The Princess Bride (fight 2 of 2)

2) Inigo Montoya vs Tyrone Rugen

(no seriously his name is Tyrone)

The Fighters:

  • Inigo Montoya, the plucky Spaniard we met earlier. Still played by Mandy Patinkin.
  • Count Tyrone Rugen, aka The Six-Fingered Man. He murdered Inigo’s father many years ago and currently is the right-hand (ahem) man of Prince Humperdinck, the hilariously-named overall villain of the movie. Played by Christopher Guest.
  • Four or five guards. They were just doing their job but oh well. Played by who cares.

The Setup: Inigo, along with Fezzik and the mostly-paralyzed Westley, are in the process of stormin’ the castle (which is fun), when Inigo finds the target of his lifelong quest for revenge: Count Rugen, the prince’s sadistic lieutenant, enforcer and head torturer.

Inigo is a great secondary hero– much comedy is had at his expense, yet he is still believably dangerous, even after notably losing the film’s early duel— and Rugen is an equally great villain. As the Dragon to Humperdinck’s main bad guy, Rugen is an interest contrast to his boss. Whereas the prince is a loud, preening fop, Rugen is all understated menace and intelligent sadism. He’s a coiled snake, clearly deadly without having to make a fuss. This is a remarkable performance from Guest, who has made his bones as a comic actor; at this point he had already starred in and co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap with Reiner, and would go on to establish his own brand (and extended cast of players) of improvisational mockumentaries such as Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. Often, comedians can make startlingly effective movie villains & creeps: it seems counterintuitive, but under the right circumstances, their fearless energy and shameless desire for attention can be channeled in some really dark ways.

The Fight: On spying the trio, Rugen immediately sends his guards to dispatch them, and Inigo makes quick work of them. Though he’s effectively surrounded and fighting alone (Fezzik is busy holding a ragdoll Westley upright), he takes them all down in what looks like one single, smooth motion. Graceful, yet deadly. This isn’t the Inigo whose job forced him into what was essentially an exhibition fight against a guy he liked, this is the Inigo out for blood. He is not kidding around. In fact, immediately after slicing down all the guards, he basically says as much, in the form of:

Patinkin nails it. The line is fantastic in concept and execution. All set up with simplistic brilliance: earlier in the film, Inigo told Westley he would say this line when he found the Six-Fingered Man, who he would soon find out is in the castle. So we know he’s going to say it, the movie knows that we know, and we know we’re supposed to know. For how clearly & deliberately it’s all been spelled out, it almost shouldn’t work, but it does.

Rugen pauses, contemplates… and runs the crap away. A sensible, if cowardly option. And a funny defusing of the epic moment we’ve just witnessed, very much in keeping with the film’s winking tone.

Inigo pursues, but Rugen quickly gets behind a door, leaving Inigo to frantically and fruitlessly bash his shoulder against it. His desperation to catch his prey leads to several humorously high-pitched calls for Fezzik’s assistance, but Fezzik is slow in getting there as he has to find a place to safely leave Westley first. Ultimately, he props the Man In Black against a suit of armor. This bit of comic business also serves the dual purpose of separating both secondary heroes from Westley, so he can stumble off quietly to his true love; once Fezzik gets back he will find Westley gone, setting up his surprise entrance in Buttercup’s bedroom.

Inigo chases Rugen some more, but unfortunately the villain has taken the opportunity to remove a dagger from his boot, which he hurls into the Spaniard’s gut with deadly accuracy. Inigo slumps against the wall, apparently defeated and dying. All his preparation in the art of fencing has not kept him from being outsmarted by a simple, dishonorable trick. Rather than revel in his victory, Rugen merely observes quietly. His highly academic brand of sociopathy finds Inigo’s sudden failure after years of dedication to be genuinely intriguing. It’s unusual and quite creepy.

Fortunately, Inigo is not down for the count (ahem), though some cross-cutting to the various other elements of climax in the film leave you in suspense for a few minutes. Inigo surges back to life a bit at a time, despite suffering more minor wounds, and continues to declare his famous oath as he battles Rugen with increasing strength. The declaration gets louder with every repetition, until he’s finally shouting.

For the only real time in the whole film, Rugen is utterly unnerved. He can’t understand why he’s unable to stop this bleeding bull– the master tormenter has finally found someone he cannot break. Inigo wins this fight by sheer force of will, beating Rugen not through pure skill but because he simply wants it more. Notably, the music here positively soars, chiming in with old-fashioned flourish when Inigo finally beats back Rugen toward the end of the scene.

The humiliation of the cornered rat is brief but satisfying: receiving the same facial slashes Rugen himself dealt to Inigo twenty years ago, the villain is forced to grovel just before Inigo runs him through, reminding him one final time what he took from the Spaniard.

Again, this all just works. It stands in contrast to the other major sword fight in the film, being less about flashy showmanship and more about single-minded fury. Having Inigo effortlessly take out a handful of chumps beforehand gets the viewer’s mouth watering, and it also reminds us that even though Inigo Montoya is the funny-talking guy who has lost the only fight we’ve seen him in, he’s still one of the world’s deadliest swordsmen.

But in keeping with the winking meta-nature of the whole movie, our expectation for a grand clash between hero & villain is subverted: Inigo’s initial wound keeps the choreography from getting as complex as what we saw earlier, and he presses on to the end mostly through ornery determination. Elsewhere in the climax, the main hero Westley is still barely alive, so he has to bluff the able-bodied Humperdinck into surrendering while he himself can barely stand; just as Inigo wins through his vengeance-driven willpower, Westley wins through his superior brain.

It is not as purely entertaining as the earlier fight, though holding it entirely up to that standard would be using a mean curve indeed. I go back & forth on whether or not cutting away from this action at a crucial juncture is necessary or aggravating or both, and the extended bit where Inigo keeps trying to bash the door down can be tedious. But again, very slight knocks.

Grade: A

Coming Soon: Perhaps not as soon as I’d like. Going on vacation a bit this weekend and straight back into work for a while after that, not sure if I’ll be able to get in the required studying & writing time before then. When I do, we’ll give swordplay in general (and Bob Anderson in particular) a break, switching things up a bit.

Pictured: switching things up a bit

Advertisements

The Princess Bride (fight 1 of 2)

BUON GIORNO, PRINCIPESSA!

"So this is a movie about horses, or...?"

(spoilers)

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.

Sorry, buddy.

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

The Fighters:

  • 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.

Pictured: no left-handed people, anywhere

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.

Grade: A+

Recommended links:

  • 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.

The one in the middle.