THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)

  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Writer: William Goldman, based on his novel
  • Starring: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Billy Crystal, and Carol Ka
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  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus or Hulu, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies, and it’s one that I find new things in as I come to it over the course of my life. It understands essential things about stories and what we want from them, while also being extremely funny even when watching it over and over. It is sort of amazing that it hasn’t yet been remade, but that might be because of the active opposition of many members of its cast. Cary Elwes once wrote, in a paraphrase of a line from the movie, that “there is a shortage of perfect movies in the world, it would be a shame to ruin this one.”

William Goldman was an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter (whose credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) when, at the demand of his young daughters for a story about a princess, he started writing the book on which this movie is based. The central “joke” of the novel is that it is “the good parts version” of an old book by the fictional author “S. Morgenstern” that Goldman’s father supposedly used to read to him when he was a kid, only for Goldman to find when he re-read it as an adult that his father had “removed all the veiled political commentary.” This inspires the movie’s somewhat similar approach, particularly its framing device that the story is being read by a crotchety grandfather (the great Peter Falk) to his sick grandson (a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage, who would bizarrely reprise the role as an adult on the PG-13 DVD version of Deadpool II, with the title character cutting out the most objectionable parts), who constantly pushes for “more action” and derides “the kissy parts.”

The story the grandfather reads involves a series of fairy tale-ish set pieces featuring a group of characters we come to love there’s the central couple, Cary Elwes as the handsome Westley and Robin Wright as the beautiful Princess Buttercup. She at first believes Westley to be dead, but then he comes back in the persona of the “Dread Pirate Roberts” to save her from having to get married to smarmy, evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Along the way they run into the overly confident mercenary Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the revenge-obsessed swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), and the giant Fezzik (wrestler Andre the Giant). Their adventures include my favorite film swordfight at the top of the “Cliffs of Insanity,” the famous “Battle of Wits” between Vizzini and Westley, Westley and Buttercup’s journey through the “Fire Swamp,” and a final storming of the castle that leads to the inevitable happy ending to the fairy tale.

I’ve had something of a problem writing this, because all I can really tell you about The Princess Bride is that it’s really good. I can quote line after line from it: “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia,’ but only slightly less well known is this: never go up against a Sicilian, when death is on the line!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I don’t find myself with the super deep things to say about it that I wish I did.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest impact on wider popular culture has been the storyline of Patinkin’s Inigo and his quest for revenge on the sadistic “Six-Fingered Man” who killed his father. This villain turns out to be played by none other than comedy genius Christopher Guest, who had also worked with director Rob Reiner on his feature debut a few years earlier, This Is Spinal Tap. After the Six-Fingered Man and Humperdinck torture Westley to death, Inigo and Fezzik take his body to “Miracle Max” (Billy Crystal) and his nagging wife (Carol Kane). Max proclaims Westley to be only “mostly dead” and makes him a “miracle pill” to save him. The whole cast is pretty universally great.

The Princess Bride did not make a huge impression at the box office upon its release. It was saddled with a title seemingly expressly designed to turn off every boy in the potential audience and had a studio with little idea how to sell it. However, in the years since it has found its audience. It was a common story for families to have beaten up VHS copies, passed down through the years. Around a decade ago I went to a screening at an historic theater in downtown Columbus, Ohio, at which most of the audience shouted many of the lines along with the characters. That wouldn’t work with many movies, but it’s really the only way I’ve ever experienced The Princess Bride, as a classic where every line of dialogue is precious. 

I’d like to talk here briefly about Andre the Giant, a star wrestler from France with gigantism. He was at the height of his fame at the time of this movie, the biggest wrestling rival of superstar Hulk Hogan. To those who knew him, Andre’s kindness and generosity were legendary, but he was also known as “the biggest drunk in the world.” One story involved him drinking 125 beers in a hotel bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, then passing out in the lobby. The staff had to just leave him until he woke up, because nobody could move him. Unfortunately, he died of heart failure in 1993, likely a side effect of his gigantism. He is pretty great in this movie. Not only was Andre the subject of a recent HBO feature documentary, he was also the subject of the 2017 Showtime original movie Waiting for Andre, which centered around the the unusual real-life friendship between a teenage Andre and the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett while they were both living in the same Paris suburb.

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