Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by William Goldman – based on his 1973 novel of the same name
I think, one of the greatest testaments to how wonderful a movie this is can be found in the fact that it is so recognized now, 22 years after it’s release, and it was virtually unheard of when it was in theaters. The studio, 20th Century Fox, didn’t know how to market this delightfully warm hearted comedy adventure film to audiences in 1987 and it barely made a blip on the box office radar. It was well reviewed by the likes of Siskel and Ebert who gave it a “two thumbs up” and Time listed the film as one of the best of ’87.
Now, I was only 12 in 1987. But movies were my life already. I went to them constantly. But this movie was one that didn’t find me watching it in a dark theater. No, it was a VHS discovery for me. Much as it was for most of us who’ve come to know and love this film over the years.
Upon re-watching the film for this review (quite possibly my 100th viewing of the film, really) I tried to think as I watched it, “What makes this movie so long lasting?”
It could be a number of things… it could be the fairy tale nature of it… or the swashbuckling pirates in it… or the classic fencing scenes… or the comedy of it… or the traditional telling of a damsel in distress and her hero… or the tale of vengeance… or the…
The list of things this movie is goes on and on and on. It’s a densely woven film that incorporates so many storytelling devices that appeals to the child in so many of us. On their own any one of these devices can make for an entertaining film. Together in one movie they run the risk of overwhelming one another.
But not here. Somehow, in this little film from Rob Reiner all the pieces seem to fit in a delightful symphony of storytelling.
I think a big credit for this can be found in the casting. Rob Reiner did a brilliant job of finding actors who would play their parts without trying to “make the movie their own.” I think one of my complaints with movies that try to do what The Princess Bride did have a tendency to get lost as a vehicle for one actor’s ego. The danger of the “marquee actor.” As audiences we’ve grown too comfortable letting Hollywood tell us that we’ll only see movies that star someone with a certain marketability or command a certain opening at the box office. The Princess Bride has no “Jim Carey” or “Adam Sandler” or “Mike Meyers” in it. Not to poo poo those guys too heavily, because some of what they do is genius. But often times they themselves seem to get caught up in their own hype and the movies become a disaster of self-serving showmanship. A “look at me” mentality that puts the actor above all else, including their castmates, the script and the audience.
But that’s not what happened with The Princess bride. Sure, there are some broadly painted characters here, like the Sicilian Vizzini played by the always silly Wallace Shawn. This character is so incredibly involved with appreciating his own greatness, he’s almost written to be played as someone who would steal the show. But Shawn’s portrayal of the character is something more nuanced than that. When Vizzini speaks he is so full of himself, he is so outrageous in his undying belief that he’s superior to everyone it’s comical. And what makes this work is the way Shawn plays this character so straight forwardly. Every line delivery has motivation to it. Every outburst has a reason. He doesn’t just launch into over the top tyrades, he lets the character bubble and build to them. And then he lashes out in a verbal tirade that is both biting and to the point while always being brief so as not to overwhelm the overall scene. His interactions with Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya and Andre The Giant as Fezzik are priceless. Each of these men bring a minimalist portrayal to the characters allowing themselves to selflessly fit into the narrative where they belong. No one character trying to steal the spotlight from each other. They each do their part to serve the story and in so doing they really elevate each other’s parts and scenes to wonderful levels.
Patinkin’s Inigo is not a big talker. He doesn’t have the long tirades that Vizzini has. But what makes Inigo work is his undying devotion to the vengeance of his father’s death to the six fingered man Count Rugen, played by Christopher Guest. Inigo is so devoted to his goal, so singularly focused on this vow to his father that he’s an incredibly lovable character even if he is a “villian” when we first meet him. Yes, he’s part of the band who kidnaps Buttercup (Robin Wright) and we initially are lead to believe he’s just a thug… but we start to see fairly quickly that there’s a gentleness to his soul. The way he interacts with Fezzik after Vizzini berates them is so kind, and so gentle that you see that this man has a big heart. He cares for Fezzik in a way that a small minded, hardened criminal wouldn’t. He plays rhyming games with the Giant and compliments him on his gift, an act that brings a smile back to the Giant’s face and warms not just his heart but ours as well. We also come to realize that the Giant who knocked out the princess with just a squeeze to the neck from his mighty paw is just a big cuddly teddy bear himself with a low self esteem and an almost childlike personality. Suddenly we realize that the Princess isn’t in complete danger with this lot, she’s only mostly in danger.
Of course, the film also has the wonderful performances of Cary Elwes (Westley “The Dread Pirate Roberts”), Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck), Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal (Miracle Max) and Carol Kane (Max’s wife). Each of these actors brings something unique to the table. Each one has a portrayal of their character that rings true to the character and to the film. No one, not even Billy Crystal steals the show from anyone. Each player gives a solid performance that is nuanced and real to the world we are visiting. It’s a delight to see them all interact and play with each other in this fictional world.
I’m starting to see a trend now with my reviews… In each of these first three films it is character that comes to the forefront of my review. It is how these characters interact, it is in how real they are portrayed that I find my greatest enjoyment of the films. Be it the drama of Casablanca, the humor and irreverence of The Breakfast Club or the childlike fairy tale adventure of a film like The Princess Bride, if I can’t believe in the characters I can’t invest myself in the movie. This is a combination of loving good writing and good performances. No matter what type of film it is, those two things must always be true. I think if any film can start with good writing, and good actors who are there to serve the story, then a film is off to a great start. Do you agree? What are your thoughts on the performances in this film? Be sure to let me know in the comments below!
As is true with Casablanca and with The Breakfast Club, The Princess Bride is a wealth of quotable material. So many of these lines can be started by one person and then finished by the group. It’s amazing. Here’s a few of my favorites.
The Grandson: A book?
Grandpa: That’s right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I’m gonna read it to you.
The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…
The Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
Grandpa: Oh, well, thank you very much, very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.
Buttercup: You can die too for all I care.
[pushes him down a high hill]
Westley: AS… YOU… WISH.
Buttercup: Oh my sweet Westley what have I done?
[throws herself down same hill]
Inigo Montoya: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
Inigo Montoya: That Vizzini, he can *fuss*.
Fezzik: Fuss, fuss… I think he like to scream at *us*.
Inigo Montoya: Probably he means no *harm*.
Fezzik: He’s really very short on *charm*.
Inigo Montoya: You have a great gift for rhyme.
Fezzik: Yes, yes, some of the time.
Vizzini: Enough of that.
Inigo Montoya: Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?
Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead.
Vizzini: No more rhyming now, I mean it.
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I could go on and on with these… so I won’t… but feel free to add them in down in the comments section!
I should also mention the great Peter Falk before I wrap up this review. He played the Grandpa in the film… again a character without a lot of lines (not counting reading the story)… but somehow, through performance, through his nucanced behaviors… the way he looks at his grandson, the way he gently guides him through the “scary parts” of the book, nudging him to open up his mind to new ideas and unconventional thinking (What you mean nobody kills Humperdinck!) we are at once familiar and comfortable with this old man. I feel as though I’m listening to my own grandfather telling me the tale of The Princess Bride. It’s comforting. And when his grandson asks him to come and read it to him again Falk’s gentle “As you wish,” carries more weight and love in it than even Westley’s does in the fairy tale.
So what do you think! Let me know below!