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Liquid Nostalgia: The Princess Bride

 

Is there a film that is so universally beloved than The Princess Bride? No matter the gender, race, age or even culture, it seems this film is accepted and loved by just about everyone everywhere. Maybe it's the simple, fairy-tale approach of storytelling. It's really just a melting plot of traditional stories with a good dose of humor and self-awareness thrown in. Maybe it's the sense of nostalgia blended with imagination. Maybe it's the fact it never feels too childish for adults but isn't too violent and dark for children. Maybe it's because it has a great balance of love story and romance with action and adventure. I sometimes wonder if The Princess Bride is a perfect film. I can't answer that, I do know it's a film that seems to get everything right that it absolutely must get right.

The Princess Bride came a bit late for my childhood watching. I didn't see it when it originally was released in to theaters in 1987, only until years later on VHS did I happen on it (that and countless airings on cable in the early 1990s). 

I recently got the new Blu-Ray. When it comes to selecting what movies I'm going to buy on Blu-Ray, I have three things I have to consider: 1) Is it a movie that will take advantage of Blu-Ray? 2) If I already have it on DVD, is it a significant enough upgrade when put in Hi-Def?  3) Is it a movie that means enough to me to make sure I have the best possible version of it?

The Princess Bride fails in the first two, but the third it's overwhelming. The third is why I re-buy movies like Seven Samurai and The Godfather, but also why I re-buy movies  like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Back to the Future. It's not some amazing-looking, special-effect ridden spectacle of a movie, it's just a movie that I know I will re-watch on a regular basis and I had better make sure that my re-watching doesn't have me saying "there's a better print/version/cut/looking one still out there."

I don't re-watch a lot of movies. Just the ones that evoke some sense of emotion, whether it be sentimentality or nostalgia, or a movie that's just so damn well-done that not watching it repeatedly is a disservice to the entire point of cinema (which is watching movies, sometimes numerous times in one day...I watched Empire Strikes Back five times in one day, for example...that's a whole other story).

In the case of The Princess Bride, after my initial exposure, I hadn't really seen it again until about ten or so years ago. It was sitting there, used, on a shelf in a videostore and, like so many movie fans are to do, thought to myself "I haven't seen that in a while, I remember it was pretty good...I should watch it again." This was a time when I was spiraling out of control on my movie watching, which eventually turned in to movie collecting, which eventually turned in to me having too many movies and too little space.

But I digress. I picked it up for about six bucks, took it home and rewatch it. This time I was older, and damn...it was even better than I remembered. That's a rare feeling, isn't it? Having your memories turned on their head and something is even better the next time you see it or hear it? Now it wasn't just a good movie, now it was something I appreciated, and that's rare company. I took more notice of the adult-humor blended with the childhood fantasy, the comedic moments mixed with the dramatic, the spot-on casting and memorable lines that only a great script can have - and The Princess Bride had a damn good script. Sure, it has some solid directing my Rob Reiner and beautiful performances from the cast, but it comes down to one of the best scripts of its time, writing by the author of the book it was based on, William Goldman, and probably one of the more under-appreciated ones. It was a movie that ended up climbing my own personal cliffs of insanity to the top tier of personal favorite films; no longer just a movie I reminisced about and though was good as a child/teenager, but one I've come to love as an adult. 

 So, this post put up on Valentine's Day, I did a nice re-watch. It's kind of a tradition. Christmas is A Christmas Story and The Grinch, Thanksgiving is Planes Trains and Automobiles and Mystery Science Theater Marathons, Halloween is The Thing and about a half-dozen other horror favorites. But Valentine's Day there's really not a lot I routinely watch. Most are dramas, so I tend to avoid those unless I feel like causing myself pain...but only one is my prerequisite.

 


 

A Brief History of The Princess Bride

-Normally, I go in to detail on the production history of the film, The Princess Bride being an adaptation of the 1973 book of the same name, you would think there's a history there. Yet, I found very little, other than that screenwriter and author of the book, William Goldman, had been trying to get the film made since the 1970s with numerous other filmmakers attached at various points, including Francois Truffaut, Robert Redford and Norman Jewison. Despite the talent attached over the years, it was still a project that just never got off the ground.

