The Princess Bride without Andre the Giant as gentle giant Fezzik? In the words of the film’s devious Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), it’s simply inconceivable. It almost came to be, with the French-born wrestler initially opting to keep a lucrative wrestling commitment in Tokyo, rather than feature in Rob Reiner’s film.
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Thankfully, that’s not how this story ended, with The Princess Bride becoming the defining movie role of Andre the Giant’s short but memorable acting career. The immense stroke of good fortune worked both ways — the screen adaptation of William Goldman’s novel endeared its literally massive star to generations of film lovers not only upon the feature’s release in 1987, but in the three decades since; and the movie itself benefited from Andre’s super-sized yet super-sweet presence.
Andre’s stature aside, Fezzik isn’t the biggest part in The Princess Bride. Story-wise, it isn’t as pivotal as the fair maiden Buttercup (Robin Wright), her farm boy paramour Westley (Cary Elwes) or the scheming Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) that she’s set to marry. It isn’t gifted the complicated backstories enjoyed by Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the nefarious Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), and it isn’t as overtly comic as folk healer Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and Valerie (Carol Kane) either. But in terms of sheer impact, Fezzik punches above his considerable weight, all due to the kindly charm that the scene-stealing Andre brings to the enormous character.
Indeed, it takes a particular skill to play someone who’s valued for his brawn, deployed to fight, toil, lift, throw and carry, and seen for little more than his size by most, and make him the movie’s most beloved figures. Some of it comes from the narrative, which always treats Fezzik with the utmost of warmth. Some of it comes from Reiner’s fond and loving approach overall, with the director fashioning the entire film like the fairytale adventure that it is. The bulk of Fezzik’s charisma emanates from the man with the bulk himself, however, with his melodic French-accented English typifying his jovial, inimitable air.
Fezzik is first introduced as one of the three kidnappers spiriting Buttercup away from her daily horse ride, alongside Vizzini and Inigo, all as part of the former’s plan to start a war between the kingdoms of Florin and Guilder. He clearly cuts a distinctive figure from the outset, spouting rhyming couplets, standing up for Buttercup against his cunning employer and playing up his obvious camaraderie with Inigo. Specifically, whether he’s slinging comedic phrases or stating the case for letting the group’s captive live, he never lets his scale and strength dwarf his heart. It’s with a knack for comic timing that Andre makes each of Fezzik’s amusing lines land — “anybody want a peanut?” proving the most iconic — but it’s with disarming grace and delicacy that he invests every moment with affection.
These initial scenes set the stage for a recurring motif throughout The Princess Bride: of looks being deceiving. While the concept is far from uncommon in fairytales on both the page and screen, it finds one of its best examples in the oversized wrestler. Hailing from Greenland and known for his grappling skills, Fezzik is well aware of his utility, but would prefer not to use it — or, if he has to, to do so in a sportsman-like manner. The film plays with the importance of avoiding quick judgments in various ways, including with Westley’s masked reappearance, however it’s never more than apparent than when Fezzik takes centre stage.
In fact, after scaling the Cliffs of Insanity — and hauling Vizzini, Inigo and Buttercup up with him — Fezzik puts this notion into action in his rock-throwing duel with Westley. Tasked with the job of dispensing with his black-clad opponent, he still refuses to take advantage of his own massive size in order to do so. It’s an endearing touch on the page but, once again, Andre’s performance adds an extra layer to the scene. He’s not merely a gentle giant; in Andre’s colossal hands, Fezzik is a thoughtful, loveable, honourable giant who radiates kindness in his broad smile even when he’s technically mid-battle.
Fezzik’s captivating presence pops up again throughout The Princess Bride, of course, although Buttercup and Westley’s fight for romance retains the film’s core focus. Still, it’s a testament to Andre’s efforts that the wrestler’s absence is keenly felt whenever he’s not on screen — and that the character’s part in the story feels both bigger than it is and more sparing than fans would like. Indeed, Fezzik proves more than an average supporting player. Aptly and thanks to Andre, his charm, comedy and warmth bolsters the entire movie. What’s a spirited quest for love and loyalty without its ample spirit, after all?
Find out more about the amazing, if difficult, life of wrestling superstar Andre The Giant in the new feature documentary 'Andre The Giant', streaming now at SBS On Demand: