Because the costume drama will not quite go away, the sword fight won't either. Or maybe it's the other way around: Because the sword fight will not go away, the costume drama won't either, even if the costumes are those of Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, or Hector and Achilles.
But movies have loved sword fights from the beginning, and the current hack-a-thon between Ach and Hec in "Troy" is simply the latest in a glorious entertainment tradition that began in the 19th-century melodramas of the London stage, when actors affixed flints to their blades (the first special effects!) so that when swords clanged, sparks flew.
Of course, the first actor to understand the affinity between blade and camera lens was Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the original swashbuckler. A great athlete, Fairbanks took a gamble -- at that point he was a popular, light-comic actor -- in 1920 with "The Mark of Zorro," and thrust and parried his way to box-office gold and a reputation as a fencer par excellence. Very quickly he consolidated that reputation in other films, and although it's true that he had been fencing since he was 12, he had more importantly affiliated himself with a great sword master, Fred Cavens.
Cavens is really the auteur of the classic Hollywood sword fight. A graduate of the Belgian Military Institute, he had a career as a fight director for the stage, and he moved naturally to the screen. "All movements," he said in expressing his aesthetic, "instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing, must be large, but nevertheless correct. . . . The routine should contain the most spectacular attacks and parries it is possible to execute while remaining logical to the situation."
Cavens dominated the sword culture of Hollywood in the '20s and '30s, working with Fairbanks Sr. and Jr., Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Tyrone Power and later, in the '40s, with college saber champion Cornel Wilde.
Rathbone is generally conceded to be the best movie fencer in an athletic sense, and his Cavens-coached duels with Flynn (in "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood") and Power (in the 1940 remake of "The Mark of Zorro") are considered among the best on film. Cavens said of Rathbone, "I doubt that he would do well in competition, but for picture purposes, he is the best fencer in the world."
Movie sword fights enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early '50s, when in "Scaramouche" Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer tried to kebab each other in a memorable five-minute climactic duel in a Paris theater; but what really re-animated them was a new style. This was the invention of another great sword master, William Hobbs, who, starting with Ridley Scott's "The Duellists" in 1977, brought a raw, physical quality to sword work in contrast to the sweatless elegance of the Fred Cavens school. (Cavens's ethos was taken up by William Anderson, a classicist whose work is the antithesis of Hobbs's.)
Particularly in the three Richard Lester films drawn from "The Three Musketeers" did Hobbs create sword fighting that was more about fighting than swords, and seemed to take place in a grittier, uglier, more lethal world than the elegant minuet-like stylings of classically trained fencers.
In "Troy," the work has been subtly Orientalized, reflecting the arrival of Asian fighting styles from Akira Kurosawa's samurai films, and from the hundreds of lesser but more spectacular sword-fighting melodramas of the Tokyo pulp tradition. The sword master for Brad Pitt, who plays Achilles, is Steven Ho, a martial artist and stunt man who has coached him on samurai traditions in swordsmanship. It makes no sense whatsoever in Troy, 1,200 years before Jesus, but it sure looks good!
Much information herein has been drawn from "By the Sword," by Richard Cohen, published by Random House in 2002.