What do you get when you take a beloved actor, a team of blacksmiths, and a bunch of geeks who love ancient weaponry? You get Man at Arms: Art of War.
In case you’re not familiar with Danny Trejo, let me provide you with some facts about this beautiful man:
- He started acting while working as a youth drug counselor. He’d been in and out of prison for years, attributing this partly to his grizzled appearance. Helping out a PA with drug problems on the set of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train in 1985, Trejo was recognized by the screenwriter who remembered him from their shared time in San Quentin. He offered Trejo a job as a boxing coach, which became a small role in the film. Since then, he’s starred in movies ranging from Spy Kids to Grindhouse, with more than 300 credits to his name.
- He is inexplicably 74 years old, hardly looking a day over 60 and still totally capable of destroying a human skull with a spear.
- He owns a highly rated restaurant business called Trejo’s Tacos.
- He is the second cousin of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, which brings us to Man at Arms: Art of War. Rodriguez is the show’s producer, and Trejo—whose most recognizable character is himself named after a blade—is the host.
Here’s how the show works: Danny Trejo begins each episode with a discussion of an ancient culture’s history and weaponry. He then challenges a team of blacksmiths to produce fully-functional replicas of these weapons, and they walk the viewer through the traditional and modern processes involved in forging.
When the steel’s cooled, professional martial artists and stuntpeople take the blades out for a test drive. Throughout the show, professors and other experts chime in on the cultural history of the weaponry being produced. They even debunk Western misconceptions about ancient cultures, many of which are still perpetuated today by Hollywood.
In other words, it’s a bunch of nerds geeking out over cool weapons, the skill of ancient craftsmen around the world, and the intricate techniques of contemporary blacksmithing.
So while you might expect a show about weaponry to be macho, loud, and intense, it’s actually the opposite—there’s little of the manufactured drama around potential failure that dominates these kinds of shows, it’s not a competition, and the excitement never reaches such a fever pitch that it’s over the top. It’s kind of a feat that it’s almost a relaxing program given the subject material.
The weapons the show covers range from ubiquitous pop culture icons, such as the katana, to the less recognizable to North American audiences, such as the za dagger. The cast of smiths—including a number of women—treats each of these blades with obvious care, from the shaping of raw metal to the final sharpening and adornment. We then get to see martial artists like Da’Mon Stith and Crystal Santos demonstrate the deadly beauty of these weapons on sandbags, ballistic gel, and even flying fruit.
Smithing is an ancient trade, and the show’s craftspeople helpfully explain its history and the innovations of modern technology such as the power hammer. What’s cool is that they’ll sometimes challenge themselves to use as few of these conveniences as possible, by forging, say, a complex throwing weapon out of a single piece of iron. In doing so they challenge a lot of contemporary Eurocentric notions about so-called “primitive” cultures. They remind us, for instance, that iron smelting may have practiced by the Nok culture of what is now Nigeria as early as 1000 BC.
The act of forging is a physical and chemical process, just like baking or building. So if you enjoy cooking shows, science programs, or crafting videos, then give Man at Arms: Art of War a shot. Because where else are you going to see Danny Trejo smile gleefully as he takes a stab at an orange with a replica of an ancient Indian dagger?