Fencing Language in “The Princess Bride”

The Combative Corner

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  It was this friendly exchange of historical references that I found completely intriguing.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.

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