MGM // 1987 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // July 21st, 2000
Scaling the cliffs of insanity, Battling rodents of unusual size, Facing torture in the pit of despair.
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.
You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is "Never get involved in a land war in Asia," but only slightly less famous is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian, when *death* is on the line!"
So many memorable quotes inspired me to include a few in "The Charge" portion of this review of The Princess Bride, one of my all-time favorite films. This film magnificently walks a tightrope and succeeds as a swashbuckling adventure, satire of fantasy genre films, comedy, and romance vehicle. Wonderfully performed and one of the most entertaining stories ever put on film, it is a pleasure to watch for the entire family. It is one of a select few of films that succeed on every level and is a must watch for anyone. All that said, MGM owns it, therefore it did not get the treatment it deserves such as an anamorphic transfer or extensive supplements that already existed on a fine Criterion laserdisc. Still, a low price and a rather good picture for a rehashed transfer prod me to recommend it, despite the fact that a real special edition will be released next year.
I've probably seen The Princess Bride a dozen times or more, yet this latest viewing was still fresh, funny, and entertaining. Not many films can do that. I'm already a fan of the fantasy swords and fighting adventure genres, and this one tells a great story within it while gently poking fun at it and itself. From the wonderful screenplay written by William Goldman, who also wrote the amazing novel, to the brilliant direction by Rob Reiner, and several great performances combine to gel into an altogether entertaining and endearing experience. Reiner takes risks that parts of it could fall flat or even self-destruct the film, but still succeeds.
One of those risks was in using a modern day grandfather (played with flair and humorous manipulation by Peter Falk) reading the story from a book to his sick grandchild. Not only does this cause frequent narration, but the film often jolts you from the comfortable reverie of the main story back to the modern day bedroom for a quick interlude. Rather than destroying the pacing it instead allows the audience to catch its breath, get a laugh, then jump right back into the story without pause or regret. Few could have succeeded with this approach, but I have to give heartfelt kudos to Reiner and Goldman for bringing it off.
I won't try to spoil the picture for the 15 people who haven't seen it, but I should give a synopsis. The grandfather is telling the story of Buttercup, a young and beautiful girl, and the farm boy she falls in love with, Westley. Westley goes off to seek a fortune to be a worthy husband, and reports come back that he was killed. Though she has been smitten by true love, she eventually agrees to marry the smarmy Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). But before the wedding can take place she is kidnapped, and a series of adventures follows, including battling said rodents of unusual size, eel infested waters, and one of the best swordfighting scenes ever done on film. And just who is the daring black-clad pirate who seeks to rescue her?
Goldman looked long and far before deciding on Rob Reiner to direct the film, mainly on the strengths he had shown in Spinal Tap. Both films are somewhat similar in poking fun at the very genre it seemingly is telling a story in, be it a rock documentary or fantasy legend. Even with Reiner and producer Norman Lear on board, the film still took quite some time to be made, due to the fact that everyone realized how difficult it would be to do it proper justice. The time and care was taken, and the result is this film I can't seem to find enough superlatives to describe.
There are many great performances in the film, in parts both large and small. Cary Elwes plays his finest role as Westley, which must have been very challenging physically. He brings off the combination of dashing and funny the role required. The skills he learned in this film would serve him well in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a funny Mel Brooks spoof. Robin Wright came off the soap opera "Santa Barbara" for her film debut; being picked out of more than 500 women sought. She combined the perfect combination of youth, beauty and the regal quality needed. The villains are if anything even better. The trio of kidnappers are Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the brains of the outfit, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), the swordsman on a mission of vengeance, and Fezzit (Andre the Giant, all 525 lb., 7'5" wrestler), the lovable giant who provides the brawn. Shawn steals the scene where he and the pirate undergo a battle of wits, and Patinkin's character has real depth and provides both a melancholy and inspiring subplot to the story. It is also his finest performance. The "real" villains are Sarandon's Prince Humperdinck, the haughty, scheming coward, and Christopher Guest as the six fingered sadist Count Rugen. Both play their parts with vigor and great fun in their vileness. Even comedians Billy Crystal and Carole Kane make a cameo that has oft-quoted lines and is pretty funny. I also have to commend a very young Fred Savage for his role as the reluctant but ultimately enthralled child being read the story.
Surprisingly, I'm going to include the description of the picture quality in this section. Surprising, because most of us were aghast to find that MGM was again going to release a catalog title with indifferent treatment and no extras. But this non-anamorphic widescreen picture was actually very good. There is a bit of grain but it is not distracting, but very few nicks or blemish from the source print. Detail is reasonably sharp but does not suffer from edge enhancement, and colors range from a bit washed out to bold and vivid. Still, this looks far better than any videotape copy I had seen before, and is very adequate for viewing.
There is a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and while it is fine it sounded much like the original Dolby Surround. Mainly front-loaded, surround use is sparse and there is little extra bass from the subwoofer, but the sound is clear. Dynamic range is fine and frequency range is as well, though more in the high end than the bass. Dialogue is always clear except when a thick accent makes a line harder to understand.
MGM acquired the rights to Princess Bride when it bought out Polygram's catalog. They've also bought out Orion and other catalogs as well, and seems determined to release a ton of discs from them. It is my opinion that since these were not their original films they simply don't have the proper attachment to their worth. The high quality they consistently deliver to the James Bond discs serves to underscore what they are capable of yet do not accomplish on these catalog titles, even hotly anticipated ones such as this. MGM has made a conscious decision to go for quantity over quality, which they even alluded to in a recent online chat. It is a crime that they did not or could not reach a deal with Criterion for the rights to the supplemental materials used on the laserdisc, including a commentary track and readings from Goldman's book. Of course most of us would have far preferred they simply licensed the title to Criterion for release on DVD. MGM has announced that next year they will have a special edition with a Rob Reiner commentary track, and I suppose is intent on selling us the title twice. That is a shame, but I will say that at least MGM has dropped the price on these catalog titles, and I paid a mere $12 online for mine. At that price, for a film of this quality, I still had to have it.
The extras are very light in this nearly barebones disc, with only a trailer and a 2 page leaflet of production notes. What is there is fine, I just wished for much more. Rather than use the space for extras MGM opted to use a two-sided disc with an open matte full frame transfer on the other side. So long as picture quality is not compromised I usually do not quibble about an additional open matte transfer, but this one looks very poor. It is much dirtier and washed out looking than the letterboxed widescreen side. What a waste of space on the disc that could have been used much better for other things. One of those things could have been English subtitles that are now discontinued on MGM catalog titles, which robs the hard-of-hearing and deaf community from enjoying the disc and offers no recourse when a thick accent muffles a line.
To quibble about the film almost seems like sacrilege, but there are a couple tiny ones that come to mind. I've always thought Buttercup was a better name for a horse than a lady, and the set on which the wonderful swordfight scene takes place looks a little fake, a la the original Star Trek series. Still I easily forgive these small things in such a great film.
Find this disc at a low sale price and add it to your collection. I can't imagine not having it when it is available, as I would easily spend more than the purchase price on rental fees for repeat viewings until the special edition is released. Bring this magical film home and watch it with the entire family. My highest recommendation for the film, and a halfhearted one for the disc itself, though only in comparison to what it could have been with more effort and care.
MGM has greatly disappointed me in their standards for catalog title discs, and I am disappointed in this one as well. However, I'll let them off with a small fine in this case as the picture quality is more than adequate until the special edition comes along. It was a privilege to bring this film before my court, and of course it is released to please another generation of movie watchers.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Production Notes