-Rob Reiner's father (the legendary Carl Reiner for those playing at home) was friends with the author of The Princess Bride, William Goldman, and Rob had read the book years earlier while he was starring on All in the Family. Once he established himself as a director, coming off of Stand by Me, he set out to make the long-overdue-for-a-film adaptation his next project. Reiner cut his salary, as did everyone else involved with the movie, lowered the budget, did some foreign and TV deals to help lower costs and finally got a go-ahead to get the thing made with a script by the book's author, William Goldman.

-Director Rob Reiner cast Cary Elwes because he felt the role of Westley needed a Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn quality. He saw this quality when seeing Elwes in the film Lady Jane.

-And that's it. The rest were cast, Elwes and Many Patinkin who played Inigio Montoya  did a lot of their own stunts and spent a long time with their infamous sword fight sequence, Andre the Giant was cast as Fezzik and was suffering back problems all during the shoot, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane arguably stole their show with their small characters, Robin Wright was cast as Buttercup in her first starring role and Peter Falk and Fred Savage, one renowned and the other a few years away from The Wonder Years fame, were cast as Grandpa and Grandson respectively. 

-The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, "Storybook Love" performed by Willy DeVille and co-written by Dire Straits singer and guitarist, Mark Knopfler (who also did the entire score on top of the song).

-The Princess Bride had a modest budget of about 16 million, but it grossed over 30 million at the Box Office upon its release on September 25, 1988. It has since found far more success in the home video market as its legacy and appreciation has grown since its initial release. Just recently, Entertainment Weekly spotlighted the movie with a reunion:

 

The cast years later.


 

Top Ten Moments of The Princess Bride

Everyone has their "moment" in this movie that speaks to them. It's a film built out of a series of great scenes time and time again, which has sustain it for generations now. Here's a few of my (and probably your) favorites. These are the scenes, quotes and so forth that really ingrain themselves in to your mind.


 

10: You Keep Using That Word...

First up, a very brief moment and one line. We've been hearing the "brains" of the trio that kidnap Princess Buttercup, Vizzini, constantly shouting "Inconceivable!" throughout the first act of the film. Finally, as he sees our masked hero survive a potential life-ending turn of events, he shouts it out again. Inigo Montoya, who we find out (brilliantly through simple dialogue) is a sobered-up swordfighter seeking revenge on the man that killed his father, turns to Vizzini and says:

 

 

I love this very brief exchange. It's smart as a just a storytelling element (showing that Vizzini isn't as smart as he thinks he is and that Inigo isn't entirely a "bad guy") but more importantly tells us that this movie isn't just a fairy tale but a self-aware, wry little story. 


 

9: The Pit of Despair and The Machine

Certainly the darkest moment in the film. Well, considering that our hero, technically, dies, I should say so. But it's also when Christopher Guest as the vile Count Rugen really shows just how evil he really is. It was also an incredibly important moment structure-wise because we needed to see Westley vulnerable...and boy do we see it. You really feel for the guy.


 

8: Rodents of Unusual Size? (I think not)

The phrase alone is memorable, but also how it's delivered in the film. This one needs no explanation, but I don't know anyone who doesn't think of it when they think of the Princess Bride. It's just great comedic timing.


 

7: Any Scene Where Andre the Giant Has Lines

Think back to the 1980s. Wrestling was big. As in a cultural phenomonon. Thanks to brilliant marketing by the WWF primarily, but also thanks to larger-than-life superstars. One of those superstars was Andre the Giant, who by 1987 was reaching the tail-end of his career (and sadly the tail-end of everything in 1993 at only the age of 46). Andre, though, was what wrestlers called a "heel." It was his job to be the bad-guy when wrestling and for years that's how we always knew him.

Then you see this movie, which completely turned that around and suddenly Andre became one of the most beloved people out there. Even the cast and crew speak highly of him to this day and he soon received a new nickname as "The Gentle Giant." Andre wasn't much of an actor, but this role was all him. Even writer William Goldman noted he always pictured Andre the Giant in mind as he was writing. And the guy just delivered and this supposedly "mean" character, it turns out, is the sweetest in the entire movie and has some wonderful bits of dialogue. Short and few those lines may be, Andre wasn't exactly a conversationalist, they were brilliant and you hung on every line he uttered.  


 

6: Revenge...Almost

It had been building up for the entirety of the movie. Inigo Montoya would have revenge on the six-fingered man that killed his father. We learn early who this man is, Count Tyrone Rugen, the right-hand of Prince Hummerdink and one of those men you take a look at and in an instant know he's bad news. They finally run in to each other in a hall, Inigo easily dispatches Rugen's guards with the fury only a man bent on revenge could have, a calm smoothness as they mean nothing to him and are but flies... and finally Inigo says his famous quote he'd waited his whole life to say to the man:

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

And then...this happens...

