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The Princess Bride

by Glenn Erickson Nov 17, 2018

William Goldman and Rob Reiner’s unchallenged modern classic captures the magic of fairy tales about noble lovers, loyal warriors and low-down villains. Everybody’s terrific, all the characters are hilariously magical and Goldman’s writing glows with love for happy storytelling leavened further by sly wit. Criterion presents the Blu-ray in a lush storybook package with a treasure chest of extras.


The Princess Bride
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 948
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 98 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 30, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Peter Falk, Mandy Patinkin, André the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Fred Savage, Peter Cook, Carol Kane, Billy Crystal.
Cinematography: Adrian Biddle
Original Music: Mark Knopfler
Written by William Goldman from his book
Produced by Rob Reiner, Andréw Scheinman
Directed by
Rob Reiner

 

Criterion’s extra label for the front of its new The Princess Bride special edition doesn’t tell us that it’s authorized, and doesn’t carry a filmmaker’s signature. Instead it accurately spells out the contents within: “Fencing, Fighting, Torture, Revenge… Monsters, Miracles and Kissing…” To those that know this movie, the last thing that’s needed is a sales job. But we’ll do our best to describe Princess Bride before getting to Criterion’s lavish added value extras.

Director Rob Reiner’s fractured fairy tale is one of only a few 1980s pictures that deserve to be considered for classic status. The book by William Goldman had to wait fourteen years to reach the screen. Goldman’s adaption stresses qualities that were becoming rare. Although a swashbuckling adventure about a reluctant princess-to-be, various friendly heroes and a couple of amusingly hiss-able villains, the emphasis is on character. Spectacular special effects are largely absent, along with the ’80s biggest bugaboo, the empty visual agitation that had begun to replace genuine thrills. Made around the same time, George Lucas’s Willow has zillions of dollars’ worth of fancy I.L.M. effects yet is hollow and soporific; my kids forgot it at once and never asked to see it again. The Princess Bride captures some of the storybook magic that keeps classics like the 1940 The Thief of Bagdad from ever growing old.

The story is an interesting reshuffle of ideas from fairy tales, 1001 Arabian Nights the song John Riley and the general medieval gag-bin. A modern-day boy (Fred Savage) squirms and complains, but his Grandfather (Peter Falk) gets him interested in listening to a reading of ‘The Princess Bride.’ The boy is at first impatient and hates the kissing parts, but by the second chapter Grandfather has him hooked. Unhappy commoner Buttercup (Robin Wright) has been chosen as the bride for the unscrupulous, impossibly arrogant Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). But she’s kidnapped first, by the sly Sicilian ransomer Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his hired thugs, Fezzik (André the Giant) and the Spaniard Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). The freelancing Montoya is really on an obsessive search for the killer of his father, a man with six fingers on one hand. But a new mystery man in black called the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ (Cary Elwes) thwarts Montoya’s sword and out-wrestles the enormous Fezzik. He then wins possession of Buttercup in a duel of wits with Vizzini involving goblets and a deadly poison. As Humperdinck’s rescue troop closes in, Buttercup learns that her kidnapper is actually Westley, the boy she loves who went to sea and never came back. The Prince’s vicious henchman Count Tyrone Rugen (Christopher Guest) captures Roberts and returns Buttercup to the castle. Realizing that Rugen is his six-fingered prey, Montoya rescues the paralyzed Roberts and takes him to Miracle Max and his wife (Billy Crystal & Carol Kane) to be cured. With Buttercup’s marriage ceremony only hours away, Montoya, Fezzik and a very limp Roberts prepare to storm the castle, carry out Montoya’s vendetta, put paid to Humperdinck and rescue the fair maiden!

 

It’s easy to say that The Princess Bride works because all the elements are in place — the actors are all ideal for their roles, that kind of thing. But the truth is that Goldman and Reiner have imbued the whole picture has a winning humanist spirit. Sure, some of the humor is straight from the Catskill Circuit (Miracle Max and his Missus) and the villains exhibit attitudes that are too-hip-for-the-castle. A few viewers may feel that the picture as a whole has too much of a self-satisfied attitude. I don’t get that impression at all. The heroine’s heart is pure and her various champions are dedicated to their solemn oaths of honor.

What Goldman, Reiner and the actors achieve so well is a consistently humanistic tone. The story moves at its own pace, refusing to skip automatically to the next action scene. The film acknowledges this when it flashes back to the impatient Grandson. Grandfather waits for the kid to calm down, and proceeds again, telling the story (that we see unfold) with a voice so soothing that it reminds us of our own storybook experiences. Characters state their motivations clearly and often. Buttercup spends at least a reel as a blindfolded, silent nonentity, but as soon as she’s free she lets her captor of the moment Roberts know exactly what kind of a tough cookie he has on his hands. Roberts grills her in regard to her feelings about the boy Westley. She accepts the fact that he’s gone for good but insists that she’ll remain faithful only to him, forever. That’s where the romantic zinger comes in: it’s basically the story of John Riley. Wesley and Buttercup instantly bloom as the fated lovers.

