Perfect Movies: The Princess Bride

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Who would we, as a collective spirit, be without our stories? Fiction is one of the most complex and influential inventions in human history: our ability to create entire worlds, characters, and plots that have never been nor ever will be–and make it seem like real life–is an incredible feat of the imagination that the human animal has invented, mastered, and continually finds new configurations to create yet even more innovative stories.

We arrange words into sequences on paper that evoke and create brilliant scenes and ideas in our minds; and we take these words and bring them to life on-screen through a complex blend of images, motion, color, sound, and editing=. Although on the page is where fiction first flourishes and in the mind’s eye is where it first finds purchase, when translated correctly in TV shows and films, the dazzling impact of fiction quite literally comes to life.

Fiction tells us the stories of our lives that are too bogged down in tedious, meaningless trivialities that meaning isn’t easily discerned, experienced, and understood on a transparent level; fiction supersedes our mundane reality by presenting a representation of a reality that is far easier to understand and sanitized for clarity. It cuts through the often ambiguous nature of everyday reality to present a version of it where characters are easy to understand, the narrative traverses a clear-cut path, and dramatic events occur both frequently and with cohesion. In short, fiction is the great lie humanity uses as a strainer to present the complex, messy affair of reality in more palatable terms. God bless it.

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The Princess Bride–the much-loved 1987 comedy/fantasy/adventure film that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year–began its life as a novel published in 1973 that frequently comments upon itself and the nature of fiction. Written by William Goldman, the wildly successful writer, screenwriter, and playwright, The Princess Bride is presented in the form of an abridgment, being curated by the author, of a longer work by the fictional S. Morgenstern. In the novel, Goldman sustains a running commentary with asides throughout the main story, offering his insights to “Morgenstern’s” intent, the (fictional) history of the story’s placement in the Western canon, discussing his personal relationship to the story, and the (fictional) reactions and involvement of (real) authors in adapting the book into a film.

It’s a postmodern novel in which every bit of it–the story, the commentary, the “author” Morgenstern, and the actual author “Goldman” (written by Goldman)–is all pure fiction. In short, the novel is about stories, using a story to create a story about how stories are created and what they mean. And it’s brilliant.

Of course, it would be near-impossible (and most likely end up incoherent) to adapt the novel directly as it first appeared to film. However, Hollywood realized a great story when they saw it and stripped away Goldman’s meta conceit to focus on “S. Morgenstern’s” The Princess Bride itself as source material. Of course, Goldman–himself a very successful screenwriter–wrote the screenplay, adapting his own material for just one more postmodern turn of the screw. Although the wry, complex, and clever overlay of Goldman’s multilayered original novel wasn’t included–instead surviving in parts with the interjections of the grandfather telling the story to his sick grandson–the core story was plenty witty, clever, and evocative enough to make a memorable film. And The Princess Bride certainly is a memorable story on its own.

The Princess Bride — A Perfect Movie

A sick grandson (Fred Savage) lays in bed as his grandfather (Peter Falk) arrives to visit and tell him a story. The story is what the film enacts, The Princess Bride. Starting with a beautiful young woman named Buttercup (Robin Wright) who lives on a farm, she delights in ordering the farmhand Westley (Cary Ewles) to do chores for her, and to any request his only reply is “As you wish.” However, she realizes that she loves him and confesses her love. Westley reveals that his phrase, “As you wish,” means “I love you.” He leaves the farm to make his fortune so the two can marry but his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Believing Westley dead, five years later Buttercup acquiesces to marry Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon) and become princess of the (fictional) country of Florin. But before the wedding, she is kidnapped by a band of outlaws: arrogant Sicilian Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), a giant named Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Spanish fencing master Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), who has vowed revenge upon the six-fingered killer of his father. But a mysterious man in black is following them, along with Prince Humperdink and a coterie of his guards.

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Catching up to the kidnappers on the Cliffs of Insanity, the man in black has a chatty duel with Inigo in which they tell their stories to each other, at the end of which the man in black knocks him unconscious, then battles Fezzik by choking him until he blacks out, and finally kills Vizzini by tricking him into drinking poison. Rescuing Buttercup, he reveals that he is the Dread Pirate Roberts. For this reveal, Buttercup shoves him off a steep hill, wishing death upon him. As he falls, however, he simply cries out “As you wish,” to which Buttercup realizes the man in black is Westley.

After a dangerous escape through the fire swamp, in which Westley tells her the story of how he came to be the Dread Pirate Roberts. Captured by Humperdink and his sadistic (six-fingered) vizier Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), Buttercup agrees to marry Humperdink so long as Westley will be freed. The prince agrees but then secretly orders Rugen to lock Westley in the castle’s torture chamber.

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After a dream in which the townspeople turn on Buttercup for denying the true love of her life, Buttercup tells the prince she no longer wants to marry him and asks for his help to find Westley. He agrees to help but instead plots to start a war with the neighboring country by killing Buttercup and framing them for her death. When Buttercup finds that Humperdinck didn’t even try to find Westley, she mocks him, which drives him to torture Westley to near-death.

Elsewhere, Inigo and Fezzik meet again and Fezzik informs Inigo that Count Rugen has six fingers. Inigo realizes they need Westley’s help to get into the castle, and fortuitously come across him in the forest. However, he’s almost dead so they bring him to Miracle Max (Billy Crystal), a wizened medical man that resides in the forest. Declaring Westley “only mostly dead,” Max revives him but Westley is in a state of heavy paralysis.

