One of my all time favorite movies happens to be The Princess Bride, which debuted in 1987 (also my debut year), so when it was showing in my hometown for $3 dollars a ticket, of course I went. I’ve been experiencing this thing recently concerning movies from my childhood where upon watching them as an adult, I realize how dated they feel, or how poorly written they were, or even how offensive (stereotypes, racism, sexism, etc.) compared to modern standards they seem. This phenomena is fairly common, in fact, I’ve read a few articles recently of people tearing apart movies from their childhood that they now find unwatchable.
That’s not what this post is about.
For me, the Princess Bride mostly lived up to my memory as being a fantastic movie. To be honest, I’ve watched it probably once every couple of years since I first saw it, so it’s not like my memories of the movie were even that old to begin with. I did, however, try to watch it with a more critical eye this time around. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically a children’s fantasy story about a sword fighting pirate as the hero trying to rescue his true love, Buttercup, before she is first killed by kidnappers, and then later, forced to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck. This is all framed through a grandfather reading a book (The Princess Bride, which was actually a book before the movie) to his sick grandson (Fred Savage, aka Kevin Arnold from the Wonder Years, also a favorite from my childhood), adding a sentimental dimension to the telling of an already heartwarming tale.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend you go watch it, as there will be (Spoilers Ahead). Also, they rest of this post will make more sense if you are familiar with the characters and storyline.
I want to focus on the main character of Wesley, or as we come to know him, The Dread Pirate Roberts. He is the hero of the story, but to me, there is a lot to be learned from his style of heroism, in particular relating to leadership theory. Wesley displays many of the characteristics I find to be inherent in a good leader. His character arc can be used as a template for leadership development. Allow me to explain.
When we first meet Wesley, he is but a poor farm boy who wins the heart of Buttercup by being a servant and showing a willingness to take orders while displaying a loving disposition, even though at first she seems a little demeaning towards him. Every time he is asked to do something, he responds with “As You Wish”, effectively proving to Buttercup his humble nature and ability to put the needs of others before his own. These are important qualities for a leader to have. Humility and a willingness to serve should be developed early in the leadership process.
As in any good story featuring a hero’s journey, Wesley leaves home with the goal of self improvement, in his case seeking enough wealth to return to marry his one true love. Of course, we come to find out that his return is delayed when his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR for short) and Wesley is assumed dead. It turns out, he isn’t dead, but rather is being kept hostage by DPR with whom he eventually becomes friends before taking over his title as DPR when the former retires. In his time as first mate of DPR’s ship Wesley works hard to learn from his mentor, studying fencing, fighting, logic, as well as other aspects of what it takes to succeed as a swashbuckling pirate. This brings us to the the next steps to becoming an effective leader, education and mentorship. A good leader has a passion for learning, as well as a willingness to learn from others who are further along on the leader’s journey.
Moving on in the story to Wesley’s pursuit of Buttercup’s kidnappers, which takes place after Wesley has assumed the role of DPR and at this point is thought to be dead, we see yet more examples of great leadership in his encounters with Inigo Montoya, Fezzik, and Vizzini.
Inigo is a Spanish fencing master, hired by Vizzini for his swordsmanship, but who is also on a revenge pursuit of the six fingered man (six on his right hand, so I guess he is really the eleven fingered man) who killed his father when Inigo was a child. Wesley and Inigo partake in a classic sword fight in one of my favorite scenes of the movie. This takes place at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity, a great setting for a duel between two masters of swordplay. Inigo has a chance to kill Wesley before he even reaches the top of the cliff (he has the high ground) but swears on his father’s soul that he will let Wesley reach the top unharmed so they can face each other in a fair fight. Inigo even gives Wesley a chance to catch his breath before they begin fighting, allowing time for Wesley to hear the tale of how the six fingered (eleven) man killed his father, thus causing Inigo to relentlessly pursue the study of fencing in hopes to one day exact revenge on his father’s murderer. After the telling of Inigo’s story and once Wesley is feeling recovered enough for battle, the two exchange one of my favorite lines of the movie. Inigo: “You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you.” Wesley (as DPR): “You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die.” The battle commences.
I tell you all this to show how even when faced with an obstacle, or in this case, a person who is trying to kill him, Wesley displays a humble respect for his opponent. He understands the context of the situation. He doesn’t see Inigo as an enemy, or villain, but rather as what he is, a hired swordsman doing his job while ultimately seeking justice for his father. Wesley defeats Inigo, but doesn’t kill him, showing mercy to a man he sees as having great potential. This is made apparent when later in the story Wesley asks Inigo to take on the mantle of being DPR (more on that later).
Leadership requires being able to understand context and seeing the bigger picture. It also calls for an honest assessment of the obstacles to success, as in not overreacting or vilifying the people or things that stand in your way. Wesley displays his competency in the actual defeating of Inigo, which is crucial on the path to becoming an effective leader, showing your skills and accomplishing goals, essentially proving your worth.
To be continued in part two…