Film 2018: The Princess Bride


Originally, this was going to be another sub-titled film session. Possibly, I was going to choose Delicatessen, or maybe Swimming Pool. But it’s been a stressful week, and I was seeking out simple things to read, books I didn’t have to think about whilst reading, books I had no intention of writing about. I turned to my dog-eared, second hand copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and from that naturally to its twenty-years later sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which Goldman details experiences with a new set of films, made and unmade. One such is The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel. The moment I turned to that page, I realised that it had been ages since I’d watched it, and that I needed to watch it again as soon as possible.

Good morning.

Back in 1987, I was a regular, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Crown & Anchor, on Port Street, just back of Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, meeting a group of friends who had originally got together as comics and SF fans. This had been going on for several years. By this time, I usually gave John and Brian lifts home, even though this was miles out of my way, and John would often invite us in for a cup of tea with his elderly Mam and Dad (his Mam would cut the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons out of the Daily Express for me: lovely lady) and a chat. One Tuesday night, Film 87 was showing and Barry Norman showed a clip from a forthcoming film, The Princess Bride.

It was the clifftop scene. Two men – Inigo Montoya, a Spaniard seeking revenge for his father, slaughtered by a six-fingered man, played by Mandy Patinkin, and the Man in Black, a mysterious pursuing figure, played by Cary Elwes – are about to fight a duel withe swords.

And, oh my word, but this is brilliant! It’s an honest-to-goodness, stunningly athletic, Errol Flynn/Tyrone Powers swordfight, all flashing blades, athletic charges up and down rocks, superb poise, and running through it is this wonderfully ironic but completely deadpan commentary from the characters. In short, it’s a spoof, but it’s the only kind of spoof that really is funny, because it’s being made by people who know, and love, and understand, and respect the source, and it’s brilliantly balanced. No winks to the audience. No knowing looks that say, ‘hey, we all know this is crap, and only suckers watch stuff like this’. No mockery. It was stunning.

We all decided that we had to see this film. Blimey, if all of it was as good as this? And it is.

We didn’t go as mates, no. Instead, I took my girlfriend/love and her ten year old son, because we both knew it was the kind of film he’d love. What we didn’t reckon on was the manner of the opening, although his reactions which almost a perfect reflection of the way the film started.

William Goldman had written the novel of The Princess Bride in 1973. Like so many great stories, it started from stories made up for his children, two young daughters, one of whom wanted a story about princesses, the other a story about brides. Then he started writing it down, but soon found himself starting to struggle, until he hit on the idea of the book being the really fun bits of a longer story. The fiction is that Goldman’s book is an abridgement of the original story by S. Morgenstern, that Goldman’s dad used to read to him whn he was a kid only now Goldman realises his dad was leaving out the boring bits, which in the Goldman version are replaced by a running commentary from Bill himself, explaining what and why he’s cut out.

To produce that effect on film, Goldman introduced the brilliant device of a young, nameless boy (Fred Savage) ill at home in bed, whose grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading him the story when the Grandson would rather be playing video game Baseball. These two are a great double act, with the Grandson interrupting the film at various times, at first to complain about a dull story, and increasingly to comment when things are going the way he expects.

This enables Goldman to set things up, all the boring but essential exposition, by having the unimpressed Grandson chipping in. All about Buttercup (Robin Wright on her debut), the most beautiful woman in the world, not just in Florin, and patient, put-upon farmboy Westley (Elwes), whose only response to her demands is “As you wish”, and how they fall in love, and kiss (“you didn’t tell me there was going to be kissing!”). And Westley goes away to seek his fortune but his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, and Buttercup’s heart was frozen, and then five years later, she’s selected to be the bride of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon, wonderfully straight-faced in the role of a cowardly, plotting, villain) except that she doesn’t love him at all.

The Grandson’s not liking this and neither is David, squirming in his seat, getting ever more furious at us for tricking him into watching such a rotten film as this…

And then Buttercup gets kidnapped by an gloriously implausible trio, consisting of a puffed-up, short, bald Sicilian plotter, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, constantly decrying every upset to his plan as “Inconceivable!”), the drunken Spaniard master swordsman, Inigo Montoya, and the slow-moving, rhyming Giant, Fezzick (wrestler and actual giant, Andre the Giant, real name A. R. Roussimoff).

This is where the film takes off. Just the look of the three, their extreme contrasts in size, their accents, Shawn’s near-shriek, was enough to take the film onto the elevated plane it would occupy from there on in. Vizzini’s trio are there to kidnap and kill Buttercup, to provoke a war between Florin and its ancient enemy, Gilder. Vizzini has planned everything to perfection. Exccept (“Inconceivable!”)…

Except the Man in Black is following them. Up the Cliffs of Insanity. Defeating Inigo in that magnificent fight. Defeating Fezzick’s strength (he’s out of practice with tackling one man, he usually fights groups, the moves are completely different). Outwitting Vizzini (“Inconceivable!!”) And confronting Princess Buttercup, with scorn for a woman who betrayed True Love, which raises Buttercup to a fury: losing Westley killed her, she will not have that mocked. She’s already realised that the Man in Black is the Dread Pirate Roberts, but only when she pushes him down a ravine and he calls “As… you… wish…” does she realise what the audience has already known for a long time, that he’s also Westley.

