The lowdown on naked fight scenes --We look at nude combat scenes in ''Borat,'' ''Eastern Promises,'' and ''Shoot 'Em Up''


David Cronenberg’s new film Eastern Promises is, like most of the director’s oeuvre, not short on memorably raw and bloody moments. But there is one sequence in this London-set Russian Mafia drama that is utterly unforgettable. ”Yeah, yeah,” chuckles the Canadian auteur. ”It seems to be the scene everyone’s talking about.”

The scene in question finds the film’s star, Viggo Mortensen, fighting two goons in a bathhouse. The unforgettable part? That for nearly all of this by-no-means-short rumble Mortensen is clad in nothing but tattoos. Nor has any Austin Powers-style effort been made to obscure the Mortensen manhood with, say, the presence of a passing banana-and-tangerine salesman. Mortensen’s decision to let it all hang out is a particularly brave one given that it is only a matter of time before screen grabs arrive on the Internet. ”I said, I know people freeze-frame this stuff,” the actor recalls of the shoot. ”But the main thing is to do a good job on the scene and not compromise it.”

Mortensen is not the only actor to have recently engaged in fiber-free fisticuffs. Last year Sacha Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian seared eyeballs around the world by wrestling in Borat. Earlier this month a naked, gun-toting Clive Owen had it out with half a dozen assassins while simultaneously having sex with Monica Bellucci in Shoot ‘Em Up. And, this November, audiences will get the chance to see a nude representation of Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) battling the monster Grendel in Robert Zemeckis’ CG movie Beowulf. ”In the original epic poem, Beowulf decides that swords and armor are just going to slow him down,” explains co-writer Roger Avary. ”So, he strips and waits for Grendel to come and then does some medieval ass-kicking in the buff. When we were first working on the script, Robert Zemeckis said, ‘Guys, does he have to fight him naked?’ We were like, ‘Yes, actually he does – it’s in the poem!”’

Hang on to your hat – or, rather, throw it away with the rest of your clothes. The naked fight scene is back – and, of course, frontal.

Historically speaking, naked fighting is as old as humanity itself. Around the time of Christ, Northern Europe’s fearsome Celtic warriors would go into battle unclothed so as to terrify their opponents. Yet, the first notable big-screen example of grown men tackling each other while showing their tackle occurred when Oliver Reed and Alan Bates energetically wrestled each other in director Ken Russell’s erotic but high-minded 1969 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel Women in Love. Not that all of the world’s film fans got to enjoy it. According to Russell, censors in Argentina removed the nude material, which meant that the film cut from a shot of Bates and Reed fully clothed to a post-fight view of them exhausted in each other’s arms. As a result of this misguided snipping, the sequence became known locally as the ”great buggery scene.”

For most of the ’70s and ’80s the naked fight scene was hijacked by exploitation directors who routinely attempted to attract audiences with girl-on-girl action. Fairly typical was 1973’s swords-sandals-and-sex schlocker epic War Goddess. (Imagine a lesbian-themed episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Which is to say, just imagine an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.) The film, made by slumming Thunderball director Terence Young, boasts a lengthy nude fight between the movie’s two principal female characters that amply confirms Young had no time for the legend about Amazons having only one breast. The women-in-prison genre also offered up its fair share of clothe-less femme fights. Check out 1983’s Women’s Prison Massacre. ”I probably shouldn’t say this, but I actually have that on VHS,” admits Avary, who also co-wrote Pulp Fiction. ”As long as your expectations going in are tempered by the knowledge that you’re seeing a women-in-prison film, it’s fantastic. What’s not to like?”

In the ’80s and ’90s, Arnold Schwarzenegger helped steer naked fights toward Hollywood’s mainstream with the Terminator movies, films that routinely featured his nude, time-traveling cyborg mugging some bystander for his clothes. ”It was all quite bizarre,” says Ron Young, who played ”Pool Cue Biker” in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. ”The sequence took about three days to shoot. We had some technical problems because I kept having to whack him in the head with a balsa-wood pool cue and it wasn’t behaving. I whacked him in the head and he said, ‘Ouch!’ Jim Cameron was like, ‘Cut! You’re the Terminator! You can’t say, Ouch!”’

In the finished sequence, Schwarzenegger would be seen only from the waist up, and Young says that the actor wore a skin-colored jockstrap while shooting the scene: ”Interestingly enough, he said that in the early days of his career he would have just been bare naked. But now that he was on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and married to Maria Shriver, he thought it would be best that he stayed covered up.”

Gradually, other actors dared to follow Arnold’s example. A naked Rosario Dawson put a knife to Colin Farrell’s throat in 2004’s Alexander. The following year, 50 Cent bared all during a shower-fight sequence in Get Rich or Die Tryin’. It was 2006, however, that would prove to be the naked fight scene’s first real annus mirabilis. In any other 12-month period the sight of Daniel Craig getting his testicles tenderized in Casino Royale would have made it a red-letter year for bare brutality. But that sequence was eclipsed by the wrestling match between Sacha Baron Cohen and burly Ken Davitian in Borat. ”We were all sitting in a studio office when Sacha explained his vision of how this would work,” remembers Davitian. ”He said, ‘I’ll come out of the shower and we’ll start fighting and then I’ll throw you here and I’ll throw you there.’ The thing that caught my ear was ‘…and then your balls will hit my chin.’ We did it, I think, in three different hotels. Because we found you can’t run naked too long in any one hotel.”

Filming a nude fight scene can certainly be problematic. Cronenberg remembers fearing for Mortensen’s safety: ”The guys who were fighting him had padding. He didn’t. Our makeup guy would spend more time covering up the bruises than putting on the tattoos.” Shoot ‘Em Up director Michael Davis recalls the moment he realized that he had filmed more of his star’s briefs-covered derriere than he’d intended: ”I thought that I had framed Clive Owen’s butt out of the shot. But [you could still see it]. So we had to paint in his butt crack. It’s actually pretty funny, but my visual-effects guy was a little irritated with me. It was an extra expense we had not put in the budget: ‘digital butt replacement.”’

While the point of the nudity in Borat is to provoke laughter, the sequence in Shoot ‘Em Up is intended to be funny and sexy. Eastern Promises, meanwhile, finds Cronenberg using nakedness to emphasize Mortensen’s defenselessness. Whatever the various filmmakers’ intentions, they seem to have had less trouble with the ratings board than you might expect. Both Cronenberg and Davis say the scenes in question weren’t issues where securing R ratings was concerned. Could this be a happy harbinger for the future of nude fights everywhere, whether they are used in the service of laughs or metaphor or simply realism? Ken Davitian was surprised by the MPAA’s willingness to let even the outrageous Borat sequence stand. ”I thought, They won’t allow it. And they allowed it,” he says. ”I think they did because it was logical and crucial to the story. The bottom line for us was, if somebody is very, very upset, is he going to put on a pair of pants before he starts fighting with somebody? Or is he gonna just fight? And, knowing all of my Middle Eastern, Armenian relatives, if the house was burning down, my uncle would put on his pants, or at least a pair of boxers. But you piss him off, and he’ll chase you down the street with nothing on.”