Tuesday, September 25, 2007


A celebration of storytelling

"When I was your age, television was called books."
Peter Falk as The Grandfather in The Princess Bride

By Edward Copeland
When I first saw The Princess Bride when it was released 20 years ago (to the day as a matter of fact), I really liked it. My affection for the film has only grown over the years and it has risen higher and higher in my esteem, a tough task given what a great film year 1987 was. (My 10 best list for that year also included Broadcast News, Full Metal Jacket, House of Games, Matewan, River's Edge, Angel Heart, Barfly, Jean de Florette and The Last Emperor. That didn't even include other worthy offerings such as The Dead, The Untouchables, Hope and Glory, Radio Days, Robocop, Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, Manon of the Spring, Roxanne, Red Sorghum, Au Revoir Les Enfants and A Taxing Woman, to mention several others). Still, today is for The Princess Bride and The Princess Bride alone.

The great DVD edition of The Princess Bride contains not one but two worthwhile commentary tracks, one by director Rob Reiner and another by screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote the book upon which the film was based. If it weren't already obvious, Goldman spells out clearly his intention with both the book and the movie: He wanted to celebrate good old-fashioned storytelling and it's a joyous tale to be told.

Set within the context of a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a book to his sick grandson (Fred Savage), who'd much rather be playing video games. However, the power of the story soon pulls the kid in, even if he has early concerns that it's a "kissing book," though he picks up interest when he hears developments he approves of. As he says, "Murdered by pirates is good." Of course, there's more elements than that: Revenge, danger, lost love, swashbuckling and lots and lots of laughs. Nowhere is that exemplified better than in the early fencing scene between Westley (Cary Elwes), disquised as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). The swordplay is great, but what makes it even better is the amount of exposition and comedy that takes place within its context, filling us in on Inigo's devotion to avenging to his father and much more, though he admits there's not a lot of money in revenge. The film's structure almost resembles The Odyssey, not in a literal way, but in moving the plot forward through one setpiece after another.

The swordfight on the "Cliffs of Insanity" follows the abduction of Westley's lost love Buttercup (Robin Wright, in her film debut) after she became engaged to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), after Buttercup was told that her beloved Westley was dead. Buttercup's kidnappers include Inigo, the giant Fezzick (Andre the Giant) and their leader with the dizzying intellect, Vizzini (a hysterical Wallace Shawn). First, Buttercup faces off against shrieking eels in an escape attempt before the trio realizes they are being followed. One by one, Westley bests them all in the pursuit of his lost love, who doesn't even realize immediately who the man in the mask is and tries to bargain with him to return her to Humperdinck, arguing that she's suffered enough pain in her life. Life is pain, the disguised Westley tells her, "Anyone who says differently is selling something." After besting Inigo, he manages to leave Fezzick unconscious, advising him to "Rest well and dream of large women."

The best one though is the comic mental duel between Westley and Vizzini, frustrated by the failures of his underlings and their reluctance to kill the would-be princess. "I hired you to help me start a war," Vizzini tells them. "It's a prestigious line of work with a long and glorious tradition." I hope the architects of the current quagmire didn't take Vizzini's advice, but even if they did, they missed his even more important lesson: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." Once Westley has defeated the kidnappers and Buttercup realizes who he is and that he isn't dead, he tells her, "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it awhile."

The trials continue, through fire swamps filled with "rodents of unusual size" and eventual torture at the hands of Humperdinck, who it turns out had hired his bride-to-be's kidnappers in the first place to start the war with the country of Guilder. Once the prince's right-hand badman Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), asks if the prince would enjoy watching him work his six-fingered sadism on Westley, Humperdinck has to reluctantly decline. "I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, a wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped," the prince tells Rugen.

When Buttercup expresses a preference for death to marrying Humperdinck, he changes his mind and ends up killing Westley, something the grandson violently objects to, insisting to his grandfather that it isn't fair that Westley's dead and that Humperdinck will live at the end. "Who said that life is fair?" his grandfather asks him, before continuing the story and revealing that Westley was only mostly dead and, thanks to the now-unemployed Inigo and Fezzick and a fired miracle worker named Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife Valerie (Carol Kane), Westley is brought back to help storm the castle, rescue Buttercup and allow Inigo to kill the man who killed his father, who happens to be Count Rugen. Elwes displays such comic brilliance throughout the film, but most especially physical comic talents in the scenes where he's coming out of being "mostly dead," it really made me wonder rewatching this what happened to his career. Did making a dreadful Fatal Attraction knockoff with Alicia Silverstone relegate him to films such as Saw and guest shots on Law and Order? Robin Wright has grown into one of our best actresses (with the addition of the name Penn), even if she makes some awful choices such as Sorry, Haters, but Elwes seems to have stalled.