 

Thankfully Inigo gives chase and we're treated to another great moment...which is next.


 

5: Revenge...Finally

Now he's got it. Inigo finally gets it done. Actor Mandy Patinkin was interviewed about his role as Inigo, a role he still calls his favorite to this day, and he says the reason why he was able to put so much passion in to Inigo is because he himself lost his father years prior to cancer. The six-fingered man, to him, was him getting revenge on the cancer that took his father in 1972.

 

 

Knowing that, then watching this scene again, you can really feel it.


 

4: Only Mostly Dead

Max and Valerie. Everybody loves these two characters. My writing doesn't really matter, nor would it do the brilliant comedic performances by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane their due. So enjoy, and I have a feeling you'll watch the film again after watching this classic scene.

 


 

3: Inconceivable!

Define "Smart."

This is the third trial that Westley must take on, this time a battle of wits. It's entirely dependent on the absolutely brilliant line delivery by Wallace Shawn as Vizzini. The man is only in the first half hour of the film but arguably steals the show.

 

 

Again, the stealing of the show is arguable...because it has this next moment to contest with.


 

2: The Chatty Duel

A moment that made my Best Swordfight Scene list many years ago (go and check that section if you want to read), but it's the one scene most associate with the Princess Bride. The choreography, the timing, the entire set up from one moment to the next and the ability to never get boring all while having funny and witty dialogue strung throughout, it's really just one of the best scenes in cinema.

 

 

Yet, there's one element that I think outdoes all these...


 

1: Any Scene with Grandpa and Grandson

More on this in a moment, but take a look at the film's poster. It's not with Westley, or Inigo or Buttercup. No, it's the Grandfather telling the story to his grandson. These scenes

 


The Princess Bride seems set on intentionally appealing to everyone. Look at our framing device: Peter Falk tells as "Grandpa" tells the story to young , well there's a cross generational aspect right there. Most children have been read stories, so current children and adults nostalgic about their childhood can relate tot that, but it also appeals to the older crowd with the "Grandpa" character himself, who's single-handedly making a connection from a third-act life of an old man to a younger child still learning the ropes.

But that's not all with this device. Hell, I don't like calling it a "device" to begin with, it sounds demeaning because the Peter Falk/Fred Savage moments is actually the heart and soul of the entire film. The fairy tale is just a wonderful little adventure/romance/comedy/rodents-of-unusual-size story, the intent of the entire movie is this little vignette of a grandfather telling a story to his grandson. You don't realize it at first, Grandpa Falk tells it like any other story, Grandson Savage interrupts here and there, never admitting that he's actually enthralled by this story a hell of a lot more than the video game he was playing.

Then it happens. Those final scenes where it all comes together. We'd been hearing throughout this story about "As you wish" - the phrase our hero Westley says to Buttercup. Early one, we learn he says that but is really meaning "I love you."

As Grandpa wraps up his story, Grandson savage finally letting him complete it as it was meant to be (kissing stuff and all), he closes the book and gets up to leave the bedroom.

"Grandpa," asks Grandson. "maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow."

Grandpa Falk turns and slightly smiles. "As you wish."

Christ, that's beautiful, and it's that which the film is really about. I don't know of many films that can evoke a sense of warm family feelings of love as much as that single moment. Yes, the story of adventure with Westley and saving Princess Buttercup, Inigo Montoya's revenge for his father, Fezzik's finding of friendship, the wit the humor the swordplay and storming of the castle all are great and what will get people to see it. But The Princess Bride is actually playing a subtle trick on you: it's actually a movie with a hell of a lot of heart and sentimentality behind it all. You think it's a Fairy Tale adventure, but it's a little more than that, and that little more turns out to be a hell of a whole lot.

For me, the film isn't so much about love and adventure. Sure, I put this up on Valentine's Day, but like the movie I add in a little something more to show that's not entirely what it's all about. I enjoy those classic, romantic and swashbuckling aspects, but it's about the moments of a grandfather and grandson bonding more than anything.  As great as it is, the story of Westley and company is just a means to that end; - that moment where a Grandfather can turn to his grandson and say "As you wish." 


 

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