Thursday 28 January 2010

The Princess Bride (1987)

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Cary Elwes and Robin Wright
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

William Goldman's novel, The Princess Bride, is an astounding piece of modern fantasy, not to mention adventure, comedy, romance and whatever else he managed to cram into the book. It took the old hackneyed fairy tale concept that's been gradually done to death over the last few centuries and reinvented it along precisely the same lines it ran in the first place. I'm still not entirely sure as to why this works. Maybe the process of distilling the entire fairy tale genre down to its essence and brewing it back up again makes it both entirely familiar but somehow still fresh at the same time. Rob Reiner's film version, based on Goldman's own screenplay, does exactly the same thing. There's absolutely nothing new here in the slightest but somehow the nothing new in the slightest still seems awesomely fresh.

We start with a book, being read by Peter Falk to his grandson, Fred Savage, who play such archetypal characters that they don't even have names. They merely serve as the framework for the story and pop back every once in a while to ensure that we're paying attention to the rules of the game. All that's really important is the book, naturally called The Princess Bride, and written by a fictional writer called S Morgenstern, a pseudonym Goldman adopted for at least one other book too, The Silent Gondoliers. It tells of the True Love that arises between Princess Buttercup and her farm boy, Westley and it should be noted that this isn't just everyday run of the mill true love, hence the capitals; it's more, well, the sort of thing that books are written about.

The problem is that Buttercup believes that Westley is dead, slain by the dread pirate Roberts who never leaves captives alive. As it happens he has merely become the dread pirate Roberts, just the latest in a long line of them, and he comes to Buttercup's rescue five years later when she has been kidnapped for ransom. It's the 500th anniversary of the kingdom of Florin and the evil prince of the realm is taking her for his bride, though amazingly enough it isn't the prince who's behind the kidnapping. It's really another villainous character by the name of Vizzini who wants to blame it all on the next country along, called Guilder, and start a war. He's the leader of a fascinating trio, as different in character as they are in height.
Vizzini is the brains of the operation, played by an actor who for years I've recognised and enjoyed in bizarre films like Nice Girls Don't Explode, made the same year as this. However I've only recently broken my long running inability to ever remember his name: he's Wallace Shawn. He's a highly regarded actor known far more for serious films made for French director Louis Malle, such as My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, or at the other end of the art film scale, for voicing Rex the Dinosaur in Toy Story, but I think it'll always be Nice Girls Don't Explode and The Princess Bride for me. He brings such a sense of arrogance to proceedings that it's difficult to imagine it equalled, let alone bettered by anyone else. 'Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?' he asks. 'Morons.' I don't know anyone who could make that sound more dismissive without overacting and he doesn't overact here in the slightest.

Being a rather diminutive character, he's backed up by two much more physically able fellows: a Spanish swordsman called Inigo Montoya and a giant called Fezzik. The Spaniard is played by Mandy Patinkin, who has long hair and looks stunningly different to anyone who has got used to him on TV shows like Chicago Hope, Dead Like Me or Criminal Minds, this being perhaps his most obvious film role and certainly his favourite. He tries to outdo every romantic swashbuckler in the book, from Douglas Fairbanks Sr onwards, in his twenty year quest to find the man with six fingers on his right hand who killed his father. He even has his speech memorably prepared: 'I am Inigo Montoya,' he'll say. 'You killed my father. Prepare to die.'

Fezzik the giant is played by the huge professional wrestler Andre the Giant, so natural a candidate that he was understandably the one and only choice for director Rob Reiner. However it took so long to get the film off the ground that the character was almost played back in the seventies by a then unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger, who of course had become such a huge star by 1987 that he was way beyond the film's budget. Andre looks perfect as Fezzik and it's easy to believe that the feats of physical strength he performs are real, though as it turns out he was actually one of the least able members of the cast physically at the time.

Andre was a real giant, in the medical sense, as opposed to his closest modern wrestling equivalent, The Big Show, who is merely very big indeed, and by 1987 his back problems were such that he couldn't even walk up the hills unaided, let alone catch princesses leaping out of windows. Even Andre's thick French accent is completely forgiveable, given that the country names point to a Dutch setting, and the Netherlands are only a stone's throw away from France. Then again, the entire film was shot in England and Ireland. Hey, it's the old country. Fairy tales are older than the United States. Get used to it.
That's not the only serious truth here. The young boy at the beginning of the film is bored by the entire concept of having a book read aloud to him before it's even opened. He's obviously part of the ADD generation and in the person of Fred Savage, star of TV's The Wonder Years, he could almost be described as a spokesman for his entire age group. Yet by the time Princess Buttercup is about to get eaten alive by the shrieking eels he's become engrossed despite himself. By the last page he's so caught up in the story that he even admits to be open to listening to the kissing bits, an uncomfortable truth for young boys everywhere, I'm sure. I'm reminded very much of my youngest stepson, who as a young teenager struggling with ADHD was always trying to avoid things that he'd end up thoroughly enjoying.

In fact it's the script that is the most magic thing of all here, hardly surprising really given that Goldman wrote the book in the first place, which like every source novel is inevitably better than the resulting movie. What the book doesn't have, though, is this incredible cast. The bit parts are moments to shine for comedians like Carol Kane, Mel Smith, Peter Cook and especially Billy Crystal, who made Rob Reiner laugh so much he had to keep leaving the set. In fact Mandy Patinkin, who learned fencing with lead star Cary Elwes to lend authenticity to their epic fighting scene which they fought without doubles, later claimed that the only injury he sustained during filming came through stifling his laughter when playing opposite Crystal.

The principal roles have about as much depth as the bit parts but then again, that's entirely the point. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and that's how fairy tales work. So Princess Buttercup is unfailing in her belief that her Westley will save her; Westley himself is indestructible, even when dead; and the evil six fingered Count is evil to the core. Actors Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes and Christopher Guest are perfectly fine, but for my money, the best roles are the ones in between the leads and the bit parts, people like Vizzini, Inigo Montoya and Fezzik the Giant; and so it's always that guy from Nice Girls Don't Explode, Mandy Patinkin and Andre the Giant that I'll remember.

In short, Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride is a small slice of the magic you'll find within the pages of S Morgenstern's The Princess Bride, which you'll find within William Goldman's The Princess Bride. Reiner has a mere hour and a half of screen time to attempt to transfer that magic over to celluloid, and he naturally fails at the completely impossible task. Maybe if he'd have been filming in this new century, he could have pitched it as a trilogy of three hour movies, but that's idle conjecture. It may be an impossible job under any circumstances, but Reiner does come about as close as anyone could hope to get.

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