Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land 2019 ****

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Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land is the somewhat lugubrious title for this highly-accessible New Zealand documentary which deals with the much misunderstood subject of medieval combat. Renaissance fairs has been the butt of jokes for decades now; we’re conditioned to laugh at men fighting in costume, although given that they’re physically active, they’re competitive, they’re creative, they’re motivated and getting exercise out in the open air, there’s probably a lot worse that a jock or a geek could do with his time. This is not live-action role-playing with elves and mages, but a physical content involving weapons, armoury and real risks; Andy Deere and Ryan Heron’s film shows armour unceremoniously cut off by medics as participants are whisked to A and E.

Audiences may come to scoff, but while the film-makers accept that there’s humour involved here, Bludgeon wisely doesn’t go down that road. Evoking a medieval quest with animated chapter headings, Bludgeon kicks off with Nick Waiariki, a Kiwi who is trying out for the Steel Thorns group of fighters. With infectious enthusiasm, Waiariki serves as a guide for the novice as to the rules and ethos of the sport. He clearly loves loves talking about it, and it would be churlish to deny the sincerity of his glee in getting close to the New Zealand team, who are limbering up for a world-wide competition in Denmark.

Deere and Heron cleverly disguise some of the details, keeping us keen to find out exactly what the various trials and competitions will look like. And there are visual flourishes, sight-gags naturally generated by the nature of the activity; a knight in armour running on a treadmill, another emerges from a medieval tent pulling a suitcase on wheels. The film-makers chose to frame some of the action with modern elements like parked cars in the background, but as the film goes on and the size of the events increases, the intrusive elements are side-lined and a more immersive environment is detailed. As the veterans gather to look back on a battle, we cut to a wonderful view over a tented village at sunset that appears to be torn from a medieval manuscript; the film suggests the spiritual Valhalla that the men seek, and rewards their quest.

The many who enjoy the comic stylings of Taika Waititi will find amusements here; the Steel Thorns accidentally lock themselves out of their Air B and B, and talk of ‘wench fights’ and ‘international knight marshals’ can’t help but raise a smile. But Bludgeon manages to rehabilitate the public image of a genuine sport that seems to have been unfairly maligned; this likable documentary should appears to sports fans and Game of Thrones aficionados alike, and cuts through prejudices like a flaming sword.

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