by Steve Newman
He was aboard the H.M.S. Coventry when it was sunk off the north coast of Africa during the Second World War. He even killed himself once, but lives today to tell the story.
Born in Gosport, Hampshire on Sept 15, 1922, the Englishman was latter to become an Olympic athlete and coach. Today he is in the second half of a two-year contract as Canadian Fencing Associationís Technical Director. His name Ė Bob Anderson, his game Ė fencing.
Bob, who canít now recall just how many movies heís had a hand in, says, "Thereís a lot of color in working in the film industry, but itís not as colorful and not as exciting as people who donít work in the industry think. They have a great idea about what working with stars in all about. In fact, the making of films is an industry. Itís a very hard and pressurized industry. And when you work on a film you have to get up fairly early in the morning and you finish late at night. The moneyís extremely good, but itís part-time employment. Nobody works full time in the film industry. Theyíre just hired for a picture."
In 1949 the British Fencing Association hired French Olympic Coach Roger Crosnier. "He said I had some talent," says Anderson, so I trained with him for three years in all three weapons Ė sabre, epee, foil Ė and at the end of that training I got my Fencing Masterís Diploma". That he explains, "is the highest coaching qualification you can get anywhere in the world in fencing. It is the highest coaching award conferred by any Fencing Academy. Each country has its Professional Fencing Academy." Canadaís formed in 1972, a year after the incorporation of the Canadian Fencing Association.
In 1950, when fencing became part of the British Empire (Commonwealth) Games for the first time, Anderson represented Britain, winning two gold and three silver medals in Auckland, N.Z. In 1951 and 1952 he was amateur and professional champion of Great Britain. "In the services I was also three weapon champion of combined services for seven years, no, for five years, because in 1953 I became National Coach for Great Britain." The British hired Crosnier with the plan of having Anderson trained and later ready to fill the position of National Fencing Coach. Anderson, who was still in the services while training under Crosnier, sets the background: "The services wanted to specialize and wanted a lot of publicity from its good players, so they insisted that the Phys. Ed teachers become qualified coaches with the governing bodies of sport." He fit that scene, explaining, "I took almost every qualification I could put my hand on. I became a life saving instructor, swimming coach, basketball was a great love of mine. And with my normal work as a teacher of Phys. Ed. There was gymnastics and keep-fit and all that stuff. It was part of my job, so I was ideally suited to go into the film industry as a stunt man with a specialization in fencing. "
His first work in films happened the year of the Helsinki Olympics. "I was working in London in 1952, but I was waiting to go to Helsinki. I had 10 days free and I got a phone call from Elstree Studios. They were making a film called Master of Ballanrrae with Errol Flynn and an actor called Tony Steel. They wanted three fencing experts to do a big fight and I had 10 days so I went along and met Errol Flynn. "I donít think there is anyone around today who is comparable. Flynn was the greatest actor of that period, he was a cavalier-fitness type. He was certainly the top actor of the world at that time, just before and just after the last War."
Although Anderson was a gifted fencing competitor, the rules of his more formal game could not always be applied in the melodramatic movie setting where men dual to protect their lives and dignity. Anderson had to be creative. "Riposte and counter-riposte, thatís the way to build up the sequence, itís like a dance sequence. You do this first by seeing the Director and finding out how long he wants the fight. You also have to look at the set and see what is available in terms of space and props. In the early stages a lot of it is creation. Once youíve got the ideas from the Director you then have to sit down and use your knowledge of the fencing skills and create a fight sequence that will not only fit into the set and give the Director what he wants, but also be exciting and a good portrayal of characters."
In 1979 he retired as Senior National Coach, but his original retirement plans were shelved. "I intended to do about one film a year, which would have brought me in more money than I had earned as a coach. "But just before Christmas I had a phone call from the President of the Canadian Fencing Association, asking me if I would consider coming for an interview. I thought, why not?" The President Ė Montreal resident, Swiss-born Carl Schwende Ė was a fencing medallist himself with three team medals (gold,silver,bronze) and an individual bronze medal in epee from the 1954 British Empire Games when he represented Canada. Twenty-seven people from nine countries had expressed interest in the CFA Technical Directorship, says Schwende. "We had excellent candidates from France, Poland and Italy. We also had a Russian. Taking everything into consideration and knowing Bob and his power of persuasion and manner, I donít think it was a difficult choice."
One of the jobís first duties was to get out CFAís Level 1 Coaching Certification manual, called Mini-Fencing, Anderson believes it utilizes a system, which can attract numbers, "Mini fencing is for any age, from 7 to 70. Itís a combination of good things from the three weapons and selected things that are simple to understand." It works on the whole-part-whole principle which Anderson imported from Europe and is based on the Gestalt theory, developed at the close of the 19th century in Austria and southern Germany, it says itís necessary to analyze the full nature of the whole " from above down". "Learning should be based on the whole-part-whole principle," insists the Technical Director, "in my day you went through a long and rigorous training based on a rigid system. Itís rather like learning a language, you learn the structure of the language." But the system isnít being applied that way in mini-fencing, instead, he explains, "you learn the structure as you go along, I feel this true with the sport of mini-fencing. Itís a system of throwing them in the deep end. You give them everything from the outset and you learn the structure as you go along. You donít spend a long rime on how to parry, riposte and attack. The beginner should be encouraged to play the game first and them learn about it later on."
