October 2023

The Princess Bride (1987)

DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner

CAST: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Peter Falk, Fred Savage


The Princess Bride has a few things about it that make it such a unique and beloved film.  Firstly, it is that rare “family movie” that appeals equally to children and adults.  Secondly, it is possible to enjoy it both as a traditional fairy tale and a tongue-in-cheek parody thereof. 

The Princess Bride is constructed as a story within a story, beginning with a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a book to his sick grandson (Fred Savage, later of Boy Meets World), with occasional side trips back to the “real world” as the boy interrupts to complain about the kissing, or the grandfather skips over boring parts.  The fairy tale is set in the land of Florin, where peasant girl Buttercup (Robin Wright) falls in true love with stableboy Westley (Cary Elwes), but believes he is lost at sea while seeking their fortune.  Years later, she is in a loveless engagement to the self-absorbed and amusingly-named Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), but is kidnapped by the conniving Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his lackeys: the giant Fezzick (Andre the Giant) and the Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) who has waited all his life to confront the six-fingered man who murdered his father and tell him “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”  Whisking Buttercup across the sea to the country of Guilder, which Vizzini plans to frame for her death, they are pursued by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who turns out to be the faithful Westley coming to the rescue.  But to be reunited, Buttercup and Westley will have to confront The Screaming Eels, The Cliffs of Insanity, a swordfight with Inigo, a wrestling match with Fezzick, a duel of wits with Vizzini, The Fire Swamp, R.O.U.S. (Rodents Of Unusual Size), and Prince Humperdinck and his henchman Count Rugen (Christopher Guest).

Based on the book by author and screenwriter William Goldman (responsible for such diverse material as this, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Marathon Manwho has named The Princess Bride as one of the only movie versions of his books he was completely satisfied by), The Princess Bride was supposedly inspired by conventional fairy tales Goldman read as a boy, but filtered through a satirical adult imagination, and the result is something like a perhaps slightly more restrained version of a Brothers Grimm story adapted for the screen into an Errol Flynn swashbuckler and performed by Monty Python.  There are plenty of funny bits, most more from witty dialogue than the easier route of camp.  Prince Humperdinck is said to be able to track a falcon on a cloudy day.  He and Count Rugen have a torture chamber for their enemies with the typically portentous name of The Pit of Despair.  The verbal repartee between Westley and Inigo in their duel is as memorable as the swordfighting itself.  The biggest laugh-out-loud moment is supplied by Peter Cook as a clergyman with a severe speech impediment.  At the same time, there are duels, pursuits across the sea and up cliffs, and a climactic storming of the prince’s castle.  When Inigo finally has his revenge on the six-fingered man, the audience’s cheers are genuine.  The Princess Bride is a cheerfully silly movie, but it never strays too far into spoofing itself for its fairy tale to lose its charm, staying witty and decidedly irreverent without going too over-the-top.  In spite of all the silliness going on, we root for Buttercup, Westley, and Inigo.

Among the cast, there’s not a bad casting choice to be found.  Robin Wright is lovely and affects a convincing British accent.  Cary Elwes is suitably dashing, and yet with a sly smirk and wink at the camera as he parodies Errol Flyn-type swashbuckling derring-do without ever quite tipping the scales too far in the direction of either romantic action or spoof.  Mandy Patinkin, complete with Spanish accent, is equally adept at comedy, action, and the movie’s few moments of heartfelt drama.  Like Patinkin, Andre the Giant makes Fezzik instantly lovable even if he’s supposedly a “bad guy”. Wallace Shawn is sometimes hilarious (his convoluted explanation about which cup is poisoned during the battle of wits has to be paid careful attention to before it makes a kind of twisted sense), as are Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in heavily made-up cameos.  Chris Sarandon underlines Humperdinck’s every utterance with a delicious pompousness, and equally deadpan is Christopher Guest as the cowardly but sadistic Count Rugen.

The Princess Bride is a rare “family film” that truly has something to offer for the entire family.  Children will be enthralled by the derring-do, while the satirical winks will speak more to adults.  The screenplay features Goldman at his wittiest, with memorable bits practically every time anyone opens their mouth, and Reiner, no stranger to satire (he also directed Christopher Guest in the rock band mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap), shows he knows how to handle the material, never tipping his hand too far in one direction or another.  Perhaps best of all, the fairy tale retains its charm and a certain innocence in spite of all the satire.  It’s clear that Reiner is not spoofing the material mockingly, but with true affection (Shrek is probably The Princess Bride‘s closest cousin as far as tone).  “Classic” is an overused word, but it applies to The Princess Bride, quite simply one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films ever made, and ingeniously walking a tightrope to work just as well on every one of its multiple levels.  Many films have tried the same, but few have succeeded with as much skill and balance.