A literate, learned, and, beg pardon, razor-sharp history of fencing and kindred martial arts, by an English Olympian and saber master.
“Of all sports arguably the most romantic,” Cohen writes of fencing, “it also most closely simulates the act of armed manslaughter.” Homicidal though its origins may be, fencing has long had a certain aristocratic allure, and Cohen’s pages are peppered with appearances by the likes of Richard Francis Burton, the Orientalist and adventurer who found time between seeking the sources of the Nile and translating the Kama Sutra to carve up a rack of skilled opponents in the ring; the Roman emperor Commodus, whose announcement that he planned to suit up as a gladiator and try his hand at fencing earned him assassination at the hands of real swordsmen; and the noble Italian foilman Nedo Nadi, who resisted Mussolini’s overtures to join the Fascist cause while guiding Italy’s Olympic team to fencing glory. This is a work of anecdote and accumulated trivia rather than of sustained narrative, but wondrous anecdote it is, whether Cohen is addressing the roster of actors and actresses who have wielded steel throughout Hollywood history—Charlton Heston, Lana Turner, Peter Ustinov, Peter O’Toole, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and “even Robert De Niro” among them—or considering the developments of the armed martial arts in China and Japan. Fencing, he insists, is by no means of antiquarian interest; even today, “the upper reaches of certain leading German companies are still said to require a dueling background,” while some of the sport’s brightest stars are emerging from minority communities in large American cities. Not all is noble in his pages, happily enough; Cohen details enough incidents of cheating to warm a French judge’s heart, enough scandals to sustain a run of tabloids, and enough oddities (such as the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich’s insistence that American Jews judge his performance at the 1936 Olympics) to fuel dozens of spinoff articles.
A pleasure for practitioners, and a rewarding entertainment for the armchair swashbucklers and varlet-tamers among us.