In Memoriam: William Hobbs (1939-2018)

The late William Hobbs (left) directing Sir Albert Finney.

By Tony Wolf

I’m sad to report the passing of William Hobbs, who was among the most influential and respected fight directors of the 20th century. He died on July 10th, at the age of 79 years.

Bill Hobbs was a true pioneer of the “modern style” of performance combat.  While many of his predecessors in film, TV and stage combat had also been expert fencers, Hobbs broke the mold in crafting fights that were at least as integral to character and story as any other aspect of production design.

It’s about thinking through the character, not through spectacle.  A fight has got to grow out of the situation of the play. Perhaps my advantage is that having been an actor, I’m trying only to do the move I feel is right for the character. You are not doing pyrotechnics for the sake of being pyrotechnic.

  • William Hobbs, quoted in The New York Times (1995)

His fighters were, for the most part, portrayed as fallible human beings. They frequently found themselves scrambling to recover from mistakes, became exhausted or enraged, slipped in the mud, sometimes succeeding (or just surviving) almost in spite of themselves.

All of this was in profound and refreshing contrast to the more purely heroic action scenes of Hobbs’ predecessors in the field, which too often eschewed messy realism and psychological substance for the swashbuckling cliches of textbook “movie fencing”.  Bill Hobbs’ fight choreography always sought to surprise his audience, and took the less-obvious path.

As a co-founder of the Society of British Fight Directors, Hobbs was also a pioneer in the practical research of historical martial arts.  In this, along with his fellow founders Arthur Wise and John Waller, he anticipated the modern HEMA revival movement by several decades.

From the mid-1960s through to the mid-2000s, Bill Hobbs’ acclaimed fight choreography was featured in dozens of major theatrical, film and television productions.  Germane to Bartitsu.org, he staged the dapper John Steed’s umbrella combat scenes for The Avengers (1998):

Career highlights, in terms of acclaim among his peers, include his work on Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977),  Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998). 

Perhaps his most famous fight, however, was the honour duel between Rob Roy and Archie Cunningham in Michael Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy (1995).

Younger audiences will recognise Bill Hobbs’ signature creativity and commitment to detail in the “water dance” fighting style of Syrio Forel, as featured in season one of the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones. Actor Miltos Yerolemou worked extensively with Hobbs to develop his character’s unique method of swordplay.

On a more personal note, I believe that it was a 1980s TV news item about William Hobbs’ work that first inspired me to take up fight direction as a career.  In fact, his 1967 book Stage Combat: The Action to the Word (with a foreword by Sir Laurence Olivier!) was among the very few resources available to me when I set out on that path.  Because there was literally no-one in my home country of New Zealand who could teach me how to become a fight director/stage combat instructor, Bill Hobbs effectively became my mentor via the written word.

When I travelled to London to attend the first ever international stage combat workshops in 1995, I carried my copy of Hobbs’ book with me. A customs agent asked what I’d be doing in England, and I explained a bit about the conference, at which he smiled broadly and asked “Will you be working with Bill Hobbs? I used to flat with him in the ’60s! Welcome to England, sir!”

The conference itself took place at London’s Roehampton Institute.  It was an amazing workshop of creative combat, with a colourful, eclectic roster of instructors and participants.  I remember that Bill seemed quite nervous as he spoke to us, and I only afterwards learned that he’d been worried that his audience of mostly young, up-and-coming fight directors would think him “old hat”.  Far from it; and I think he was a little overwhelmed by the adulation that he did, in fact, inspire in us.

After his lecture, Bill was gracious enough to sign my dog-eared copy of his book.   Many years later, I was honoured when he agreed to review and write a foreword for my own anthology of historical stage combat essays and anecdotes, A Terrific Combat!!!  Theatrical Duels, Brawls and Battles: 1800-1920 (2009).

Bravo, Maestro, and thank you; now rest in peace.

5 thoughts on “In Memoriam: William Hobbs (1939-2018)”

  1. What sad, sad news. BIll was my fight tutor at Drama School in the late 1980s. A great tutor and teacher of all types of fight work, and acting. He directed us in Romeo and Juliet and the fights were fantastic, we were so lucky. We worked together on several projects over the next 20 years and each time was a joy. Fresh view of the obvious. This is a great loss to the fight world.

  2. Very sorry to hear this. William Hobbs’ book was also my introduction to the art of Fight Direction, and his work on film – particularly ‘The Duellists’ was always an inspiration. (By the way the photo shows Mr Hobbs working with Sir Albert Finney for the National Theatre’s ‘Macbeth’, I believe.)

  3. William Hobbs was my inspiration as a young fighter and aspiring choreographer, and this is a sad, sad loss. I’m the fight captain on a touring summer production of “Three Musketeers” at the moment and will be sure to dip my sword in salute to the master. God give him peace.

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