If you want dance scenes in a movie, you go to a choreographer. Cute doggy tricks, look up animal trainers. Explosions, try a pyro-technician.
But if you're looking for a good sword fight, you call Bob Anderson.
Billed as the sword master in the credits for "First Knight," Anderson is the guy the film's producers called on to teach Richard Gere and other stars how to get into a sword fight and look as if they knew what they were doing (he would have taught Sean Connery too, but he had already been an Anderson pupil for "Highlander").
Anderson, 72, truly is the sword master of film, having taught the tricks and coordinated the moves to scenes ranging from Errol Flynn's many duels to Mark Hamill's meetings with Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" films to Mandy Patinkin's battle with the Six-Fingered Man in "The Princess Bride."
While Anderson undoubtedly had a lot to do with the majesty of the fight scenes he has worked on, he says it's the sword itself that should be considered a movie legend.
"The sword is the ultimate weapon," Anderson says in the exact sort of British accent one might expect from a classic sword fighter. "It's not so threatening shooting at someone at 20 or 30 paces away or while hiding behind things. When you get into a sword fight, you're standing toe-to-toe with someone who's trying to kill you and you're looking him in the eye--now that's thrilling."
During World War II, Anderson took up fencing in the British Army. After the war, he became a fencing champion in England and jabbed his way to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Although he didn't win any medals there, he did make it back to the Olympics six more times as a coach.
While training for the 1952 Olympics, Anderson was asked to help a novice swordsman look like an expert. That novice was Errol Flynn, who was filming "The Master of Ballantrae." Anderson worked with Flynn right up until he died in 1959, and he says those seven years were not among Flynn's best.
"His physical condition was deteriorating by that time, and you could not say he was in his heyday," Anderson says of Flynn. "But he still worked hard at it, and he still had a certain flair with the sword and a certain charm that was all his."
After Flynn came Douglas Fairbanks Jr., David Niven, Charlton Heston, Peter O'Toole, Peter Ustinov, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, Christopher Lambert and many others--all of whom were either taught by Anderson or were actors he doubled for in dangerous fight scenes. More recently, he worked with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland in "The Three Musketeers" before teaching Gere for "First Knight."
Who were the finest swordsmen of all these actors? Anderson names Niven, Lambert, Patinkin and Gere as the best he's worked with.
"[Gere] picked it up very quickly and easily, partly because he was in good physical shape," Anderson says. "To learn it, you have to have timing and coordination, and it helps to have some sort of martial arts background. Generally, though, I find that actors pick it up very well because they can get the feel of it--they know the emotions a swordsman is supposed to feel."
The training process with actors varies, but with Gere, Anderson met the actor in Los Angeles for a week to go over routines before they went to England for the film's shooting. Anderson was involved with the filming in England for about a month.
"He's a real master," Gere says. "We came up with a technique that was more flowing than what would have been realistic, really. We were able to choreograph these spins and turns that normally would have been done with a foil with these swords that were clunkier and more like clubs.
"It was dangerous all the time. . . . We were missing each other by half an inch, really swinging hard. Some of those are long takes with 50, 100 sword hits, and if you're off on any of them, you really get hurt."
Anderson, who lives near London, is currently vacationing and working occasionally with the "Highlander" TV series. But he says he's always on call for the next movie that needs a sword fight.
"About 15 years ago, I was told by certain people that the old-style sword films were going out and they were not what the audiences want," Anderson says. "I believed that right up until 'The Princess Bride,' which had scenes almost identical to the ones with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. People loved the newer scenes as much as they did the old ones.
"To me, it's the timing and the rhythm of the choreography in a sword fight that makes it special. It's how you can hear the swords hitting each other and you can feel the tempo. If done right, it's like nothing else."
Free-lance writer David Kronke contributed to this story.