In 2018 the world lost William Goldman, writer of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men, and The Princess Bride, a movie that, to my great shame, I had never seen. As the industry, and beyond, recalled Goldman’s talent and success, I felt as if I was missing out on something tremendous.
Considering the lofty company that this film keeps amongst the other artistic endeavours I have visited in Classically Lacking, The Princess Bride may not seem such an obvious classic, but without a doubt I can say that, even when compared to the works of Kubrick, Leone, and Austen, which I have so far explored, this is the text that I most wholeheartedly recommend.
Based on the book of the same name (written and adapted by Goldman) and directed by Rob Reiner in 1987, The Princess Bride is framed as a story for a bedridden boy (Fred Savage), as told by his Grandpa (Peter Falk). The tale is of Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Carrie Elwes), and the reconciliation of their love after their separation. Buttercup is arranged to marry Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) after Westley is presumed dead at the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Before the marriage she is captured on her daily ride by an unlikely trio consisting of Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), and Fezzik (Andre the Giant). They are pursued by the Prince, and also by the Dread Pirate himself, who is later revealed to be Westley. When the princess arrives back in the hands of the prince it becomes a race against time to stop the marriage and reunite the two lovers once again.
At a base level the story is standard fantasy/fairy-tale fare, but this allows Goldman to explore the tropes of the genre with a modern wit. Overblown dramatic moments are undercut by bursts of absurdist humour and cutting remarks from outside of the story, by way of Fred Savage, who is at first bemused by the ‘kissing story’ that his Grandpa chooses to read.
Goldman’s writing is probably the most enduring facet of the film, due to its insane quotability. There are the obvious, and meme-able Mandy Patinkin deliveries:
‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’
‘Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’
Yet I could imagine this script, brilliant as it is, perhaps not have enduring as well as it has without the spot-on performances from the cast across the board. Reiner and the cast must have been in perfect sync with Goldman’s writing, as each character is perfectly portrayed, no matter the breadth of their part in the story. For example, Wallace Shawn as Vizzini, in a relatively small role, really nails what he is given; from the constant wails of ‘Inconceivable!’ to the perfect-ham of otherwise lesser lines, such as: ‘Unemployed! In Greenland!?’.
Later, in only a bit part, Peter Cook appears as The Impressive Clergyman who has an, erm, let’s say speech impediment, and absolutely steals the scene. And although his hilarious portrayal is stand out, it is made even more hilarious by how everyone else in the scene plays it absolutely straight. This contrast is consistent throughout the film – at times the story is simple silly fun, but at others it is unafraid of being serious in order to create the contrast necessary to emphasise the moments of laugh out loud absurdity.
Robin Wright, for another example, plays it straight throughout the picture. When she is rescued from Vizzini, but in the clutches of the masked Dread Pirate, she attempts to escape her new captee by pushing him down a hill, but as he tumbles head over heels, he yells: ‘As yooouuu wiiiiisssshhh!’ – a call back to a repeated line from the beginning of the movie and the early days of their romance. When Buttercup hears this, she realises the Dread Pirate’s identity and sighs ‘Oh my sweet Westley.’ She then purposefully, and comically, rolls down the hill herself, moaning and groaning as she goes.
This contrast, of straight-edge acting with ridiculous comic writing, is indicative of the philosophy of the films humour: A man wearing a silly hat might be funny, but a man not aware he is wearing a silly hat is funnier. I think I stole that from someone, but I don’t know who, might be Mark Kermode. If you know, tell me, and if you don’t, well, let’s just pretend I made it up myself.
The art of making someone sitting in a cinema, or in front of their television, actually laugh out loud cannot be underestimated. It would be simple enough to throw a few absurd situations together and hope for the best, but the most successful comedies understand the need for drama. Even Airplane! has dramatic tension. The Princess Bride is no different. It has heroes to cheer for, and villains to boo. And it should, because when it comes right down to it, this is a movie about the power of stories. As Fred Savage’s Grandpa begins the story, the sick kid has little interest, but by the end you better believe he is invested, and the bond between grandfather and grandson grow stronger for the affection and investment towards the story that has been told.
