Knife or Death: A Review

The History Channel has taken on somewhat of an ironic name. Indeed, someone who had the foresight to write about the channel several years before I had the sense to learn to read and write dubbed it The Hitler Channel. Outside of the ever-increasing catalogue of documentaries about Hitler and World War II, there is very little else that could be called ‘real’ history. Some shows such as Pawn Stars and its spin-offs Cajun Pawn Stars and Counting Cars for instance, where punters bring in objects, some of which that may have some historical attachment to them, are ultimately more about the families who own the business and the pawn business in general. Others like The Curse of Oak Island and Ancient Aliens take a more laid-back approach to history, by ignoring it altogether and going down the mythological and conspiratorial route of why things are the way they are.

One of the shows with the more tenous links to history is Forged in Fire, in which four smiths (often blade- but smiths of all trades are eligible to compete) forge (in fire) knives and swords in an attempt to become the Forged in Fire Champion (but just for that week). The ‘historical’ part of the show comes in the final round, where the two finalists are tasked with forging a historical weapon; weapons so far have ranged across eras from the Roman gladius to sabres used in the Napoleonic wars. Apparently the ten minutes devoted to swinging these weapons around is enough to categorise the show as a history programme. Not that I’m complaining; I am genuinely a fan of the show, it’s just not a history programme.

It is, however, a doctoral thesis of history compared to its spin off, Knife or Death. In Knife or Death, an assortment of seasoned blade-smiths and weapon enthusiasts and others who LARP as Vikings and Samurai use their blade of choice to cut their way through an assault course of rope, wooden crates, ice blocks and the most difficult of all: a fish.

It’s a very frenetic experience–more so in the commentary booth than the assault course itself. The show’s host, the former–and my favourite–wrestler Bill Goldberg bellows as the competitor advances through the course, hyping up every cut and slice and thrust as if it were Musashi in action. It’s rare and possibly unsettling to find someone who takes so much joy in witnessing a chicken be bisected by a falcion. Goldberg certainly seems to take more of an interest–or at least display more interest–than his co-host, who serves as the weapons expert. This expertise amounts to speaking to the contestant beforehand, asking out of what materials their weapon of choice is made, hitting it against it a mat a few times before saying, ‘yeah, that’ll do’. 

But it is an energy that is needed, because the reality is that the show is rather quite dull: there is only so many times you can watch a wooden crate cut to pieces or some ice chipped off a very large block before the thing becomes mundane; and, for me, that mundaneness came into play by the time the second competitor made their way onto the course.

In tone the show simply takes itself too seriously, and it is a detriment to the experience when looking at what the host is doing and the bulk of the people they have chosen for the show. The very first competitor, for instance, is a middle-aged white man wearing a kimono and wielding a katana while espousing all the of the virtues and advantages the Japanaese katana holds over weapons from the West. The katana promptly breaks on striking a material with a harder edge than rope. It was a person so stereotypically weebish that it had to be a joke. But no, this was supposedly a serious man who had devoted himself to living a lie, where he thought a sword made of pig iron would compete against competition blades. I hope his viewpoint changed when he had to accept the reality that he spent more time on straightening his blade than he did cutting through obstacles. It is the same after that: a few more claim to have studied in Japan at the feet of masters, others pretend they are vikings and come wearing replicas of the war helmet found at Sutton Hoo.

What’s to be made of Forged in Fire: Knife or Death then? It’s not historical, that’s for sure. It’s not educational. It’s not particularly innovative. It’s just… there. But it managed to achieve its objective of having me waste time writing about it, so they have that.

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