#34 — The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)
It is a just a fairy tale, of course. By definition, it’s frivolous and inessential; the sort of thing told to a small child to help them drift off to sleep. When this sort of story makes its way to movie houses, it’s usually rendered by Disney animators with any live action derivations leaning too hard on doses of heavy pretension to make it seem important or snarky comedy to prove the erudite distance the filmmakers keep from the childish material. Neither dire approach is the case with Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, adapted by vaunted screenwriter William Goldman from his own 1973 book. It never disavows its genre, even embracing it through a framing sequence that features the tale being read by a grandfather, played by no less rumpled and charming a screen presence than Peter Falk. But the film also doesn’t rely upon it. Reiner’s goal is very similar to those of any of his best films. He wants to tell a terrific story as well as he can. He wants the audience to be entertained, moved, amused and thrilled. No matter have his finished product might be categorized, no matter what age group the studio might select as their target audience, Reiner simply wants to make a great movie. As they might say in Florin, he was successful in his quest.
Naturally, there’s a love story and great tests that must faced and formidable foes who must be vanquished. There is a princess named Buttercup and a stable boy named Westley. They have true love, which doesn’t happen every day, but it is thwarted, though only long enough to send them on opposite ends of a perilous path, leading to adventure as they edge closer together. As played by Cary Elwes, Westley becomes a dashing hero, adorned all in black and facing down danger with the amused smile of the justifiably confident. He can face down rat creatures and giants and snarling geniuses and gallant swordsmen and corrupt royals with aplomb, all because he knows with utter certainty that the greatest kiss since the invention of the kiss awaits him as a reward.
Reiner deftly handles the multitude of elements poured into his film. It feels less like a bedtime storybook and more like an entire series that might line an entire bookshelf artfully condensed down to a single, delectable bite. With so much material to juggle, Reiner knew it was important to get actors who could inhabit their roles quickly and efficiently. As Iñigo Montoya, the Spanish swordsman seeking vengeance for his murdered father, Mandy Patinkin conveys a man whose anguish is interlaced with a spirited joy at his own remarkable capabilities with a blade. There may be no happier moment scene in the film that the one in which Iñigo realizes this mysterious masked man he’s encountered will actually be a formidable match, a realization Patinkin cues with a sly smile and he launches into battle. There’s equally fine work throughout the cast, even in performances that amount to little more than brisk cameos such as those delivered by Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Wallace Shawn and Peter Cook, who’s especially funny as he Fuddishly misidentifies where true love lies.
The story has everything, or so we are told by the old man who begins telling it to his reluctant grandson. By the end the boy is completely won over, asking for a repeat reading the next day. That may as fine of a measure as can be made of storytelling art, the desire it inspires to revisit it over and over again. It’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, a measure that The Princess Bride stands up to admirably well.