*****SHRIEKING EEL-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!******
Last weekend, my wife and I hosted two of our best friends and their 11 year-old son Joshua for a ‘garage theater’ movie night. The movie we chose beforehand was “The Princess Bride”, which, coincidentally turns 35 this year. I have to admit; I’ve always been more a casual fan of this film, at best. I never saw it theatrically in its original run, and the last time I remember watching it all the way through was on a rented laserdisc, well over 30 years ago. While I certainly appreciated director Rob (“Stand By Me”) Reiner’s adaptation of William Goldman’s book and screenplay, it was never exactly a favorite of mine. Yes, the movie has lots of memorable lines (“Inconceivable!”) and a delightful cast, but not being a big fan of storybook fantasies, “The Princess Bride” remained at arm’s length from my heart. Nevertheless, it sounded like great family entertainment for us adults and one 11 year-old boy, so we screened it.
Watching the Criterion BluRay (in crisp high definition), I was struck by the movie’s gorgeous cinematography. Director-of-photography Adrian Biddle’s (“ALIENS”) location shooting in Ireland and England greatly adds to the lush, almost-surreal colors of this live-action fable. The deliberate theatricality of the sets (the plateau atop the “Cliffs of Insanity”, for example) give the movie a stylized, Errol Flynn-swashbuckler vibe, too. The same can be said for the miniatures and creature effects, as well (the “shrieking eels” and giant rodents, for example). The performances also popped off of the screen, with Swiss watch-comedic timing right out of a Mel Brooks movie.
The lesson I learned this past weekend is that presentation and circumstance are vital to film appreciation. Watching “The Princess Bride” on a 25″ TV versus seeing it projected in a darkened space onto a big-enough screen with an appreciative audience makes all the difference. It also helps seeing a movie with an extra pair of fresh young eyes, too…
Our friend’s son, Joshua, is about the age of actor Fred Savage in the film, who plays the bedridden grandson who is read a story by his loving Grandpa (played by legendary actor Peter Falk, of “Columbo” fame). Joshua agreed to see “The Princess Bride” after we promised him that it was full of sword fights and monsters—just as the movie’s Grandpa promises, to keep his grandson’s interest. Joshua watched those opening scenes with some relatability, no doubt…
Note: Both Fred Savage and the late Peter Falk are charming in their roles, and the framing device of a grandpa reading to his sick, disinterested grandson is a perfect means of reaching out to young audience members who’d rather play video games than watch a “kissing” movie. Peter Falk’s methodical, patient delivery feels very “Columbo,” which is a perfect fit for a wisened grandpa who still holds a few surprises for his cynical grandson. Young Fred Savage gives an absolutely authentic performance; a natural precursor to his later role as ‘Kevin Arnold,’ a late 1960s middle-schooler coming of age in ABC’s “The Wonder Years” (1988-1993).
As Grandpa relates the story of beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) falling in “true love” with her estate’s handsome ‘farmboy’ Westley (Cary Elwes), I glanced over to gauge Joshua’s reaction, and, at first, he seemed a tad disinterested. Perhaps he was worried that, like the movie’s Grandpa, we’d somehow tricked him into watching a ‘kissing movie.’ But being respectful kid, Joshua paid attention. Westley announces to a heartbroken Buttercup that he’s leaving to seek his own fortune, though he promises to return. Years pass, and Buttercup is chosen (against her will) by the arrogant Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) to become his bride—not realizing the dastardly prince is secretly using her in an attempt to spark a war with a rival nation.
Note: Director Rob Reiner, in keeping with the philosophy of writer/producer/director Mel Brooks, clearly loves with the subjects he chooses to satirize; in this case, old-fashioned storybook fantasies. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a Mel Brooks-vibe pervades this movie, since Mel Brooks (“Blazing Saddles” “Young Frankenstein” “Men In Tights”) was an old friend of Rob Reiner’s father, Carl Reiner, the famed writer/producer/director/actor (“Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Jerk”) whom Brooks worked with in the early days of 1950s live television.
Joshua’s interest perked up a bit when a distraught Buttercup rides her horse alone into the woods, where she is met by a trio of kidnappers; ill-tempered Sicilian ringleader Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and hired muscle, Fezzik (André René Roussimoff). Vizzini and his cohorts are under contract to abduct Buttercup and make her eventual murder look like the work of enemy foreign agents, in keeping with Humperdinck’s plan.
Note: Buttercup’s fate of being forced into a loveless marriage with Prince Humperdinck brings to mind the equally-beloved “people’s princess,” the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (1961-1997); a popular young woman who was trapped for years in a loveless marriage with then-Prince (now King) Charles. That Diana and Buttercup are both beautiful, blue-eyed blondes trapped in loveless nuptials feels a bit too on-the-nose to be coincidence, especially for 1987. The brilliant Robin Wright has experienced a career renaissance of late, with diverse roles in Netflix’s celebrated “House of Cards” (2013-2018) as well as the films “Blade Runner 2049” and “Wonder Woman” (both 2017).
