th century German sources.”
Geralt periodically uses the sword in a reverse grip to slash rather than thrust, a technique that would be largely useless against the fairly heavy clothing of medieval Eastern Europe (or shown in the show). Medieval swords are sharp, but not razor sharp, nor does holding the blade in such a fashion really use the leverage of a long blade properly to cut. So, I’m afraid that a central part of Geralt’s fighting style owes more to Ninja and Zatoichi movies from the 1980s than it does historical swordsmanship.
Geralt of Rivia: The Continent’s foremost knight-ninja.
“Overall the fights are fast and furious with some basic elements of solid fencing, some showy, less likely ones, a decided over-reliance and misuse of the reverse grip and some out and out stupidity,” Mele finished. “I suspect 15-year-old Greg would have loved it! 40-something Greg … I can appreciate what they are trying to do — make Geralt’s fighting unusual and dynamic — and at least the fights are fast-paced and competent.”
Okay, so everything isn’t perfect, but it passes medieval muster, which I think is probably the most you can hope for from a show that also features sorceresses and dragons and elves and the like.
We’ll get more Witcher fight scenes when the show returns in…let’s say 2021 for now.