"Arnis Has Become
Dean Stockwell's Destiny
(And what, pray tell, is Arnis?)"
by Steve Rubenstein
Fighting Stars, December 1974
The natives are restless in Topanga Canyon. Echoing through the Southern California veldt comes a rhythmic CLACK CLACK CLACK, infectious clatter that sounds like a cross between Rose Mary Woods at her Olivetti and a pair of amorous woodpeckers. It floats up the gorge, down the road to the general store, and sets the nearby dogs to howling. CLACK CLACK CLACK. If you listen long enough says a neighbor, it can drive you crackers. A peek through the dense foliage, beside the empty beer cans, reveals the front yard of actor Dean Stockwell's ramshackle retreat, source of the racket, where one of Southern California's arnis classes is presently in progress.
The woodpeckers, as it turns out, are two 30-inch rattan poles, candy-striped with cloth tape. The class consists of Stockwell's canyon neighbors spread out under the pine tree in front of the faded red house. Sweating up a storm, each tries to master the technique Stockwell calls the "sinawali," an intricate weave of flying barber pole which produces the characteristic tapping sound, except for an occasional soft thud, which means someone has struck a forearm. As Stockwell, a several-months veteran of the art, can tell you – it smarts.
There is some controversy about American arnis. Teachers of the ancient art are plying their trade in Stockton and Oakland as well as Carson, California. Usually they refer to it as either kali, escrima or Philippine stick fighting. The first two terms are more commonly used. Most instructors and practitioners are deeply involved in other martial arts such as karate, kung-fu and jeet kune do. Stockwell, on the other hand, is a very athletic young man, but he has not previously been involved in any of the martial arts. During his recent picture assignment in the Philippines he learned arnis, samurai swordsmanship and western style saber fencing for his role.
At 36 [*38*], Stockwell is no longer the child film star of wartime Hollywood – the six-year old crooner in Anchors Aweigh and the pampered darling of a host of other children's roles. Unlike most child actors Stockwell survived into adolescence and won the plaudits of the industry for his moving portrayal of the teen-aged Eugene O'Neill in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Stockwell was awarded the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Fetival for the role. Of late, he's starred in several television movies and played the guest heavy on more serial episodes than he'd care to remember. Seeing him bounce from student to student in his rainbow-adorned cowboy hat, with long hair bobbing behind, taking occasional long swallows of beer; it's apparent that the young adult Stockwell has lost none of his rebellious youthful exuberance.
From Stockwell's viewpoint arnis is, "an aid to coordination, a good way to develop the left side of your body – well, just call it the best exercise in the world."
Destiny first introduced arnis to Stockwell in March 1974, while the actor was in Manila starring in the Philippine-produced film The Pacific Connection, a saber-filled slice-'em-up in which Stockwell says he played a Spanish nobleman "son-of-a-bitch-dirty-rat." As number-one heavy, Stockwell pitted his saber and samurai technique against the native, stick-slinging Filipinos. Hopelessly. In the beginning of the film, he managed to more than hold his own; but toward the end, when the time came for the good guys to make their move, Stockwell invariably wound up on the short end of the stick.
"I didn't get to do any arnis in the film," Stockwell laments. "All the Filipino good guys were using arnis and all us Spanish finks were using sabers or trying to blow up the poor natives with a cannon." Stockwell, smiling as he reaches for another beer, says he fell right into the part.
"No, it wasn't very challenging," says Stockwell of his role in the film. For one thing, heavies are the only thing Stockwell seems to get cast as these days. Desperate, psychotic heavies. Mad bombers. The brand of hitchhiker that is always pulling knives on his benefactors on THE FBI. "People regard me as very intense," he says, as if it were a plague. "Once casting people, production people, formulate an idea about an actor, they're very hesitant to cast him in something they haven't seen him in. They just stick him in there."
Arnis and the Twist
"The part that was challenging about Pacific Connection was learning swordfighting for the first time," he adds. "And having to do a stage duel on my second day of shooting from eight in the morning until six in the evening in 110 degree tropical sun. All day long I was dressed up in high colonial boots, a lace shirt up to my neck, black plastic gloves, and a hat with ostrich feathers in it. That was the hard part about the role."
It was on location in a Philippine beach town that Stockwell got his first glimpse of the art of arnis. Remy Presas, technical advisor on the film, put on a dazzling display while tutoring Filipino extras in the use of arnis to beat up on the hapless American actor. The demonstrations made an immediate, if unusual, impression on Stockwell.
"The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I went down to the Peppermint Lounge and saw the twist. I was stunned. I flipped out. It blew my mind."