"Iím having a certain amount of resistance on this because a lot of coaches had been brought up with traditional methods," remarks the Technical Director, adding, however, that is not a marked resistance.
Bob was quite surprised that so little fencing exists in Canadian schools, he says a move is underfoot to get mini-fencing into the schools. "It is the development of the sport in the schools that will provide the club members of the future. I see no reason why it shouldnít work in Canada."
After living 25 years on the Thames River just outside London, Anderson and his wife Pearl took a change of residential scenery for a number of reasons. "Firstly, it offered me the challenge of developing a coaching scheme. The Canadian fencing scheme had only just begun and it was not developing and I had 30 odd years in development of this type of thing."
"The next thing is that I liked the people who were in command of Canadian fencing, the people who interviewed me and those Iíd known as a result of the Olympic Games. The third thing, and this is important, is that I donít know of any other government system that organizes coaching development alone. In England, I developed a coaching scheme for 25 years and the only government assistance I got was in fact that they paid my salary and not all of that, rather 80 percent of it. I was subsidized, I suppose, indirectly since the sports centers I used were paid for by the British Sports Council out of government money. But there was no coaching budget like you have with the Coaching Association, which has an annual budget for the development of coaching manuals and certification. "And that was an important factor in my coming to Canada. The other thing that attracted me was the relationship between the consultants of Sport Canada and the Governing Bodies. I thought they had more command of how money was spent and they demanded more from the sports-governing bodies. " The final one, and by no means the least Ė I like Canada. I like the freedom, I like the space. Having lived in London for 25 years I assure you thatís important. Itís the difference between eight million people and what, five hundred thousand?"
In the spring of 1979, between retirement from the British Fencing circle and his coming to Canada, he was working on The Empire Strikes Back. By 1980 Anderson was to appear on movie screens around the world through most viewers didnít know it was him, after all the credits said David Prowse was playing Darth Vader, the dislikeable, vengeful leader of the Rebel Forces. In one scene, aboard Cloud City, Vader and Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill engaged in a lazer sword fight. To prepare for the colourful scene, stunt co-ordinator Peter Diamond and stunt doubles men, Anderson and Colin Skeaping worked with Hamill and Prowse to hone their fencing skills. Special artwork was done to add the space age complexion to the action. Carbon-fibre blades were used with photo-reflective paint and individual artwork was done on each negative to draw in the lazer effect, says Bob. One problem was that Prowse, an aspiring but unsuccessful candidate for the 1960 British Olympic weightlifting team, couldnít fence, not well, anyway, according to Anderson. "Pete was the fight arranger for the film and they needed somebody rather tall who could get into his costume of Darth Vader. Iím six-foot-one, but Darth Vader (Prowse) is six-foot-five, so I had to wear lifts and had my uniform built up so eventually there was not a lot of difference. "He, (Prowse) got the job because he was supposed to be able to fence, but he couldnít, I worked with him for a long time but we werenít able to make him good enough for the part. I doubled for him, and Peter and I worked out the fight sequences. What you see is Mark Hamill and myself. Mark is very good, I trained him." Skeaping, who had a Phys. Ed. Background from Britainís St. Lukeís College, did a lot of the dangerous scenes, remarks Anderson. "But he didnít double Mark for the sword fight because Mark developed into a better swordsman than Colin. Mark and I did the sequence from start to finish."
Anderson sits back in the chair behind his desk in the Canadian Fencing Association offices, laughing lightly before saying "Itís the first time Iíve doubled the "baddy" and won."
Anderson is almost cocky. He is certainly self-assured. Asked if he has ever created a fight sequence in a movie, which proved, unsuccessful or embarrassing to him, he replies unflinchingly, "I donít think so. I think I was very good at my job. I had a very good background. I was not only an International British Fencer but I was a properly trained Coach. I studied fencing for three years and I was also a good athlete and so I had all the qualifications for being a good action man on film." Being confident hasnít hindered his film industry performance, right? "Iíve never been put down by anybody because I supposed I sound as if I know what Iím talking about.", responds Anderson. "Quite often Iím not absolutely sure but I donít make that obvious. We all find ourselves in situations where we have to think hard and cripes, I donít think I can do this, but what you have to do is have the confidence in yourself, and Iíve always had that." Confident, but still learning. Heís taking French courses so he can communicate better wit the fencers in Quebec, the nucleus of Canadian fencing power. "Iíll tell you one thing," says Anderson, "I realized upon coming to Canada how little I do know. I never spent a lot of time organizing competitions, I always had people do that. My job was mainly coaching. I coached the top British fencers (who continue to monopolize the medal count until the sport was dropped after the 1970 Commonwealth Games). Iím learning now about sending teams abroad, accommodating them, the organization of competition. I have to have a greater command of the rules."
The Technical Director plans to settle down in Canada, a plan that CFA, it appears, wonít have much objection to, says Canadian Fencing Association President Schwende, "His two years (on contract) finish next March, but we hope he will be able to extend his term. Two years is really not enough time to implement certain work, thinking and philosophies. Also, our coaching levels will not have been sufficiently advanced, though we will probably have levels 2 and 3."
Canadian fencing does not rank within the sports best on a global basis. Naturally, there will be people in this countryís fencing establishment who hope they can learn an enormous amount from Robert (Bob) J. Anderson, alias Darth Vader. May the Force be with him.
Date Last Modified: 21 Jul 2013