The Princess Bride

A tale of true love in which a simple farm boy must do battle against a dastardly prince for the hand of a beautiful princess.

A charming fairy tale that successfully combines elements of fantasy, comedy, and romance?  Inconceivable!  But that’s exactly what Rob Reiner has achieved with The Princess Bride.  I watched this film, as I always try to, with as little information as possible.  I had the vague idea that it was a fantasy, so I was surprised and delighted when I realised that it was something quite different; something I had never seen before.

This film plays up all the classic fairy tale stereotypes to create laugh-out-loud high adventure.  Our heroes travel to the Cliffs of Insanity, the Pit of Despair, and the Fire Swamp.  They do battle with giants, master swordsmen, criminal masterminds, evil princes, and Rodents of Unusual Size.    And although this film relies on the conventions of the genre to produce comedy, the thing that makes the picture great is that it is not by any means a spoof of fairy tales; it is a celebration of them.

The film drives the point home by framing the main story within the meta-narrative of a grandfather reading The Princess Bride to his grandson.  He comments that “When I was your age television was called books”, and the boy is seen playing video games with a glassy expression before becoming absorbed by a more old-fashioned form of entertainment.

The characters here are all vivid, colourful, and hilariously funny.  The dialogue that has been written for these actors is some of the funniest I have ever seen in a film, especially a fantasy fairy tale.  Why this film wasn’t at least nominated for best screenplay I will never know.  The writing absolutely sparkles, and somehow the whole film seems to be imbued with a sort of magical fairy dust that lifts the movie from being great to being transcendent.   The only slightly boring character here is the Princess herself, who serves as little more than the MacGuffin around which the rest of the film revolves.

It’s not just the brilliance of the writing that creates the genius here; the perfection of every inflection in the delivery is what elevates the lines from witty to magical.  I have a feeling that some of the lines could have fallen flat if they had not been delivered perfectly, so it’s a tribute to the talent on show here that every line comes off flawlessly.  Of particular note are Cary Elwes as Westley, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya (“My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”) and Wallace Shawn as Vizzini.  There are also great cameos from Christopher Guest, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, and Billy Crystal.

Naturally I watched this film twice and, of course, the first time around I was simply caught up in the story and my own private war of trying to stop crying from laughter.  But the second time around I was looking to be a bit more critical, and it’s fair to say that this film does show its age in its editing, shooting style, and storytelling structure.  It’s all a little slower and slightly more clumsy that we have become used to recently.  But it really doesn’t matter, and, if anything, the unrefined filmmaking even adds a bit to the movie’s fairy tale-like charm.

Coming to this film a little late – well, actually more than two decades late – it is obvious to see the influence it has had, and I was particularly struck by similarities between certain events and characters in this film and those in Greg Keyes’ excellent The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone saga.  The Princess Bride is the first film I have reviewed on this blog that I can honestly say I will be coming back to again and again, and because of that I have decided to introduce a new feature to properly show my appreciation.

The Princess Bride will be the first recipient of the Lack of Faith Classic Award.  I will be awarding this to films that are not only great in every department, but which also have that extra magic that makes them tirelessly re-watchable.  These will be the films that enter into my personal culture, and will influence every other cultural experience that comes after them.  They will be the films that I quote from endlessly, and measure all other films against.

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