After the kidnapping, the villainous Vizzini and his two reluctant henchmen–whom Vizzini verbally abuses at every opportunity–set sail for the “Cliffs of Madness.”
Note: The late French actor André René Roussimoff (1946-1993), who plays Fezzik, was a former professional wrestler who went by the stage name, “Andre the Giant” (as he’s credited in the film). Roussimoff also played the shaggy alien robot ‘Sasquatch’ (aka “Bigfoot”) for several episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” (1973-1978), which is where I first recall seeing him. If I had any serious quibble with this otherwise charming movie, it’s that Roussimoff’s native French accent is so thick at times that it flattens some of his punchlines. But, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s earliest films, the actor’s sheer physical presence (and charm) compensates for his sometimes unintelligible line delivery.
Making their way at night through treacherous waters infested with giant “shrieking eels,” Inigo tells Vizzini that he sees a vessel in pursuit. The intelligent but incompetent Vizzini is unconcerned, of course. With her captors’ focus on the pursuing ship, Buttercup makes a leap into the eel-infested waters, and is nearly killed, but is saved by the huge-handed grip of Fezzik, who drags the soaked young woman back to ‘safety’ aboard her kidnappers’ vessel. The ship continues on course, as its pursuer slowly gains on them. Needless to say, 11 year-old Joshua’s interest was rising…
Note: Actor Wallace Shawn, who costarred in “My Dinner With Andre” (1981) is also familiar to fans of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as the Ferengi “Grand Nagus” Zek, the leader of the Ferengi Alliance. The actor/playwright’s pronounced lisp is used to great comedic effect, especially with his signature line reading of “Inconceivable!”
The kidnappers arrive at the Cliffs of Insanity, and are lifted to its peak on the frame of poor Fezzik, who is forced to carry the entire mass of his cohorts and their captive, while climbing a thick rope. Upon reaching the plateau, the trio notice their mysteriously masked, black-clad pursuer has also began his ascent, using the same rope. Vizzini runs off with Buttercup and Fezzik, leaving master swordsman Inigo Montoya to deal with the man, who identifies as the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” but is actually former farmboy Westley in disguise. Alone on the plateau, Inigo welcomes his soon-to-be opponent with uncommon hospitality, as the two trade their stories. Montoya joined Vizzini’s crew only in hopes of fulfilling his 20-year quest for vengeance against the six-fingered man who slew his beloved bladesmith father. The two men quickly realize they make better allies than enemies, but alas, their work intrudes. Allowing the pirate the opportunity to rest after his long climb, the duel begins…
Note: Actor Mandy Patinkin (1988’s “Alien Nation”) is truly memorable and lovable as the determined Spaniard mercenary, Inigo Montoya, in what may very well be the actor’s signature performance. My own European-born father spoke fluent Spanish, and Patinkin nails the accent perfectly. Perhaps this is not too surprising, as Patinkin rose to fame in the late 1970s playing Che Guevara (the Cuban revolutionary) in the original Broadway cast of the musical “Evita”, costarring Patti LuPone in the title role as the former Argentinian First Lady, Eva Perón. I still remember seeing Patinkin in old TV commercials for the play, and his intensity leapt off the tiny 25″ screen.
The scene that followed grabbed young Joshua’s interest by the collar, as Inigo and Pirate-Westley engage in one of the best sword duels ever committed to film. The choreography is both ornate and Jackie Chan-comical, with the actors making great use of the plateau set’s topography for various flips, lunges, retreats and advances. Finding themselves an almost even match, the Pirate-Westley ultimately defeats Inigo, but does not kill the honorable Spaniard—choosing instead to knock him unconscious, as he goes after Vizzini…
Note: What makes this scene even more jaw-dropping is that the actor’s faces are plainly visible throughout most of the duel, with little use of stunt doubles. Seeing this duel on a large screen in a darkened space gave me far greater appreciation for its intricate and almost dizzying complexity. Joshua sat in rapt attention, eyes wide open, during the sword fight. Joshua is a huge fan of lightsaber duels after cosplaying as Luke Skywalker at the recent “Star Wars Celebration 2022” in Anaheim, where he took part in a lightsaber class and became a ‘Jedi knight.’
