Cary Elwes talks sword fights, André the Giant, and The Princess Bride
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since The Princess Bride hit theaters. On one hand, Rob Reiner’s comedy-romance-adventure feels as fresh now as it did then. The sword fights are still spectacular, the love story is still sweet, and the jokes still land. But at the same time, The Princess Bride is the rare modern tale that feels like it’s always been there, the kind of swashbuckling romantic epic that’s been passed down through the ages. Even though it pokes at well-worn fairytale tropes, it does so with love. The characters may be familiar archetypes — the beautiful princess, the dashing hero, the vengeful swordsman, the gentle giant — but they feel like fully-realized human beings. There’s a reason audiences have been falling in love with Buttercup, Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo for three decades.
On the surface, The Princess Bride seems like your classic fairytale. Based on the novel by screenwriter William Goldman, the film centers on the epic romance between Buttercup (Robin Wright) and the poor farm boy Westley (Cary Elwes). When he goes away to make his fortune and supposedly dies at the hands of pirates, the grief-stricken Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) instead. However, she’s soon kidnapped by a Sicilian (Wallace Shawn), a Spanish swordsman (Mandy Patinkin), and a rhyme-loving giant (André the Giant), sparking a surreal tale of love, revenge, redemption, torture, friendship, fire swamps, miracle workers, mawwiage, and rodents of unusual size.
For the film’s 30th anniversary, The Princess Bride will be returning to theaters for two nights only (Oct. 15 and 18), and to celebrate, EW hopped on the phone with Westley himself, a.k.a. Cary Elwes, to talk about the film’s enduring legacy. Elwes has carved out a wide-ranging post-Bride career in film and TV, including Robin Hood: Men in Tights and the original Saw, but when fans come up to him on the street, they usually open with an “As you wish.”In the past few years, the actor has become the go-to expert on all things Princess Bride, and in 2014, he published As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride. Not only does the book chronicle Elwes’ own memories from working on the film, but it also includes interviews and remembrances from fellow cast members like Wright, Shawn, Patinkin, Billy Crystal, and Christopher Guest.
Here, Elwes shares a few of his favorite stories from set and opens up about the film’s, um, inconceivable staying power.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think The Princess Bride has endured for the past 30 years?
CARY ELWES: I think it’s because it’s a family movie that the whole family can watch together. It’s something that everybody can enjoy. That’s very rare today. I think that’s one of the reasons why Fox is rereleasing the film in theaters. It’s nice to see it on the big screen and take the whole family, you know? But I also think that it’s just such a quirky movie. It’s such a strange film. It’s a film that has a great respect and love for fairytales, but at the same time pokes fun at them. And I think that’s what’s resonated with people.
It plays with these fairytale tropes and storylines that are so familiar, but it does it in a way that is so inventive and bizarre.
Unlike anything! And by the way, unlike anything that William Goldman’s ever written. You look at his body of work — Butch Cassidy, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man — and you wouldn’t think in the slightest that this would fit into his wheelhouse. And it turns out that it’s his favorite of all the things he’s ever been involved with.
When you wrote your book about the making of this film, what was it like to go back and really immerse yourself in those memories?
That was extraordinary. I had no real strong memories of the movie other than maybe four or five events that I could recall. And I shared this concern with [producer] Norman Lear over lunch, and Norman said, “Well, what I’ll do, Cary, is I’ll send you all the call sheets. When you read them, I’m sure they’ll jog your memory.” God bless him, he sent me a beautiful bound copy of all the call sheets, which I hadn’t kept.
Sure enough, I opened the first one, and it started with the sword fight rehearsals with Mandy and me, and everything came flooding back to me. It was an incredible way of jogging my memory. So I’m eternally grateful to Norman… and also for casting me in the film! He had to approve Rob’s choice of me. He gave me the career that I have today with that role.
When you were working on the book and talking to everyone else about their memories, was there anything you learned about the movie that you didn’t already know?
Oh, plenty. I didn’t know that Rob encouraged Billy Crystal to launch into three hours of medieval Yiddish standup for the first four takes of his appearance as Miracle Max. I didn’t know that Chris Guest was making the sound of swords hitting during his sword fight scenes with Mandy and had to be told by the sound department that they were going to add the sound effects later. I didn’t know that André kept Robin warm by putting his giant head over her head. He covered her entire skull to keep her warm!
I know you’ve talked about how at the time, the studio didn’t really know what to do with this movie, and it took a while for the film to find an audience. When was the first time you realized that The Princess Bride was really catching on and gaining a fanbase?