Oh, I forget to mention, there’s another complication. Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world. There’s nothing he loves more than hunting. Except possibly hiring Vizzini to  kidnap and kill Buttercup and frame Gilder as an excuse to conquer Gilder in war and rule the world. And he’s on the trail.

By the way, just as an aside, remember how Inigo’s father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man? Humperdinck’s confidant, right hand man, and curious investigator into pain and torture is Count Rugen (lovely underplaying by Christopher Guest, dry, quiet, almost monotonous). Who has six-fingers on his right hand.

Reunited, Westley and Buttercup try to make their escape through the Fire Swamp. This is a studio set-up, with random gouts of fire, Lightning Sands (think quicksand, only instant) and R.O.U.S (Rodents Of Unusual Size), though much of what has gone so far has been filmed in gorgeous English countryside, mostly Derbyshire/Sheffield. I’ll come back to this scene later, but for now our True Love pair get all the way through, only to find Humperdinck and Rugan and their men waiting for them.

Westley’s prepared to die with defiance, but Buttercup can’t take his dying again. She surrenders to Humperdinck on condition he spares Westley’s life. And she’s sweet and naive and innocent enough to believe him when he says he will. Westley’s well aware that he’s going to be killed, but first Rugen intends to torture him in the Pit of Despair.

Change of plan. Whilst pretending to send messages to the Dread Pirate Roberts (it’s a title, practically a franchise: Westley inherited from Ryan when he retired, who inherited it from Cummerbund, etc.,) that he can collect Buttercup if he wishes, Humperdinck moves ahead with a complex plan to set-up the murder of Queen Buttercup, on her wedding night, by Gilder agents: actually, he’s going to strangle her himself, so much more satisfying.

Except that Buttercup may be naive but she’s not stupid. She sees through his plan on the Wedding Day, and bitterly and passionately accuses Humperdinck of being a coward, a rotten, lying, despicable coward. They say the truth hurts, and in this case, Humperdinck gets so mad, he storms down to the Pit of Despair, where Westley is connected to some sort of pre-industrial electrocution machine made of wood and water, slams it up to 50, and kills Westley.

Yes, that’s right. Kills. As in Dead. Dead dead. “You’re not reading it right,” complains the Grandson.

The hero is dead. But we still have Inigo and Fezzick, skill and strength. But without Vizzini, they need a brain: who better than the Man in Black? Even if he is dead: all they need is a Miracle.

Enter a great cameo from Billy Crystal, all made-up to be oooooold and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, allowed to improvise and doing so so well that Bill Goldman confessed that he wishes he had written one of their lines. This brings Westley back to life, if not actually motion, which leads to a storming of the Castle by two-and-a-bit men.

From hereon in to the end, this just gets too good to spoil, though there’s this confrontation scene between Inigo and Rugan, in which all of Mandy Potinkin’s dialogue is repetitions of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” For months, I could reduce David to shrieks of laughter just by putting on the accent and saying “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”

And it all ends happily ever after.

The film was praised everywhere but didn’t become a commercial smash until the era of Home video.With one caveat I’m about to come to, I think it’s brilliant, and what makes it so is that it is played completely seriously throughout. The casting is perfect throughout, and everyone is not only completely comfortable in their roles, they are plainly loving every minute of it. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence to play the Clifftop scene, and that’s all them (except for the somersaults).

What makes the spoof side work so well is that they play the story entirely seriously at every moment. That’s how it works: the film respects its audience, it condescends neither to its material nor to them. It’s the perfect example of why the 1979 big budget Flash Gordon was such a piece of shite.

You can only get under the skin of something and make it so funny if you love it. You can’t do it with something you hate, that you only want to tear down.

My one caveat, and it’s something that has only struck me today, on this watching, is that the film is very male-oriented. Apart from supporting cast, there are only two female roles of any substance, and one of those is Carol Kane. There’s basically just Robin Wright, and that’s it. She’s perfect for the role and even at twenty she shoulders such an important part without any missteps. But it took the Fire Swamp sequence for me to suddenly see that hers is an almost purely passive role.

Buttercup is the incarnation of the old-fashioned Princess. She’s there to be rescued, as Westley does, time and again, in the Fire Swamp. She doesn’t have anything to do herself. There are two confrontations with Humperdinck where, once out of desperation, once out of contempt, her words change the movement of the story. And there are two points where Buttercup takes actual, physical action in her own behalf, instead of waiting for Westley to save her. The first is where she dives out of Vizzini’s boat in an attempt to escape, only to land in water infested with deadly Screaming Eels, forcing her to retreat. And the other is when she shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts in the back, down into the ravine, discovers it’s Westley back from the dead, and hurls herself after.

It’s not much. It’s certainly not any kind of subversion of the cliches. I didn’t think that way back in 1988, when we took David to the cinema, but I think that now, and it’s a blot, a tiny blot on a film that would definitely be one of the ten I’d take to a desert island with a functioning DVD player and a reliable source of electricity. The Princess Bride is out-and-out fun!

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