Our reviews of The Princess Bride (published July 21st, 2000), The Princess Bride (Blu-Ray) (published April 2nd, 2009), and The Princess Bride: 20th Anniversary Edition (published November 6th, 2007) are also available.
Death can't stop true love; all it can do is delay it for a while.
When I think back and try to remember how I first developed my love of film, The Princess Bride looms large as a major event in my adolescent years. My friends and I first discovered this film on home video, and it soon became one of our favorites. We would break into lines from the film at the drop of a hat, doing entire scenes of William Goldman's snappy dialogue from memory, and doing our best to recreate the amazing swordplay with whatever we had to hand.
Beyond the thrilling action and snappy lines, there is a lot more to The Princess Bride than might be obvious at first glance. There is the cheesy but touching framing device of an old grandfather (Peter Falk—Columbo) reading the story to his sick grandson (Fred Savage—The Wonder Years). There is the story of a boy falling in love with the most beautiful girl in the world, but never telling her until she notices it herself. Finally, there is the archetypal fairy tale, swashbuckling excitement and adventure that we all crave on some level. When I first saw The Princess Bride I was 15 or 16, an age where all of these elements were competing for my attention at once in real life. The film resonated with me on all of these levels and probably several others, and I have loved it ever since.
When The Princess Bride first hit theaters in 1987, it did not do well at the box office. Because of its genre-bending nature, no one knew how to market it properly or how to describe it to potential audiences. It was only with the growing popularity of home video that this wonderful, overlooked film built the following that it has today. In both the business sense and the larger, cinematic sense it truly has become The Wizard of Oz of its generation.
Facts of the Case
Young Buttercup (Robin Wright—Forrest Gump, Unbreakable, Message in a Bottle) is the most beautiful girl in the land of Florin. She takes particular delight in tormenting the young farm boy Westley (Cary Elwes—Glory, Liar, Liar, Robin Hood: Men In Tights). When Westley sets out to find his fortune and is killed by pirates, all seems lost. Buttercup, who knows that she will never love again, eventually becomes betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon—Child's Play, Bordello of Blood, The Nightmare Before Christmas), heir to the throne of Florin.
Before she can marry the prince, she finds herself kidnapped by a gang of rogues led by Vizzini (Wallace Shawn—Clueless, the Toy Story films). They mean to kill the princess and pin the blame on the land of Guilder, thereby starting a war. Vizzini's reluctant accomplices are Inigo (Mandy Patinkin—Dick Tracy, Yentl, Chicago Hope), a master swordsman bent on avenging his murdered father and Fezzik (Andre "The Giant" Rousimoff), a somewhat dim but good-natured giant.
But Vizzini's plan goes awry, and Buttercup finds herself in the hands of a mysterious, masked, black-clad stranger. Together they embark on an adventure of fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, and miracles.
Almost everything about this film is perfect, but the bulk of the credit has to go to William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Waldo Pepper) for his intelligent, witty screenplay. The dialogue between these characters flies fast and funny, without ever underestimating the audience. Goldman is also responsible for the delicate balance in the movie between satire and sincerity. The Princess Bride could not be made in today's Hollywood. It is too earnest and good-natured, its plays on fairy-tale conventions too gentle. Its combination of sly satire and genuine affection for its genre would never pass muster in today's culture of cynicism and sarcasm posing as hip "irony."
The acting performances are excellent as well. Robin Wright (now Wright Penn) is perfectly cast as Princess Buttercup. She is radiantly beautiful, even after adventures in the Fire Swamp and facing the Shrieking Eels. She had originally auditioned for Reiner's sophomore directorial effort The Sure Thing, in the role that eventually went to Daphne Zuniga. Since making The Princess Bride, her most visible role has been as Jenny in Forrest Gump, where she showed dramatic talent that is only hinted at in her earlier work. In this film she is everything a movie princess should be, charming and lovely and even a bit strong when you least expect it.
For the role of Westley the filmmakers wanted a strong Douglas Fairbanks Jr./Errol Flynn presence, but with a humorous twist. They found their man in Cary Elwes, a young British actor with exactly the right combination of physical presence and witty style. Elwes and Wright look perfect together on the screen, and their chemistry is unmistakable.
The other important screen pair is Mandy Patinkin as Inigo and Andre "the Giant" Rousimoff as Fezzik. Patinkin has always brought a very real depth of feeling to his characters. The role of Inigo came at a very important time in his life, as he had just lost his own father a few years earlier to cancer. In a strange way, he was able to use Inigo's quest to avenge his father as a personal catharsis. When Patinkin delivers the immortal line, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die," we feel it with him, and it sends a chill down the spine. Andre Rousimoff brings such a natural innocence and sweetness to the hapless Fezzik that we can't help but like him, and feel sorry for him in his predicaments. The interaction between these two friends on screen is one of the joys of the film.
A number of other actors made immeasurable contributions to the film. Billy Crystal (City Slickers, When Harry Met Sally, Saturday Night Live) puts in a hilarious cameo role as the magician Miracle Max. Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, Best In Show) is marvelous as the genteel yet sadistic Count Rugen, Prince Humperdinck's right-hand man and chief torturer.
