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The Princess Bride (1987)

by on 2012/02/09

“Please understand, I hold you in the highest respect.”

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Working from a book, and script, by William Goldman, Rob Reiner may have seemed an unlikely candidate to direct The Princess Bride. Then known predominantly for acting in All in the Family, and directing This Is Spinal Tap and Stand By Me, only the third title even vaguely suggested this new classic’s misty-eyed nostalgic tone.

More Middle Ages than coming-of-age, Bride was not an immediate success, just as Reiner feared would happen. Apparently he pleaded with the studio not to make it another Wizard of Oz, a slow-burn classic at risk of not being noticed. Although his prediction did come to pass, we can thank fate, like Oz, it didn’t fade into obscurity.

I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it, but here is the basic setup. A pastiche of fairy tale conventions, it begins with the flirtation of Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes), peasants in the medieval fictional Florin, an alternate reality Italy imbued with English accents. After being forcibly separated, the stable boy resolves to rescue his girlfriend from an arranged marriage to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). The lion’s share of the fun is derived from the characters encountered along the way.

The cast is an odd assortment of names generally less familiar to me at the time than they became in the decades since. Elwes, Sarandon, and Wright are joined by Andre the Giant (then a WWF wrestler), Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally), Peter Falk (Columbo), Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap), Carol Kane (Scrooged), Mandy Patinkin (Dick Tracy), Fred Savage (The Wonder Years), and Wallace Shawn (Toy Story).

Yet, for all their eccentricities, these actors do incredibly well. They deliver the wry dialogue with an awareness of its earnest good humour. The chemistry, however unconventional, is undeniable. The pages and players form the spine of an effort which — though it never breaks — must bow to its limitations . . . art design, production, special effects and, of course, the budget.

Fortunately, economy does not undo the movie. It works within reason, and is generally quite modest. Whereas Lord of the Rings was sufficiently funded and crafted to render the fantastic convincing, The Princess Bride stays relatively grounded, focused in scale, and reliant on spirit.

It mines two cost-effective genres — romance and comedy — to help sell our acceptance of its fantasy pretensions. At times, as I viewed it all critically, I felt it might have overextended itself as far as romance is concerned. As self-aware as it could become, female roles were not as post-modern.

Buttercup is, by and large, a damsel in distress. She’s willful, if barely active, and draws from a small pool of melodramatic phrases, typified by “I will never love again.” She is courted by a man who externalizes her hopes, thus becoming the perfect suitor. Her whims are met with, “As you wish.” His rare challenges to her are actually shallow dream fulfilments: “This is true love. Do you think this happens every day?” or “Death can not stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Admittedly, I am not often one for treacle, but the sap is offset by the clever bite of humour: the sarcastic framework characters, Fezzik’s impulse to (poorly) rhyme for praise, Inigo’s neurotic mercenary, and pretty much each word from the mouth of mastermind Vizzini. There are, nevertheless, rare moments when the jokes hit me wrong, as with the odd disparaging comments about Australians, Spaniards, and women in general.

In such cases it succeeds in spite of itself. For every mismatch of cliff-climbing footage, there’s a memorable sword fighting scene. Now and then, if it stumbles for trying too hard, then at least we know it means well. My greatest complaint amidst this handful of niggling is the stretch between the Fire Swamp and wedding. The narrative loses some energy here. By the time it regains momentum, I’ve switched interests, from the tiring Princess’ petulance to Inigo Montoya’s own quest.

At this point it may appear I have little affection for The Princess Bride. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For the last twenty-five years, I have watched and re-watched it on uncounted occasions. I appreciate many of its ideas, writing, especially the dialogue, humour, cast, and their unique dynamics. More than simple fantasy, it’s a fun romantic comedy, probably best left unanalyzed to maintain a sense of allure. And, with that, I’ll take my leave with a quote from Peter Falk’s grandfather role. “Yes, you’re very smart, now shut up.”

* * * *

Rated PG

98 minutes

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