Martial Arts in Movies vs. Real Life

Many people are first introduced to martial arts in movies. For me, Hollywood played a part in sparking my interest when I started karate. On-screen stories often successfully portray karate’s traditional values like perseverance in The Last Samurai. In addition, many stories of respect, good moral character, even honesty and restraint come out of martial arts movies and shows. But don’t get too wrapped up in thinking that what you see on the screen applies to real life protection.


Fight scenes are a form of visual art. As such, they try to show a good story in a fight scene. This guy is going to hit that guy, so he winds up his arm to let the viewer know what’s going on. He can’t hit his fellow actor with power and a strong technique, because nobody goes to work to get beat up. If he employed real techniques, his co-worker would be seriously injured, possibly killed. So this guy has to show his power by “overacting” the technique.

In real life protection situations, on the other hand, you don’t want to forewarn your opponent of your technique. Ideally, the first time an attacker realizes you are doing something to him, would be because you did it and he felt the pain. With no “tell” or warning sign. We train for real protection by building habits of moving the body using strong, natural positioning. And then we execute our techniques efficiently using what works, without flair.


The teachers (masters) of martial arts in movies and shows are often shrouded in much mystery. Exotic characters and locations do help create interesting stories and their superhuman powers pique the viewers’ interest. I have met many black belt instructors in many styles over the years. I have met many eccentric, unique, okay I’ll say it, strange black belt instructors. (I’m not saying that I’m exempt from the strange category.) I have also been fortunate to meet many highly skilled black belts. But at the end of the day, we are all human. We put our pants on one leg at a time. And a down-to-earth, humble human being just might make a better martial arts teacher than some mysterious Wizard of Oz hidden behind a curtain.


Resist the temptation to make yourself an armchair quarterback of sorts. This is a real issue in our sedentary society. Watching fight scenes, analyzing MMA matches and discussing technique will not make you a skilled martial artist. You can’t learn karate from books, Daniel-san. And so the same is true for screens. Martial arts are living arts that must be done, done correctly, and done regularly. Then you will learn, gain skill, polish your skills, and (hopefully) repeat. You cannot get good at a physical skill without a lot of physical training and practicing.


I am not trying to knock Martial Arts in Movies. Like I mentioned, they played a part in my wanting to try karate. Acrobatic, creative, or precise moves can inspire us to learn more and improve our physical skills. Scenes from movies can give instructors and students a common ground to communicate from. (Even if it’s, “You know how he did this in that scene? Don’t do it that way.”) Hollywood has been a huge proponent of promoting martial arts in America. Jackie Chan is one of my heroes for his consideration of what kind of role model he is to younger generations.

Martial Arts in movies are fun. They can make you feel and think about martial arts in different ways. Just be sure that a much bigger part of your training takes place on the dojo floor. And under the supervision of a professional, highly-trained, humble (and possibly even a-bit-strange) martial arts instructor.

By Jenifer Tull-Gauger martial arts in movies

Leave a Comment