MGM took a lot of well-deserved heat for their original release of The Princess Bride. That version had no extra content and no anamorphic transfer. With this Special Edition these problems are corrected. In fact, this disc is so nice that we can probably forgive MGM for double-dipping.
This time out MGM has given The Princess Bride an anamorphic transfer. The results are good but not perfect. Darker scenes look especially good, with solid blacks and good shadow definition. In these scenes, and any scenes shot indoors or on sound stages, colors are crisp and vibrant, and the image is sharp and clear. There are more troubles with outdoor, brightly sunlit scenes, where colors tend to look a bit washed-out and faded. One example to watch for is the red dress that Buttercup is wearing when she is first kidnapped by Vizzini and his gang. The dress appears to change color from scene to scene, sometimes appearing as a bright, lively red and sometimes as a weak, pale red-orange. It may not be entirely fair to blame this on the DVD transfer; I suspect that the original cinematography may be somewhat at fault. Further marring the picture is a lot of visible grain and picture noise, far more than is acceptable for DVD these days.
The audio mix fares a bit better than the video transfer. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1; the results are not overwhelming, but are quite satisfying. The early scenes in Fred Savage's bedroom had me worried, as the sound was very flat and center-channel only. However, once the story launches into Buttercup's story, the surround channels became a bit livelier, especially with background music. More action-oriented scenes such as the trip through the Fire Swamp (Chapter 11) made good use of the surround channels. The other audio option is a Spanish mono dub. It is actually not too bad to listen to, and they correctly dubbed Inigo with a Castilian accent. I bring this up because my friends and I always thought it would be a lot of fun to get our high school Spanish teacher to let us create a Spanish dub in class, but we never got the chance.
The amount of extra content on this disc should be enough to keep just about everyone happy. For starters, we have the original theatrical trailer, the international trailer, and four TV spots. These are interesting in that they show how much film advertising has changed in just the last 15 years or so. They also inadvertently show the problems the studio had in marketing this film, since it is so hard to label. Also included from 1987 are a "Making of" Featurette and a short promotional featurette. There aren't any earthshaking revelations here, but they are nice to have. There is also an extensive gallery of still photos, 88 in all. One interesting feature is a four-minute clip of footage that Cary Elwes shot during production; he narrates this footage along with Robin Wright Penn.
There is also a nice collection of extras created specifically for this DVD Special Edition. This disc is graced with two commentary tracks. The first features director Rob Reiner (The Sure Thing, A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally), who shares his insights into the making of the film. He gives a good account of the tension between sending up the fantasy genre and honoring it. He has a few interesting anecdotes and some good background information, but his commentary is a bit dull and dry. Often times he falls into the role of play-by-play announcer, simply telling us what is on the screen without a lot of explanation. The second commentary track features novelist and screenwriter William Goldman, who relates his experiences first writing the novel, then trying for a dozen years to get the movie made. Goldman admits right off the bat that he had not watched the film between its initial release and sitting down to record the commentary track. Still his insights are valuable, with the possible exception of a lengthy and mostly unrelated dissertation on the casting of Misery. However, his commentary does have a lot of gaps and is a little hard to listen to. In fact, there are so many gaps in both of these commentaries that it would have been better to combine the two. There are few people who can fill a 90+ minute track by themselves; it probably would have been more interesting to have Reiner and Goldman sit down together to record the track, or at least to have woven the two tracks together through some clever editing.
The best special feature on this disc is a 28-minute long featurette entitled "As You Wish." This documentary was produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, and is probably the best featurette I have ever seen on a disc. It does an excellent job of combining footage from the film, archival material, and new interview footage with the actors to tell the story of The Princess Bride and the story of making the film. It is even quite touching in places, especially during a tribute segment dedicated to the kind, gentle Andre Rousimoff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know that I have already declared The Princess Bride "perfect," but there are some flaws that should be pointed out. Reiner's direction, while competent throughout, occasionally misses a beat. In particular, it is unfortunate that Elwes and Patinkin spent months of training to create such elaborate, polished swordfights when Reiner's constant quick cutting doesn't really let them show their skills. As we learned from Kurosawa, or lately from Hong Kong action cinema, fight scenes are best when they are shot in long takes that allow the actors to show their skills, not unlike the dance numbers in old MGM musicals. Goldman's script calls for the "best duels in movie history," (or words to that effect) and they are undeniably impressive, but Reiner's constant quick cutting turns the action into a sideshow for the dialogue.
Another problem with Reiner's direction, or perhaps Adrian Biddle's cinematography, is that there is no real vision or sense of scope. Why bother going to England and Ireland and shooting on these great locations if the direction is going to retain a claustrophobic, made-for-TV feel?
I am forced to admit that The Princess Bride is not perfect, but it occupies a special place in my personal movie pantheon nonetheless. Overall it remains an absolute joy to watch, and like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons or the Toy Story films has different layers of meaning and humor that children and adults will appreciate differently. I recommend it without reservation.
The Princess Bride and all involved are acquitted, of course. MGM is to be commended for righting their past treatment of this dear film.
We stand adjourned.
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