“Inconceivable” as it may seem, Pirate-Westley soon catches up to the fleeing Vizzini, who sends Fezzik to kill him. The gentle giant proves no match in one-on-one combat with the more nimble Pirate-Westley, and is rendered unconscious. Pirate-Westley then engages in a high-stakes battle of wits with Vizzini, over two chalices of wine; one of which is presumably poisoned. Agreeing to drink together at once, Pirate-Westley prompts Vizzini to guess which chalice was poisoned. The arrogant Sicilian scoffs at Pirate-Westley, as he uses dizzyingly convoluted logic to make his guess. After both men drink, Vizzini drops dead mid-chuckle. Pirate-Westley then tells the freed Buttercup that both drinks were poisoned, and that he spent a year building a tolerance. Believing her masked pirate savior to be responsible for Westley’s death, Buttercup is relieved to learn (after a tumble or two) this mysterious pirate is, in fact, her beloved Westley returning to save her. After five years apart, this much worldlier ‘farmboy’ tells Buttercup he made his fortune by inheriting the legacy of his last employer—the former “Dread Pirate Roberts,” who inherited the title from his master.
Note: In addition to the works of Mel Brooks, the movie bears a strong influence from the Monty Python comedy troupe, as well (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “The Life of Brian,” “The Meaning of Life”). The six founding members of the Monty Python troupe were Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam (the only American of the sextet), Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, along with various other occasional participants.
Westley and Buttercup soon realize the only way to avoid capture by Humperdinck and his men is through the “Fire Swamp.” The treacherous fire swamp is a darkened maze shrouded in thick tree roots, punctuated with giant rodents, and belching outbursts of flaming methane (hence the name). Westley soon learns to anticipate the flames, and after slaying a giant rodent, he and Buttercup fall into a pit of quicksand—from which they eventually climb free.
Note: The Fire Swamp set is easily one of the most impressive indoor sets of its kind since the swamp planet of ‘Dagobah’ in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). The giant rodents are fittingly unrealistic, in keeping with the other deliberately stylized elements of this comedy-adventure, but the set itself is beautifully lit, and thoroughly believable. While the escape through the Fire Swamp could’ve arguably been cut for pacing if absolutely needed, it would’ve been a crime against the movie to delete it.
The exhausted lovers emerge from the fire swamp into the forest … and into the hands of Humperdinck, his royal adviser/henchman, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), and their armed men. Surrounded and with no chance of escape, Buttercup offers herself to Humperdinck in exchange for Westley’s life. With Buttercup returned to the castle and committed to her loveless engagement, Westley is then taken for interrogation and tortured by Rugen and an Albino (Mel Smith) in a subterranean chamber of horrors known as the “Pit of Despair.” Before his torture, Westley notices a sixth finger on the sadistic Rugen’s right hand, identifying him as the infamous six-fingered murderer Inigo spoke of earlier. The Albino then activates his medieval, Rube Goldberg-style torture device, which uses excruciatingly painful suction to drain years off a victim’s life…
Note: The multitalented comedian/writer/director Christopher Guest rose to prominence in 1983 as British rocker ‘Nigel’ in director Rob Reiner’s celebrated rock ‘mockumentary’ “This Is Spinal Tap.” Guest (the husband of “Halloween” star Jamie Lee Curtis) used to be a member of the Saturday Night Live cast in the mid-1980s, where he worked with future “Princess Bride” costar Billy Crystal. Guest later directed several mockumentaries of his own, including “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003). There is a virtual explosion of talent within this movie’s cast, even in the smallest of roles.
The cries of the dying Westley are heard throughout the forest, where Fezzik reunites with a drunken Inigo. The two honorable ex-henchmen team up to find the source of the screams. This leads them to the hidden Pit of Despair, where they find Westley, left for dead. Dragging his body to the aged ex-royal magician, Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife, Valerie (Carol Kane). Max diagnoses Westley as “mostly dead,” and uses a breathing apparatus to refill his lungs, as his wife prepares restorative potions. An otherwise limp, but conscious Westley returns to life, as he’s dragged off by a grateful Inigo and Fezzik…
Note: I’ve been a fan of comedian/writer/director Billy Crystal since the early 1980s, and his cameo as “Miracle Max” is a scene-stealer, with the actor’s hilariously incongruous use of his own grandfather’s Yiddish accent (as heard on his 1986 album “Mahvelous!”). In addition to his work on the groundbreaking sitcom “Soap” and Saturday Night Live, Crystal also starred in director Rob Reiner’s 1989 hit romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally.” Max’s wife Valerie is played by the equally talented Carol Kane, who first came to prominence as ‘Simka,’ the wife of the nonspecific immigrant, Latka (Andy Kaufman), on the 1978-1983 sitcom “Taxi.” For Star Trek fans, Kane will also be appearing as Chief Engineer ‘Pelia’ in the forthcoming second season of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”
Combining their skills, Inigo, Fezzik, and a still-weakened Westley are soon storming the castle. A nervous and clearly panicked Humperdinck orders the speech-impaired priest (Peter Cook) to skip to the end of the ceremony. With Westley off to rescue Buttercup, Inigo finds and chases the cowardly Rugen before he sends a knife flying into Inigo’s abdomen. Count Rugen remembers the “little Spaniard boy,” taunting Inigo with details of his father’s death. The bloodied Inigo works through his agony by endlessly repeating “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” before fatally piercing Rugen’s heart. Elsewhere in the castle, a still-wobbly Westley finds a suicidal Buttercup in her chambers. Buttercup’s grief quickly turns to joy, as Westley assures her that her marriage to Humperdinck is invalid, since she never completed their shortened wedding vows. The lovers’ reunion is interrupted by the cowardly prince himself (speak of the devil…), who is so intimidated by Westley that he surrenders without a struggle, and is tied to a chair…
Note: Despite the death struggle between Inigo Montoya and Rugen, I appreciated that Prince Humperdinck’s ending was more humiliating than deadly, as it might’ve turned this otherwise light, fairytale comedy into a bloodbath. Since we had an 11 year-old boy watching with the movie with us, it also served as an important reminder that not every conflict has to end in bloodshed.
