Fencing Language in “The Princess Bride”

If you’re anything like me, you found the movie The Princess Bride (1987) by Rob Reiner, to be a very entertaining film.  In all honesty, this was the film that poured gasoline on my desire to wield a sword, and quote the lines (with accent), “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”  For others it may have been Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks; but for me, it was the sword fight on “The Cliffs of Insanity” that sparked my early fascination with fencing.

In this particular scene, while dueling (then, a life-or-death affair), while at the same time showing overwhelming sportsmanship, Inigo Montoya and the Man-In-Black (Westley) casually (and most humorously) discuss complex fencing tactics.  It was this friendly exchange of historical references that I found completely intriguing.  For years, I would quote the lines, but it wasn’t until my first years of fencing (and quite a bit of research & inquiring) that I understood what they were talking about.

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Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo: Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capa Ferro?
Man in Black: Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capa Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have.

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The quotation begins with Inigo, pushing Wesley (The Man in Black) back in retreat with his consistent attacks.  “Bonetti’s Defense” refers to the Italian swordmaster Rocco Bonetti, who established a “School of Arms” in London in 1576.  An unusual reference, as Bonetti was much hated by English fencing masters of the time (i.e. critically bashed by George Silver in his Paradoxes of Defence [1599]) and was killed in a duel against a man named Austen Bagger (who, during the duel, was “quite drunk” and “easily defeated” Bonetti*).

[*Source: The Encyclopedia of the Sword. Evangelista, Nick.]

Inigo’s second question to Wesley is, “…You must suspect me to attack with Capa Ferro?”  This, is a misspelling first off.  Both the International Movie Database (IMDB.Com) and the movie’s subtitles say “Capa Ferro”, when instead, it’s actually “Capo Ferro.”  In this instance, “Capa (Capo) Ferro” is a term given to the powerful attack known as “The Lunge,” obviously after Italian swordmaster, Ridolfo Capo Ferro, who taught a linear style of fencing.  (a good analysis of Capo Ferro can be located here: click)

Wesley’s retort was of, “…but I find that Thibault cancels out Capa Ferro. Don’t you?”  This speaks of Gérard (Girard) Thibault d’Anvers (1574-1627), a Dutch fencing master and author of the rapier manual, Academie de l’Espée (1630).  Thibault brilliantly utilized both logic and geometry to aid in his swordfighting defense.  Therefore, Wesley felt that his Thibaultian studies in using such tactics as (for example) “higher ground”, gave him added measure when defending against linear thrusts such as “The Lunge.”

To this, Inigo concludes, “Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa…”  – a term named after Italian short sword master, Camillo Agrippa who wrote, Treatise on the Science of Arms with Philosophical Dialogue (1553).  Historically, Agrippa simplified fencing techniques (i.e. Shortened Marozzo’s eleven guards, to a “fundamental four”), emphasizing defensive tactics,  & logic above techniques that he deemed over-stylized.  One can imagine that since he was a master of the short sword, he would be quite knowledgeable in “closing distance” (because in closer proximity, the short sword rules!).  Therefore, to the scholarly fencer… defeat was just…. “inconceivable.”

And there you have it…a breakdown of the famous movie duel from The Princess Bride.

Coach Michael Joyce

[CombativeCorner Profile]

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Coach Michael Joyce teaches classical foil fencing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Mr. Joyce got his training at both the St. Louis University (1998, 1999) and University of NC-Greensboro (1999-2002) Fencing Clubs.  He has been teaching (fencing) professionally since 2005 and has a Foil Fencing Beginners Manual making its way to the shelves in December 2013.  Look for it here, ChenCenterStore.Com or at our Fencing Page – WSfencing.info

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Joyce’s Fencing Page -Click-

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19 Responses to “Fencing Language in “The Princess Bride””

  1. Actually he says Capo Ferro, referring to another fencing manual printed in Siena in 1610.

  2. Wonderful breakdown by the way! :D ( sorry for picking on the name… only reason why I did it is because I lived in Siena many years and go to see the actual book in the Historical Library there and it’s spelt Capo with an “o”).

    • Thank you soo much! Because of you, a mistake was picked up. Small or big, I’d like everything to be factual. Best not to perpetuate the error, as both IMDB.Com AND the movie’s subtitles did (I actually went back and checked). So EVERYONE… let it be known that Deda D, set the record straight. The meaning behind what Inigo was saying, however, still applies. Thanks for the comment, and for coming by the website. Hope you return soon! Cheers- Michael J.

