by Gabriel Valdez
What makes the fight scene from The Princess Bride work so well? The most important bit is that we’re not supposed to take it seriously. Early in the film, Inigo Montoya faces off against…we’ll just call him the Dread Pirate Roberts for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s not a battle of swords so much as it’s a battle of dialogue and movie cliches.
Fight scenes build tension by continuing to escalate. This is why the hero almost always loses the first half of the fight – to escalate the drama and remind us that the stakes aren’t victory and loss, but life and death. It’s why fist fights break into sword fights that end in gun fights, or why kickboxing matches result in entire bars being destroyed, or why a hero faces off against increasingly skilled opponents rather than fighting the toughest one first. Fight scenes tell their stories through escalation.
The Princess Bride is a comedy. How do you escalate the dramatic tension in a comedic fight scene? Death, blood, and destruction is tense, not funny, but if you don’t have increasing stakes, your scene lies flat.
As in any fight scene, you have to communicate to the audience the level of talent each fighter has at the beginning. The Spanish fighter Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) delivers an opening salvo. Then the masked pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) delivers the same return salvo. Because it’s a comedy, they even switch staging and framing between the two salvos. They’re testing each other out, but visually, this tells us they’re at a fairly equal level.
The choreography at the beginning isn’t complicated. It’s deliberately made to feel rote and effortless. The combat isn’t in the swords at this point – the two men are still fighting each other with dialogue, each letting the other know just how knowledgeable a fencer he is.
What’s exceptionally clever here is that they quote historical fencing masters and their techniques. In a movie about a fantasy world, they’re trumpeting their real-world knowledge. As for how much they emulate those techniques as they quote them, I can’t say – I’m not a fencer.
The scene continues to escalate – it’s soon revealed that Inigo, fighting left-handed this entire time, isn’t really left-handed. He switches hands and bests Roberts for a moment. Then Roberts counters not with a move, but with a realization of his own – he’s not left-handed either.
Inigo loses his sword. He loses his balance when leaping off the staircase for it. Roberts throws his own sword down and performs a backflip to get it.
Roberts is winning, but his victory hasn’t had anything to do with swordplay for the last minute. He’s winning according to movie cliché and gymnastics. By the time the fight really begins in earnest and the moves start to matter, more than two minutes into the scene, we’re already aware who’s going to win. Writer William Goldman’s dialogue tells us:
Inigo: Who are you?
Roberts: No one of consequence.
Inigo: I must know.
Roberts: Get used to disappointment.
The stunts tell us: even as Inigo clambers onto a rock, the scene’s lone wire-assisted stunt – Roberts leaping atop it – communicates who the superior combatant is. Blink and you’ll miss it – it’s a rock any of us could easily jump atop, but – like the gymnast’s move – the wire assist suggests to us that Roberts is just that much more talented.
By the time the fight climaxes, we already know who wins. In this way, the fight removes the biggest consequence at the point most fights would be pressing it as hard as they could. This lets the fight pull off sight gags and be goofy without ever feeling cheap. Anything at this point is extra: between-the-legs swordfighting, throwing a sword up and catching it seconds later, referencing an earlier moment with a sequence where both fighters quickly switch hands. The Princess Bride is trolling other fight scenes by this point.
The best of Bill Tomlinson’s choreography only starts once the fight’s already been decided. The excitement originates from escalation, like in any fight, but then The Princess Bride breaks that escalation. The audience’s enjoyment – like much of the film – comes from how fun it is to be in on the joke.
To communicate this through choreography is exceptionally difficult. There’s no Jackie Chan level stunt here and while the choreography is a bit underrated (especially in its ambidextrous elements), it’s hardly exceptional from a technical standpoint. But there are few fights that are this successful in timing their comedy elements inside a film and breaking the audience’s expectations outside of it. From writing and directing through to choreography and performance, it’s a great fight scene because it understands the rules well enough to continuously subvert them. And never forget the editor (in this case Robert Leighton), the unsung hero of nearly every fight scene and comedy. The timing is as much Leighton’s success here as it is Elwes’s and Patinkin’s.
And if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, for god’s sake, go watch it.