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MMYIF: The Princess Bride

My Misspent Youth In Films...

The Princess Bride
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright
Released: October 9, 1987

While home sick in bed, a young boy's grandfather reads him the story of a farmboy-turned-pirate who encounters numerous obstacles, enemies and allies in his quest to be reunited with his true love.

What I Thought Then

My sister and I regularly disagreed about what movies to watch. I wanted to watch Star Wars and she wanted to watch Babes In Toyland. So we'd compromise and watch this instead.

What I Think Now

This is my favorite movie. I've probably seen it a hundred times. I watch it at least once a year, and we quote it often around the house. We just showed it to the kids, so now they know why I say "Have fun storming the castle" when my wife is going to run errands. It's damned near perfect, and even three decades later it holds up brilliantly. It's got a taut script and a pace that's brisk without ever feeling rushed. It's brimming with lovable characters, hilarious jokes, highly quotable lines, and exhilarating adventure. It's. Just. So. Damn. Good!

But rather than just gush at length, I'm going to pick a few things to hone in on that make it special, and the first has got to be the brilliant way it uses a frame story. The book it's based on had a similar type of frame. In that, author William Goldman is editing down the original Morgenstern manuscript to just the "good parts" that his father used to read to him (pro tip: there was no original Morgenstern edition--this entire thing is Goldman's creation, "good parts" gimmickry and all). This allows Goldman to engage in commentary on the experience of reading fantasy literature, and generally play fast and loose with plot details because he's constantly hanging lanterns on things. In the film, the frame story works in a slightly different way. It puts a buffer between the audience and story, so that when a particularly intense moment happens, the grandfather, played by Peter Faulk (Oh, hey, Peter Faulk is in this!) is able to interrupt and reframe a scary moment for Buttercup as a character moment for his grandson, played by Fred Savage (Oh, hey, Fred Savage is in this!). More importantly, it gives the grandson a character arc. He starts out not wanting to take the story seriously, and at the end he's asking his grandfather to read it to him again. And since he's the audience surrogate, this pulls off the impressive feat of giving the audience permission to lose themselves in the story. If you think about it, 90% of this movie is sheer melodrama. But instead of trying to blunt those edges, the movie embraces it, and the frame story is basically the film's way of acknowledging its own ridiculousness, but inviting you to buy into it anyway.

The second thing I want to talk about is tone. This movie could easily have been all over the place. It's at turns scary, funny, and exciting, and it balances all of those without ever undercutting them. Or, I should say, without undercutting them accidentally. There are plenty of times when the frame story will reach in to blow the wind out of the story's sails ("She doesn't get eaten by the eels at this time" or "Yes, you're very smart, now shut up"). But it's not just the frame story--it's everything. Let me explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up. Normally you would expect a movie to balance tone by keeping the funny parts funny, the scary parts scary, the exciting parts exciting, but keeping those things relatively isolated and transitioning between them, using them to balance each other out. The Princess Bride goes in the opposite direction. It is constantly mixing things up. When Inigo and the man in black are dueling to the death on top of the Cliffs of Insanity, they're exchanging casual banter the whole time. While Vizzini, Inigo, and Fezzik are kidnapping and plotting to murder the titular princess, bride, they break into a rhyming game. The movie is thick with casual asides and goofy one-liners or sight gags, and it deploys them constantly. This keeps the tone light and fun, except when it isn't. Except in those few pivotal moments. When Westley is tortured by Humperdinck and believed dead, when Inigo gets stabbed by Rugen, and the second half of the fire swamp--from the lightning sand through the fight with the R.O.U.S. In all of that, there is no humor and minimal music, because these are the moments that we're supposed to feel. The frame story even interrupts the moment where we find out Westley is "dead", but it doesn't undercut it. Instead, it gives us the grandson experiencing the same stakes that we are.

I also want to touch on Mark Knopfler's score. There's not much to say except that it's delightfully cheesy and earnest. It's sappy, it's over-the-top, it's outright playful at times--I'm thinking of the musical back-and-forth while Inigo is chasing Rugen, orchestral hits timed with his collisions against the door. But the music never bats an eyelash. There is no auditory punchline to let the audience know that the composer is also in on the joke.

And finally, I just want to give a quick shout out to the set decorators for what they did in the grandson's room. Chef's kiss.

Now while this movie is damn near perfect, there are a handful of things that haven't aged terribly well. For starters, Buttercup is painfully lacking in agency. She just has nothing to do for most of it. And Westley's treatment of her before he reveals his identity verges on misogynist. Also... there are some casting choices that would be handled differently in a modern film. Vizzini, Inigo, and Fezzik are Sicilian, Spanish, and Turkish respectively, but you'd never know that from the cast. It's all kind of defensible, though. Wallace Shawn makes zero attempt to act or sound Sicilian. Mandy Patinkin's Spanish accent is almost comically broad, but it never feels like parody. Instead, it's theatrical--indeed, he no doubt honed it years before during his Tony-winning turn on Broadway in Evita. And while Andre the Giant would never be mistaken for a Turk, the character's country of origin is never explicitly mentioned in the film, and per author/screenwriting William Goldman, Andre the Giant was the original inspiration for Fezzik in the book, so when it came time to cast the film there was no other choice.

The effects mostly hold up. The stunt work and make-up are incredible. The creature effects are very solid (there's exactly one shot of an R.O.U.S. where you can tell it's an actor in a rat costume). The matte paintings look reasonably good for their time. A few of the sets are obviously sets, but they still look great. There's some mismatch between stunt doubles and hero shots of the actors--most notably when Fezzik is climbing the cliffs. But these are all pretty minor things.

Recommendation?

Absolutely! I you haven't seen it, go watch it right now. If you have... also go watch it right now.

Tune in next week for a haunted conga line...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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