How Much Could Westley Really Survive In ‘The Princess Bride’?
“There’s a big difference between MOSTLY dead and all dead.”
Our Movie Mythbusters series answers the age-old question, “Okay, but could that actually happen in real life?”
As its plot uncoils, “The Princess Bride” proves to be a sadistic flick. Hidden among the foliage of comedy, adventure, fantasy and romance is the brutal pattern of one character’s incessant punishment: Westley.
He’s punished in all his iterations: As Farm Boy, he’s stripped of a name and consigned to manual labor. In his training to become the Dread Pirate Roberts, he’s threatened with death each night before bed. As the Man in Black, he’s put through a trilogy of physical challenges, only to wind up being pushed down a steep hill into a swamp filled with lethal terrors. And as Westley, he’s captured and thrown into an actual torture chamber.
So how would a real-life Westley fare against the constant punishment? Let’s find out.
“His true love is marrying another tonight, so who else has the cause for ultimate suffering?” -Inigo Montoya
Cliffs Of Insanity
The first of three physical challenges against Vizzini’s crew, Westley’s climb up the Cliffs of Insanity always struck me as a little…fantastic. It also might be the easiest to test, mathematically.
According to Guinness Book of World Records, the greatest “height” climbed on a five-meter rope in one minute is 27.8 meters. Translated: A guy climbs up and down the rope for 60 seconds as many times as he can, without using his feet.
Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher was the filming location for the Cliffs of Insanity. The Cliffs of Moher are 214 meters at their highest point. But it stands to reason that Vizzini wouldn’t have chosen the highest point — he didn’t expect to be followed by anybody from Florin. So, using the Cliffs’ lowest point, we can assume Westley had to climb just 120 meters.
Dividing 120 meters by 27.8 meters yields 4.57. That figure represents the number of minutes Westley would have to maintain his climbing — not easy, but not necessarily impossible. Remember: Westley only has to free climb (without feet) for part of the way. Once he reaches about two-thirds of the way up, he begins to scale the cliffs by walking up the rock face and pulling himself up with the rope.
You can also compare a picture of record-holder Marcus Bondi (below) to Westley’s physique in the clip and see that they’re of roughly the same build. Marcus is not noticeably huger than Westley.
Another point: If we’re going to accept that Andre the Giant can make this climb saddled with three other bodies, Westley’s feat should seem easy-peasy by comparison.
The Chatty Duel
This is my favorite film duel ever. But the question isn’t whether it’s a good duel — the question is whether somebody with several years’ training (Westley) could best a lifelong swordsman.
So what does it take to be good at fencing? Is it a ya-got-it-or-ya-don’t sport? According to Slate writer Emily Yoffe, not so much. Writes Yoffe:
“The problem was fencing called for three skills I lack: the ability to think strategically, master arcane rules, and make your hands and feet move independently. But I had one quality I thought might overcome these deficits: an endless supply of free-floating hostility. Unfortunately, it turns out, as with much of life, getting incensed doesn’t get you anywhere in fencing.”
Later in the film, Inigo himself admits that the Man in Black is a better strategist than he. And Inigo is, if nothing else, a bag of free-floating hostility. Those facts alone make Westley’s victory seem totally plausible.
There’s also the Malcolm Gladwell theory that mastering any skill takes 10,000 hours. Westley was away from Buttercup for five years before returning as Dread Pirate Roberts and fighting Inigo. If we go by Gladwell’s rule, Westley would have had to practice 5.5 hours per day to achieve fencing mastery. (10,000/5 = 2,000. 2,000/365=5.47.) No days off, nearly six hours a day. Seems unlikely that he would’ve hit the full 10k hours — but then again, Westley has several advantages here that Inigo does not:
- He was trained by one of the most feared violence-mongers around.
- Wonderful strategist.
- He has more chips on the table in this fight — Inigo doesn’t much care what happens to Buttercup. By his own admission, he’s doing this for the paycheck. Westley, however, is in this for love.
Fighting the Giant
Westley defeats Andre the Giant in hand-to-hand combat. His method? The Rear Naked Choke. It’s an actual, real-world martial arts move that cuts off blood to the brain by pinching an artery in the neck, resulting in unconsciousness. Totally doable.
The Battle of Wits
Iocane powder: Odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid. Could Westley really have built up immunity to the stuff and survived his laced cup of wine?
In theory, sure. Snake handlers often inject themselves with sublethal doses of venom to build up tolerance. This real-world practice, called mithridatism, supports Westley’s claim that he’s spent years getting his svelte pirate body accustomed to the deadly Australian compound.
Drink up, Dread Pirate.
The Fire Swamp
The three terrors of the Fire Swamp are flame spurts, lightning sand, and R.O.U.S. (I don’t believe they exist.)
The flame spurts and large rodents don’t deserve much mythbusting — anybody with good reflexes and a sword can dodge flames or kill rats. What I’m interested in is the lightning sand: a super-fast sinkhole that swallows a person up. Westley dives into the quicksand to save Buttercup and is gone for…just 30 seconds.
I went to a primary source for this one. Can a person hold his breath for 30 seconds? (Please pause while I try to hold my breath for 30 seconds.) Yes. Apparently so.
The Pit of Despair
I’ve mulled and mulled about how to mythbust this one. The truth is: There’s no real-life analog to a magical torture device that uses suction cups to suck days, months or decades off someone’s life.
But if we’re going to accept that such a machine exists within this fictional universe, we’ve also got to accept the existence of Miracle Max. So could Westley survive the Pit of Despair? Probably not. That is, not until Billy Crystal shoves a magic malt ball covered in chocolate down his throat.
A real-life Westley might be able to scale the cliffs, best the Spaniard, beat the giant, and outfox the Sicilian. And the Fire Swamp is no problem — not that anybody’s going to be setting up a summer home there, mind you. The only hiccup in the movie’s unrelenting abuse of Westley is the Pit of Despair — but a real-life Westley wouldn’t have to worry about that, anyway. Given that it is, you know, magic.