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The Princess Bride: how does Thibault cancel out Capoferro?

Without doubt the best rapier duel in cinematic history is the one between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity, in The Princess Bride (1987). To celebrate breaking 10,000€ on my recent crowdfunding campaign, I told my backers I would put up a video of how the duel might have gone if the fight directors, cinema legends Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson, had actually followed the dialogue, and been versed in historical swordsmanship. (Please note, this is a thank-you, not a stretch goal. An important distinction in crowd-funding matters.)

The dialogue is, I think, the earliest reference to historical fencing masters in film. Here it is:

Inigo: “you are using Bonetti's defence against me, huh?”

MIB: “I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.”

Inigo: “Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capoferro!”

MIB: “Naturally. But I find that Thibault cancels out Capoferro.”

Inigo: “Unless your enemy has studied his Agrippa!” [does great big somersault] “Which I have!”

Thus inspiring a legion of potential historical fencers to look up Bonetti, Capoferro, Thibault and Agrippa. Huzzah!

However, the actual choreography turns out on further study to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the fencing methods of the historical masters in question. This should come as no surprise, given that the goals of stage and screen combat are that no-one should die, and everyone should see what is happening: and the goals of real combat are to kill the enemy, which is best accomplished if no-one can see what’s going on. There are skills common to both, of course, such as control of measure and weapons handling, but the core intent could not be more different.

This begs the question: how does Thibault cancel out Capoferro?

As students of The Book (whichever source we are trying to recreate), it might be a good idea to also check the original source. The Princess Bride, first published in 1973, was a book for 14 years before it was a film.

Written by William Goldman, it is, as one might expect, even better than the movie. 

So, from the 1998 edition (pp 130-135) here are the actual references:

“They touched swords, and the man in black immediately began the Agrippa defence, which Inigo felt was sound, considering the rocky terrain, for the Agrippa kept the feet stationary at first, and made the chances of slipping minimal. Naturally, he countered with Capo Ferro, which surprised the man in black, but he defended well, quickly shifting out of Agrippa and taking the attack himself, using the principles of Thibault.

Inigo had to smile. No one had taken the attack against him in so long, and it was thrilling! He let the man in black advance, let him build up courage, retreating gracefully between some trees, letting his Bonetti defence keep him safe from harm.”

Quite different, I’m sure you’ll agree. But this was 40 years ago, long before the resurgence of historical swordsmanship in the 90s: where was Goldman getting his information? The next reference is also interesting:

“Inigo … was not entirely familiar with the style of the attack; it was mostly McBone, but there were snatches of Capo Ferro thrown in…”

I assume McBone is McBane (though why the change when the other masters are spelled normally: a little joke, perhaps?); has Goldman read Aylward’s The English Master of Arms? I would love to buy him a drink and ask him.

But anyhoo, and without further ado, here is the video:

And for those of you interested in how rapier fencing was really done: you might enjoy my book, The Duellist's Companion.

And if you're interested in recreating historical swordsmanship from historical sources, you might find my course useful. See you there!

Feel free to share this with your swashbuckling friends!


Free Sample of The Duellist's Companion

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11 Responses

  1. Brilliant. Thanks for the video. Someone on Twitter linked to @alecmuffet who mentioned this.
    A great film, and some great analysis.
    You are of course correct – most fights between swordsmen are one beat attack away from death for the untrained player!

  2. Hi there.
    Thought it would please you to know (if you didn’t already) that this page is the THIRD hit (out of ~16.5 MILLION!) for me on a Google search for the phrase “what is capo ferro.”

  3. Brilliant!
    I knew I was strangely drawn to your teachings… your appreciation of The Princess Bride explains it perfectly!

  4. Thanks so much for doing this! I always wondered whether these were real masters and styles, and whether the duel accurately followed them. 😀

  5. Has anyone else noticed how the man in black mask at the very end of the duel changes his sword from right hand to he left, block and attack by Inigo and then immediately changes back to right hand again?

    Truly, as movie fencing choreographies go, Princess Bride is on the next level.

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