Source: The Sunday Times (UK)
May 16, 2010
How I learnt to handle a bow like Russell Crowe
Our correspondent takes a lesson with Steve Ralphs, archery teacher and longbow maker to the stars
By Tim Cooper
With a disappointingly modest twang, the arrow streaks from the longbow quivering in my left hand. As it thuds into its target, missing the bull's-eye by a few inches, Steve Ralphs utters the words I've been waiting all day to hear: "You've done what Russell Crowe did."
Steve is the man who flew to Australia to teach Crowe how to shoot a longbow authentically for his starring role in Robin Hood. He's taught everyone from Ray Winstone and Clive Owen to Keira Knightley and Judi Dench, and made bows and arrows for blockbusters including Gladiator, Troy, Braveheart and The Mummy. Today, in the field behind his house in a small Norfolk village, he has to make do with me. And when he says I've done what Russell Crowe did, he's not being nice. He means I've been doing it wrong. Apparently, Russ and I both have trouble with our "anchor point".
It may have looked simple in countless historical epics and westerns, but shooting a bow and arrow is anything but child's play. Just keeping the bow at arm's length while pulling back the string all the way to the corner of your mouth - that's the anchor point - turns out to be surprisingly difficult, even though Steve has armed me with his weediest bow, with a "draw weight" of only 35lb. Trying it for the first time is like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time. You can get the left arm (the one holding the bow) out at full stretch, but then you forget to pull the right arm (with the arrow) high enough or far enough back before you fire. Or you can do it the other way round, with a bent left arm - which is what I've just done. Me and Russ. Even though he was 12,000 miles away when he did it, on his Australian farm.
When you finally get it right, what happens is this. First, the right arm begins to shake, then the left goes wobbly, and soon the arrow is rolling across your knuckles and falling to the ground. It's a pathetic sight, but Steve is a surprisingly patient man, even when he's not dealing with Oscar-winning actors with famously short tempers. And it's comforting to know that Russ and I have had the same problem... at least until Steve explains why. "Russell's a competitive guy who does a lot of sport," he says. So far, so similar, although only one of us has trained as a boxer (Cinderella Man) or fought with swords (Gladiator). Yet it seems his heroics have come at a cost: "Russell's torn both achilles tendons, he's had two operations on his shoulder and he's got a rib that pops out in his back. That's why he had to find his own anchor point." So now I know: I'm as good (or bad) at it as a virtual invalid.
I have, however, benefited from Steve's training, his encyclopedic knowledge of longbows - and his contempt for any other kind of archery. Even before we met, he had made his attitude clear in our correspondence. He began by scoffing at my editor's proud distinction of being an archery champion in her youth. "Target archery holds no relation to real archery, with our wooden bows and wooden arrows," he informed her, establishing immediately his status as a longbow purist with no time for crossbows, sights or newfangled inventions such as alloy and carbon arrows. "We call that shooting," he sneers. "Any idiot can point a crossbow and pull the trigger. Real archery is two sticks. One with feathers and one with a string."
Back at his barn conversion, Steve has been showing me his forge, which overlooks his swimming pool - yes, the Hollywood lifestyle has rubbed off on him. This (the forge, not the pool) is where he makes metal arrowheads to put on the end of the wooden arrows he knocks up, along with the longbows, in a workshop decorated with a shield from Gladiator, various bits of chainmail and what looks very much like a suit of armour. But no. "It's a harness of armour," Steve corrects. "Never a suit of armour - that's a Victorian term."
I decide not to try on the armour, although I'm tempted by a suit, or possibly harness, of chainmail. Until I pick it up. It's hard to lift, and that's only the top half. Besides, it would be no use to me, as arrows would pass straight through it. And the shield from Gladiator would be no good as it's only a prop and, anyway, the real ones were not made of metal ("Another Hollywood myth", Steve sighs), but of wood and boiled leather. Steve knows this stuff because he's been studying the history of the longbow ever since he made his first one at the age of seven. That's when his father passed on the skills he had inherited from his own father at the same age - the age, he says, at which every archer would have picked up his first bow and arrow.
Surely it's dangerous for small boys to play with weapons? "Well," he says, "I did shoot my friend Andy through the leg when I was 10." I can't help wondering whether this was to rebuke Andy for using an anachronistic term for armour, but it turns out to have been a simple accident. Steve began supplying film productions with bows and arrows almost 25 years ago: long enough to have worked on the Kevin Costner blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Not that he was impressed with it. "A pile of pants," he declares. "I had to walk out because it was terrible. Little John turns to Robin Hood and says, 'Robin of Loxley, you've got balls of solid rock.' At that point, I said to my wife, 'We're going.'"
Steve, who says he has seen films where "Visigoths used Victorian bows and Native Americans used glass-fibre bows", prefers Robin and Marian, with Sean Connery, even though Connery apparently gets the bow-and-arrow stuff hopelessly wrong. "He decided not to have any lessons," Steve says, "so he holds the arrow with his thumb and forefinger. Like a little boy." His utmost contempt, however, is reserved for the recent televised Robin Hood. "They had a Hungarian bow, which is wrong, and shining armour, which is the wrong period. And the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Keith Allen, says, 'Time's moving on, tick-tock.'" Steve pauses for dramatic effect. "I didn't know they had clocks back then!"
