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If you have any awareness of sword-and-shield combat as a modern-day exercise, there’s a strong chance you’ve probably confused it with LARPing (live action role-playing). Medieval combat, however, is a real full contact sport, with a growing number of practitioners globally. Participants engage in competitive fights with historically accurate reproductions of medieval armor and blunted weapons, following period tournament rules (for the most part).
Fighting the misconception that their grueling, dangerous sport is just a LARP offshoot is among the many battles the modern medieval knight faces outside of the ring. “I think every single person that’s not in that world thinks it’s that,” says Ryan Heron, director of the documentary Bludgeon. I spoke to him and co-director Andy Deere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Their film explores the medieval combat scene via the Steel Thorns, the premier team from the Taranaki region of New Zealand, as they work toward representing their country in the world championships in Denmark.
“It seemed quite comical to us that they were so deeply offended by the notion of being confused with LARPers,” Heron explains. “But then, after you see how physical what they do is, I understand their viewpoint. LARPing is role play, there’s no proper physical contact. Whereas the full contact medieval combat is just like it sounds. It’s a physical sport, and the winner is decided by the last person standing. Or in some forms of the sport, who gets the most strikes. One’s a sport and one’s theater.”
Deere adds that “These guys are pretty passionate about explaining that it’s different, because it looks the same. You can’t tell how heavy the weapons they’re using are. And I’ve put one of the helmets on and been hit in the head, by the way. It is quite an intense process.”
Deere and Heron have been friends since childhood. In their drama class at school was Martainn Cuff, who would go on to be one of the main subjects in Bludgeon, and essentially got the whole project going. “He was the public relations manager for a [combat] team of seven,” says Deere. “Knowing that we worked in the film industry, he approached us with the idea. Initially, it was involved with a short documentary initiative in New Zealand called Loading Docs. And then we expanded it out into a feature because we met the rest of the team and realized how strong the characters were.”
Documentaries about niche subcultures can sometimes undermine their subjects’ passion through their framing. Even if you have naturally funny participants, if you lean too heavily into comedy, it could cross into ridicule, or be mistaken for a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Bludgeon is an amusing movie thanks to its four main characters, their wit and their stories, but crucially, Deere and Heron approach the actual combat with utmost seriousness. “We were very careful to keep it respectful,” says Deere, “but also, we wanted it to be humorous. In the second half of the film, it kicks into gear and you get to see the realism of what they do and how intense it is.”
“We’d always explained to them about the tone of it,” Heron says of their stars. “I said, ‘Look, when you guys get to Denmark and you’re locked out of the house and have to sleep in the shed, that’s funny. But what we will never make fun of is the sport itself and how physical it is.’ We’re going to present that as it actually is, which is brutal. And so, I think that’s why they’re happy with it, because we presented the sport in a fair way.”
“We always hoped for the right balance,” continues Deere. “You could have edited it in any sort of way and made it completely farcical, but there’s not what we wanted, and it didn’t feel like it needed that. That was a tightrope.” This extended to the film’s sports movie framing (“a Karate Kid moment, but with medieval-themed music was our funniest music direction”) lacking any obvious antagonist, à la Billy Mitchell in the arcade gaming doc The King of Kong. As entertaining as a villain may have been, “Our guys were just a lovely group of people,” says Deere. “Believe me, we really thought about it.”
Aside from giving the sport a respectful platform, Deere reckons that Bludgeon also has something to say about the New Zealand psyche in general. “I think it’s a really Kiwi film, and that we’ve got this sort of ‘just get it done’ mentality in New Zealand. These guys don’t have a lot of money. They got themselves overseas, just putting their mind to it and getting it done.”
“And coming last is truly a New Zealand story,” deadpans Heron.
Bludgeon is currently playing various film festivals.