RISKY BUSINESS: The Princess Bride
How “The Princess Bride” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
Thirty-five years ago, “The Princess Bride” premiered. Its original theatrical run was not a success but “The Princess Bride” found its audience at the video store—and through constant play on television—during the 1990s. Today, it is considered a family classic.
Written by William Goldman from his own novel of the same name, “The Princess Bride” stars Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Guest, Chris Sarandon, and Wallace Shawn among many other wonderful actors.
“The Princess Bride” was directed by Rob Reiner during his amazing early career hit streak that includes such classics as “This is Spinal Tap,” “Stand By Me,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” and “A Few Good Men” – all in less than a decade.
Chockablock with unforgettable scenes – the cliff duel, the battle of wits, the fire swamp – and endlessly quotable dialog – “inconceivable,” “You killed my father, prepare to die,” “MLT,” “I am not left-handed,” “As you wish,” “Your ears you keep” – it is easy to see why “The Princess Bride” remains a much-loved film thirty-five years later.
Despite its easy-going and charming air, “The Princess Bride” had its share of risky on-set behavior. One stunning incident rendered lead actor Cary Elwes unconscious and put him in the hospital.
In this installment of Risky Business, we are going to compare two scenes from the film and highlight how one successfully prioritized safety and the other did not.
- I Have Never Seen Its Equal: The Cliff Duel
- Lies Do Not Become Us: Westley’s Surrender
Let’s begin by looking at a scene that could have been risky but, instead, was anything but.
I Have Never Seen Its Equal: The Cliff Duel
Often ranked as one of the best sword fights in the history of modern cinema, the Cliff Duel in “The Princess Bride” is amazing to watch. Most notably because the actors do all their own fight choreography (save for the flips and gymnastics).
There are three reasons this scene is so safe:
- Endless Practice
- Fake Swords
Actors Elwes and Patinkin rehearsed this scene for weeks with famed choreographer Peter Diamond – who taught Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster how to sword fight for the screen – and Olympic fencer Bob Anderson. Once they had it nailed, they showed Reiner. But Reiner wanted them to start all over and come up with something even better.
According to Elwes’s memoir “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride,” he, Patinkin, Diamond, and Anderson drew inspiration for the final version of the duel from the films of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. Patinkin and Elwes would practice the duel in between takes throughout production.
Each and every advance, counter, perry, and repost was nailed down along with every well timed quip. The dialog in this scene even includes real-world fencing theorists: Bonetti, Capo Ferro, Thibault, and Agrippa.
This meticulous attention to detail, prioritizing rehearsal, and constant practice helped turn a potentially risky scene into a far safer one.
Anyone who knows a thing or two about swords can see that the ones in this scene are not real.
Real rapiers weigh between 2 and 4 pounds and don’t have wobbly blades. Lighter swords, however, allow our two actors to wield their weapons with ease, making them look even more talented and masterful.
The use of fake swords in this scene – again, widely believed to be one of the best in all of film – doesn’t detract from the fight, it adds to it. Fake swords also make this scene safer by reducing the risk of injury associated with these weapons.
The Cliff Duel was shot on C Stage at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England. A built set dramatically increases safety because the crew can custom design the space to fit the scene, making every move as safe as possible.
Filming on a studio lot also increase safety by providing easy access to all the props, costumes, tools, lights, and equipment a professional studio has in stock. As we will see in just a moment, filming on location requires that the crew bring everything they are going to need. Forgotten items can create risks (and delays).
Rehearsals, safe weapons, and a soundstage go a long way to making any fight scene less risky. Diamond, Anderson, Reiner, Elwes, and Patinkin deserve heaps of credit for creating such an unforgettable duel and doing so safely.
Let’s turn our attention to simpler scene, but one that was not safe at all.
Lies Do Not Become Us: Westley’s Surrender
After surviving the fire swamp with its fires, pits, and R.O.U.S.s, Westley (Elwes) and Buttercup (Wright) get captured by the six-fingered man Count Rugen (Guest). Buttercup negotiates for Westley’s safety, but Rugen is not a man of his word. He knocks out Westly and kidnaps him.
The moment right at the end of the scene, where the pommel of the sword comes down on Westley’s head, is real. It is not filmmaking.
According to Elwes, they didn’t have a rubber sword, so he told Guest to simply hit him on the head for real. Reiner apparently allowed this to happen and even rolled film on it. What you see in this scene is Elwes getting knocked out.
He woke up in the hospital with a contusion on his head. We want to make clear that no one in this scene meant to hurt anyone. This is a mistake, but an easily avoidable one.
Scenes like this are exactly why we encourage production to on-board risk managers during pre-production. At Epitome, we perform a thorough script risk analysis and flag all the risky elements in every scene.
