Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"In trying to walk a line between geek and jock it paints (and washes and drybrushes) itself into a corner." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

Opening as it means to go on with the wail of metal guitar and the clatter of dudes whaling on each other with mediaeval weaponry, Bludgeon is a blunt instrument of a documentary but no less enjoyable for it. The film unfolds across ten or so chapters, each introduced with a title card in which the events we are to see are described and with an image drawn and drawn (metaphorically) from what follows. The subject is, well, do not call it LARP (live action role-playing) nor historical re-enactment, the subject is ostensibly the (international) 'sport' of mediaeval combat - but there's more than masculinity at play in these full metal jackets, and for all that Ryan Heron and Andy Deere's film focuses on the selection for a national team, there's a lot going on beneath the somewhat battered surface.

I've two basic rules for documentary. The best have an interesting subject presented in an interesting way - good documentaries manage either, and Bludgeon certainly does. Though it's got animated sections and no small measure of raw emotion, there are more interesting stories implied and around what's going on on-screen.

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There are references to elves and wizards but never is the distorting effect of an entire generation of armourers of Middle Earth in what amounts to the middle of nowhere discussed. There are national teams and 'The Grin' is native (and that word is itself loaded) but the mythologies of European combat (and combatants) sit in the background and hang heavy round necks, not discussed. There's talk of jocks and nerds and ADHD and anger management and fear and perhaps it's too much to expect to burden an indie doc with but toxicities abound and it's not just the perforated helms and mail-lined vision slits that make some of the viewpoints here blinkered.

Much as Fight Club has experienced a weird second life as a bellwether for some masculinity's blindnesses, Bludgeon hints at more interesting stories, and for its openness and honesty (it's not just the action on the field of melee that's full contact) it deserves credit. I found myself discomfited by talk of alpha males and myths of self-identification (the alternative to being right is still wrong) and while I wouldn't say it's necessarily the place of documentary to challenge I did find these bits difficult. It's rooted in a particular time and place not just in the world but in life and it's not just the framed Duke of Edinburgh award that reminded me of Boyz In The Wood. There's talk of family, there's a discussion of a 'wench battle', and there's a potentially fascinating follow-up in the fact that there are several brackets of international mediaeval combat for women. The Kiwi team might draw heavily from the Steel Thorns (find them on Facebook) but these Steel Magnolias (or Chrysanthemums, one supposes, given that there's at least one Japanese competitor in the women's longsword) would seem to merit a closer look.

Perhaps it's that proximity - your reviewer is acquainted enough with sword and board even without the dice usually in my pockets to say that many if not most of our depictions of combat of the era are comical even if not intentionally so. Here this is not the case - it's clash and clatter of steel upon steel, and often upon the flesh below. Knights and sarjeants at arms and halberdiers were armed and armoured but no more or less mobile than fighting men before or after. The burden soldiers carry has been around 80 kilos for millennia, but that knowledge comes from context. In team melee and the clash of competition focus is often close enough that sweeps and tactics are not seen, just outcomes. In the competition it would have been nice to get an external perspective, so see what's going on with a bit of distance. Perhaps metaphor for the film itself.

It's grounded, indeed, brought home and to the land by injury and the threat thereof, and strong for it. Yet in trying to walk a line between geek and jock it paints (and washes and drybrushes) itself into a corner. There are weird signifiers here of modernity - many crusaders had issues with caravanserai but rarely are they mediated through keys not being left for an airbnb. Bespectacled faces are obfuscated beneath gaffer tape and plate steel. There is a brief moment of Carlsberg Tai-Chi. Our plucky cohort are not without issues with society, nor society with them - and it is not just social fallacy that means that some of these issues follow them. The closest the film manages at times to separation is with a heavy-handed score. For all the triumphant skirl of shredded guitar throws bolt to battle, it often adds violins to already plucked heart-strings. A pudding over-egged still tastes as sweet but sticks, cloys, and Bludgeon does this more than a trifle.

For all that I suppose my only complaint is that this documentary that follows a weird and obscure subcultural sport from New Zealand to Denmark is somehow not ambitious enough. That's almost certainly on me - as an insomniac with access to the Discovery Channel and YouTube I'm already acquainted with Knight Fight and Forged In Fire, I can rattle off the polearms as readily as cavalry breaks against a hedgehog though my list is more THAC0 than tack. It's telling that my first thought at the sweat-drenched fighters were tended was not water breaks at the World Cup but heat management charts from Battletech. For those for whom that litany is gibberish Bludgeon will serve as a blunt introduction to a more interesting world. For those who ken glaive from guisarme this will be relatively satisfying, but its subtitle (subtext is for cowards) hints at depths not plumbed. There's an explanation of the phrase 'orcas of the land' that hints at threads that would have been worth pulling.

Those involved have found a subject something that works hard to entertain - proof in one test, at least - but I found its mettle wanting.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2019
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Bludgeon packshot
Documentary about competitive medieval combat.

Director: Ryan Heron, Andy Deere

Year: 2018

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: New Zealand


EIFF 2019

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