THE PRINCESS BRIDE, 1987
A young boy is home sick from school, when his grandfather arrives and begins to read to him from a story book. The tale of Buttercup and Westley, who live in the faraway land of Florin, then unfolds. They fall in love but are separated, and Buttercup believes Westley has been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Years later, Buttercup, now betrothed to the villainous Prince Humperdinck, is kidnapped on the eve of her wedding. A mysterious man in black appears to do battle with the kidnappers and save Buttercup. Westley eventually reveals himself to Buttercup as the man in black, who has survived his encounter with the Dread Pirate Roberts, and together they set off to escape Humperdinck and his men, only to be caught and separated again. The Princess Bride, Buttercup and her true love, Westley, eventually endure many tests and trials before their ultimate and inevitable reunion.
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This adaptation of William Goldman’s 1973 novel of the same name, is as heavily indebted to the history of the movies as it is to the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, which its title and its core story are meant to evoke. William Goldman was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, e.g. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), when he wrote this children’s book and he, along with director, Rob Reiner, made it into a deeply affectionate tribute to the Saturday matinee idols of their youth, particularly to the swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn. It is a swiftly paced, beautifully shot and often funny adventure fantasy, that is aided greatly by its large cast, as well as Goldman’s imaginative writing.
The story itself is the proverbial roller coaster ride which never lags and features every familiar figure from the world of fairy tales, from giants to a wicked prince; a beautiful princess in waiting to a wizened old wizard. Goldman throws in a few inventions of his own along the way - in the Fire Swamp, for instance, where Buttercup and Westley hide from their pursuers, they must battle Rodents of Unusual Size, monsters which are fun to watch and which conjure up memories of cheap horror flicks. The film is memorably shot by Adrian Biddle who successfully evokes a technicolor story book landscape. Florin is a world unto itself of gauzy meadows and moonlit waters, and which features Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher standing in for the Cliffs of Insanity where the Man In Black first does battle with the three marauders who have kidnapped Buttercup.
The key to the film’s success, however, is its cast, which Rob Reiner has directed with a sure hand. This is especially true in the comedic interludes, which dominate the film except for the love story between Westley and Buttercup. Their story is always presented in iconic fairy tale terms, as when Westley earnestly declares to Buttercup on his return from his encounter with the Dread Pirate - “Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it for awhile.” Cary Elwes as Westley, seems cast as much for his resemblance to the young Errol Flynn as for his acting ability, but he achieves the requisite romantic chemistry with Robin Wright’s Buttercup. She has a lovely natural honesty in the part that makes even the most shopworn of romantic cliches seem fresh.
Every other situation is played for laughs and Reiner is assisted by a group of wonderful comic actors. As a result, he manages to strike a winning balance between humor and romance. William Shawn as Vizzini, one of Buttercup’s inept kidnappers, is a scrappy little gnome of a bad guy, constantly in everyone’s face, arguing and complaining. Mandy Patinkin as Montoya, one of Vizzini’s partners in crime, who is seeking revenge for his father’s death, is like a figure out of comic opera, sporting a campy accent and dueling his way through the film. Chris Sarandon as the wicked Prince Humperdinck and Christopher Guest as Count Rugen, his equally repugnant co-conspirator, are perfect comic villains, always more silly than scary. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane have a wonderful cameo appearance at the climax of the film as Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie, an ancient bickering couple who live in a tree but kvetch like Borscht Belt comedians.
In the framing story, Peter Falk as the grandfather and Fred Savage as his grandson have a gently funny rapport. The intermittent return to them throughout the telling of Buttercup’s story is not intrusive as it might have been, as Reiner sets an appropriately light tone for this material. We’re never really in doubt about the outcome of the tale and therefore don’t resent a bit of meandering in its telling.
“The Princess Bride” is a re-imagining of the fairy tale, from the point of view of a writer and director saturated in the equally powerful world of classic adventure movies. Together, William Goldman and Rob Reiner, create a magical combination of fantasy, romance, comedy and action that has not dated in the least.