Buttercup and Westley then hear Fezzik calling to them from outside the tower. Fezzik has procured four white horses to aid in their escape (naturally). Leaving Humperdinck tied to his chair, Buttercup leaps from the tower and lands safely in the giant’s arms. With his 20-year quest to avenge his father completed, Inigo is unsure what to do with the rest of his life. Westley then offers the master swordsman his former title of “Dread Pirate Roberts.” As the dawn breaks, Westley and Buttercup share in the kiss of true love…
Note: Like the grandson in the movie, our junior audience member Joshua didn’t mind this bit of ‘kissing stuff’ too much, either. Personally, I was hoping the four heroes would hurry on over to Miracle Max’s place and tend to Inigo’s wounds…
With that, the story concludes, and Grandpa closes the book. His grandson, in rapt attention, tries not to sound too eager when he asks his grandpa to stop by tomorrow and read the story to him again… you know, if he wants to. Grandpa smiles, and replies, “As you wish.”
Needless to say, our preteen audience member enjoyed “The Princess Bride” as much as we did. Speaking with his mother only yesterday, she told me that he’s still talking about the movie, two days later. Mission accomplished…
Note: Star Cary Elwes has written a detailed account of the making of the film entitled “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.” The book is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and Audible. It’s next on my Audibles’ playlist.
“As you wish.”
As stated earlier, I’ve never seen “The Princess Bride” theatrically, but viewing it in the dark, with an appreciative audience, and projected onto a big screen was as close to a theatrical presentation as I could approximate. It really did the trick, too. We were all so fully immersed in the experience of “The Princess Bride” that, for the first time in 35 years of its existence, I finally got the gestalt of this beloved film.
The Criterion BluRay restoration is a revelation, as well. The color is rich, with natural film grain and clean, resonant sound (even through Andre the Giant’s thick accent). If you want to give the movie a luxe viewing, the Criterion BluRay makes for a great resource. After 35 years, I’ve finally seen “The Princess Bride” properly for the first time, and I consider myself a genuine fan.
In September of 2019, my wife and I attended NostalgiaCon80s, at the Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland. This was a first-time convention, and the turnout was small, but respectable. The convention was an explosion of ’80s toys, boomboxes, cars, clothes, collectibles, and yes, actors. Corey Feldman was there. Christopher “Doc Brown” Lloyd was there. Val “Iceman” Kilmer was there. There were also countless TV stars, such as Linda Gray (“Dallas”) and Heather Thomas (“The Fall Guy”). Also on deck was Cary Elwes (“Westley”), speaking at a panel for “The Princess Bride,” which I only caught a few minutes of before it broke for photo ops. Luckily, I got a decent picture of Elwes posing with several other attendees. He seemed in good spirits, and having recently co-starred as the evil mayor in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”, he still had his movie star good looks. I didn’t actually get a meet-and-greet with the talented Elwes that day, though I had better luck meeting his onscreen adversary seven years earlier…
In October of 2012, I attended an autographing event at the “Frank & Son” Collectibles Trade Show, which takes place twice a week in the City of Industry. This particular event was Halloween-themed, and the two autograph signers were no less than the stars of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (my favorite Halloween-season film), actors Chris Sarandon (speaking voice of “Jack Skellington”) and Ken Page (the voice of “Oogie-Boogie”). Sarandon, of course, is a longtime veteran actor, with credits in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Fright Night” (1985), “Child’s Play” (1988), and, of course, his iconic role as ‘Prince Humperdinck’ in “The Princess Bride.” When I met the affable Sarandon, my appreciation centered around his work in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” However, after this past weekend, I realize he gave a far richer comedic performance in “The Princess Bride” than I’d remembered. Chris Sarandon is a terrific actor.
Where To Watch
“The Princess Bride” is currently available to stream in HD via Disney+, as well as digital rentals/purchases on PrimeVideo and YouTube Premium. And, of course, if you’re a physical media fan like myself? Give the Criterion BluRay a spin, which is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. As you wish…