They do, but it looks different from movie parrying. You’re right in that it would, did, and does damage the swords a great deal which is why it’s not the preferred method in real sword fights. The technique you’re describing has been termed as Flynning (after actor Errol Flynn) and the Tropes page has a pretty good description of it versus some discussion of real fencing. It’s important to remember that the point of a movie is primarily to entertain. While it has no connection to actual swordfighting, Flynning is a great deal of fun to watch and much more visually interesting than traditional swordplay.
One of the most accurate gun fights in film is in Michael Mann’s Heat with the bank robbery. The sequence was universally panned by audiences as not being “exciting” enough.
Finding a comfortable middle between entertainment and reality is something each writer will struggle with. However, luckily for you, you’re not working with a visual medium.
Lots of fencers, especially HEMA fencers, will tell you that movie sword fights are stupid. In the real world, when two knights ended up in a movie style blade lock they wouldn’t monologue. One would just punch the other. It’s one of many reasons why you wear gauntlets.
One of the great flaws in how a lot of writers structure their fight scenes, particularly with weapons, is that they get very focused on the weapon itself and forget about the other body parts involved.
Two warriors ending up in a blade lock seems like the perfect time in the movieverse for a monologue. They’re nose to nose, too close to actually stab each other. If you disengage at that distance, one or the other has to back up to use their swords again. If you’re thinking only about the sword and not say disengaging into a head bash or a punch because this is a sword duel and sword duels only ever involve swords, then it’s not going to occur to you.
In the real world, combat doesn’t wait five minutes for punchy dialogue. Someone talking means they’re either A) trying to distract in order to create an opening or B) are distracted themselves which means there is an opening.
You do, however, parry a great deal and not just in sword fighting but also in hand to hand. The parry is a key part of defense and creating openings by which you attack. In combat flow a basic attack is countered by the parry which allows the defender to remain on the defense or take up the offense with a counterattack. So, think about parrying not as clashing and banging but deflection.
It’s easiest to think of this kind of defense and offense as applications of pressure. Physics are ultimately key in understanding a lot of the defensive concepts that are the core across multiple disciplines. While everyone does it differently, the concepts remain the same.
Blocks and parries are two separate move sets.
The block takes the hit.
The parry is a defensive move that creates openings in the enemy’s guard when your opponent attacks.
So, what happens when you lean into someone else? You lay your weight on top of them/against them? Or when two people pull on a rope? If two people lean into each other, they can stay upright even though they’re off balance. This is what the blade lock is, the basic theory that Hollywood is using and it requires two people to be interested in applying the same pressure against each other. But what happens when one person just lets go? The other person loses balance, they fall over, and possibly go all the way to the ground. It’s rarely this dramatic, but that’s the concept. You take the path of least resistance,
Your parry is your give. This is where the attacker who fights without control gets into trouble. If you’ve totally committed to your strike or over-committed then you find the expected resistance no longer there and you come forward into the enemy’s counter.
What you’ll notice in sword combat is that the blade catches but then it rotates, turning the other blade aside. After that, the counterattack comes.
Real fencing is also fast. Most of the time, it’s over in only a few moves. For a real head trip, go look up Olympic Fencing on YouTube. Assume every time the buzzer sounds is a kill.
You’ll notice when you watch fencing videos, like those below, that the movements tend to be fairly tight compared to movies where the swords are swung in wide arcs. Part of the reason why movies and plays do this is so the sword can be seen by the audience, but it’s worth remembering that the bigger the motion then the more tiring it is. Also, the greater the opening it creates in the defense and the more distance the blade/fists/legs have to go in order to connect. The same technical reasons which make big slow motions so great for audience viewing are the same ones which will screw you over in a real fight.
There is a strategy which comes in at the higher levels with blocks, parries, counters, and feints. The upper levels involve bringing multiple concepts together to seamlessly move from one state (defensive) to another (offensive), and often involve tricking opponents through body language and false attacks (feints) into making choices bad for their health.
TLDR: parries are part and parcel to the foundations of martial arts across the board, not just fencing.
Some Fencing Videos:
More Swords from IndenSchwertkamf
A Glossary of Fencing Terms from Wikipedia
Fencing Strategy and Tactics: Counter-Time from SelbergFencing, a discussion of parries as an offensive action from Master Charles Selberg. (I’d check out his whole channel and watch his discussions about fencing strategy, techniques, and their purpose.)
As always check out Matt Easton’s channel Scholagladitoria for in depth discussions on HEMA, Fencing, Medieval Weaponry, and Hollywood mistakes.
And Skallagrim for the same.
We also have a swords tag for more references, resources, and our thoughts on different issues.