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The Princess Bride

I saved this one for last because writing about it means breaking one of my own rules. I promised myself at the outset that this project would only be limited to those films I haven’t already seen, so that I would learn more about the films of my birth year. But when it came to selecting a 1987 comedy, I just didn’t have a choice.

I’ll grant thatMoonstruck got an Oscar win for Cher, Beverly Hills Cop II had a chart-topping hit with Bob Seger’s “Shakedown,” Good Morning, Vietnam picked up an Oscar nod for Robin Williams, and all three films (in that order) were #3-#5 among the year’s ten highest-grossing films worldwide. They were all huge comedies in their day and I could easily have chosen any one of them, except that none of them left the kind of enduring pop culture legacy that I was looking for. Spaceballs and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were more viable candidates (albeit ones I had already seen), but even they couldn’t hold a candle to the clear champion.

When it comes to comedies that are universally beloved, endlessly quoted, and continue to make audiences laugh for years after their initial release, no film from 1987 could possibly beat The Princess Bride. Hands down, no contest.

Yes, this coming September marks the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride. I honestly have a hard time believing that it’s been so short a time. Who would have thought that after only 25 years, a film could be so thoroughly ingrained into the pop culture landscape? Practically every scene has been turned into a GIF or an internet meme. So many lines and jokes have been repeated so many times that it may well be the most quoted movie in history since The Wizard of Oz.

Yet despite its huge place in modern pop culture, the film was a very quiet success back in the day. Siskel and Ebert were happy to praise the film upon its release, ditto for critics from Time magazine and The New York Times. The movie was also a decent box office success, earning $30.8 million domestic (roughly $58.4 million, adjusting for inflation) against a $16 million budget. Why didn’t the film make more money? Here’s a possible hint: It came out a week after Fatal Attraction.

Anyway, though practically everyone has seen the film (due to the sheer ubiquity of the movie’s iconography and wit, even those people who haven’t seen the film have likely seen the film), I think it’s safe to say that relatively few have read the book. For those who aren’t aware, legendary screenwriter William Goldman adapted this screenplay from a book he wrote. Yet the book wasn’t written under Goldman’s name. Not entirely.

“The Princess Bride” is actually a story within a story, presented as an abridged work by fictional author S. Morgenstern with Goldman’s fictional commentary running throughout. The story goes that Goldman fell in love with Morgenstern’s tale when it was read to him repeatedly as a young child. He went to go find a copy for his (fictional) son, who found the book totally boring. Disheartened, Goldman finally reads the book for himself and finds whole chapters of superfluous junk that his father skipped over all those years ago. With this knowledge, Goldman sits his progeny down and reads the book as his father did before him.

This aspect of the story was adapted by way of the running storyline between the unnamed boy (Fred Savage) and his similary unnamed grandfather (Peter Falk). On one level, it works as a framing device that can be used to speed up the narrative and to make detached comments on the proceedings. On another level, it gives the movie a deeper thematic resonance. Seen through this lens, it becomes a movie about the experience of discovering a story for the first time, the relationship between (grand)parents and children, the interplay between storytellers and audiences, and the very magic of storytelling itself. The book explored all of this in a remarkably novel way, and it’s brilliantly adapted to the screen.

Of course, no one really talks about the framing device. There’s really little reason to, considering that its main purpose is to tell another story. So just what is it that makes this film so damn popular? Well, to start with, there’s the fact that this movie has everything. There’s action, there’s romance, there’s comedy, there’s fantasy, there’s something here for everyone. And somehow, the film manages to tie so many disparate parts together into a single coherent narrative.

Even better is that every single character (save only for Humperdinck’s mother) is memorable. No matter how small the part is, everyone in this movie gets at least one great scene or joke. It isn’t enough to make some toady to heal Westley in the Pit of Despair, he has to be an albino with a raspy throat to be cleared. The chief of Humperdinck’s security makes it clear with only a few minutes of screen time that he’s just a bumbling coward pretending to be otherwise. Need a voice of conscience for a brief nightmare scene? Just ramp her “crone” factor up to 11 (Rob Reiner reference!) with some close-ups for maximum effect. Hell, a clergyman is traditionally nothing but background scenery in most marriage scenes, but give this clergyman a funny speech impediment to contrast against his ornate appearance and the result is a comedy gold mine. The list goes on and on, and these are just the side characters!

