BUON GIORNO, PRINCIPESSA!
What needs to be said? It’s The Princess Bride. You either love it, or you don’t love it, or you somehow haven’t seen it. In those last two options, you’re deeply weird (… said the grown man who spends several hours a week ranting about fight scenes on the Internet), but whatever. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by screenwriting legend William Goldman, adapted from Goldman’s own book (which you owe it to yourself to read if you like this film).
Speaking of Hollywood legends, the fight choreography here was done by Bob Anderson, the veteran sword master and stunt man who had a hand in pretty much every Hollywood sword fight you ever loved, including not just our previous subject Highlander, but the original Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings, The Mask of Zorro and dozens of others. He also played Darth Vader during most of the original trilogy’s Jedi battles, and swung that red lightsaber far more than the famously vain David Prowse ever did. The sheer variety of movie sword fights he’s been responsible for speak to the amazing depths of the man’s skill, and the movie business is all the lesser since his passing last year. RIP Bob.
There are, basically, two fight scenes in this excellent, and very “meta,” fairy tale. You might object, “But wait! What about Westley vs Fezzik? That’s a fight!” Well… not really. Yes, it technically is, in the sense that it’s two parties who face off and exchange violence until one party is subdued. But not really, and certainly not enough to be graded. How does it play out? They walk slowly at each other, Westley (rather foolishly) tries a few running tackles that are ineffective which Fezzik doesn’t respond to, Fezzik throws a couple punches that miss, Westley jumps on his back and chokes him out, Fezzik rams Westley into two or three boulders as he loses oxygen, then he passes out; they talk convivially the whole time. It is a highly entertaining and memorable scene, but not for the fighting. The “fighting” part is inconsequential.
You might also object, “Hey, what about the scene where Westley outsmarts Vizzini? That’s a fight, if you really think about it. A mental fight!” In which case you are being an insufferable smartass, knock it off.
1) Westley vs. Inigo Montoya
- Farmboy turned super pirate Westley, who has spent the last two years under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts but is presently described only as The Man In Black, both disguises effective only if you forgot what the love interest you last saw 12 minutes ago looked like and/or you have the visual recognition skills of Lois Lane. Played by Cary Elwes.
- Inigo Montoya, a likable Spanish mercenary who has studied fencing for decades as part of a long-term revenge quest to avenge his father. Played by Mandy Patinkin.
The Setup: Really, The Princess Bride? You need me to tell you? Okay, fine: Inigo is one of a trio mercenaries who have kidnapped Florin’s princess, being pursued by the mysterious Man In Black. Inigo is left behind by his partners to kill/stall MIB after he scales up the cliff to his target.
This is arguably where the movie starts to become genuinely lovable and unique (the story-within-a-story premise has already been used notably, but this is where the movie really starts to play), because it’s here that, before their inevitable fight, Inigo actually helps Westley (a stranger and adversary) first by pulling him the mountain and then by giving him time to rest. As Westley recovers, the two chat amiably & respectfully, managing to work in some exposition in about Inigo’s backstory. We even get a close-up of Inigo’s sword– he actually trusts the Man In Black enough at this point to let him hold it– which strikes a nice balance of looking gorgeous & fancy while still seeming deadly. This is an element Peter Jackson bungled horribly, as his version of Aragorn’s reforged blade Anduril looked painfully mediocre.
But friends or no, each has a mission to complete, so fight they must.
The Fight: You know how this plays out. They jab at each other a few times, experimentally. The pacing picks up a bit, and their pleasant dialogue throughout is just so much Boys Being Boys, each subtly bragging about all the techniques he knows and how to overcome them. There is a genuine sense that the characters (not just the actors, but they look like they’re having fun too) are enjoying this– not the violence but the craftsmanship of the fencing. This challenge is a rare pleasure for each of them, and the scene is a joyful celebration of skill & discipline.