He is more complimentary, thankfully, about Keira Knightley and Judi Dench, who were "naturals", although this may be down to their gender. "Women are much better than men at archery," he says, "because they listen."
Russell probably would have been a natural, too, despite his injury-ravaged body, except that by the time Steve pitched up at his farm in Australia, he'd picked up some bad habits. "I spent a month undoing what an Australian coach had shown him," he says, shaking his head sadly. "Like all official coaches, he knew nothing about the tradition of shooting a longbow, and Russell was keen to get it right." There was just one snag. "In traditional archery, there is no real right and no real wrong. You simply learnt the way your father taught you, and that was that."
I'm guessing that Crowe's father, who was a hotel manager and film-set caterer in New Zealand, may not have passed down an extensive knowledge of the English longbow. So it was up to Steve. And guess what? Russ, using one of Steve's bows, "took to it like a duck takes to water". So much so, in fact, that he became almost as fanatical about authenticity as his tutor. "There was a day on the beach in Wales, and Russell's been up to his waist in cold water for three or four hours. He's frozen stiff and shaking from the cold. And he has to reach down, pull an arrow out of a dead man, take a bow out of the water and launch an arrow over the heads of the extras running towards him. I wouldn't want to do it - no archery coach in the country could have done it. And he does it every time, five times in a row."
What's even more galling is that Crowe used a bow with a 50lb pull, compared with my feeble 35lb version. But I'm just hoping it won't be three or four hours before I hit the target. "Archery is 70% technique and 30% luck," Steve tells me, which is mildly encouraging. "And some can get away with 30% technique and 70% luck." Which is more encouraging. Steve measures me up for the right bow: they're made of yew, and traditionally would have had strings made of flax, hemp, linen or even silk, all of which often broke, so archers would keep their spares under their hat. In a rare concession to modern technology, Steve now prefers the man-made fibre that is used in dental floss for his strings.
The length of the bow is dictated by the archer's height plus the length of his fist: "Hence the expression 'to make a fist of it'." Steve finds me some arrows, traditionally made of aspen or ash, with flights made from grey goose wing feathers, but today made of cedar or Scots pine, with turkey wing feathers. So I am armed with a bow about 6ft 6in long, and a batch of arrows; and I'm almost ready to have a go. But not quite. First of all, Steve straps a leather wrist guard - sorry, vambrace - to my left forearm, to prevent chafing, and warns me that I will be breaking the law if I walk down his driveway onto the village street. "In law, this is an offensive weapon the minute the bow is braced. "When I was 25," he cautions, "I was showing a bow to my neighbour and a police sergeant arrested me."
Finally, I'm in the field behind the barn, standing next to Steve, not very far at all from a target and eager to start shooting. Steve helps me to strap on my quiver, except, inevitably, it's not called a quiver, it's a quarrel bag - and you never wear it on your back. "That's Hollywood," scoffs Steve, whose enthusiasm for biting the hand that feeds knows no bounds. If you wore it on your back, your bow would be in the way, and you'd clout your neighbouring archer with it every time you reached around to pluck an arrow from your quiver... I mean quarrel bag. So you tie it around your waist like an apron and hang it behind your back, like a big bum bag, with the feathery bits of your arrows sticking out on your right hip.
Apparently, I would be carrying 48 of them if I were a proper archer in a proper army in the olden days, and I would be able to fire at least 12 every minute. For now, just one would be fine. So I slip one into the string and Steve explains how one of the three feathers is stronger than the others and, for reasons I forget, needs to face upwards - hence the expression "cock-up", apparently.
Steve shows me the three grips: the two-fingered "Flemish loose"; the three-fingered "Mediterranean" release, which we will be using, presumably because neither of us is Flemish; and the thumb-and-forefinger "primitive" release favoured by small boys and Sean Connery. "Always pull the string and not the arrow," Steve says. "And never face the target. Stand at 90 degrees to what you want to aim at. The only things pointing at the target are the bow - and the arrow in your head." This is less alarming than it sounds once I realise it's a metaphor. "Also," he adds, turning 90 degrees, "you make a smaller target sideways." I scan the flat Norfolk horizon for enemy archers, but all I can see is a cock pheasant. "See if you can hit it," Steve says. He knows there's more chance of me starring in the next Robin Hood remake, but quickly adds that it's illegal to shoot wildlife with a bow and arrow.
At last, I bring up my bow, stretch out my left arm, pull back my right arm, trying to remember to pull the arrow and not the string - or was it the other way round? - and to stand at 90 degrees, to find my anchor position, avoid a cock-up and miss the cock pheasant... and let go.
Then I do it properly, and my second arrow flies satisfyingly straight into the bull's-eye. It's a great feeling. All I need now is a band of merry men, a maid called Marian and some rich people to rob.