Dir. Rob Reiner. Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin
William Goldman could not have chosen a more difficult kind of story to write than this bifocals fairy tale. Looking at it through the top half of the lens, this is a once upon a time story about adventure and magic and a princess in a land far far away. It is tempting to take that angle on the story straight, as tempting as it is to eat the last cookie in the cookie jar, and heaven knows I’ve done it. There is a nimble chemistry between Cary Elwes and Robin Wright. It doesn’t hurt that the two of them are young and beautiful. Feel free to whistle the first time you see Elwes’ hair falling into his blue eyes, his mouth murmuring “As you wish.” Wright can say something like “I died that day!” about how heartbroken Buttercup is to have lost Westley, and it sounds poetic instead of sappy; Elwes, for his part, is doing Errol Flynn for girls with promise rings, which seems every bit as difficult to pull off and yet he manages to thread that needle too. This is a collage of the fiction we usually give to four- and five-year-olds, and the burden of making the fiction work on its own merits is placed on Elwes’ and Wright’s capable shoulders. He’s given more to do than she is, for which I imagine we could blame the gender roles which inflect all such stories. When she’s kidnapped, he rescues her; when she falls into the lightning sand, he dives in after her. The Princess Bride does not merely let him solve all problems with his sword or with his fists, either; old-fashioned The Princess Bride may be, but a proponent of toxic masculinity it is not. Westley’s greatest accomplishment is the bluff he extemporizes on in his “To the pain” monologue, not his triumph over Inigo Montoya (Patinkin) in a balletic exchange of steel or his defeat of a rat on androstenedione, and it’s one he makes almost entirely while prone because he can barely move his body. And even if there is less for Wright to do than Elwes, that less which she needs to accomplish is in its own way much more difficult. Like Lamberto Maggiorani in Bicycle Thieves, she has to look absolutely perfect in the part or the rest of the movie begins to tear at the seams. We have to believe that Buttercup is foolish enough to fall wholly in love with the farmboy but suspicious enough to know that Humperdinck never sent his fastest ships out to find Westley. We have to believe that she is worth the saving of Westley’s life at the hands of a Dread Pirate Roberts, and desired by the prince of the realm for a wife despite her common ancestry. We have to believe that she could give the old king (Peter Falk) a kiss, tell him that she was about to kill herself, and mean both without any irony. In other words, we have to believe that Buttercup is a young woman for whom marriage might mean what it meant hundreds of years ago, that is, the step by which young women lose the adjective. Robin Wright is flawless in all phases.
Then there’s the bottom half of the lens, and that lens is the one which gently teases what we see above. That’s what Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) is doing in this story when he compares land wars in Asia to going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. It’s the invocation of a “holocaust cloak” which appears just when it’s needed. Everything that’s just a little too big—the Cliffs of Insanity, Billy Crystal’s prosthetic nose, the RoUS’s, Andre the Giant—fits in as well. While Elwes and Wright are performing swordfights, horrified dreams, and kisses with a lot of tongue, everyone else is doing something to remind you that it’s okay to laugh. Chris Sarandon and Christopher Guest, as Prince Humperdinck (I mean, come on) and the six-fingered Count Rugen, are nearly playing this as straight as Elwes and Wright…but then there’s an exchange like this, right before Rugen goes into a tree to torture Westley:
Humperdinck: Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s five hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped!
Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.
There are other parts of this movie which make me laugh louder, but as a concept, this joke is just unbelievable. Guest, of course, is the one who sells it, and he does it looking through both parts of the bifocals at once. The delivery is absolutely honest—is that Grandma who has six fingers on her right hand?—but the context is totally ludicrous. The great example, even though Guest is he true master, takes place at the wedding, in which the “Impressive Clergyman” (Peter Cook) is presented. His robes and miter sparkle. Impressive he definitely is. And then he opens his mouth, and what happens is so perfect that I can’t believe they managed to get it on film without anyone breaking. “MAWWIAGE,” he begins. “MAWWIAGE IS WHAT BWINGS US TOGEDDUH TODAY.” Certainly this is what it should look like in a fairy tale when the prince marries his bride, and certainly it should not sound anything like this, which is why The Princess Bride can work as two separate entities. Ultimately, they pull in the same direction. The Princess Bride is corny, but totally sincere. It can get us to laugh at the concept of “twue wuv” but does not so much as twitch an eyelash when characters whisper about the power of true love.
Of course, bifocals aren’t much good unless someone’s wearing them, and in The Princess Bride that someone who gives us a point of view is the grandfather (Peter Falk, back for more). He’s going to pinch my cheek, the kid (Fred Savage) complains, and of course the kid hates that, and of course the grandfather does exactly what the kid predicts he will. He is as perfect a grandfather as Robin Wright is a Buttercup. In one moment, he is so transparent that his callow, know-it-all grandson can see right through him, although that moment is followed by ten more in which he coyly manages to turn his grandson’s eensy-weensy cynicism about a “kissing book” into appreciation of the story as well as appreciation of the grandfather who came down to spend the day with him. Falk is the right actor (a lot of people who are “the right actor” in this movie, always a good sign) for the part. He wears those bifocals just right, able to recognize the ridiculousness of the story and not necessarily shy about letting loose with it. Amusingly, he inflects the serious with a little doubt (as when he describes the perfect kiss that Buttercup and Westley share at the end of the story) and the ridiculous with some seriousness (“She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time,” a sentence which really makes me wonder about the wisdom of the prepositional phrase at the end). This is a movie which really can’t stand to lose anyone, but the master of the frame is perhaps the most essential of them all.
The actors and the screenplay get most of the attention, but for me the great underrated contributors are Norman Garwood and Mark Knopfler. Knopfler’s score is probably more appreciated than Garwood’s sets, which is understandable; Garwood didn’t play Live Aid, after all. Knopfler’s music is deeply ’80s, and it comes out most during scenes of swashbuckling peril. The music in the Fire Swamp is synthy and overdramatic, which makes perfect sense, given that it’s playing while Elwes wrestles a guy in a rat costume around and someone shoots flames up out of the ground to torch said rat. (The synth horns most remind me of the soundtracks for early-mid 2000s strategy video games: it’s war, but also it definitely isn’t real war. Also: ‘sup, Blitzkrieg 2.) The movie’s theme, “Once Upon a Time…Storybook Love,” gives Knopfler’s plucking style some room to work while simultaneously making it clear how perfect this world can be.
Buttercup rides her horse up to the farm in the distance over those rolling, Jerusalemite fields of Florin. Meanwhile, this lovely, warm music plays over it; it’s unpretentious and deft. As for Garwood, my favorite set of his, despite the number of really wonderful places in the film, is atop the Cliffs of Insanity. There’s backdrop in rainbow colors beyond the face of the cliff. That backdrop is as fake as the big ol’ rocks which litter the plateau, and that total falseness is a playground of imagination. Somehow Garwood has made this little set low-fi enough that it looks like what a ten-year-old boy would imagine for the setting for a swordfight as opposed to some bigshot Hollywood designer. It looks like fun, and it’s so accessible that it’s easy for us to imagine having fun there as well.