“The Princess Bride” is a fairy tale.
It’s a story from a storybook, read to a child, by a grandfather. Brought to life and put on the big screen for us to treasure.
It’s a blend of comedy, romance, and adventure, and it gets the recipe just right.
“The Princess Bride” is an adaptation of a 1973 novel by famed Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman. Goldman has 29 credits as a writer on IMDb. Including this movie, his credits include “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Marathon Man”, “All the President’s Men”, “Heat”, and “A Few Good Men,” amongst others. That’s quite a résumé.
The actual roots of this story are in children’s stories – stories he used to tell his daughters. When he asked them what his new book should be about, one of them requested a story about a princess, the other wanted it to be a story about a bride.
“The Princess Bride” was born.
Goldman tried to bring the book to the screen for over a decade, coming close on several occasions. The project was greenlit multiple times, only to face studio closure, studio exec turnover and lack of financial backing. It wasn’t until Rob Reiner approached him seeking out the rights that the project actually happened. Reiner had read the book years earlier, and when his thoughts turned to doing an adaptation for his next project after “The Sure Thing”, “The Princess Bride” was the first book he thought of.
Rob Reiner is undervalued by pop culture as a director, in my opinion. He had a decade long run of MTESS worthy movies in the mid 80s to early 90s, including “This is Spinal Tap” (’84), “Stand by Me” (’86), “The Princess Bride” (’87), “When Harry Met Sally” (’89), “Misery” (’90) and “A Few Good Men” (’92), yet he never seems to get mentioned when the discussions turn to great directors. Certainly, he’s dropped off since, but six classics are more than most directors can boast, and there are any number of directors who get brought up before Reiner who actually have less jewels in their crowns.
The movie is framed as a story from a storybook. A grandfather (the legendary Peter Falk), is reading the story to his grandson (Fred Savage). At the onset, the boy has little interest. He’s been playing video games… and having his cheek pinching Grandpa read to him is far less appealing. However, as the story progresses, the boy grows more and more attentive.
Like the audience, he falls under the story’s captivating spell.
The story is the tale of a young woman, Buttercup (Robin Wright), and a young man, Westley (Cary Elwes), who fall deeply in love. He is a farm hand on her farm, and for years says nothing to her but “As you wish”. However, every time he looks at her, he gazes at her with utter adoration. Eventually, she becomes smitten with him as well.
In order to provide for their livelihood, Westley sets out to find his way in the world. He is rumored to be killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts while at sea, however, and the news reaches Buttercup. She is despondent.
Once he is believed lost, Buttercup is selected to marry Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). It’s not her choice, but she believes Westley dead, so she agrees to the marriage. Before they are wed, however, she’s kidnapped by a trio looking to start a war (it’s a time-honored profession). As the trio make off with her, they’re tracked down by an indefatigable pirate. One by one, he out duels, out wrestles and outsmarts them and relieves them of the captive Princess to be.
Buttercup is irate. The pirate is the Dread Pirate Roberts, the same pirate captain who killed her love so long ago. The “Pirate” however, turns out to be her long-lost love Westley himself. Together, they flee Humperdinck and his men. They traverse the perilous “fire swamp”, only to be captured by the Prince and his men on the other side. The two are split up, with Buttercup being taken back to be married, and Westley taken off to the pit of despair to be tortured and killed.
But true love cannot be defeated. The two cannot be kept apart. Two of the kidnappers Westley defeated, the swordsman (Mandy Patinkin) and the giant (André the Giant), rescue him and take him to a local medicine man (Billy Crystal) to be healed. They then join with Westley in his effort to infiltrate the castle. For the swordsman, revenge awaits. For Westley, his true love. And Fezzik, the giant? Well, Fezzik helps them because it’s the right thing to do.
A storybook ending awaits.
The production was memorable for the cast and crew in a variety of ways.
Mandy Patinkin claims he was able to imbue his infamous “You killed my father” line with such pathos because his own father was actually deceased by that point in his life. He was actually expressing his own remorse over the loss of his fathers whenever he uttered the line. He and Cary Elwes each learned to fence using either hand for their scenes in the film. They do all the sword fighting in the film themselves, save for the gymnastics flips. Remarkably, the only injury either of them suffered was when Patinkin bruised a rib trying to stifle laughter watching Billy Crystal do his Miracle Max schtick. He shared scenes with Crystal, so he couldn’t follow Reiner’s lead… reportedly, the director couldn’t refrain from laughing, so he would leave the set when Crystal’s was filming his part.
Bill Goldman wrote the character of Fezzik based on the late André the Giant. He had seen him wrestle in Madison Square Garden. André had trouble enunciating his lines clearly, and was also coming off of serious back surgery, making his scenes difficult for him. For a character supposed to be so strong, he actually had difficulties lifting anything. The film had to use a variety of work arounds. But he was happy to participate in the project. His size had always made him a candidate for Hollywood bit parts – he made his acting debut in 1975 as Big Foot on “The Six Million Dollar Man”, and has 12 credits to his name on IMDb - but the role of Fezzik was always his favorite.
Not everyone came away with such pleasant memories. Mel Smith (The Albino) has never watched the movie, due to his painful experience filming the part. He wore coloured contact lenses and was actually allergic to the lens solution used. He was in constant pain and discomfort throughout the shoot. So much so he refuses to relive the memory.
The dialogue for the film is legendary. Sharp witted and hysterical. It’s an infinitely quotable movie. Who hasn’t said, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” at one point or another? Or mimicked Wallace Shawn’s squeaky voice and blurted out, “Inconceivable?” or deadpanned “Mawigge!” during a wedding? The script of this movie abounds with witticisms. “Have fun storming the castle!”
The dialogue isn’t the only example of clever writing, of course. The names and locations alone are worth the price of admission. The shrieking eels, the cliffs of insanity, the fire swamp, the lightning sand, the rodents of unusual size, the pit of despair.
But perhaps the best aspect of the script is the way it cleverly subverts genre clichés. The dueling swordsmen actually earn respect for each other and become friends. Even though it’s a dream sequence, the newly crowned Queen is booed as the Queen of Slime for betraying her true love. The hero arrives too late to stop the wedding, and immobile, needing to be carried. One of the main villains turns and runs when finally confronted. The captive princess contemplates suicide.
These are things that Fairy Tales don’t do.
The movie boasts an abundance of charm. There may not be any sports in it, actually, and it does have kissing, but it’s a story that everyone can get behind. Even little boys. It has action, adventure, romance and humor. In ways, it feels like the classic fairy tales we’ve all been raised on. But then when you least expect it, it will take a clever turn and the result feels completely fresh.
The characters of this movie are indelible. The drunken swordsman, bent on revenge, Inigo Montoya. The lovable giant Fezzik. The smarmy, evil Humperdink. The weaselly Vizzini, the six fingered Count Rugen, Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie. And of course, the two young lovers, Buttercup and Westley.
The film has kidnapping, pirates, sword fights, monsters, storming a castle, and of course, an overwhelming, enduring, true love. And interspersed throughout, is the tender framework of a grandfather spending time with a grandson, reading him a story. It’s a movie full of comedy and adventure, romance and wit.
Though not a huge success upon its release, it’s earned a place of esteem in the collective consciousness. People who love this movie cherish it, and deservedly so.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”