Swordplay doesn't pass screen test

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Steve Mormando is no fan of fencing. He is, instead, a fencer. Except in the movies, this is a sport for participants rather than couch potatoes.

''My wife can't watch a fencing bout to save her life,'' Mormando said Tuesday afternoon. ''It bores her to tears. It bores me to tears. But it is the most exciting sport to be in.''

The U.S. Fencing National Championships continue this week at the Cincinnati Convention Center without much ado or any admission charge. There is a good reason for this. Competitive swordplay bears no more resemblance to the spectacular bouts portrayed in cinema than does Michelle Pfeiffer your typical English lit teacher.

None of the fencers who will be engaging epees, crossing foils or rattling sabres this week are likely to be seen swinging from a chandelier, or conducting duels atop a table. Competitors attack and parry on a 6-foot-wide strip without props, period costumes or snappy dialogue. The weapons move more swiftly than the untrained eye, and the sport's audience therefore consists largely of competitors and their relatives.

Fencing is a tough sell, even when it's free.

It is being staged here this week because Cincinnati is willing to pay some dues for a prominent place in the amateur sports world. The city that presumes to seek the Summer Games must prove itself hospitable to all Olympic sports, be they ever so humble. Besides, fencers help fill hotel rooms and restaurants, and can supply their own shish kebab skewers.

Silver screen adventures

What the fencers don't bring is much excitement, at least none that can be easily conveyed. Nick Bravin defeated Cliff Bayer in the men's foil final Tuesday, and it was sometimes difficult to discern which of the two had scored a point until one of them started celebrating.

Still, by fencing's historical standards, this was an unusually eventful bout. Despite the flamboyant films of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, fencing has traditionally been conducted as deliberately as chess. Between 1560 and 1780, Mormando reports, 40,000 Europeans died from injuries inflicted in duels. Few of them were in a hurry.

Steve Mormando is among the ranking authorities on the subject. He is a three-time Olympian, the coach of New York University's fencing dynasty and Olympian Peter Westbrook, and the main mogul of Belle & Blade Studios. The business began as a specialty distributor of swashbuckler films.

''That's how I got into fencing, through the old movies'' Mormando said. ''I was watching The Mark of Zorro, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Scaramouche.''

Much of the choreographed fencing was preposterous, but it made for some marvelous motion pictures.

''When I walk into a theater - any movie I watch - I suspend my disbelief,'' Mormando said. ''Their job is to take me to another place for two or three hours, and I'm willing to go.''

The swashbuckler epics retain an enduring appeal among fencers. A painting depicting the duel of Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro is being raffled off at the tournament at $10 per ticket.

Very exhilarating

Periodically, fencing life imitates fencing art. Among Mormando's favorite sword-fighting scenes is from The Princess Bride, where Mandy Patinkin announces in mid-duel that he has been fighting with the wrong hand in order to keep things interesting.

Last year, at the national championships in Louisville, Mormando made a similar move upon injuring the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Trailing 14-9, the bald, bearded sabre specialist quoted Patinkin's playful, ''I know something you don't know,'' and resumed the duel left-handed.

Mormando rallied to win that quarterfinal bout 15-14 only to lose in the semifinals. If you happened to be Steve Mormando, it was all very exhilarating.

''That excitement you sense in the movies is what we feel on the strip,'' he said. ''I've played baseball and football. I'm a better pool player than I am a fencer, and a better bowler. But all those things compared to fencing are boring.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 12, 1996.