There’s Vizzini’s tiny frame, bursting with energy, pride, and impotent rage. There’s Fezzik with his oafish good nature, his love of rhymes, and his incredible strength. There’s Count Rugen with his slimy, sadistic nature and his unsettlingly calm monotone. There’s Prince Humperdinck, that vain and conniving prick whom everyone loves to hate. Of course, we’ve also got Miracle Max and Valerie, both of whom have far more energy and snark than people their age should have. As for Inigo Montoya… for God’s sake, do I even need to say it?

As for the leads, I think that Buttercup and Westley are truly emblematic of what makes this film so great. Westley is handsome, dashing, brilliant, and great with a sword. Likewise, Buttercup is beautiful, loyal, spirited, and prone to speeches about how love will conquer all. And of course, their romance is pure, passionate, and unyielding. In other words, these two are everything that we’d expect a Prince Charming and his fair maiden to be.

This romance is overt light-hearted fantasy, yet it’s never played as an outright parody. Their perception of love is occasionally played for laughs, but only because their grand hyperbole is always delivered with a totally straight face. In this way, the film miraculously manages to poke fun at the concept of true love while celebrating it at the same time.

Basically — in its fantasy, its comedy, and in its romance — the whole movie manages to be fanciful enough that it can stay entertaining and earn a great deal of suspending disbelief. But at the same time, it’s all just grounded enough to provide some baseline of sense. Paradoxically, the framing device actually helps us get immersed in the story by outright telling us that this is a fairy tale. By opening the movie with a grand storyteller and a young boy for his audience, the film implicitly asks us to regress back to that young age, forgiving the somewhat contrived storytelling as we listen with a child’s ears.

It’s not every movie that earns so much audience goodwill simply by asking for it, but this film does it. Because the grandfather is such a warm personality and such a talented storyteller, and because the boy’s complaints and worries might easily echo our own, it’s that much easier to put ourselves in the boy’s place and to listen to the story as he might.

For another example of the film’s ingenious storytelling, let’s look at Miracle Max. There are precious few movies that could employ a character capable of bringing someone back to life at the most convenient time, but this movie sells it through a very unique blend of fantasy and comedy.

Westley is revived because he’s only “mostly dead,” which is a very funny concept in its execution. It’s also a concept that could only exist in a story as blatantly fantastical as this one. And anyway, because this is a light-hearted romantic fantasy, we know (just as the unnamed boy does) that Westley can’t really be dead. In point of fact, the scene employs Westley’s true love for Buttercup as his reason to keep on living and as a noble cause for Max to provide a discount. Additionally, the Max/Valerie squabble and the sabotage of Humperdinck’s wedding both stem directly from Westley’s love for Buttercup. So not only is the scene funny, but it also continues the theme of celebrating true love. Finally, all of it is tied together with Miracle Max’s mundane attitude toward his magical work.

To sum up, we’ve got a hint of fantasy to help suspend disbelief, we’ve got comedy and romance to make it entertaining, and we’ve got Billy Crystal’s wry performance to keep the whole thing grounded. The overly convenient plot device comes and goes without anyone in the audience giving it a second thought. Brilliant.

Moving on, there are precious few nitpicks I can make here. Yes, the continuity is off in a few places, and the synthesized score sounds just a touch dated, but that’s about it. That said, I actually kind of appreciate the imitation instruments. The music would have sounded just like any other fantasy score if it was played by a straight orchestra, aside from some “Looney Tunes”-esque stings to accompany sword thrusts and such. It’s also worth mentioning that the score and the main theme (“Storybook Love,” which was nominated for an Oscar that year), were both written by the great Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits. I mention this mostly because “Sultans of Swing” is my choice for the greatest song ever recorded, but that’s a subject for another time.