Author-screenwriter Goldman’s characters motivations and personal stories are pure fun. The giant Fezzik is a simple guy making a living busting heads for Vizzini, but he welcomes the companionship of his new buddies Montoya and Roberts. Inigo is dead-set on his mission of vengeance, so much so that every third sentence he speaks expresses his anticipation of the moment when he confronts his unknown foe and says, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

 

The utterly practical Westley tells the story of his capture by the Dread Pirate Roberts as if it were a previous story in Bride’s ‘extended universe.’ Wesley’s a very sporting chap: brave, dashing, the works. He and Montoya form a fast friendship. Also, Westley/Roberts fights a mean swordfight even when he has the strength only to raise one hand. Heroes don’t get any cooler than that.

The dialogue is full of minor anachronisms and sly observations of adventure-fantasy conventions, all of which work well. The hilarious Vizzini spouts off with self-congratulatory statements about his intelligence. He drops references to ‘land wars in Asia,’ along with his own personal theme word, “Inconceivable!” Some of the happenings are predictable, but in a delightful way that shares the joke with the audience. Billy Crystal’s wisecracking wizard is a walking stand-up act, while Humperdinck and Count Rugen can be counted on to act dishonorably in literally every situation they encounter.

It’s all in the details. Here’s a good example of the film’s gentle ribbing of character conventions in adventure fantasies: the albino turnkey in the Pit of Despair begins speaking in a creaky, hissy ‘character’ voice. But then he chokes, noisily clears his throat and from that point forward talks normally. I have to say that, all the way through the Lord of the Rings films, I wished that the strangle-throated Gollum would do something similar.

 

The goodwill of these characters (I don’t know what else to call it) is cumulative, so that by the time the jokes subside at the film’s ending we’re fully enjoying the standard romantic and heroic payoff moments. Goldman is so generous to his characters that he doesn’t even insist on bloody payback for the bad guys — just being unlovable jerks is punishment enough.

The Princess Bride doesn’t stress its visual aspect — it always looks attractive but little effort is made to ‘wow’ us with fantastic vistas, super-dynamic settings, or even slick architecture in the Prince’s castle. Montoya and Roberts match swords in a pretty cliff-side clearing with a projected sunset in the background. Fezzik scales a vast cliff face like a human elevator, carrying three people clinging to his back. A vicious monster in the Pit of Despair appears to be a midget wearing a ratty-looking opossum costume. The point is to enchant the reader with a story (where we usually have to imagine our own details anyway), not to dazzle us with designs better than last year’s action blockbuster. The payoff moments tend to be simple two shots, simply lit. You know, Westley & Buttercup kissing, that sort of thing. Good, honest mushy stuff.

The audience I saw The Princess Bride with loved it. My young children took to it like nothing they’d seen before — it’s nice to know that the basics of entertainment still work when given half a chance. If you haven’t yet caught up with this one, it’s a keeper.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Princess Bride is a handsome new 4K digital restoration, picture and sound. It’s perfectly positioned for holiday sales — there’s no reason that Criterion can’t get in on some of that action. Colors are rich and expressive. Landscapes are so clean-looking that they blend well with the stylized stage sets. The widescreen compositions flatter scenes that on old cable transmissions looked loose and arbitrary.

For this family favorite Criterion doesn’t pitch all of its extras at cinephiles. They appear to have recycled many of the extras for an earlier MGM special edition as well. An older commentary gives us the author, the director, the producer and actors Peter Falk and Billy Crystal. An audiobook reading of parts of Goldman’s book has been synchronized with the film. New featurettes address the screenplay, the makeup, the fencing scenes and fairy tales in general. From before come Cary Elwes’ video diary and several behind-the-scenes videos.

One arresting featurette examines a fine-art tapestry that William Goldman commissioned to illustrate key scenes from his novel. We’re told that this film and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are Goldman’s favorite accomplishments.

The package itself (for the Blu-ray) is a book-style disc holder, with Goldman’s introduction to his screenplay interpolated into a storybook format. Sloane Crosley provides the text essay.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Princess Bride
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (from Criterion): Audio commentary from 1996 featuring director Rob Reiner, screenwriter William Goldman, producer Andrew Scheinman, and actors Billy Crystal and Peter Falk; Edited 1987 audiobook reading of Goldman’s novel; New programs about Goldman’s screenplay and a tapestry he commissioned; Archival interviews with Reiner, Goldman, and actors Crystal, Cary Elwes, Christopher Guest, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Fred Savage, and Robin Wright; New interview with art director Richard Holland; Programs about the makeup, fencing, and fairy tales; An on-set video diary filmed and narrated by Elwes; Five behind-the-scenes videos with commentaries from 1996 by Reiner, Scheinman, and Crystal; original Trailer. Plus an essay by author Sloane Crosley and, for the Blu-ray edition, Goldman’s introduction to his script in a lavishly illustrated, clothbound book.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2018
(5862prin)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.