The Princess Bride (1987,USA)
Director: Rob Reiner Starring: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Andre The Giant, Wallace Shawn
To say that as a child I enjoyed movies slightly beyond my recommended age range is something of an understatement. Before I’d hit double digits I’d graduated (with the full blessing of my parents) onto Robocop and Terminator and (without the blessing of my parents and with the benefit of friends with even more liberal folks) it wasn’t long before I was onto the various Nightmares on Elm Street and had survived a few Friday the Thirteenths to boot. I’ve always thought it funny how once the pandora’s box of movies for grown ups was opened I lost a lot of interest in kid orientated or family films. They just couldn’t cut it any more. Who cares about singing animals or fairytale magic when Murphy needs to visit seven kinds of pain on the people that tried to kill him? And yet, there are definitely family orientated films, kids films, that stick out in my memory as being among some of the best films I’ve ever seen. Like The Princess Bride.
The Rob Reiner helmed adaptation of William Goldman’s (yes, THE William Goldman responsible for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and A Bridge Too Far among many, many others) book is a whimsical fairy story of true love, swashbuckling, sorcery, giants, pirates, princes and bloody revenge. Blood revenge? In a kids movie? Well, it’s not that bloody I suppose (it is a bit bloody) but it’s most definitely revenge.
Told as a story within a story it sees a poorly young boy (Fred Savage) being read a fairy story by his kindly grandfather (Falk in a loveable yet suitably wry turn) in order to stave off the boredom of being bed bound. Reluctant at first, the boy is soon gripped by the story of a farm boy Westley (Elwes) seperated from his true love Buttercup (Wright) who is subsequently bound over to marry the highly unpleasant Prince Humperdinck (Sarandon). When an evil plot to abduct and murder Buttercup is put into motion by a trio of mismatched brigands (Shawn, Patinkin and Andre the Giant) a mysterious masked man comes to her rescue and a much more sinister plot is uncovered.
All this is delivered with a healthy dose of old school swash buckling that would make Errol Flynn proud and some of the wittiest and most memorable dialogue you could hope for. The ensemble cast is absolutely superb. As over the top and utterly exaggerated the characters and the story is, they play it more or less straight throughout to great effect. The interplay between Shawn, Patinkin and Andre the Giant is a definite highlight, Shawn’s arrogant, wannabe intellectual Vizzini browbeating Patinkin’s washed up Spanish swordsman Inigo and Andre’s giant brute Fezzik into doing his bidding making for many amusing moments.
Effectively it serves as a spoof of typical fairytales, packed with the usual cliches which get usurped on a regular basis by the twists and turns in the plot. The thing that stayed with me most of all about the film is the darkness of some of the moments. Inigo’s revenge against the man who killed his father is delivered with a bitter intensity (an electrifying performance from Patinkin, fuelled by the premature death of his own father in real life) that you wouldn’t immediately associate with a children’s film but which is possibly the finest scene in the entire movie. Threats of murder, actual murder, torture – the stuff the proper fairytales were packed with before the became softened over the years – abound throughout and lend the film an edge that is missing from most of the dull, sanitised children’s fodder that seems to flood the market these days.
I think this is the secret of the film’s success. Because it has been written by a ‘proper’ writer, someone used to dealing with these themes and who seems to have taken a conscious, resolute decision not to patronise children by softening the story it becomes a far more intriguing proposition than your run of the mill kiddie flick. It’s intelligent, it’s mature and it treats its intended audience with respect and that is probably why it stood out in my mind among the science fiction and horror movies that were competing for my attention at the time. Even if you compare it to something like Shrek, probably the rough equivalent today, The Princess Bride dwarfs it for sheer wit and originality. Suddenly the much loved and celebrated pseudo-Scottish troll doesn’t seem so clever or edgy in the presence of such brilliance. (I never really saw the appeal of Shrek but then I’d seen this film many, many times before I ever clapped eyes on Myer’s creation so that could have a lot to do with it.)
Granted, there are some torch burners making movies with a similar ethos today. Studio Ghibli and Pixar spring to mind with their complex and interesting children’s stories that maintain that tradition of darkness inherited from the Brothers Grimm and their ilk. I’m not sure if anyone has ever made a live action film that comes close to matching The Princess Bride though for sheer wit and charm. Frankly, the idea that someone ever will seems inconcievable.