For whatever reason, there is little information out there regarding the BBC’s Way of the Warrior documentary series. These are the facts: The series is made up of eight forty minute films that each document a separate form of Asian martial arts, it aired sometime in the early 1980s, and it has not been re-broadcast or made commercially available since around that time, despite apparently popular demand. The BBC has, of course, been known to produce a documentary or two in its day, but what inspired them to produce this particular series is unclear. It might be safe to say that Way of the Warrior is a product of the western world’s fascination with all things martial arts in the wake of the success of Bruce Lee, whose name indeed gets dropped only nineteen minutes into the film. Regardless of the BBC’s intent, their interest in this rich subject was more than warranted. Martial arts are an integral part of many Asian cultures. When examined, they can reveal just as much (or more) about the culture and history of their homelands as any textbook.
This particular selection documents a class of martial arts called Eskrima. Eskrima (also known as Arnis or Kali) is indigenous to the Philippines and emphasizes the use of weapons (usually sharpened sticks.) Eskrima is something of a unifier for the Fillipinos; a symbol of independence and identity. It has been with them in some form since the beginning. According to legend, in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan was killed along with several of his men in the Battle of Mactan. Filipino chieftain Lapu-Lapu and his warriors managed to win the battle using weapons and methods that predicted those of Eskrima, which is especially impressive in light of the fact that Magellan and company were packing cannons.
The documentary is centered around an Eskrima society in Cebu City, Philippines known as Doce Pares. Doce Pares Eskrima Club was founded in 1932 by twelve master eskrimadors and is still going strong. Eskrima practiced here was eventually considered its own style and creatively dubbed Doce Pares Eskrima, though several of the masters (including Cacoy Cañete, one of the main interviewees of this film) have their own specially named styles. Doce Pares is renowned in the Philippines after consistently winning Eskrima competitions and wowing the public with their demonstrations since its foundation.
Each of the many countries that has inhabited the Philippines over the course of its history has contributed at least one ingredient to the smoothie that is Filipino culture. The cultures of Spain, China, and America (to name a few) have been absorbed by that of the Philippines and foreign influence pops up in everything from cuisine to language. As several interviewees in the film would admit, Filipino martial arts is no exception. In fact, the name “Eskrima” itself is an adaptation of “esgrima,” the Spanish word for fencing. As it exists today, Eskrima is the culmination of centuries of cultural influence.
Like many martial arts, Eskrima is expected to be practiced only in sport or demonstration unless absolutely necessary. However, Eskrima’s popularity may be partially due to necessity. In the Philippines, people are much more likely to carry knives than guns, and training in Eskrima allows for quick defense from knife attacks. In the film, one of the masters at Doce Pares recounts a time in which he successfully protected himself and a friend from a knife-brandishing gang. The scar he shows as proof is brutal confirmation that martial arts can be a lifesaver.
Worth noting is the passion and intensity that Eskrima demands, both in and out of the ring. This may be par for the course when it comes to martial arts, but here we get an insider’s view at the particularly grueling drills of Doce Pares, performed for the most part without the comfort of padding. Though the sticks resemble giant drinking straws, they pack a painful and destructive punch. Even in spars, during which the blows are significantly restrained, the combatants’ pained moans and expressions betray Eskrima’s unforgiving nature. Several allusions to the struggle that accompanies a break from traditional practices (for example, the allowance of female Eskrimadors) indicate that the battles of will surrounding Eskrima are just as tricky as the physical matches. A typically competitive quote by Cacoy Cañete poses the question, “How can you claim that your style is the best when you do not accept any challenge?” After watching him send several pupils to the floor without a scratch, I preferred to co-sign his claim.
In a culture where thousands of years of tradition have largely been reduced to Steven Seagal hocking “Asian Experience” flavored energy drinks in Wal-Mart and generic martial arts academies competing with Subways, liquor stores, and Dollar Trees for strip mall space, it’s essential to learn about the real deal; the roots of these martial arts that have set the western world on fire. In this installment of the Way of the Warrior, one learns from the people who know it best.
Eskrima has been and will continue to be resilient. At least one point in its country’s history, Eskrima survived being outlawed when the Eskrimadors disguised its practice as tribal dance performance. (Easy to believe! Peep those beautiful slow motion sparring shots.) The Philippines has seen its share of strife but, in a country searching for a national identity, one thing has remained the same: warriors like the Cañete family, proudly devoted to honing a five-hundred-year-old art.