The Princess Bride (1987)

2009-10-16 15:38
The Princess Bride (1987)

Not only is The Princess Bride an instant classic – the sort of film that ensures its place in our collective consciousness by virtue of its wit and outstanding quality, but it also shows even the most cynical of us how entertaining a good love story can be.

It has everything – a great cast, quotable script, razor-sharp wit, and magical romance at its heart. It also set a new standard for cinematic fairytales that went far beyond singing teapots and 1950s white bread moralising. Without The Princess Bride there would be no Shrek, simple as that.

The film starts with a young Fred Savage (the kid from The Wonder Years, for anyone too young to remember him) sick in bed, and his grandfather (a deadpan Peter Falk) reading him the story of The Princess Bride. The first ever postmodern fairytale? You decide.

The romance takes place between a spoilt young woman, Buttercup (Robin Wright-Penn), and Westley the stable boy (Cary Elwes). His humility wins her heart, but he leaves her to seek his fortune and is reportedly killed by the humorously named Dread Pirate Roberts, leaving Buttercup in despair. She becomes betrothed to the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), but is kidnapped before the wedding, only to have the kidnappers run into a mysterious man in black who has been tracking them for many miles. And from then on things get really crazy.

As a teenage nerd fiercely rebelling against my childhood, the last thing I wanted to see was a soppy fairytale, but some friends of mine persuaded me to watch it, and I was blown away. The fact that a clichéd love story could also be so clever comes entirely out of left field, and shatter any preconceptions. 

Like its bastard grandchild Shrek, The Princess Bride has a wicked sense of humour that balances out the romance. Combining the absurdity of Monty Python’s Holy Grail with Rob Reiner’s distinctly American brand of comedy, it is still as fresh today as it was when it was made over 20 years ago, and I know many people who still quote lines from it.

Not many movies would feature a comical duel between a philosophical swordmaster and an amiable masked hero, who match their thrusting with dialogue sharper than their swords – both concentrating far more on their chatting than their fight. Halfway through the duel, both men switch hands, each trying to give the other an advantage in order to prolong the sport. It is this sort of tongue–in-cheek riffing on fantasy archetypes that very few other films manage.

Another great comedy scene comes when our hero Westley must outsmart one of the most intelligent men in the land in a game of wits involving a poisoned glass of wine. After a deeply analytical conversation, the villainous Vizzini swops the glasses and drinks, only to keel over dead. Westley’s offhand comment to Buttercup that both glasses were poisoned and he has spent years building up an immunity to the poison would probably cause the Brothers Grimm’s heads to explode.

Cary Elwes looks brilliant in the part of the dashing fairytale hero, making his often sarcastic lines even funnier. His transition from stable boy to masked pirate is great, and he has a comeback for everything. Robin Wright-Penn is decent as Buttercup, but her role requires little more than being pretty and stoic.

The supporting cast delivers some knock-out performances - especially the amazing pair of Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) who back up Westley in his attempt to rescue Buttercup. Montoya has his own fantastic backstory, seeking vengeance from a mysterious six-fingered man, and is responsible for one of the most memorable lines in the whole movie: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

It’s quite a feat that such a smart movie also appeals to children, as there are many scenes of irony-free excitement. Like any good fairytale, things are always a matter of life and death, like Westley and Buttercup’s journey through the fire swamp.

Just as The Princess Bride enthralls its young listener, it enthralls us, leaving us wanting so much more by the end. It is fortunate that there has never been a sequel to tarnish its reputation, because it is near perfect cinema – stirring up your inner child, cracking up your outer adult, and leaving you with a contented smile on your face. What more could you want?


Grandpa: [voiceover] Nothing gave Buttercup as much pleasure as ordering Westley around.
Buttercup: Farm boy, polish my horse's saddle. I want to see my face shining in it by morning.
Westley: As you wish.
Grandpa: [voiceover] "As you wish" was all he ever said to her.
Buttercup: Farm boy, fill these with water - please.
Westley: As you wish.
Grandpa: [voiceover] That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying "As you wish", what he meant was, "I love you." And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back.
Buttercup: Farm boy... fetch me that pitcher.
[It's right over her head, so he has to stand next to her]
Westley: As you wish.
[Cut to them kissing]
The Grandson: [interrupting] Hold it, hold it. What is this? Are you trying to trick me? Where's the sports?
The Grandson: Is this a kissing book?
Grandpa: Wait, just wait.
The Grandson: Well, when does it get good?
Grandpa: Keep your shirt on, and let me read.

Westley: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well... you were dead.
Westley: Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.
Buttercup: I will never doubt again.
Westley: There will never be a need.

A bit of trivia [from]
- When Count Rugen hits Westley over the head, Cary Elwes told Christopher Guest to go ahead and hit him for real. Guest hit him hard enough to shut down production for a day while Elwes went to the hospital.

- Westley's character is loosely based on Errol Flynn's character in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Director Rob Reiner even used the same conversation found in Robin Hood for Westley: "Are you finished?" "Finished? I'm only just beginning." Ironically, in 1993 Cary Elwes would go on to play Robin Hood in Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).

- There really was a "Dread Pirate Roberts" (Bartholomew Roberts) who operated in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. He is reckoned by many to have been the most successful pirate of all time.

- Despite his character Fezzik's almost-superhuman strength, André the Giant's back problems at the time prevented him from actually lifting anything heavy. Robin Wright Penn had to be attached to wires in the scene where Buttercup jumps from the castle window into Fezzik's arms because he couldn't support her himself.
A classic romantic tale that’s also sharp, modern and endlessly quotable? Inconceivable!

Mike 2009/10/18 9:07 AM
To Ivan How on earth could you write this article without even mentioning the writer, the great William Goldman? (only a 2 time Oscar winner by the way)The mind boggles! You make it sound like Reiner is the creator of this classic. Get yourself a copy of Goldman's "Four Screenplays" - which includes an essay of the creation and development of the Princess Bride. Goldman is of course an renowned cynic regarding the film business (and the continually marginalised status of screenwriters) and he would no doubt be quite amused by your article! Buy his books - Very educational.
dianne 2009/10/18 4:33 PM
Thanks for this. I thought I was the only person who thought this was one of the most hysterically funny and enjoyable movies of all time.
galamatias 2009/11/20 10:26 AM
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This great movie was the penultimate in Rob Reiner's run of genius works. How / why did he fall off the bus so heavily? Princess Bride is indispensible, just like This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally and Misery. Could someone remind Mr Reiner how great he was?
PRESHEN GOVENDER 2010/05/04 8:04 AM
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she looks very handsome
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