In 1569, an Italian master swordsman by the name of Rocco Bonetti arrived in England and promptly set up a fencing college. Much to the annoyance of the London fencing masters, Bonetti charged exorbitant fees for his instruction which attracted a noble clientele and launched him to great success. The London Masters made no secret of their disdain for Bonetti, whose famous defense was unfavorably referred to in Paradoxes of Defense by George Silver, a British master who was a contemporary of Bonetti’s.
This professional disregard by his peers seemed not to bother Bonetti much. Clearly not shy about his prowess with the sword, he was a noted trash talker having once gone so far as to claim that he could cut any button off the shirt of any Englishman with one flick of his rapier. This boast would later be immortalized by William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In Scene 4 of Act 2, Mercutio refers mockingly to Tybalt as “the very butcher of a silk button,” which many critics suggest is a clear reference to Rocco Bonetti.
But that is not Bonetti’s greatest claim to literary fame. He also appears in The Princess Bride, that “classic tale of true love and high adventure” by Florinese literary genius “S. Morgenstern.” Most of you will, of course, recognize this work from the “abridgement” by William Goldman that became the greatest movie ever made.
The film celebrated the 25th anniversary of its release at the New York Film Festival this past week. If you don’t agree with me that it’s the best movie ever made, perhaps you haven’t seen it (if you live under a rock or are under the age of 6). Or maybe you just haven’t seen it in a long while. If that’s the case, you should revisit it. Trust me. You’ll love it. Or you’ll remember how much you loved it the first 117 times you saw it (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here).
On Tuesday, October 2, director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman gathered with cast members Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Carol Kane, and Wallace Shawn at a special showing of the film, followed by questions and answers. And even though I couldn’t be there in person, in my heart I was there. Because I have seen The Princess Bride way more than 117 times. I literally have every line of every scene from beginning to end memorized, and can deliver any of them at a moment’s notice. Seriously, you can test me, though I should warn you that my Spanish accent is even more ridiculous than Mandy Patinkin’s.
Of all the amazing dialogue in all the great scenes that make me laugh out loud even after 25 years, I think my favorite lines (and I know I’m not alone here) come from the fencing duel between the mysterious man in black and Inigo Montoya atop the Cliffs of Insanity. I love this scene not just for its impressive choreography, but also for the brilliant juxtaposition of a battle to the death with a respectful and practical conversation between fencing masters.
Just in case your memory is a little fuzzy (and for some reason you didn’t stop reading in order to immediately go watch it again as soon as I told you to, which is what you should have done), the battle begins after a nice chat in which Inigo allows the man he will soon try to kill a chance to catch his breath. As the two begin to duel (left-handed for an added challenge), Inigo says, “You are using Bonetti’s defense against me, uh?” to which the Man in Black replies, “I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain.” As the duel continues, other fencing masters are casually mentioned as well, including: Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gérard Thibault, and Camillo Agrippa, all notable masters of their times.
It certainly comes as no surprise to me that The Princess Bride is a well-researched and totally reliable source of historical information (kind of like this blog). In the past 25 years, numerous fencers and fencing experts have claimed that they started in the sport precisely because they were inspired by the movie. I don’t know much about fencing, but The Princess Bride has taught me the elements of a great story: fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love, and perhaps even a limited amount of kissing. Throw in some wildly imaginative characters and witty dialogue and you have an instant classic on your hands.
But at this point I’m guessing you still have a couple of questions for me. First, did I really place The Princess Bride in the same classic literary category as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Yes. I make no apologies for that.
And second, what became of the talented and arrogant Rocco Bonetti? In 1587, Bonetti engaged in a duel, just outside of his own fencing college, with a man by the name of Austen Bagger. Bonetti died shortly after from wounds received in the duel. Rumors indicate that Bagger was quite drunk at the time of the battle, suggesting that Bonetti’s defense may not have been all it was cracked up to be. Then again, maybe it just wasn’t fitting for that particular terrain.