It’s Only a Movie

That phrase was a cheesy come-on for a 1970s horror film — you were supposed to keep telling yourself that in order to not be overcome with terror while watching. These, however, are also good words to remember when it comes to movies supposedly depicting the martial arts.

by Dave Lowry

Of course, we all know how outlandish many of the scenes and plots in martial arts films can be. If most of the fight scenes in them were performed in real time, for instance, the participants would need oxygen to keep them from collapsing due to sheer exhaustion.

There are other elements of these movies, though, that are not quite so theatrically implausible and misleading, and it’s possible some viewers might actually internalize them and expect the real world to work that way. One such meme that seems to occur in nearly every martial arts movie revolves around the young disciple’s initial encounter with the old master.

These scenes are quite predictable. The master faces the disciple. The disciple attacks clumsily. The master responds, effortlessly nullifying the attack and usually sending the disciple flying. The disciple is confused — but instantly comes in with another attack. The master again stifles or evades and again tosses the disciple, looking distinctly bored with it all. Repeat, repeat, repeat until the disciple is in a gasping heap on the floor — or on the ground. It doesn’t matter whether this takes place in some outdoor setting or in a shadowy “temple” or dojo.

The master must never lose his cool. Often, he never so much as ruffles a hair. He toys with the disciple, demonstrating how inadequate and ineffectual the disciple’s abilities are. The disciple eventually learns the first lesson: He must submit to the teachings of the master if he’s ever to amount to anything.

It’s dramatic — but mostly fictional nonsense. First, good teachers have never been plentiful. A good teacher, in the old days as today, was more likely concerned with turning away hopeful students than he was with “proving” his worthiness to a prospective disciple. Also, if a student needs or demands some kind of demonstration as to his prospective teacher’s skill, he is unlikely to make much of a disciple.

Second — and this is far more important for us to consider — the idea that there’s a level of skill or even an art that will allow one to engage in combat without breaking a sweat or even wrinkling one’s shirt is foolish. Yes, there are many stories of great swordsmen in old Japan who engaged in duels and managed to defeat opponents seemingly without exerting any effort at all. That is largely because a sword, like a gun, has the potential to kill easily. One cut could have decided the outcome. (Not incidentally, many of those tales of sword combat are exaggerated. We know of several duels that ended when one participant lost his nerve and fled, only to be cut down from behind.) That kind of “one strike, one kill” does not translate into unarmed combat of the sort many of us train in today.

The reality is that nearly all encounters of the kind for which we train, no matter how skilled we are, are likely to be brutal and nasty and require a willingness to absorb some kind of pain or injury in order to do worse to an opponent.
“You can get out of any joint lock or pin,” one teacher of the Chinese grappling arts noted, “as long as you’re willing to allow the joint or bone to be broken in the process.” That sounds extreme, but it illustrates the danger faced in serious combat. Yes, there are some awesomely talented practitioners out there, and some of them are excellent teachers. But they are not magic. And in many cases, a part of their skill is the willingness to endure pain, to take hits in order to deliver their own weapons on target.

It cannot be repeated often enough, particularly to young people who are just beginning their training, that if there was an easy, effortless way to fight, to succeed in a violent situation, people would not be spending thousands of hours learning and then practicing how to do it. There’s no point at which one transcends physics or the limitations of the human body.

Against even a very unskilled opponent — no matter how good you are — you have to put everything into the encounter and expect to absorb your own injuries in the process of inflicting some. This is not an attractive picture, I know. It is in cruel contrast to the fantasies of hundreds of movies. But it is reality.

It’s also foolish to believe that a serious contest of any kind, whether it is the old master besting the prospective young disciple or a duel or challenge, will not result in injury. Notice how in these movies, the disciple is conclusively humiliated in his defeat — but he’s never significantly injured. He “learns a lesson” in the encounter. Somehow, though, the extraordinary skills of the master teach this lesson without doing any lasting damage.

Can you imagine how this would work in real life? A stranger comes to the dojo and requests a fight with the teacher. The teacher obliges — and breaks the challenger’s jaw. Or accidentally blinds him. How soon do you think it would be before the police and lawyers — lots of lawyers — were involved?

Encounters between old masters and young disciples are entertaining on the screen. Whether you’re either one, however, or you wish to be, it might be best to tell yourself this: It’s only a movie. 

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit and type his name into the search box.

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