Overall, The Princess Bride is indubitably one of those rare, beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime movies in which everything miraculously works. The comedy is great, the fantasy aspect is wonderfully executed, the swordplay is marvelous, and the effects have held up surprisingly well. And of course, all of it is powered by a cast full of extraordinary actors, reading from one of the most inventive and quotable screenplays in recent memory. It’s one of those movies that helps to remind you why you love movies in the first place.

Fortunately, I’m glad to say that the stars of this film all did quite well in the years since. Carol Kane and Wallace Shawn each have well over 100 acting credits on IMDB, and their careers are still continuing. Peter Falk also managed to rack up an awe-inspiring 107 credits before dying last year of heart attack, pneumonia, and Alzheimer’s. Andre the Giant has passed away as well, dying of congenitive heart failure in 1993, though he became the WWF Hall of Fame’s inaugural inductee just a few days later.

Chris Sarandon continues to have a very prolific career, with a total of 95 credits and counting. He even contributed the voice of Jack Skellington for The Nightmare Before Christmas, another great cult classic. Christopher Guest also has a list of acting credits over 90 entries long, but he’s become better-known for writing and directing such mockumentaries as Waiting for GuffmanBest in Show, and A Mighty Wind. He also contributed the “focus group” segment for last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, which was hosted for the ninth time by Miracle Max himself, Billy Crystal.

Mandy Patinkin has had a steady career as a character actor in TV shows and movies for the past 25 years (he’s presently a regular on “Homeland”), but he’s a bona fide legend on Broadway. Since 1987, Patinkin became the original actor to play Archibald Craven of “The Secret Garden,” and he toured last year with Patti Lupone, who co-starred with him in the original Broadway production of “Evita.”

Robin Wright Penn and Cary Elwes both pretty much made their debuts with this picture, and they probably had weaker subsequent careers than most others in the cast. Penn turned down several parts in the following years, due in large part to her complicated relationship and two children with Sean Penn at the height of his “crazy” phase. That said, she still got screen time in such high-profile films as Forrest GumpUnbreakable, BeowulfMoneyball, and David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. As for Elwes, he’s mostly stuck to smaller voice-over and TV roles, though he’s taken a few more notable gigs as well (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Hot Shots!, and Saw among them). He was also in the Wonder Woman pilot that NBC mercifully killed before it ever went to air, but let’s not hold that against him.

William Goldman is mostly retired now (the man is 80 years old and still kicking!), though he’s churned out a few works in the past 25 years. Most recently, he wrote screenplays for two Stephen King adaptations (Hearts in Atlantis and Dreamcatcher), and did an uncredited script rewrite for Zombieland, of all things. As for director Rob Reiner, he went on to direct and act in several great movies, particularly When Harry Met Sally and The American President. The writer and director collaborated on another two movies, when Goldman wrote the screenplay for Misery and consulted with Aaron Sorkin for the screenplay of A Few Good Men.

Finally, an epilogue: Last year, director Jason Reitman began a series of “Live Reads,” bringing together all-star casts to read for one night only from the screenplays of famous movies. The series’ third movie — following The Breakfast Club and The Apartment — was The Princess Bride. Reitman’s cast included Paul Rudd as Westley, Mindy Kaling as Buttercup, Kevin Pollak as Miracle Max, and (just try to picture this one in your head) Patton Oswalt as Vizzini. Best of all, some of the movie’s original actors were in attendance. Cary Elwes was on hand, this time reading for Humperdinck. The grandfather/narrator was read by none other than Rob Reiner himself, alongside Fred Savage reprising his role as the boy (while wearing an old Chicago Bears jersey, no less). The read was not recorded — ostensibly due to copyright issues — which leads me to assume that someone involved with this was allergic to money.

With that, we conclude this look back at the history of my birth year. As you read this, I’m likely getting plastered at the behest of my friends in honor of my 25th birthday. Raise a glass for the occasion, and I’ll raise a glass to thank you for reading.

One Comment

  1. Ping from AvatarIII:

    You say it’s hugely ingrained in pop culture, but as far as I’m concerned that’s a relatively new thing, in fact myself and most people I know IRL only heard of the movie within the last 3 years at the very most.
    I think that it’s place as a major source of memes is the reason it’s so ingrained in popular culture, not the other way round.

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