A Salute to Swordmaster Bob Anderson
He worked with Bond, Zorro, pirates, wizards, Jedi, and Inigo Montoya. He trained a list of Hollywood actors that ranges from Charlie Sheen to Erroll Flynn. He donned the helmet of Darth Vader himself and took up his lightsaber. He was a perfectionist in his trade, a sport of chivalry and precision. On January 1st, 2012, fencer Bob Anderson passed away at the age of 89.
“The sword is the ultimate weapon. It’s not so threatening shooting at someone at 20 or 30 paces away or while hiding behind things,” Anderson said in a 1995 Los Angelos Times interview. “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.” This thrill is one Anderson first encountered when he learned the sport of fencing at an early age. He moved on to teaching it after joining the British military. Anderson won interservice fencing championships in four fencing weapons (foil, sabre, epee, and the forgotten bayonet) as a sailor in the Royal Navy. Of the four, he specialized in sabre. After serving in the Mediterranean in WWII, Anderson went on to represent Great Britain in the 1952 Olympics and two world championships. When he retired from personal competition, he coached the next six British Olympic fencing teams from 1956 to 1976. Anderson served as president of the British Academy of Fencing in the 60s and 70s, before bringing his passion for fencing to Canada. There, he served as technical director of the Canadian Fencing Association for eight years, cultivated the Canadian Olympic fencing team, and authored books on the subject of the sport. You know, in his spare time.
As if all of these accomplishments weren’t enough for the average geek to respect Bob Anderson, these are actually his lesser-known accomplishments. While simultaneously building a sporting career and professional athletic standing, Anderson became first a stunt double, then a choreographer, and ultimately a reference for movies that would include swordplay. If you combined the swordsmanship of Captain Jack Sparrow, Gandalf, and all three musketeers, you would have one man who served as an expert in fencing and stunts throughout cinema for over fifty years.
His first work was in 1952 on The Master of Ballentrae, a swashbuckling adventure movie starring Erroll Flynn. Anderson was often literally in two places at once in the movie, by alternating between doubling Flynn and portraying his opponent. If you didn’t recognize Anderson from his place in the 1952 Olympics, you could have known him as ‘the man who stabbed Errol Flynn,’ a nickname that resounded through Hollywood at the time. Though the nick on Flynn’s leg was an accident and the two became great friends, this example of Anderson’s intensity became a pattern with the stars he worked with. He simply refused to treat the actors he trained as stars.
After winning over Erroll Flynn, Anderson went on to work on the stunts and fight choreography for a handful of Bond movies. He cemented his reputation when he was asked to be sword master of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon in 1974. Anderson moved on to work on all three Star Wars films, even doubling David Prowse during Darth Vader’s light saber duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Despite the fact that he was six inches shorter than David Prowse (who physically played Vader), wore lifts in his shoes, and was close to 60 years old, Anderson’s light saber swordplay was so impressive that he became the character. Prowse, a bodybuilder, wasn’t able to smoothly and convincingly pick up the fighting methods. So Anderson put on his helmet and wielded his weapon, a fact that remained a secret for years. “Bob Anderson was essential in defining what a lightsaber duel would look like,” George Lucas said. “He was the Jedi Master of the original trilogy, training the actors to duel with a new kind of weapon.”
Even as movies have become increasingly steeped in CGI techniques and other modern special effects over the years, something about the thrill of a good sword fight has never quite lost its appeal in film. ”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 said in a 1995 interview. “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.”
This sentiment seems to have stood the test of time. In the decades following the Star Wars trilogy, Anderson contributed to an unbelievable list of titles, including Highlander, The Princess Bride, The Three Musketeers, The Mask of Zorro, The Parent Trap, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He reflected on Viggo Mortensen as “the best swordsman I’ve ever trained.” Shortly before his death, he was contributing to The Hobbit, the first part of which is due in theaters in late 2012.
We have lost a fantastic talent in the death of Bob Anderson. But all is not lost. Thanks to his massive list of accomplishments, we can experience his expertise in some of the most memorable fight scenes of the past five decades. If you do decide to see the theater re-release of Star Wars, or even sit down and watch it again, remember Bob Anderson. Remember those that toil behind the scenes to work at their passion. Remember the classic artistry that still excites and inspires. Remember how expertise and practice at a craft can match or surpass even modern special effects to capture our imaginations and hearts.
Want to learn more about Bob Anderson and see him in action? We recommend you check out Reclaiming the Blade, a documentary on cinematic choreography of swordsmanship, available on Netflix Instant.