It wasn’t until 10 years after it came out. It was sort of around ’97 when the film came out on VHS, and that’s when folks started renting it and buying it and giving it as gifts to family and friends. I still meet folks who still have their copy. So thanks to the invention of the VCR, this film got a whole new life. And that’s when people started quoting the film to me in the street.
I was going to ask, do you still get people every day who come up to you and quote lines at you?
Oh, please. I mean, people have got vast portions of the screenplay tattooed on their body.
So what’s the most popular choice of line? I’m assuming you hear a lot of “As you wish”?
Yeah, for me. I got it easier than Wallace Shawn. He says, “You don’t even know, Cary, how many times I hear ‘inconceivable’ a day.” Every time he drops his keys or misses a cab or something. Anything. Someone’s always there. Forever! He said, “You won’t believe it, but people think that I’m hearing it for the first time when they say it to me.” [Laughs]
When you look back on this film today, has your opinion or appreciation of it changed in any way?
I spoke to Rob last week, and I think we’re all kind of in awe that 30 years later, this film is not slowing down. If anything, it’s gaining momentum. We didn’t even have T-shirts when the movie came out, and now you can buy anything with Princess Bride on it. Literally almost anything. It’s up there with Star Wars merchandise now. It’s not quite Star Wars crazy, but it’s up there.
You mentioned the left-handed sword fight between Westley and Inigo, which is one of the most iconic moments in the film. What was the training process like for you and Mandy Patinkin?
Well, we worked very hard at it. We had two wonderful swordsmen who were the same fellows who designed all the lightsaber sequences for the first three Star Wars films. They were Bob Anderson, who was an Olympic fencer for Canada, and Peter Diamond, who was a swordsman and stuntman. And they were incredible. They trained us every day. We trained for about three weeks in prep, and then every day during the shoot. Literally every day. They would grab myself and Mandy between takes if we had enough time to even do five minutes. We would literally walk off the set a few yards and practice and go right back to shooting. Then after we wrapped each day, we’d have another session for a few hours, depending on how much energy we had. So we worked very hard at it.
I read that you filmed the actual fight scene with a broken toe, from riding an ATV with André?
I did! I stupidly broke my toe. That forced me to really focus more on my handiwork, and I think it actually made me a better left-handed swordsman. I was able to do all those tricks because I was able to focus on it. I couldn’t move my foot much.
You and Mandy did a vast majority of your own stunts. There were only a few moments when you had a double?
There’s only one moment. There aren’t “few.” There’s only one moment where it’s not us. [Laughs] And that’s the acrobat we brought in to do the swinging around on the bar. Other than that, it’s all me and Mandy, which is what Rob wanted. He said that to us at the beginning of the movie: “I don’t want stunt doubles. I want you guys. I want to be able to look from every angle and see that it’s you.”
Did you keep any props or costumes from the set?
I didn’t. I gave the sword to Rob on the day of wrap, and he still has it on his wall somewhere. But Norman, god bless him, bought me a sword. He found the company that made it and had another one made for me. So that was very sweet.
Do you still remember any of the fight choreography?
No. [Laughs] That was 30 years ago. As I told you, I was lucky to remember what happened during the shoot.
When everyone talks about this film, one of the first things they think about is André the Giant. His performance is really the heart and soul of this film, and I know you’ve talked a lot about your friendship with him. What is it you remember most about working with him?
I just remember what a real gentle giant he was. He was such a gentle soul. It was the first movie he’d ever made, and he loved the fact that the crew didn’t ogle him. Wherever he went, he obviously turned heads because he was 7’ 4”, 450 pounds. You see that coming from a mile away. But the crew after the first few days just treated him like any other member of the cast or crew, and they just didn’t bother him anymore, and they didn’t stare at him or anything. And he loved that.
So I think we really got a very relaxed André. He had this beautiful smile on his face all day long, and he was happy. Even though he was in a lot of pain, he never complained or anything. He was just delightful to be around. And oh my God, I’ll never forget when he sat me down and opened his wallet and started sharing all these photographs with me. It was just lovely. He was extraordinary. He really was. I wish that Steve Jobs had invented the iPhone earlier because I would have just filmed him all day long.
We all became very much like a family, but Rob works that way. He likes to create a familial atmosphere on his sets. He likes to take the cast out to dinner nearly every night, and he keeps that camaraderie going. And it’s a lovely thing. It’s very smart, really, because you create bonds with the rest of the cast, and that ends up on the screen.
Looking back on the film, is there anything where you think, maybe I could have done this differently?
Yes. I would have never have fooled around on André’s all-terrain vehicle. I had no business doing that, and that caused no end of concerns from a lot of people from when I broke my toe. So yes, I would not have done that probably. [Laughs]
The Princess Bride