In fact if you watch closely, there is no shortage of opportunities for each of them to kill each other, such as when one does a very show-offy flip over the other and utterly exposes himself to a healthy stabbin’, or the several occasions when one or the other is disarmed. But they don’t take those opportunities, and why would they? They’re having the time of their lives, and they clearly like each other; this isn’t Highlander, where the fights are life & death so you take whatever chance you get. Plus, the flips & tricks are, to them, as much a part of the fight as the actual swordplay; it would almost be a crime to disrupt them, especially with something as unsavory as a kill.
The pace escalates and the dialogue dies down. We get the reveal (well, if you paid attention it was established during an earlier scene) that Inigo, who has been fighting with his left, is not left-handed, and has been deliberately fighting with a handicap to make things more interesting. This is very, very cool. But not nearly as cool as what comes next, the thing everyone remembers: once Westley is pushed back by the un-handicapped Inigo, he reveals that he’s not left-handed either. Oh snap, etc.
Speaking of which, a word about the dialogue: it is steady, it flows believably from each of the characters, it’s clever & snappy while not being overly precious, it’s delivered capably by the actors. It is, in short, perfect. Perfect bordering on miraculous. You may have noticed that I’m not reproducing it and certainly not peppering it throughout this entry, and that’s because if you want to hear Princess Bride quotes you can go literally anywhere. I love TPB and can still watch it today (I just did a few days ago) but the only film that gets quoted more often is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Anyway, Westley now regains control of the fight and he never loses it again, though Inigo puts up a worthy struggle. The intensity ratchets up, and there are several times where Westley’s swordplay outright mocks Inigo. This somewhat undercuts the “highest respect” he will later say he holds Inigo in, but the arrogant behavior doesn’t completely contradict it: his actions in the latter half of the fight are his way of declaring himself the Alpha Dog, a necessary reminder even when you like the lesser dogs. Also, the frustration he deals out to Inigo can only disorient and tire him down further, which Westley definitely wants.
The Man In Black wins, disarming Inigo and sending him to his knees. Inigo expects death but Westley won’t think of it. It’s sometimes dissatisfying to see a determined sword fight with no kill at the end, but here such bloodshed would only sour what’s preceded, since these two are so darn lovable. Westley knocking Inigo out, and his dialogue immediately before and after, could not possibly be more satisfying.
This is quite reasonably considered one of the greatest movie fight scenes of all time, which, strangely, makes it more difficult to write about, not less. What can you say that hasn’t already been said? The action ramps up believably and occurs in distinct stages. It has a unique setup and an excellent conclusion, which is difficult to pull off when you pit two good guys against each other. The dialogue pops, the swords tink and clang, the actors deliver– it all works. What stuck out to me most on this recent re-watch, though, was how incredibly fake the fight, and really, the whole movie is. The fencing is clearly rehearsed, the cliffside location is obviously a set, the “sky” in the background is a painted wall. Heck, once or twice when someone jumps from a great height you can see the safety mat they land on shake underneath the dirt.
This is not bad, it’s good. The Princess Bride is a fairy tale that is itself within a movie, which is in turn based on a deceptive book, the genesis of which was William Goldman improvising bedtime stories to his own daughters. Arguably, everything we’re seeing on screen is stuff pulled from the mind of a sick, grumpy pre-adolescent boy as the story gets read to him. Of course it’s artificial, that’s part of the charm, like the way sugar makes candy taste. Some of this arguably goes a bit too far, namely in the sound department: some of the musical cues and sound effects are too tinny and on-the-nose, even considering the film’s chosen aesthetic. It’s generally tolerable but at times the sound effects approach the level of bad children’s cartoons or “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” It is, however, a very small gripe in a very wonderful fight scene.
- Good AV Club mini-review of the film overall and the fight scene in particular. Hits some of the same points I did but I swear I didn’t read it right beforehand.
- The fight redone with lightsabers.
Coming soon: We go all the way to the climax for the second “true” fight scene of the film. And no, it’s not against an ROUS, but rather a veteran comic actor who, despite his famous improvisation skills and ample warning, failed to prepare to die.