There are very few movies that, after 18 years, I react to the same way I did when I first saw it. The Princess Bride is definitely one of those movies. I get exactly the same feeling of giddy delight from watching this that I did back in 1987. As a fantasy, it takes its fairy-tale elements just serious enough that it doesn’t feel condescending while still managing a knowing wink at a normally cynical modern audience.
Rob Reiner‘s fourth movie is as different from the three that came before it as they are from each other and nothing much like the many he has directed since. He obviously brings a great deal of love and respect to William Goldman‘s original novel and successfully communicated his enthusiasm to a talented cast.
The films signature conceit is that it is really is a story book, being read by a grandfather (Peter Falk) to his grandson (a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage), who’s sick in bed and initially less than enthused by Grandfather’s choice of reading material (“I’ll try to stay awake”).
We begin with a young girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) whose greatest pleasure is ordering around a young farm boy named Westley (Cary Elwes), who simply replies “As you wish” to her every demand. It’s obvious that he is in love with her and equally obvious the feeling is mutual, much to the consternation of the Grandson: “This isn’t a kissing book, is it?”
Anyway, Westley goes off to make his fortune and winds up getting killed by pirates. A despondent Buttercup winds up engaged to the heir to the throne of Florin, Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) before being kidnapped by Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his two reluctant henchmen, master swordsman Inigo (Mandy Patankin) and the giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant), as part of a plot to start a war between two rival nations. This is all before we’re fifteen minutes into this movie.
Vizzini and company find themselves pursued by a mysterious man in black who easily bests Inigo with his sword and outfights Fezzik before facing off with Vizzini in a deadly battle of intellects. Finally freed of her abductors, Buttercup lashes out her rescuer, whom she believes is the man who killed Westley years before. “You can die for all I care,” she says, shoving him down a steep hill. “As you wish,” is his only reply.
I’m not even going to try summarizing any more of the plot, because it’s really not much more than excuse for exciting swordplay, thrilling escapes, witty dialogue, Cliffs of Insanity, Rodents of Unusual Size and a chocolate-covered miracle. The dream-like cinematography perfectly suits the story’s off-center storybook roots.
The film’s two young leads, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, are perfectly cast, being fresh enough to be convincing as fairy-tale romantic leads while still intelligent enough to be in on the joke. The simple look that Buttercup gives Westley when he remarks that the Fire Swamp “isn’t so bad” is just priceless. Elwes has always been good at playing off his looks for comedic effect and he was never better than in The Princess Bride. Robin Wright is, well, Robin Wright, beautiful, sweet and surprisingly funny.
Chris Sarandon has a thankless role as the venal prince but he has the chance to inject a sense of fun into the part. Christopher Guest vanished into the role of Humperdinck’s chief henchman and head torturer, Count Rugen, giving a performance that you’d expect from Claude Rains forty years earlier. Both actors are also able to slyly suggest, in just a couple of scenes, that although Humperdinck is going to marry Buttercup, the relationship between the two men is something other than “professional.”
Mandy Patankin’s acting resume does not generally suggest “action hero,” but he obviously uses his musical theater background to bring out the theatricality of the roguish Spaniard. And despite obviously not being an actor, Andre the Giant brings a sweetness to the role that makes up for the fact that you can’t understand half of what he says. Wallace Shawn isn’t in the film for long, but he makes a big impression. Just walk up to anyone and say “Inconceivable!” with a slight lisp and, nine times out of ten, they will know exactly what you’re talking about.
Finally, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane appear briefly as an unemployed miracle worker and his nagging wife in one of the film’s comic highlights. There’s always a danger that scenes like these are going make a film grind to a halt but this film is smart enough not to let them overstay their welcome.
I think better than almost any other film, The Princess Bride disproves the axiom that somehow “escapist” equals dumb. Watching this movie lets you give your brain a couple hours off without having to check it at the door.