Whilst there have been many swashbuckling movies over the years – from the classic adventures starring Errol Flynn to more recent revivals like Kevin Reynolds’ remake of The Count of Monte Cristo – the world of fencing hasn’t exactly been a common backdrop for movies. By the Sword is a rare look into this world, set as it is in a fencing school. Beginning with one of many flashbacks to a turbulent duel this drama concerns the interlinked fates of two men, the merciless Alexander Villard and modest Max Suba.
Eric Roberts is Villard, the ruthless owner and maestro in residence of a fencing school in NY. Into this disciplined world comes the older Max Suba (F. Murray Abraham) who is also adept with a blade. Despite his skill he is hired not as a tutor but as a janitor, humiliated he nevertheless takes the position and, watching from the sidelines, observes the harsh teaching methods of Villard. Slowly he begins to give unofficial fencing tips to some of the students and the inevitable happens, he becomes what he wanted to be, a teacher. But there is more to him than this, there is something that connects him to Villard, something that will bring the two characters to an inevitable climactic clash.
The key to this film resides in the performances by Eric Roberts and F. Murray Abraham. Roberts convinces as Villard, principally sporting black garb he is a ruthless driven man, totally dedicated to his sport at the cost of everything else. A man who does not believe in weakness or failure. Abraham creates a character with hidden depths. Upon first appearance Suba comes across as a very ordinary man, unassuming, one of those people who remain in the background. As the film progresses however we realise he has many levels to his character. He is a mannered man dealing with a troubled past which he is trying to come to terms with and begin a new life, an example being his blossoming romantic relationship, which adds depth and warmth to his character. But at the same time he seems unable to completely let go of his past, why else would he choose to work again in the world of fencing?
The relationship between these two characters is the driving force in the film. There is a definite attempt in the editing to contrast the two men’s personas with specific scenes running parallel to each other. A further directorial flourish involves the many flashbacks to a duel between two unknown individuals. There seems to have been an attempt to evoke a mythic quality, returning to a forgotten time of chivalry, but alas they come across more like scenes from a pop video. An interesting idea that isn’t really successfully pulled off, but necessary for the back-story which forms the backbone of the script. A rather unnecessary addition are the subplots involving minor characters, characters that fill all the required stereotypes of the genre such as the female love interest, the cocky student etc. As they are pretty thinly drawn the film suffers whenever the plot focuses on them. Basically any time when the two leads are not on screen viewers may find their attention wandering. Having said that the rivalry between the two fencing teams reflects the rivalry and differing personalities between the two central characters.
By the Sword is, on paper, an unremarkable movie, complete with many of the sports clichés audiences have seen time and time again. There are no real great revelations and the plot is pretty predictable. What raises it above mediocrity is the unusual setting and the central performances by Abraham and Roberts. They create two characters that have been shaped, for better and for worse, by a pivotal event of the past. They engage the audience, bringing more weight to the story in a movie that attempts to transport the ancient notions of honour and chivalry, portrayed in the film as being intrinsically linked to fencing, to the modern age.