The fact and fiction of the attack that never fails
by Robin Catling:
Duelling became the preoccupation of many swordsmen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Fencing masters of the many academies published complex manuals of fencing technique, most hinting vaguely at the master’s knowledge of a “botte secrète”, or secret thrust a special attack which could not be parried, guaranteed of absolute success every time.
In the 1997 movie Le Bossu (“the Hunchback”), the secret thrust becomes a central plot device. In the movie, Danielle Auteuil plays an ambitious chancer and man servant to an arrogant nobleman – the Duke of Nevers. The Duke’s skill with a sword saves him from ongoing assassination attempts by his villainous half-brother. After one such attempt, the Duke teaches Auteuil the secret thrust. It is a complex disarming move which relies on the element of surprise and on the opponent being completely predictable.
When the Duke is killed, Auteuil rescues his baby daughter and goes into hiding for sixteen years.
Attacked by brigands, Auteuil teaches the girl the Nevers secret thrust, which exposes her identity when she kills a corrupt nobleman. The hunt resumes, Auteuil strikes back, disguised as the hunchback of the title, despatching each of the assassins using the Nevers secret thrust.
As a signature move it is bold, complex and outrageous. Against a straight thrust:
- parry in seventh (expect a riposte from seventh)
- envelope in quarte
- beat to forearm (which forces the opponent to withdraw their bent arm)
- take the blade as you change guard
- close in with a passing step
- disarm the opponent
- thrust to the forehead
In real life, however, things are rarely so predictable. The physical style of fencing, the technique of a particular school and the conditions of the fight – each can dramatically alter the reactions of the opponent so as to render the secret thrust a dangerous liability.
Michael York almost gets himself killed using the D’Artangnan family’s secret thrust in the 1974 Three Musketeers. This is why a keen beginner can score hits against an international ranking fencer and why actual duels could quickly degenerate into brawls when each fencer’s carefully drilled tactical plan fell apart at the first exchange.
Of course, no secret thrust ever stayed secret for long as fencing masters devised countermeasures.
As always, there is no substitute for hard work, sound technique and practice!