One the page, this scene involves someone getting knocked out. This qualifies as a fight scene and should involve fight safety coordinators to ensure it is done correctly. Often times, productions don’t give scenes like this much thought.
There are several reasons this moment is so risky, let’s examine four:
- From On High: The height disparity of Guest on horseback and Elwes on the ground can add unplanned force to this blow. The positioning makes it much harder to control the force of the strike – the sword weighs several pounds – and likely led to the pommel coming down faster and harder than intended.
- On Location: This scene was filmed on location in the Burnham Beeches. According to Elwes’s recollection, it appears someone forgot to bring the fake sword, thus necessitating the risky move of using a real one.
- Concussion: We know so much more today about the long-term side effects and risks of head trauma than we did in 1987. A concussion like the one Elwes received in this scene could easily lead to any manner of debilitating conditions.
- Risks of Head Injury: The risks associated with a head injury of this type include skull fractures and intracranial hematomas. A movie is no place to risk such life-threatening injury.
Cary Elwes is lucky he got out of this moment with a concussion, some stitches, and a story to tell. He quite simply could have been killed.
Let’s look at how we could have made this safer.
The Secrets of the Fire Swamp: How Risk Management Can Increase Safety
As risk managers, we see this type of moment on film sets all the time. The production team – cast and crew alike – are looking to get the scene in the can and choose the fastest way to accomplish that goal, without stopping to think of the risks involved.
As stated above, our pre-production risk analysis would have flagged this moment as one with a good deal of risk. We would have worked with the creative team to come up with some safer options.
Westley’s capture could have easily been made safer. Here are four ways:
- Subject Matter Expert (SME): As previously stated, this is a fight scene. Whenever one character strikes another character – be it with their bare hands or with a weapon – it is a fight scene and that means it should fall under the purview of the fight choreographer or an equivalent subject matter expert. By bringing in an expert to assist with the planning, blocking, and choreography of this strike, we significantly increase safety.
- Rehearse: This scene stands in stark contrast to the Cliff Duel. Where in the latter there was meticulous practice and rehearsal, here everyone was winging it. If the production team had taken a moment to rehearse this scene, they likely would have realized Guest didn’t possess the arm strength to “pull” this particular strike.
- Fake Swords: Unlike in the Cliff Duel, the sword here is real and heavy enough to cause serious injury. While the crew had fake swords in their arsenal, they didn’t have them on location that day. But, in our professional opinion, that should never be an issue. Just like our advice with firearms, swords should be fake as often as possible. In this moment, there is simply no reason for this sword to be made of a heavy, dangerous substance. Rugen’s costume should not have included a real sword. A soft rubber sword with a safe pommel would not have impacted the believability of the scene. Nor would it have impacted Elwes’s skull.
- Better Angle: By adjusting the camera angle, the production team could have found a perspective that made it appear as if contact had been made when in reality it hadn’t.
These four steps could have reduced the risk in this scene, saved Elwes a trip to the hospital, avoided the potential of more severe consequences, and kept production on schedule.
Inconceivable: Bottom Line
The cast and crew of “The Princess Bride” are high-caliber professionals capable of producing jaw-dropping scenes of action, comedy, and romance without injury or incident. The Cliff Duel is a perfect example of their talents and skills at work.
But even professionals can make mistakes and choose expediency over safety. During Westley’s capture, the talented production team’s priorities were askew, and they put their entire production and the life of their lead actor in jeopardy. No one should suffer a concussion on a film set, certainly not during a simple scene like this one.
It is worth noting that both the Cliff Duel and Westley’s capture end the same way: with one character hitting another in the head with the hilt of a sword and knocking him out. In the carefully crafted, practiced, and rehearsed scene – The Cliff Duel – that knockout blow is believable yet safe: Patinkin was not actually hit in the head and knocked out.
In Westley’s capture scene, the moment was real, and everyone is mighty lucky that “The Princess Bride” isn’t remembered as another entry in the line of films that permanently injured its cast members or worse, killed them.
Professional risk management can save production teams from their worst selves and remind them just how gifted they are and safe they can be. On “The Princess Bride,” all a risk management team would need to do is point to the Cliff Duel to move everyone toward safety.
It’s almost inconceivable that such a mistake happened to such a talented team.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
Major Sources and Further Reading:
- As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden.
- Talks at Google with Cary Elwes
- The Princess Bride Panel at Awesome Con 2019
- “The Princess Bride” on IMDb.
- The Writer Speaks: William Goldman
- Jill Bearup’s analysis of the Cliff Duel
- Insider’s segment with Dave Rawlings
- As You Wish: Princess Bride Documentary
- Johns Hopkins on Head Injuries