The Princess Bride (1987)

Geeks have a habit of quoting movies constantly.  I'm not just talking about movie nerds, but the geek community in general.  Not things like "Hasta la vista, baby," or "Make my day," but rather lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and such.  The Princess Bride happens to be one of those movies.

From people going around claiming to be Inigo Montoya to memes criticizing the misuse of the English language, this modest movie has become a part of pop culture over the last 30 years.  It goes from everything from me remembering an internet user from the early 1990s going by "Dread Pirate Roberts" to the operator of the Silk Road website using the same handle.  Whether William Goldman and Rob Reiner intended it, the film's influence equals, and often exceeds, the intended blockbusters of the 1980s.

As a young boy (Fred Savage) stays home sick in bed, his grandfather (Peter Falk) shows up to give him a bit of cheer.  Grandfather has brought along a special book that his father read to him when he was sick, and that he also read to his own son.  At first his grandson is reluctant, but becomes a bit more interested when he is reassured that there is a fair amount of action and adventure.

Buttercup (Robin Wright) is a farm girl who treats their hired hand Westley (Cary Elwes) with disdain for years, until she finally realizes that he loves her and, deep down, she loves him.  He sets off to sea to earn his fortune so he can provide for her, but is reported murdered at sea by the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Buttercup vows never to love again, even when five years later she finds herself the betrothed of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), heir to the throne of the kingdom of Florin. 

While out on one of her rides in the country, she finds herself kidnapped by a gang consisting of the Sicilian Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his compatriots, the giant Fezzik (André the Giant) and the Spaniard Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin).  Their plot is to murder Buttercup and frame the abduction on the rival country of Guilder in order to start a war with Florin. However, they find themselves pursued by a man who turns out to be the Dread Pirate Roberts. 

As Roberts bests the members of the group, it is revealed that Montoya is earning money to continue the search for a six-fingered man who murdered his father, Fezzik is just interested in belonging and Vizzini isn't as clever as he thinks.  It is also revealed that Roberts is really Westley in disguise, who is understandably upset that Buttercup has agreed to marry Humperdinck.  After discovering the truth, Buttercup is more than happy to get out of the marriage, and the two attempt to flee from Humperdinck's hunting party.  Inevitably, they are caught, and Buttercup agrees to go through with the marriage in order to spare Westley's life.

Humperdinck has no intention of keeping his end of the deal, and turns Westley over to his henchman Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), who just happens to have six fingers on his right hand.  Instead of being returned to his ship, Westley is thrown into the Pit of Despair for Rugen to torture.  Meanwhile, Fezzik discovers that Rugen is the man whom Montoya has been looking for, and reunites with the Spaniard, forcing him to sober up so they can rescue Westley and attack the castle and, in due course, save Buttercup from being murdered on her wedding night.

There are a number of threads throughout this film, the main and most apparent being the deconstruction of both the typical fairy tale story as well as fantasy films. William Goldman, both in his book and in the screenplay, uses all the usual tropes (monsters, villainous royalty, true love) and idealized them to a point of ridiculousness.  Sometimes this is unintentional, as the Rodents of Unusual Size are obviously guys dressed up in giant rat suits.  Other times, such as Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin playing their parts largely straight while all sorts of hijinks go on around them, it is simply brilliant. 

It is also quite touching in places.  In the wraparound story it is implied that the boy's father is not in the picture because he has died at some point and, though it was definitely not at the hands of an evil count, Inigo Montoya provides the image of a hero overcoming his own failings as well as the pain of growing up without a father figure.  It also deals with the anger and, ultimately, what to do when that part of your life no longer defines who you are. 

This was a breakout role for Patinkin, and he still considers it his favorite role, even though he has had quite an eclectic career.  Fred Savage managed to go from this to the fondly remembered television show The Wonder Years, while it is nice seeing Peter Falk do something other than Columbo.  His screentime is short, but it I think this is his second-best performance, next to just playing himself as an angel in Wings of Desire.

Cary Elwes channels his inner Errol Flynn throughout, learning to fence (along with Patinkin) in order to do one of the best sword fights in film history.  He went on to become a major star in the 1990s largely due to the cult following that developed around this film.  And let's not forget the character of Fezzik; thank goodness Arnold Schwarzenneger didn't end up in the part.  André the Giant, though already experiencing a number of health problems that would plague him throughout the rest of his years, brings a unique life to the movie.  It would not have been the same movie without him.

As for the villains, they are one-dimensional, but purposely so.  Both Humperdinck and Rugen are plot devices, much the same way that Buttercup is, although Christopher Guest invests the latter with a healthy dose of cold cruelty.  The most memorable bad guy in the whole thing is Vizzini, and Shawn Wallace is memorable in his short role, especially when contrasted with André. 

Also, a special mention has to be made about the cameo of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, even if the scene seems to have been imported wholesale from a Mel Brooks film.

I will admit that it took me a number of years to grow into liking it as much as I do.  It is one of those films that you see at different stages in your life, and it means something more every time you see it.  Personally, I feel sorry for those who don't get at least something from this, or approach it as a simple comedy film.  The Princess Bride is a great example of how a movie can grow over the years no matter the original intentions.

The Princess Bride (1987)
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, André the Giant, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest
Director: Rob Reiner


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