At the time, Stockwell had little chance to practice arnis himself. First he had to master the samurai and saber fighting techniques required for his role in order to get clobbered convincingly. But he was hooked on stick fighting, and every evening after shooting he would meet Presas for arnis lessons. The frantic, fast-paced sessions in Stockwell's hotel room would frequently last into the early morning, leaving both fighters exhausted. Juggling three martial arts at once almost proved to be too much for the ambitious, athletic actor. "It was hard because I was so worn-out from learning the damn fencing," he says. "My hands got calloused and my legs hurt."
But Stockwell caught on fast. So fast that within seven weeks, Dean Stockwell was sporting a second degree black belt in Remy Presas' fledgling Modern Arnis Association. Stockwell is among those most amazed at the speed of his blitz. "It's not SUPPOSED to happen," he admits. "I was amazed. I never learned anything so quickly."
In Stockwell, Presas found an energetic spokesman to spread his art in America, and he figures to be around for quite a while. On the back of his membership card, Stockwell signed his name to the pledge: "I will not discontinue the study of modern arnis without sufficient reason." A sufficient reason would be a broken arm, but the Association wants to feel the student's going to go back to it and stay with it.
Stockwell stuck. Armed with a copy of Presas' instruction manual and a carton of genuine rattan sticks ("You can't get them in America"), Stockwell returned to the U.S.
To continue his study of arnis Stockwell had to find someone to practice with. In his neighborhood none was available. He converted to the role of teacher. Like any other teacher, Stockwell soon found his toughest task was hunting up students. Acting was shoved to the back burner. – he didn't have time. "I know I'll be involved in arnis the rest of my life – teaching it, executing it, spreading it. It's become my destiny. If my acting career becomes preempted," he shrugs, "I won't know about it if it does."
Arnis is Second Best Only to Bullets
For his initial student body, Stockwell chose his Topanga Canyon friends, who switched to arnis from touch football and frisbee. As they readily admit, when their actor friend in the cowboy hat gets enthusiastic about something, it's hard to turn him down. You might say they've been Stockwelled. "The thing I like about arnis," says student Don Sommese, echoing the boss, "is that it's really helping the left side of my body." Richard Webster, another student, puts down his stick to explain why he's studying arnis. "It's increased my strength and balance," he says, "and it's also developed the left side of my body." Other students echo the same sentiments.
"I don't have to give a sales pitch about arnis," Stockwell says. "When I'm enthusiastic about something, I guess it takes the form of a sales pitch. But you just KNOW arnis is the best thing in the world for you." Meanwhile, Stockwell's dog trots out to inspect the proceedings. He eyes the box of sticks hungrily. After several minutes of fruitless tailwagging, he seems to understand that these are people sticks, not the throwing kind.
After the lesson, class adjourns to the Stockwell living room, broad and bric-a-bracked with punching bag, Mexican sombreros, and a genuine antique Statue of Liberty clock. Sticks are stowed in their box. Actor Kiel Martin, whose theory of arnis is, "It's great, but it won't stop a bullet, dad," emerges from the kitchen where a giant "APPLAUSE'" sign hangs over the sink – and breaks out a beer. He salutes and opines that arnis is the stuff of which great thirsts are made.
"There's something very basic about the sticks," says Stockwell, recalling his early attraction. "Very basic. I can see people from all walks of life – not necessarily those into other martial arts – getting very interested in arnis. The American public doesn't have to participate in it to the degree that they get a black belt. But they can try it and see. I think a pretty good percent of the people that will take the first couple of steps into it will find it so satisfying that they will stick with it. Not everyone. But certainly all the people already into martial arts will love it. It's so different, you know. It's great timing. Great for the left side of your body. It's almost like a saturation. Without something like this, they'd say, "Well, what are we going to do next?"
Figuring out what to do next seems to be a steady preoccupation with Stockwell. As a kid, he didn't get the chance to think about it much. Bouncing from role to role, young Dean did as he was told by his directors who, he claims, would treat him like a child and moments later demand an adult's amount of work from him.
Stockwell didn't particularly enjoy his early roles either. "I did it because I knew I could do it. I had the ability to act. At age six or seven, you don't know WHY you're doing something. It's just happening all around you," he says. "But I didn't really think or act like a child. I was a child in years, but I had a very advanced grasp of things, and a gift of talent. When you're working on an equal basis with adults you have to deal with them, and you can't deal with them and still be a child. That's why I resented being told I was just another kid."
