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Swords and guns in popular culture

In the world of arms and armour, the objects featured in contemporary popular culture are often underrepresented. Much of the public perception of arms and armour is coloured by the cultural mainstream, yet many museums have been slow to appreciate and preserve the wonderful things made for films, games and other media. For many, popular culture is the primary means of exposure to such objects and for museums, this area is key to developing a successful future events programme.

Precedents for collecting items of this nature do already exist. In the past, the Royal Armouries have purchased items such as an ensuite rapier (IX.5609) and parrying dagger (X.1789) for theatrical use. More recently, five swords that had famously been used during the production of The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies were purchased from Weta Workshop as part of a highly successful exhibition of ‘Arms and Armour from the Movies‘, which was held at the Royal Armouries in 2008. This exhibition was based entirely on material designed and made by Weta Workshop and brought in some 160,000 visitors.

After the success of our exhibition in 2008, the museum set out to build a representative selection of the arms and armour featured in popular culture, including production-used and, where possible, screen-used examples of blank-conversions, prop weapons and armour. Hopefully, the objects collected will help to illustrate the ‘iconic’ status of armour in popular culture as well as the quality and technique of modern film armour, craftsmanship and manufacture.

‘Ibelin’ Sword and Durza’s Blade

So far, edged weapons acquired by the Royal Armouries include a stunt sword (IX.5634) from the 2005 film ‘Kingdom of Heaven‘ and a hero sword (IX.5643) wielded by Robert Carlyle’s villainous ‘Durza’ in the 2006 fantasy film, ‘Eragon‘. Intended for use by Liam Neeson and Orlando Bloom during the filming of the feature film ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, the ‘Ibelin’ sword as it would come to be known was built by Oscar and BAFTA winner Neil Corbould from a design provided by famous film armourer Simon Atherton.

The hollow blade is made from steel to give the sword a lightweight feel and to enable a spring-loaded inner blade to retract inside the outer to give the illusion of delivering a penetrating injury., When we consider the prominent use of computer generated imagery in modern film-making, it is interesting to see that this very old ‘trick’ blade technique is still being used today.

Durza’s sword was also designed by Simon Atherton, but unlike the ‘Ibelin’ sword, it is a hero sword that was not meant to be used during fight scenes. As their inspiration, the designers took a hand-and-a-half-sword (IX.949) in the collection of the Royal Armouries, which is North European (German), dates from about 1480, and which bears gilt copper alloy mounts including a collar of gilt bronze on the grip of the hilt, as does the sword of Durza (although its collar is of white metal).

The wooden grip itself is of ‘writhen’ form and again one finds this reflected in the form of the movie sword’s grip. Perhaps the most obvious inspiration is in the form of the gilt copper alloy pommel and cross-guard which have been cast and chiseled to appear as though made from three rods twisted together. The cross on the movie sword still retains this ‘twisted effect’ although it is now a ‘furred limb’ terminating in a talon and the pommel is in the form of an open claw of four talons.

Captain Nemo’s Steampunk Submachine Guns

The movie firearms in the collection are all products of the famous Bapty & Co prop house who have been providing weapons, armour and other props for stage, film, television and music videos since 1919.

First up are two guns from the 2002 fantasy action film ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘, loosely based on the ground-breaking graphic novel series by Alan Moore. For the brilliant and infamous Captain Nemo, Bapty were tasked with creating a number of retro-futuristic ‘Steampunk’ sub-machine guns inspired by decorative styles of the Indian subcontinent. Like many of the other firearms featured in the movie, weapons of this type did not exist in the real world of 1899. The sub-machine gun did not appear in military use until 1918.

The resulting silver and white guns matched elements of Nemo’s Nautilus vessel and also his large 1930s-style touring car. In order to have functioning guns that would fire blanks for the cameras, British-designed Second World War Sten guns were dressed up after this fashion. The guns and magazines were substantially disguised with wood, plastic, and paint, and even the tubular metal stocks were altered to hide the real-world heritage of these wacky weapons. Our example (XII.11937) was made at Long Branch in Canada, but Chinese markings show that it was supplied to China during the Second World War to aid in the fight against Japan. Sometime later, it returned to the UK and may well have appeared in an earlier production in its wartime form, as houses like Bapty lend and re-use weapons regularly.

For Captain Nemo himself, a Russian Tokarev TT33 pistol (XII.11938) was similarly dressed up to match the other guns and disguise its Cold War heritage. The weapon’s slide was shrouded with a cylindrical moulding similar to that used on the sub-machine gun, and an unusual turret feature was affixed where the rear sight would normally be. The magazine was cosmetically extended to look like those on the Stens, and capped with a conical stud, inspired by the real-world ‘skull crushers’. This weapon was unique to Nemo, although, in common with other movie props, four examples were made in case of reliability problems or damage that might be sustained during filming. This does mean that the Royal Armouries is lucky to have one of only four guns made.

Whatever some may think of the movie itself, which had a famously troubled production (it was Sean Connery’s last) and met with a frosty reception from critics and fans, these guns are great examples of the propmaker’s art. They are also fully intact, live-firing movie guns that cannot be found in any other UK museum, and precious few overseas, since the vast majority of firearms used in film and TV are deactivated prior to sale. The Sten is complete with its threaded barrel restrictor used to generate sufficient internal pressure to operate the working parts of the gun. Without these adaptors most movie guns cannot function since there is no bullet to build up pressure. The pistol is also modified with a restrictor, and a further internal modification to allow it to operate normally on camera.

M41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle

For me as a firearms specialist, the star of our collection so far is the M41A ‘Pulse Rifle’ (XII.11846) from one of my favourite films, ‘Aliens‘ (1986), rebuilt and used in ‘Alien3‘ (1992). This was another Bapty-made piece, produced by Simon Atherton (who opened his own prop house called ‘Zorg Ltd‘ in 1997) to a design by ‘Aliens’ director James Cameron. You can read more about this piece in my other post: ‘Collecting Cultures: M-41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle’.

The pulse rifle has become one of the most iconic movie weapons of all time for its realistic, gritty ‘used and abused’ look. Together with the famous Blade Runner ‘blaster’ pistol and the Smart Gun also seen in Aliens, it showed that sci-fi guns did not have to shoot animated laser bolts and go ‘pew’. Given the pace of technological development in the field, it seems likely that if weapons are taken into space, they will resemble the Pulse Rifle more than the laser weapons of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Buck Rogers’. But that is probably a topic for a future post.

Get a closer look at these pieces of silver screen history and other Collecting Cultures objects on our Collections Online website where you can see images in deep zoom.

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