The villains here are Shawn’s Vizzini, Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck, and Christopher Guest as Count Rugen (the subject of the famous, ‘You killed my father. Prepare to die,’ line). Each is maniacal, cruel, and often cowardly and useless. They are clearly drawn and easy to hate, it would be false to say that they are complex, but in this case that complexity would be unnecessary – it is a fairy-tale after all. Humperdinck is particularly horrible, not so much in that he does anything horrific, but is wonderfully slimy and unlikeable in his unshakeable selfishness. This is typified by one of my personal favourite lines from the movie, when Buttercup tells him she is going to kill herself rather than marry him, he promises (lies) to send letters out to tell Westley to come and retrieve his love (although he is being held captive in the fantastically titled Pit of Despair) without conflict. He then asks of Buttercup that, should Westley not appear to rescue her, she should:
‘Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.’
Now there’s a great Tinder bio if I ever saw one.
In comparison to this slippery villain, Montoya and Westley are swashbuckling goofs. Simultaneously heroic, and charmingly silly. Much of this charm is down to the wonderfully physical performances of Patinkin and Elwes. In particular Elwes, who for a portion of the movie is in a state of perpetual floppiness due to being recently revived from a bout of being mostly dead, and the expressive manner in which he slouches and bounces around the screen, using only a few parts of his body, is reminiscent of silent cinema and the animated caricatures of Chaplin and Keaton.
With such clearly drawn heroes and villains it is easy to invest in the conflict, which in turn opens us up to the laughs. The plot is never muddy or complicated enough to work as a distraction, and we are not exactly mired in moral dilemma. Simplicity is not always, perhaps never, a point of criticism, and here in particular it is a definitive positive, a trope of fairy-tale fantasy which is embraced and utilised to full effect.
For all the fantastic writing, performances, and smartly simple narrative decision making, it was the look of this film which fully committed my adoration. It captures the storybook essence of the narrative in the design and framing of each setting. The scene that particularly demonstrated this to me was atop the Cliffs of Insanity, where Montoya and the Dread Pirate (pre-Westley reveal) duel. The painted background sky, paired with the arena layout of the rocky terrain, created an image similar to what you would see on a stage. It would hardly have been surprising if at the end of the scene curtains pulled over the stage as hands rushed on to switch the scenery, and I loved that association. It suited the framing device, as it did not necessarily appear to exist in genuine reality, but in the reality of imagination. Perhaps much of this look was down to budget, and technology, but in this instance, I think this movie was made exactly when it needed to be. Had it been made today I have to wonder if a reliance on green-screen and CG would have negated the need to lean on practical effects and sets, removing the theatrical element from the aesthetic. If so, I could only imagine that lessening the positive impact that the film had on me.
I also just have to mention the Rodents of Unusual Size – fantastically grim muppet rats the size of dogs. Again, CG just wouldn’t have been the same, no matter how realistic. The scene is vastly improved by the fact Carrie Elwes is wrestling with a muppet…or is it a man scrambling about in a rat costume? No matter, either way I’ll hear no more about it, it is perfect.
So, I suppose what I’m saying amounts to They Don’t Make Them Like This Anymore.
Which is a very grumpy old man thing to say and is usually absolutely not true.
In this case however, they don’t, and they can’t.
But happily, they don’t need to, because they got it spot on first time around.
I don’t know exactly what I expected coming to The Princess Bride. It has an extremely vocal and loyal fanbase, from which I have heard such enthusiastic praise that it seemed I could only be disappointed, so extreme was their devotion to the film. But coming away from it, I can clearly see the source of their obsession. It is a rare and unique picture, despite the fact it has been built upon a base of fantasy tropes, and from this uniqueness comes a timelessness. The quotable lines remain funny, the storybook aesthetic remains charming, and the unlikely all-around stellar performances are permanently imprinted into the memory of a generation of audiences and will transfer to new generations in the years to come.
Classically Lacking is about judging art in the context of now, not when it was released, but for The Princess Bride it makes no difference.
Timeless. Excellent. Watch it.