Awakening to a Filipino Identity
Such pressures caused young Dean Stockwell, at age 16, to give up acting and to try to catch up on all the things he felt he was missing. "I didn't have many friends. They all thought I was a spoiled brat. I didn't get around to seeing any football games. I knew this was b.s.," he says. "By the time I was 16, I was ready to go!"
For the next five years, Stockwell traveled alone around the country, changing his name and, in a daily parade of new towns and sights, trying to focus some perspective on his childhood heritage.
By the time he was 21, Stockwell was ready to make his return to acting. Unlike many child actors whose talent seems to vanish with a change in voice, Dean Stockwell just got better and better. His introspective, moving performance in Long Day's Journey Into Night with Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards, Jr. put him at the head of his profession. Other film credits include Compulsion with Orson Welles, Psych Out, The Last Movie and more heavies. Stockwell's professional regret is his failure, thus far, to land any major comedy roles. He feels he could really clean up. "I could really do comedy," he says. "I don't know if it's more natural for me, but it's certainly more enjoyable. And I think it's more difficult. But it's more fun, too."
His role in Pacific Connection came up unexpectedly in February, and within five days of being offered the part, he was on the plane to Manila. He accepted the part as if by default – it didn't particularly excite him, but he wasn't doing anything else at the time, and he'd never been in an ACTION movie before. Another inducement was the free trip to the Orient, one of the few places Stockwell had never previously visited. "I like to do things I've never done before," he says. Then his eyes dart to the box of arnis sticks at his feet, and he smiles and adds, "Of course, I had no idea that the REAL reason and purpose of my visit was to learn this art."
Along with his arnis lessons from Presas came massive doses of Philippine history. Stockwell learned how arnis was the Filipinos' main defense against the centuries of Spanish oppression. Called KALI by the ancient Filipinos, arnis was practiced mainly for self-defense, and was developed from the similar style of neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. In 1764 Spanish authorities wised up and banned arnis throughout the islands – anyone caught slinging a stick was summarily hauled off to prison. But that didn't stop arnis from eventually becoming, in he words of Remy Presas, "an institution in the world of martial arts and a national wakening to our true Filipino identity."
Rattan Cane, An Extension of the Hand
Presas' contribution to the art has been to combine the various older styles into one modern, easily-teachable system. And to add stripes to the sticks. Still, when up against a particularly skillful and vicious opponent, even Presas would trade in the rattan for a bolo or a sword. "The cane or any bladed weapon is merely an extension of the hand," he has written. "Even without the weapon, the hand remains an effective defense or combat weapon in arnis play. The cane is only for practical purposes since it is basically less lethal in nature. In actual combat – a life-or-death struggle – the standard weapon is still the bolo or any bladed weapon."
"Remember Presas is referring to mortal combat," Stockwell explains, "Literal mortal combat. Naturally, if someone were out to kill you and you knew arnis, you'd be better off with an iron bar or a bolo. But a stick is deadly if you learn how to wield it. And you can't learn arnis with swords, you know. If you miss, you kill each other."
Logical. For now Stockwell sticks to sticks and does his more than twice daily workouts. What makes Stockwell so sure that arnis isn't just a passing fad for him, or for the whole martial arts movement in America, someone asks. "A hunch," the actor replies, with a grim and a piercing gaze. "A very strong hunch."
Indeed the star seems determined to involve himself in arnis for the rest of his life. He expects to set Hollywood and the martial arts world on its collective ear with a campaign to make arnis a major martial art practiced diligently enough in Southern California to inspire the rest of the martial arts world. To that end he is arranging to bring Remy Presas to this country. His purpose is two-fold. First he will be able to continue receiving instruction in arnis. Second Presas will be able to initiate courses of study in the art for other dedicated students. Demonstrations on television talk shows and at prominent tournaments should get his ambitious scheme off to a flying start. Stockwell envisions various police academies starting courses of intensive training. He thinks it would civilize their billy club technique. "I would restrict it to self-defense techniques," he adds. "I'd teach them how to use their batons without killing anybody."
Conceding that arnis has wrecked his tennis stroke, Stockwell grins and says, "It's a lot like the twist. Actually, I had a harder time learning the twist than I did arnis. Bu they're much the same, in that they both have very unique motions. And another thing – they're very good for the left side of the body."
"Time for work," Stockwell says, picking up a stick. And as the sun sinks, the night's incoming fog bank rolls inland from the Pacific; retreating visitors ride off to the gently fading echoes of CLICK – CLACK, CLACK – CLICK, CLICK – CLACK, CLACK, CLACK – THUMP. You wince in empathy, yet you know all's right with the world.