Retrospective: The Princess Bride (1987)


The Princess Bride is mentioned in my first review for MFR when I looked at Stardust, using it as a good example of the ‘knowing fantasy movie’. It is widely considered to be a cult movie, but in the best possible way. This is one of the better known movies by Rob Reiner who made his name in the classic mock documentary Spinal Tap. He is a very gifted comic director, able to create very interesting movies which in other hands could be rather dull. His version of the rom-com When Harry Met Sally is a good example of him playing with the conventions of a genre and getting across ideas on what superficially seem like quite normal movies.

The Princess Bride is based on a book by the Oscar winning Hollywood screenwriter, William Goldman who like Neil Gaiman takes his film to an interesting place as its based around the concept of a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a story to his grandson and being constantly interrupted. This makes it rather unconventional as the action is constantly dropping out of the fantasy world and back into the bedroom, reminding me of the time when my parents read to me and I would interrupt the story to see if I could find out more (it was the Narnia series I remember doing this most!). This adds a very interesting idea regarding the nature of reality as the various twists have been connected by the framing narrative which jumps out whenever  something out of the ordinary occurs. The grandson acts as a very good cypher for the audience, initially more interested in his game but becomes gripped and whenever the movie goes through a twist he complains ‘that’s not supposed to happen’. This makes the story more than a traditionally narrated fantasy movie as it’s so self-referential. In recent years this type of storytelling has become increasingly common with Shrek being a good example, with many children’s fantasy now folloings this model so the adults don’t fall asleep during the movie by instead hiding pop cultural references. This movie is perhaps the first to make it so clear. It also mocks the various 80s fantasy movies of the period with their very clear plots and simple stories and the way such movies took themselves so seriously.

The movie starts as a simple love story of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright in her first role) and her servant Westley (Cary Elwes) whom she always calls farm boy and he always replies ‘as you wish’ until they are in a state known as true love when he disappears whilst trying to make his fortune and is presumed dead. She promptly enters a loveless marriage with Prince Humperdink and gets kidnapped by the nicest kidnappers you could hope to meet: a friendly giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant) an intense Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the leader of the group Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) where they are chased by a mysterious man in black. l would be spoiling the movie if I went further, hence my desire to keep major plot points to a minimum. It’s actually one of the few movies where I would say don’t bother with the book as it is hugely altered by cutting major parts out so that it makes more sense for screen.

It hasn’t aged at all badly considering the genre (just look at 1982’s Conan the Barbarian for example). It’s still sharp and funny and fulfils all the aspects of these movies in an innovative package and that’s what makes it a cult movie. It takes a new approach to a familiar genre and adds a new spin to it with some brilliant characters.

The Princess Bride is very interesting as everything from the title to the look is designed to look like the most typical movie of this frankly rather terrible genre. The fact isn’t helped that it’s from the 80s when most of the worst of this type of movie came out, making it very hard to get over these preconceptions. Really it’s one of the most magical movies I can remember watching. Also for any fans of Monty Python and Terry Pratchett you can find some rather neat references. The movie has rather English humor despite it being an American production and it does this extremely well making it a thrououghly enjoyable movie for both adults and children.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl

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