Looking back at The Princess Bride

Den of Geek – Louisa Mellor – Published on Jun 30, 2011

To conclude our Enchanted 80s week, Louisa takes a fond look back at a fantasy classic, Rob Reiner’s magical The Princess Bride

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Having spent the week celebrating some of our favourite enchanted eighties kids’ movies, we hope none of the others will be offended when we say we’ve saved the best for last.

Rob Reiner’s 1987 The Princess Bride is one of the funniest, warmest and most enjoyable kids’ fantasy pictures out there. Unlike some of the others of its era, it doesn’t require an ounce of nostalgia-fuelled goodwill from its audience to get over the bumpy moments, because there just aren’t any. Start to finish, it’s sweet and smart and everything that can make you fall in love with storytelling on screen.

(By the way, if this opening has got anyone’s ‘fawning gush-fest’ senses tingling, I’m afraid it only gets worse from here on in. If it’s derision and bile you’re after, may I recommend some very enjoyable online Transformers 3 reviews?)

As you wish

While The Princess Bride might not have the scare factor of Return To Oz, or the conceptual design of Labyrinth, in matters of cast, comedy and screenplay, it’s in a different league altogether.

What a pedigree, for a start. The film is both written and scripted by William Goldman, the man behind the screenplays for grown-up films like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men. Goldman’s novel was optioned for film pretty much immediately after publication in 1973, but took almost fifteen years to make it to the big screen, when Spinal Tap’s Rob Reiner was attached to direct.

With Reiner at the helm and a cast including the now much-missed Peter Falk, Peter Cook and Andre (the Giant) Roussimoff, alongside Christopher Guest, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin and Billy Crystal, you had first-class comic talent and a director who knows about funny. What could go wrong?

Not a lot is the answer. It’s a rare thing, but Reiner’s film doesn’t lose any of the humour and eccentricity that buzzes out of Goldman’s pages (one of the perks of having the writer adapt his own book, I suppose). The conceit of having an older relative narrate the story to an unwell little boy, only for both to jump in at various points and comment on the action, is all there in the book.

Granted, Goldman’s ruse that he was only redacting the dry, lengthy work of (fictional) author S. Morgenstern to “just the good parts” doesn’t turn up in Reiner’s picture, but why complicate things unnecessarily?

What we end up with is a storytelling feat, achieving the delicate balancing act between being a swashbuckling, fairy tale adventure and satirising the genre at the same time. Put it this way, Shrek owes quite a debt to the Goldman/Reiner collaboration.

When I was your age, television was called books

The story, then. A young boy (Fred Savage) is unwell in bed, when his grandfather (the wonderful Peter Falk) comes to read to him. Initially sceptical about the prospect of hearing a story rather than playing a videogame, the boy is quickly drawn into his grandfather’s tale despite himself. As the action Falk narrates plays out on screen, the pair repeatedly break into the story, commenting on events and judging the outcomes. It’s a neat trick, wrapping up the adventure tale in another narrative about passing on a love of storytelling from one generation to the next.

The tale within a tale concerns a girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) and her true love, farmhand Westley, whose life is cruelly taken on the high seas by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Years later, when Prince Humperdinck decides to take the beautiful Buttercup as his bride, she’s plucked, Kate Middleton-like, from the common crowd and groomed for life as a princess.

A bit of nefarious plotting, a mysterious man in black and three thieves later, Buttercup finds out her true love may not quite be as lost as she thought. To protect him, however, she must agree to marry the Prince. Cue an elaborate rescue mission, plenty of derring-do and a miracle. Does true love win out? ‘Course it does. This is a fairy story, after all.

Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles

Much like Labyrinth, which boasted a lovely script from Terry Jones, there’s a Pythonesque sense of humour running through The Princess Bride. From Billy Crystal’s cameo as Miracle Max, the Yiddish-speaking miracle worker, to Mel Smith’s Albino and Peter Cook’s outrageously speech-impeded clergyman, the film is packed with laughs. If you put naturally funny people in a film, it seems, great things happen.

As Westley, Cary Elwes also proves himself more than capable of bringing the fun. Despite playing a kind of Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks hero, he gets his fair share of comic lines, delivering them with pitch-perfect precision in a clipped 1940s accent, like the swashbuckling heroes of yore. Elwes’ slapstick lolling when recovering from being only “mostly dead” also makes for more laughs than the romantic lead usually merits.

The three thieves, Vizzini, Fezzik and Inigo (Wallace Shawn, Andre Roussimoff and Mandy Patinkin), brains, brawns, and swordsman, in that order, are a great trio. Shawn is wonderful as arrogant, lisping Vizzini (“inconceivable!”), as is Roussimoff the giant in the part of Fezzik (written especially for him). The performance of the movie, however, and the owner of the one line everyone remembers from The Princess Bride, has to be Mandy Pitinkin as Spanish swordsman and avenging son, Inigo Montoya.

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Pitinkin is just fantastic as Montoya. (I did warn you about the gushing.) Yes, it’s a campy performance (it’s a campy film), but somehow he manages to make us connect emotionally with the outrageous story of his father’s murder and his subsequent quest for revenge. When he finally runs through baddy Count Rugen (Christopher Guest playing a six-fingered sadist), screaming that he wants his father back, satirical kids’ film or no, I believe every word.

Which brings us neatly to the sword fights, which are also top-notch. For a couple of guys with girls’ names, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin don’t half duel like men. The fact the actors carry out their own swordsmanship is nothing less than very impressive. The pair fight stylishly whilst exchanging gentlemanly quips in a lengthy duel which is unrivalled in the other kids’ movies of the era. Well-choreographed and scored magnificently (here I go again with the gushing), the swashbuckling swordfights are deliciously good.

As is the score. However you feel about Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler’s original compositions for The Princess Bride are absolute belters (if we forget about the song playing over the credits). From the Spanish guitar accompanying Montoya’s every move, to the accents placed on each and every sword stroke, Knopfler has turned in some very fine work.

True love

The really joyous thing about The Princess Bride, for me, is its lack of cynicism. It’s got satire, absurdity and irony in spades, but there’s no eye-rolling or too cool for school jokes targeted at parents here. Every joke is aimed squarely at an audience of all ages, and they largely hit their mark.

Because The Princess Bride is populated by real people rather than puppets (there are no talking pumpkins or anything like that round these parts), it also has the heart some other enchanted eighties movies lack.

Comic and warm with stand-alone quality that adults and children just get, there’s no other word for the way I feel about this movie. It’s love. Twoo wuv.