Of course, The Princess Bride is loaded with comic surprises. Sarandon, two years after his great work as the vampire Jerry Dandridge in Fright Night, makes a fun villain. Guest, a comic genius, actually plays it mostly straight as Rugen, telling Inigo that he's got "an overdeveloped sense of vengeance" when they finally face off and Patinkin gets to deliver the now immortal line: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Rugen even pleads for Inigo to stop saying that, but the entire world seems to have been saying it ever since, including men who worked for the late real-life mobster John Gotti in a funny story on Reiner's commentary track. Of course, the film also has one priceless comic cameo surprise. As Humperdinck prepares to make Buttercup his bride, the Impressive Clergyman turns around and reveals himself to be the late great British comic Peter Cook, who begins to speak with the word "Mawwiage," continuing to have Ws where all of his Rs should be. In addition to the mystery of what happened to Elwes' career, it's also a bit of a mystery as to what happened to Reiner as a director. He began on such a roll: This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me and then The Princess Bride. He followed that with three films that were good, but not as great as the first four: When Harry Met Sally..., Misery and A Few Good Men. Then came North and since that disaster, every film he's made has been at best passable, at worst deadly. Will Reiner ever be able to mount a cinematic comeback? I hope so. Before I close the book on The Princess Bride though, I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the biggest flaw in the film: One of the worst Oscar-nominated songs in Oscar history, and that's saying something. "Storybook Love" includes laughably bad lyrics such as "Our love is like a storybook story/It's as real as these feelings I feel." Thankfully, it was relegated to the credits and didn't mar an otherwise happy ending.

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Regarding Storybook Love: You're right. It's horrific and vapid and I think you left out the word "but" in your quote. I think it's "BUT it's as real as the feelings I feel." I actually like your edit better; in the context of the song, it actually makes sense. The emotional lyrics are as fake as a storybook.

Why did I remember this song? One of my co-workers at AT&T loved it so much she played it over and over. Listening to it should be like a coupon to get one sin removed when I die.

This is the performance Robin Wright deserves to be remembered for, not the hilariously bad Jenn-AYYYY from Forrest Gump. Maybe that movie biased me against her forever, but I think she's been lousy in almost everything she's appeared in since. Sorry, Haters was a travesty, and now she's appearing with everyone's favorite 40-year old child actress, Dakota Fanning, in the now infamous Hounddog.
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I didn't know that Moviezzz. I assumed she came straight from the soap opera Santa Barbara because of that introducting credit. I still think she is good actress, despite crap like Sorry, Haters. My favorite performance of hers is in the underrated She's So Lovely.
Great post Ed.

In William Goldman's book Which Lie Did I Tell, he speaks of this script and the SNAFU it got in to. He may have spoken to this in the commentary, but I don't know. Evidently this script came about from stories he used to tell his daughters before they went to bed.

I remember seeing this movie in a beautiful old theater here in Kansas City that of course no longer exists. I knew nothing of the film and thought it fantastic. I have to admit I have felt a bit guilty for liking it as much as I do, but this post makes me feel better about it.
Goldman talks about the many near-misses they had in getting the film made.
Nice post, Ed. Princess Bride is indeed a wonderfully charming and eminenetly enjoyable fairy tale. Reiner was the ideal choice to direct the film (I heard that Terry Gilliam was considered at one point) and the cast is perfect. Your are right that the song "Storybook Love" is pretty awful but the actual melody itself isn't so bad and actually works within the score of the film (in my opinion anyway).

One of the things I've always gotten a kick out of regarding William Goldman's treatment of Princess Bride is the conceit that he didn't actually write it himself but merely adapted "a classic story by S. Morgenstern." He maintains this charade so well that one is almost compelled to believe it. :)
I despise the fact that so many of you despise that lovely credits song - and I think the film is good but strangely overrated. I think I feel this way because the Elwes performance/characterisation annoys me more than it amuses me - and Patinkin is terrific but he was even better in Yentl - and Peter Cook's appearance is painfully unfunny and irritating, but Wallace Shawn is priceless and unforgettable; a mixed bag, you could say...
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