Action Movies: Early films of European Martial Arts

One advantage of studying 19th-century martial arts is that sometimes you do get the occasional video, which represents an incredible resource in understanding these arts. Manuals, unfortunately, do not translate well some of the finer points of fighting, and sometimes are limited in the scope of techniques they present. There were recently a few more videos which surfaced, mostly from the early Lumière brothers films archives. I thought it would be a good opportunity to present the most interesting ones we have unearthed to date.

Many of them hail from France, as the French were some of the first to develop moving images. Also, keep in mind that even though videos are useful to study the past, they can be deceptive. In many cases, we don’t know the context or the people involved. Were they experts or beginners? What exactly are they trying to show? While today we are usually careful to pick videos that will look professional and show the best of our practice, it wasn’t quite the case in the 1890s when people had little conception of a film, let alone of their performance being studied for centuries. Do keep an open mind when looking at them.

1880 French sabre fencing

Way before the advent of the camera, there were already some experiments in moving images. One of them was the flip book. This specific example contained more than 120 photographs to represent an assault between two French military fencers (based on their white uniform) showing us some sabre fencing using wooden wasters, which were used in the French army to train beginners according to Brunet. This video shows us a great deal of feinting and the use of double moulinets to build an attack, not unlike some of the strategies one might find in a La Canne assault.

1887 Boxing

Edward Muybridge also experimented with photographic studies of motion. His work is short but interesting for the precise actions it portrays.

Here we can see a hammer punch given to the flank.

Here a lead given with the use of a drop step.

Which inspired this zoopraxiscope.

And finally this short bout between two boxers.

1890 Sabre and foil fencing

This next video by Étienne Jules Marey also shows us some sabre and (a very short) glimpse of foil. It seems to have been filmed in Napoli, Italy.

1891 Savate, and La Canne

This very short video shows us a glimpse of savate (French Kick Boxing) as well as some form of La Canne. It was likely filmed at Joinville by Georges Demenÿ (1850-1917) who used it to study the motions of the human body.

1894 Boxing

The French were not the only one to experiment with film. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Edison was also pioneering the use of the camera.

This video shows us Mike Leonard battling Jack Cushing. Notice the gloves which were by then a norm, but incredibly small compared to today’s standards. Clinching was also used much more as a strategy, as a few years, earlier wrestling was still being used in boxing bouts.

The same year Jim Corbett sparred with Peter Courtney at Edison’s studios.

Here the Glenroy brothers are fighting, again filmed by Edison. It is not clear if this was a part of their Vaudeville act, or if it was incorrectly attributed to them.

Again the Glenroy brothers in their Vaudeville act “The Comic View of Boxing: The Tramp & the Athlete”. It was made mostly for the comedic aspect, but contains a couple of interesting interpretation such as a pivot, called today a spinning back fist.

1894 Savate

This early example of savate seems to show soldiers sparring. It was probably made using a series of photographs.

1895 Wrestling

This wrestling match was filmed by Emil and Max Skladanowsky in Germany and shows Eugen Sandow, a strongman of the time.

1896 Savate

This video was taken by Henri Joly in 1896 at the Joinville military academy and shows a bout between two unnamed Savate champions. The bout is fought on contact, so the aim is not to seek a knockout.

1897 Cutlass fencing

This short video by the Lumières brothers shows us a fencing salute being taught to sailors aboard the destroyer “Le Formidable”.

1897 Baton drill and assault

This video by the Lumières borthers shows two very curious baton drills. The first one shows the 27e chasseurs alpins going through a baton drill which is unlike the standard baton drills of the military manuals with its strange leaps and short motions, but similar to a 1929 civilian school manual.

The second part is some kind of sparring exercise between two soldiers of the  99e régiment d’infanterie. Apparently, they are fighting to the touch with very light sticks.

The same two soldiers also gave a demonstration of savate.

1897 Bayonet exercise 

A bayonet drill by the “guards” (Scots Guards?) at Hyde Park, London which was filmed by the Lumières Brothers in July 1897.

1897 Corbett – Fitzsimmons fight

The longest film ever produced by 1897 was this documentary on the Corbett – Fitzsimmons fight held on St. Patrick’s Day in 1897 in Carson City, Nevada. The original film lasted 100 minutes, but only fragments of it survive today. This is possibly the longest at 20 minutes.

1898 – 1900 Savate

These two films were made by the Lumière brothers in 1898 and around 1900. They show first a group of chasseurs alpins (mountain infantry) and a group of sailors in Lorient, both practicing the same French boxing drill. The hop steps are parries against a low kick.

1900 La Canne and French boxing

Charles Charlemont (1862-1944) here shows a few exchanges of La Canne, which is virtually the same as practiced by Leboucher in the 1840s. It also shows the use of double moulinets. The second part of the video showcases boxing techniques.  

1900 Russian lance and bayonet

Ths 4 face drill represents training with the lance and the bayonet somewhere in Russia.

1906 British sabre

In this 1926 movie, we are shown an older footage of sabre fencing around 1906, which is used to demonstrate how the practice evolved. This specific style of fencing is actually Italian in origin, having been created by Ferdinando Masiello and introduced in the British military in the 1890s.

1914 British cavalry drill

This drill was one of the last developed to teach the use of the sword on horseback, here the 1908 pattern, devised for the exclusive use of the thrust.

1914 Sword feats

The practice of sword feats was very popular during the Victorian period, both as a demonstration of skill and a way to build them. This video contains some of them.

1914 Bayonet fencing

Here we go to Berlin with a very different approach to bayonet fencing.

1915 bayonet fencing

This scene of bayonet fencing was filmed in London in 1915.

1916 Bayonet tournament

This is a bayonet fencing tournament among French soldiers during the Great War.


1917 American Combatives

This vide shows us the training of American sodiers during the First World War: boxing, jujutsu and gymnastics.

1918 Jogo Do Pau

The art of the Portuguese staff was taught to soldiers around the First World War, as can be seen in this video filmed in West Sussex, England.

1924 Savate

Charles Charlemont returns again in 1924 to show us some of the savate he teaches. This style is again very similar to what was being taught in the 19th century.

1930 British cutlass drill

Even though naval boarding had been extinct for decades, cutlass drills still were being taught in many countries even until fairly recently. In this video, we can see some Navy cadets demonstrating their cutlass drill.

1930 Bayonet fencing

Video of a bayonet tournament during a gymnastic demonstration in Portobello, England.

1933 Savate

Although this movie shows similarities with 19th-century savate, we can see some changes namely in the now horizontal punches to the head.

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