When Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride snuck onto screens late into September of 1987, hardly anyone noticed. School was back in session and, after a summer of testosterone-pumping behemoths like Beverly Hills Cop II, The Untouchables, and RoboCop, there wasn’t much of an audience for Reiner’s hard-to-categorize comedy/fantasy/adventure send-up. Making matters far worse were the vague, quite rotten marketing materials (take a look at that awful, saxophone-scored trailer on YouTube!). Good word of mouth barely carried it through a brief run in theaters. A home video release and repeated airings on basic cable resurrected the film from near-obscurity to having an intense cult following that lingers to this day.
A swoon-worthy romance between a princess (played by Robin Wright, in her first film role) and Wesley (a suitably dashing Cary Elwes) is interrupted by an abduction by three outlaws, who range greatly in size and intellect. Also literally interrupting the proceedings are the film’s narrator, a grandfather (a boisterous Peter Falk) reading The Princess Bride to his sick, precocious grandson (Fred Savage, just terrific).
Adapted faithfully by William Goldman from his beloved novel of the same name, there is true magic in this justly celebrated film. On one level, you can take the romance as is and be swept up in the sweet-but-forceful chemistry between Elwes and Wright. There’s also the cheeky appearance of monsters, a memorable torture scene (all within the bounds of the film’s spot-on PG-rating) and, I kid you not, some of the best sword dueling in all of cinema. Yet, as a satire of fairy tale tropes, it both an ode to storytelling and a unique, character-driven comedy.
The episodic nature of The Princess Bride mirrors The Wizard of Oz as much as “Rapunzel” or “Rumpelstiltskin.” Each character Wesley encounters along his journey is idiosyncratic and funny but also wise and colorful. I never tire of the scene with Elwes and Wallace Shawn (hysterical as Vizzini) atop The Cliffs of Insanity. Ditto, Billy Crystal’s weird cameo as Miracle Max (“Have fun storming the castle!”).
The Princess Bride was ahead of its time in 1987, when the closest comparison was either Monty Python or those forgotten “Fairy Tale Theater” episodes on HBO. If there’s anything I don’t like about Reiner’s film, it’s how overly satisfied it is with itself; then again, considering the belated adoration the film received, the confidence the film emits is justified. If anything, every fairy tale send-up that followed (including Shrek, Stardust, and Enchanted) hasn’t soared quite as high as this one. Reiner’s direction and Goldman’s screenplay pulls off a minor miracle and makes it look so easy.
There’s a special quality to the performances, and as the actors bring such a distinct flavor to their roles, it’s impossible to imagine anyone better. Yes, Elwes is vibrantly handsome and has all the charisma you’d hope for as a definitive Prince Charming but it’s the sly humor he brings to the role that makes it special. Likewise, with Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya (everyone now: “I’m Inigo Montoya, you have killed my father, prepare to die!”), what begins as a knowing parody of the kind of character Errol Flynn or Rudolph Valentino could have played becomes a truly original figure in Patinkin’s hands.
As Fezzik, the late, wonderful Andre the Giant evokes a presence so endearing, we’re fortunate that his one substantial movie role was in this film.
I have never met anyone who saw The Princess Bride when it first played in movie houses, but this is the movie that film fans tell me they most wish they’d seen in the theater. In fact, they tell me how much they’d love to take their whole family with them to experience it together. Well, here it is, the opportunity has arrived. Or, as Wesley would say, “As You Wish.”
The Princess Bride is showing on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at Consolidated Theaters Ka‘ahumanu for one night only.
Rated PG/98 min.
Image courtesy IMDB