It’s Debate Day on Trope and Dagger! Today we’re debating the best one-on-one movie fight scene of all time. To see Aaron’s side, which, I must remind you, is usually baloney, go here.
You know what I hate? Shakey-cam. It’s a cheap way to pretend that a lot of cool stuff is happening really fast without actually showing any of it. Nothing irritates me more than a climactic fight where you can hardly tell what’s happening because of shakey-cam, quick cuts, and extreme close-ups. To me that says the actors weren’t good enough to pull off a convincing fight, so the director is relying on trickery to fool us. Well I’m not gonna be fooled, god damn it! That’s why my favorite movie fight scenes are ones with lots of long, wide shots where we can see the actors clearly. Watching the actors actually fight each other? What a concept!
In selecting the best movie fight ever, there were a lot to choose from. I came close to picking James Caan versus Kathy Bates in Misery. Roddy Piper and Keith David’s six-minute fight over whether or not Keith David should put on sunglasses in They Live was a strong contender. I also could have picked basically any fight scene from Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. As great as all of those are, they didn’t quite make the cut for me.
My favorite one-on-one fight scene is a classic: Dread Pirate Roberts versus Inigo Montoya from Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. This fight has it all: perfect setting, witty banter, reversals and counter-reversals, and some damn fine fencing. Before we get started, you should really just watch it. Trust me, it won’t spoil the movie. Watch it. Do it.
It was good, right? Wrong. It wasn’t good. It was the best. Come along with me as I explain why!
No Special Effects. It’s not that I hate CGI, I just prefer it to be used seamlessly and with restraint. Guys typing on computers and making graphics doesn’t impress me nearly as much as actors and stuntmen actually doing what the characters are doing. One thing I love about this fight is how real it feels. The camera lingers on each shot so we can see all the fancy footwork and rapier flourishes. We see the actors’ faces, so we know it’s actually Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes for at least most of the time. I have so much respect for these guys for the practice they put into learning such complicated coreography and fencing routines. Another cool touch is that the words the fighters throw out (“Capo Ferro,” “Agrippa”) refer to actual fencing instructors and techniques. For a comedy film, this fight feels more realistic than the ones in most serious action movies.
Perfect set and setting. Half of what makes a great fight scene is its setting. Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight at the end of Revenge of the Sith sucks because they’re jumping around to all these cartoon set pieces that don’t look real and don’t give the actors anything to play off of. It’s sensory overload and destroys any weight the scene should have had. Setting is crucial to a good fight scene, and Princess Bride has probably the best set imaginable. It’s a huge practical set of a picturesque cliff top, which automatically makes it badass and memorable. But the best part about the set is how varied it is. It reminds me of a good Super Smash Brothers stage: there are slopes, rocky hazards, walls, edges to fall off of, and even bars to do acrobatics on. The actors make full use of the expansive terrain, creating a realistic and dynamic fight scene.
Inigo is not left-handed. The thing that really gets me about this fight is how polite and modest these two behave at the before the fight, belying what terrific show-offs they are once the fight starts. As Robert climbs up the cliffside, Inigo could easily cut the rope as he lies in wait. Instead he waits for Roberts to reach the summit and even helps him over the top. Then he actually gives Roberts time to catch his breath, even going so far as to let his opponent examine his sword. That’s some fucking chivalry, folks. When it becomes apparent that Roberts is overmatching Inigo, he reveals that he’s been handicapping himself so far, apparently for the sheer sport of it. Inigo admits that while Roberts is better than him, he has been dueling with his off-hand. What a swarthy, beautiful ham.
Dread Pirate Roberts is also not left-handed. This part just makes me laugh with glee. After Inigo switches hands amid an exchange of slashes, he drives Roberts back. The two swap compliments about how much they admire the other, because they’re just such amazing gentlemen. Just when the Dread Pirate seems on the ropes, he reveals that he, too, has been fighting with his off-hand. After some dramatic flips through the air and a terrific sword catch, the fight kicks into high gear with both combatants taking it seriously now and giving it their best. In a brief pause between crossing swords, Inigo demands to know Roberts’ identity. His response? “No one of consequence.” Such modesty.
It would have been easy for me to pick a really technical martial arts fight as my number one, but so many kung-fu heroes lack the charm and affability of Roberts vs. Inigo. Even after Roberts bests Inigo, he spares his life out of respect for his skills as a fellow Awesome Guy. These are two of the deadliest swordsmen alive, but they seem like decent guys who you wouldn’t mind having a beer (or several) with. That’s what I really love about this fight: its heart.