  3. [...] bonus points for picking not only a charming movie, but a duel in which actual fencing techniques are used, possibly making this the most realistic lightsaber duel now in existence. (If you disagree, link [...]

  4. Wow I had no idea these were actual references to people or things. Considering its a fictional movie and having no knowledge of sword play before hand I just thought it was nonsense to make the movie more entertaining. Thanks for the great blog

  5. Alles zu Goethes Iphigenie auf Tauris wie Analyse,Inhaltsangabe und vieles mehr….

    [...]Fencing Language in “The Princess Bride” «[...]…

  6. Thank you for this lovey breakdown- I’d always hoped they were talking about real fencing moves, and here they are. Mighty informative!

  7. I found this very fun!! Thanks for taking the time to write this out. It may also create more interest in fencing as well! THe other thing to be admired is the humility with which you handled the “correction” in terms. Touche’! (Heh heh) I think that fits this moment.

  8. Skyler Hall Says:

    Nice article. I am into historical/Renaissance fencing myself as a hobby, and I have been studying Thibault. Not sure what you mean about “high ground,” though. So far i haven’t seen any mention of it in the book; all of his examples seem to be pretty much on flat, even ground. Thibault seems mostly concerned with using angles (based on the geometry of the circle) when approaching your enemy, and using contact of the blades to your advantage (basically sensing how much resistance or force your opponent’s sword gives to you, and using that to advantage).

    Thibault’s style is a close cousin to Spanish fencing, often referred to as the Spanish Circle. Which brings up a curious question; why is Ingio, as a Spaniard, focusing so much on the Italian rather than Spanish styles?

  9. lara flomo Says:

    reason for fencing

  10. St. Izzy O'Cayce Says:

    One minor correction: the character’s name has a /t/ in it; it’s Westley.

    Minor quibble on a great post. Thanks for the background.

  11. [...] a HUGE fan of The Princess Bride (and still am), there was no way I was going to be able to execute Bonetti’s Defense with a cello bow.  Oh sure, it could give a stinging wallop that might slow someone down a bit and [...]

  12. Wonderful post! I find it a little strange that Inigo didn’t use spanish fencing as the basis of his technique. Also, didn’t the italian fencing styles that the four scholars quoted follow call for use of a main gauche? As opposed to the french rapiers, which were wielded alone as in the movie (and while George Silver hated so much). We have a spanish fencer claiming to use an italian style, even as the closest to what he was actually doing was french dueling!

    • Very astute comment. Seeing as the novel and film takes place in the 1500s – it would be common for any fighter to use something besides just the rapier to “do the opponent in.” However, I think that the swordmaster (Bob Anderson) did an exceptional job in choosing the style and manner of their duel. Just because Inigo was Spanish shouldn’t necessarily mean that he should fight only in the Spanish style, especially if he was supposed the be the “greatest swordsman in the world.” And representative of the language they used, the viewer could tell that they were highly schooled in the art and of fighting tactics. They were swordsmen, of the highest level, and they let their one rapier do the talking, not resting on any other devices such as a cloak, dagger, or main gauche. Also, the main gauche was primarily used in the 17th century if remember correctly? Thanks again for the comment!

      • I don’t know much about fencing, but i just found your site and find it fascinating. I can pretty much quote all of The Princess Bride word for word, so it’s pretty cool to know they weren’t just talking gibberish. anyway, on to my point. I’m a huge UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fan. In MMA (mixed martial arts) you have a total mix of styles. You have Americans training in Brazilian jiu jujitsu, a modified form of Japaneses jiu jujitsu, in Soa Paulo. You have Brazilians, such Anderson Silva and Wanderlia Silva, becoming masters of Thailand’s Muy Thai form of combat. If you want to be a title holder, the best in the world, you need to train in Greco-roman wrestling, boxing, jiu jujitsu, muy thai, judo, kick boxing, Et cetera. i imagine fencing in the 1500’s was much the same. just my 2 cents.

  13. […] How much do you think you know about The Princess Bride? Well prepare to add to your knowledge bank.  Here is a guy that explains all of the fencing terms used in the movie and believe it or not, it’s really interesting.  (Combative Corner) […]

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