Watching fight scenes in action movies or television, the influence of various martial arts from choreographers is clear. Unexpectedly, Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), also known as Arnis, Eskrima or Kali, dominate action movies due to their dark past and the bluntness of their attacks.

According to some historians, FMA has been around for over 2,000 years and may predate other types of martial arts. From the Bourne films to Jet Li’s use of eskrima in a memorable fight scene in Kiss of the Dragon, Filipino Martial Arts is being utilized by moviemakers in Hollywood to make combat scenes more memorable.

Filipino Martial Arts in Action Movies

filipino martial arts action movies
Two men sparring with weapons called Kali Escrima or Arnis. The martial artists are holding sticks on a black background. The practicing athletes are muscular.

Training in Filipino Martial Arts begins with learning how to use a stick, knives, and everyday objects as deadly weapons. There are many hand techniques that follow after mastering the stick for practitioners to be able to fight against opponents with weapons. Biting, groin shots, finger locks, and other techniques not normally taught in martial arts are also included in styles of FMA, because the point is to win the fight, not points. Filipino Martial Arts differs from Chinese Martial Arts and Korean Martial Arts in its lack of kicking techniques and the speed of combat.

The history of how Filipino Martial Arts started to dominate action movies is, in many ways, the history of the Philippines. In 200 B.C., the Malays started to migrate from the Southeast to the island nation that was already populated by indigenous tribes. The Malays brought with them weapons, such as the kris, that were quickly incorporated into the Filipino Martial Arts and are still taught to practitioners of FMA. Before the Philippines was given its Spanish name, rival tribes would pass down their unique fighting systems from generation to generation, with nothing ever being written down.

More than a thousand years passed before Ferdinand Magellan sailed westward from Spain, searching for a sea route to the “Spice Islands.” In 1521, Magellan and his crew arrived in the Philippine Archipelago and eventually waded ashore to do battle with Rajah Lapu-Lapu, the ruler of Mactan in the Visayas.

With a kampilan, a single-edged long sword, in hand, Lapu-Lapu landed a blow on Magellan’s leg and killed him with a thrust through his neck. Regarded as the first Filipino hero because of his resistance to the Spanish colonization, Lapu-Lapu’s use of Filipino Martial Arts at the Battle of Mactan delayed the colonization of the islands by forty years.

Techniques of Filipino Martial Arts

filipino martial arts action movies
Naval Surface Warriors, Flickr CC License.

For 400 years, the Filipino people were under Spanish rule and were prohibited from practicing Filipino Martial Arts and carrying bladed weapons. Substituting the rattan, a wooden cane, for the kampilan, FMA entered a new stage, which included the incorporation of everyday items into combat.

During the occupation, the techniques and skills of FMA were preserved through Moro-Moro plays that depicted the history of Filipinos fighting with sticks against the Spanish conquerors. After the end of the Spanish rule, Filipino Martial Arts were used to fight the Americans. However, there were few who remained that knew of the Eskrima movements.

Today, Filipino Martial Arts are incorporated into the curriculum of physical education for high school students, and younger practitioners can be found learning the stick movements in parks. In 2009, Republic Act No. 9850 was signed into law declaring Filipino Martial Arts to be the “National Martial Art and Sport of the Philippines.”

Considered the most advanced practical modern blade fighting system, the members of the Philippine military are not the only ones who are learning the fighting skills, with the U.S., Russian, and Indian militaries also incorporating FMA into their training regimens.

Filipino Martial Arts Dominates in Action Movies

filipino martial arts action movies origins
Kapap instructors demonstrates sombrada training method

Outside of the Philippines and militaries that train in Filipino Martial Arts, most people are unaware that FMA dominates in action movies and on the television screen, chosen time and time again by combat choreographers. One of the main reasons Filipino Martial Arts is not as well-known as Chinese Martial Arts, Wushu, Japanese Martial Arts, and Judo, is that, as prizefighter-turned-filmmaker Vincent Soberano says,

“Filipino Martial Arts don’t have a recognizable face out there. No one knows it’s Filipino because most, if not all of those who make use of the art in films, are ‘white’ Hollywood stars. We’ve always been kind of relegated to behind the scenes…”

Vincent Soberano is currently working on an international feature film titled Blood Hunters, which he directs and stars in and hopes will not only be able to compete with the fight scenes and stories of other big blockbuster films, but also introduce the world to ancient Filipino folklore, superstitions, and martial arts. He hopes that characters like the Aswang, the Dwende, Kapre, Multo, and the Diwata will make for good storytelling and draw the audience into the film.

Soberano has the added advantage of being a former Muay Thai world champion, holding a number of championship belts, which allows him to understand what the fight scenes would actually look like – “aggressive” and “brutal,” in his words.

Filipino Martial Arts in Action Movies Fight Scenes

Taking the time to watch a Filipino Martial Arts class, one will notice a lot of open hand techniques, the use of sticks and fake knives, and occasionally the use of other objects commonly found in the home. Practice is conducted between two individuals, with one attempting to come forward and the other using counterstrikes and blocks to stop and subdue the other.

For an onlooker, it looks like the two practicing are just going through rhythmic patterns and knocking sticks against each other. However, a trained Filipino martial artist would understand the practical application of FMA in dealing with real world situations: when one’s life is in danger, giving someone the ability to defend themselves and respond to an attacker is crucial

Filipino Martial Arts might not be the most well-known martial art, but they continue to dominate action movies and are the go-to choice for combat scene choreographers. Even television shows like Arrow have contributed to the international recognition of Filipino Martial Arts, forgoing kicks and the full-beat timing of other martial arts for the fast-paced, dark, and deadly look and feel of FMA.

Hopefully, in a few more years, the history of one of the oldest currently practiced martial arts will be well-known all over the world, beyond just those with interests in the intricacies of action movies fight scenes.

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