My Favourite Films #31: The Princess Bride

There are movies that make us cry, there are movies that make us think about deeper issues like the nature of man and the afterlife, and then there are some movies that are just incredibly good fun. And sometimes these are the best kinds of movies, the movies where regardless of how many times you’ve seen them they still succeed in putting a big dumb grin on your face. One of the best examples of this is The Princess Bride.

princess bride

Everything about this movie works, but the strongest aspect is William Goldman’s sensational script. How does our story of princesses, sword fights and miracles begin? It starts with a child coughing. The kid in question (played by Fred Savage) is off sick and his grandad (Peter Falk) arrives to read him a story, a story that his father read to him and that he himself read to the kid’s father. The story he reads, is the film’s major plot.

This is a great opening to the flick and the device of Falk’s narration throughout is magnificent, adding extra humour to the proceedings as he and his grandson argue about the story and he stops to reassure his audience during a tense moment (“She doesn’t die at this time”). It also means that the story’s more adult moments of conversation reflect the grandfather’s perspective.

Falk and Savage
Falk and Savage

The story being told deals with a young woman named Buttercup (Robin Wright), who’s a little spoilt and bosses around a local farm boy, Westley (Cary Elwes), who always does what he’s told and replies with “as you wish”. Over time she realizes that Westley loves her and in time comes to love him too, however, he has to leave to make his fortune, but his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts and he’s believed to have died, sending Buttercup to despair and vowing never to love again.

Years later Buttercup is due to marry Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon), as it is his right to chose a bride from any of his subjects, despite her not loving him. Shortly before the wedding she is kidnapped by Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), a criminal aided by the hulking Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and a Spanish swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). They plan to frame the neighbouring kingdom for the kidnapping, thus instigating a war.

Soon they are pursued by a mysterious figure, the Man in Black, who bests Inigo in a sword fight, one of the film’s standout scenes. It begins with the MiB climbing up a cliff face and Inigo calling down to them, and they engage in polite conversation. Inigo helps him climb to the top and allows him to rest, asking if he has six fingers. Westley shows him his hand and Inigo tells his story.

As a young boy, his father, a great sword maker made a sword for a six-fingered man, who then tried to get out of paying and killed him. Eleven year old Inigo attempted to avenge his father but was beaten and left with scars on his face, he then dedicated his life to learning swordfighting and finding the six fingered man to get his revenge. He even reveals that he has planned what he will say on that day: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.”

The two duel in the choreographed, acrobatic style of old Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster movies, and finally, the MiB renders him unconscious. The sequence is hugely entertaining, not simply because of Patinkin’s flamboyant performance as Inigo but also because of the gentle mocking of old adventure stories and practices.

Patinkin as the flamboyant Inigo Montoya
Patinkin as the flamboyant Inigo Montoya

The exaggerated politeness and sense of decency between the men culminating in the final exchange:

Inigo: You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you.
Man in Black: You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die.

Next he overcomes Fezzik in hand-to-hand combat and finally outsmarts the egotistical Vizzini. He reveals himself to be the Dread Pirate Roberts and takes Buttercup prisoner himself. She tells him of Westley and he berates her for betraying the memory of her love by marrying another, angrily she shoves him down a cliff at which point he yells “As you wish” and she realizes that it is Westley.

Reunited Westley explains that Roberts spared him and he served on his crew, before Roberts revealed the truth: the Dread Pirate Roberts doesn’t really exist and is merely a moniker passed along to trade on the notoriety, in time Westley was given the name. He announces his plan to take Buttercup and for them to flee, although they are pursued and cornered by Humperdink’s men.

Buttercup gives up so that Westley is spared, but Humperdink, who’s actually planned the whole thing turns Westley over to Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), the six fingered man who Inigo seeks. Westley is tortured and Buttercup reconsiders, with the Prince stating he will send his fastest ships to find Westley, and should they find him in 10 days the wedding will be cancelled. It is then revealed that he plans to kill Buttercup himself and accuse the other kingdom of doing so.

Fezzik is reunited with Inigo, who has fallen off the wagon and together they discover the six fingered works for the Prince. They go to rescue Westley, who’s anguished screams they hear and discover him nearly dead, and the only person who can save him is Miracle Max (Billy Crystal). They revive Westley, but he is semi-paralyzed but the three assault the castle.

Humperdink rushes through the marriage to Buttercup and sends her to his chambers. Inigo faces Rugen, but Rugen throws a knife, stabbing the Spaniard in the stomach. As he slumps to the floor, he apologizes to his father for failing and Rugen mocks him. However, when Rugen attempts to stab him Inigo manages to deflect the blows and repeats his practiced phrase.

Severely injured but powered by what Rugen calls his “overdeveloped sense of revenge”, he fights his opponent back, repeating his speech like a mantra until finally he overcomes Rugen. I recently saw an interview where Patinkin explained that when preparing for this scene he thought of his own father who had died of cancer and imagined himself speaking to the cancer which killed him. The interview is pretty moving, and changed how I view the scene, lending extra resonance to what is already a great moment as Inigo has him on the ropes:

Inigo: Offer me money!
Rugen: Yes!
Inigo: Power, too, promise me that.
Rugen: All that I have and more. Please.
Inigo: Offer me everything I ask for.
Rugen: Anything you want!
Inigo: (stabbing Rugen, quietly) I want my father back, you son of a bitch!

Westley then bluffs, causing the cowardly Humperdink to surrender and he, Buttercup, Fezzik and Inigo ride off together. With Inigo at a loss as to what to do now he has avenged his father Westley asks him if he’s ever considered piracy.

The grandfather leaves his grandson, who asks if he’ll come back and read it again.

I love this movie, because it’s unbelievably good fun. The dialogue is loaded with quotable lines and clever gags, which is what you’d expect from the man who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and there are countless great lines along the way (“Life is pain, Highness, anyone who says differently is selling something”, “You use that word a lot, I do not think it means what you think it means”, “Is this a kissing book?”) and the performances are top notch too.

Cary Elwes does the old school derring-do supremely well and also handles the humourous aspects wonderfully. He gets some of the best lines in the movie and has the look of an old school matinee idol, which helps him carry it off, as well as the smarts to poke fun at himself.

Westley (Elwes) protects Buttercup (Wright)
Westley (Elwes) protects Buttercup (Wright)

Patinkin almost steals the show as the flamboyant Montoya, Shaw is funny as the criminal mastermind who’s not quite as clever as he thinks and as the villains, Guest and Sarandon, are delightfully evil and cowardly.

And Andre the Giant is likable and oozes goofy charm as Fezzik.

The 8th Wonder of the World: Andre the Giant
The 8th Wonder of the World: Andre the Giant

Sword fights, giants, magic and true love, this movie has it all and it’s lots of fun, relishing and mocking old fashioned fairytales and adventures at the same time to produce a film that I never tire of watching and which I recommend strongly to anyone. An utter gem of a movie.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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