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Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik storm the castle as Humperdinck orders the wedding ceremony to hurry up. Inigo finds Rugan and repeating his vow, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” he kills Rugan. Westley finds Buttercup, who is about to commit suicide, and tells her the marriage is invalid because she never said “I do.” Still paralyzed, Westley bluffs his way out of a duel with Humperdinck, revealing the prince to be a coward. Buttercup and Westley escape the castle with Inigo and Fezzik and ride off into the night to freedom.  

In the boy’s bedroom, the boy asks his grandfather to read the story again to him the next day, to which the grandfather replies, “As you wish.”

“When I was your age, television was called books.”

The story-within-a-story nesting structure of The Princess Bride never lets the audience forget that what they’re watching is pure fiction–a children’s fairy tale supposedly written 500 years ago. But all of the characters tell each other stories, as well: Inigo tells Westley about his sad story and burning desire for revenge for his father’s murder; Buttercup spends much of the narrative justifying her actions from one character to another; and Westley takes on an entirely fictitious persona as the Dread Pirate Roberts to attain wealth. Just as the stories we tell ourselves are meant to resemble situations and choices we may make in life and the consequence of these actions, so these characters–fictitious creations–use the device of fiction to navigate their world.

Of course, the entire film has a meta quality to it, as it’s made explicit to the audience that what we’re watching is a story being told to a boy by his grandfather. These two even interject occasionally to comment upon the action or decisions made by the characters as a sort of running commentary. But true to the grand illusion of film, The Princess Bride never uses this device to pull the rug out from under the viewer’s feet but to gently remind them occasionally that what they’re watching is only a story. Although it’s brought to life in brilliant colors and populated by endearing characters speaking clever dialogue, such a tidy, thoughtfully arranged story could only ever be that: just a story.

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Genre-wise, it’s a fantasy film that never forces its hand. Even though there are slight elements of magic to it–the medicine man in the woods, the proto-electric torture machine, the fire-spewing swamp–there aren’t dragons or fairies flying around. The villains are just flesh and blood humans–selfish, stupid men, but men nonetheless. Perhaps the most fantastic element of The Princess Bride is the fairy tale tone it establishes and holds throughout, thanks to director Rob Reiner and cinematographer Adrian Biddle (who would go on to lens fantasy films such as Willow and The Mummy and whose last film as cinematographer was V for Vendetta).

Also accomplishing this film’s visual grammar is its top-notch costume and set design, which transports the viewer to the near-magical medieval realm of Florin, a country that never existed for a story to take place in that was written by a fictitious author . Juxtaposed against the common modern-day domestic setting of a boy’s bedroom, the world of The Princess Bride stands out even further in the viewer’s mind as one of fantasy. These slight-of-hand visual and stylistic touches makes The Princess Bride a rare–but highly accessible–fantasy adventure comedy romance film.

“Inconceivable!”

So rare is this unique film that it took thirteen years for it to be adapted to the screen. Goldman’s original book, published in 1973, was immediately optioned to be made into a movie. Originally, in the 70’s, director Richard “A Hard Day’s Night” Lester was set to direct, but after the head of production at Fox was fired the project was put on hiatus. Goldman bought the rights back with his own money and the film went through several finance deals over the next decade, with the early 1980s finding Christopher Reeve tentatively attached to play Westley, before Rob Reiner secured funds to make the film through Norman Lear.

The production itself was a little outside of Hollywood standards, with production companies set up specifically to make the film–specifically, Buttercup Films and The Princess Bride Ltd. Goldman wrote the screenplay and with the cast in place, the film was shot across various locations in Great Britain and Ireland. Released on September 25, 1987, The Princess Bride was only a modest success at the box office, taking in $30 million on its $16 million budget.

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But then, like many great films, something wonderful happened when it was released on home video: it found its audience. Children loved it for the adventure story and likable characters; boys liked it for the action and fencing while girls appreciated its romantic story. Parents enjoyed the film’s comedy as much as the children and were grateful that a film existed they could watch with the whole family that didn’t have any questionable content.

In fact, the most remarkable aspect of The Princess Bride is that it’s a film that can be enjoyed by everybody. Old, young, men and women, there is something for everybody in The Princess Bride and almost nothing that can offend. There’s no racism, no politics, and nothing that relates to the modern world that could potentially stir up resentment or anger in a viewer. That may be its greatest success: by setting the film so far in the past, in a made-up land, it became timeless as a result. Watching The Princess Bride in 2017 is the same exact experience as watching it in 1987. For a generation that grew up watching the film, they have the pleasure–like the grandfather in the film does telling the story to his grandson–of watching it with their own children, who similarly won’t find it dated.

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Now viewed as a classic film (which it is), The Princess Bride retains its charm, humor, and likability because it is a film that takes place outside of our reality and in a better one, where romantic endeavors succeed after being fought for through all adversity, where the villains are either far too stupid to be taken seriously or end up being secretly good guys all along, where princesses and masked men trudge through fire swamps and sword fight their way to freedom. It’s a story that simply doesn’t age.

This film doesn’t age, either: although Ewles and Wright have grown older, they are both as young and beautiful as ever on-screen. Fred Savage has become a TV director but will always be the sick little boy laying in bed as his grandfather tells him a story. And although both Peter Falk and Andre the Giant have since passed, every time one watches The Princess Bride they can see them again, alive and funny as ever. Even the generation of children that watched the film when they were young have since become adults with kids of their own–but they can watch The Princess Bride at any time–maybe even when they’re feeling a little under the weather–and recapture the joy they once experienced when they were a little kid watching it. Maybe they’ll even watch it with their own children.

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It’s the 30th anniversary of The Princess Bride this year, and it’s returning to theaters for two days only: October 15 and October 18. Pick up a ticket and see it on the big screen. Bring a date, or your spouse, or your parents or your own kid. After all, it’s not just a great film but a perfect movie.

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Categories: culture, film

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