When The Princess Bride opened in late September 1987, it was a modest success but nowhere near the success one might think. Produced on a budget of $16 million, it didn’t even make twice that much, just about $30.9 million. So, why has it become so popular over the years? Maybe it’s because it’s a rarity in which everything seems to be working the right way.
Rob Reiner was already making a name for himself as a film director and a movie like The Princess Bride needs him. It would be very easy for a director to not understand the metafiction appeal of the movie or overuse it as if they are winking too much at the camera. This is really nothing more than a made up story in a book that a grandfather (Peter Faulk) is reading to his sick grandson (Fred Savage).
The plot revolves around a young woman named Buttercup (Robin Wright) who falls in love with Wesley (Cary Elwes), a farm boy who works on her land. Seeking higher goals in life, Wesley sets out on the high seas but Buttercup receives word that Wesley’s ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts and he has died. Five years pass and Buttercup is chosen by Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) the heir to the throne of the kingdom of Florin to be his princess bride.
However, Buttercup doesn’t love him and on one of her rides through the forrest, she is kidnapped by three men. Their leader, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), we later find out has been hired by Humperdinck to instigate a war with the nearby kingdom of Gilder by making it appear Buttercup was kidnapped and later killed by them. However, his two employees, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) don’t like the plan of harming Buttercup. Inigo is a Spanierd who is known to drink too much and always broke and Fezzik was unemployed in Greenland and Vizzini reminds them of the money they’ll get.
They set sail but are quickly followed by another boat later determined to be piloted by the Dread Pirate Roberts who catches up to them at the Cliffs of Insanity and defeats Inigo in a sword duel but knocks him out instead of killing him. He is later able to deliver a sleeperhold on the hulking Fezzik before he tests Vizzini in a battle of wits over a poisoned drink. But Vizzini thinks he’s fooled him but Roberts poisoned both goblets as he spent years working up an immunity to the poison. With Vizzini dead, Roberts takes Buttercup with him.
Initally despising him, Buttercup discovers that Roberts was Wesley and they’re now going to be reunited, but they are cornered by Humperdinck and Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) and others army soldiers when they go through the Fire Swamp. Buttercup offers to go with the prince if they will spare Wesley’s life but after she leave with him, he is aware that’s not the case as he is knocked unconscious and thrown into the Pits of Despair to be tortured.
What makes the movie work is how it has all the cliches of fantasy, swashbucklers and sword and sorcerer movies and turns it on its side. When he’s in the Pits, an Albino (Mel Smith) begins to talk in a raspy voice before clearing his throat and then continuing to talk in a thick British accent. When they are needing the help of Miracle Max (Billy Crystal), an elderly folk healer, he and his wife, Valerie (Carol Kane) come off as more of an old Jewish couple who live to argue with each other.
With a lot of guips and jokes, it would be very easy for a film director not knowing how to reign it in. Reiner is the son of Carl Reiner and more than likely hung around with Mel Brooks growing up. Brooks often said you only parody the movies you love. You can almost see a little throwback to the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks with all the swashbuckling. By 1987 it had become more popular to do action movies set in contemporary times with actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger using M-60 machine guns and rocket launchers to kill dozens of people.
Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman, who based the script on his novel of the same name, know they’re making a fantasy movie from beginning to end with elements of humor spread throughout. They’re not saying, “Here, we’re making fun of this movie and there, we’re making fun of that movie.” It reminds me of Brooks’ Blazing Saddles that had the look and feel of the old-time westerns but with a comedic and satiric twist in the storytelling with the characters.
Every cast member seems perfect. Sarandon is slimy and calculating enough as the evil prince but able to make him a little likeable. It has been reported Reiner intended to cast Danny DeVito as Vizzini as the character is a Sicilian, but I think that would be a distraction. Shawn talking with a slight lisp fully embraces the narcisssistic character and it’s probably his most famous role next to Rex in the Toy Story movie. Elwes with his thin moustache fits perfectly in his role. He also knows enough to deliver his dialogue in deadpan delivery. Patinkin more known for serious roles pulls off some laughs throughout.
The key Reiner does is cast actors mostly known for comedies alongside more serious actors of the stage and screen. Guest was known for his time on Saturday Night Live alongside Crystal. And while Miracle Max and Valerie have little screen time in the 98 minute movie, they steal the scene. Putting them in longer would be overkill. Even Peter Cook’s cameo as The Impressive Clergyman, an absent-minded officer with a speech impediment where he can’t pronounce his R sounds, is used just enough to be hilarious but not be too cruel.
Thankfully, the movie found its fanbase on the home video market and then on cable TV viewings. It’s now known as one of the most quotable movies. Its PG rating is fitting as there’s little violence or foul language in it which is why a lot of young Gen Xers and Millennials were able (and allowed) to watch it from a young age well into adulthood.
Sadly, many of those who made us laugh are gone. Andre the Giant would pass away less than seven years later from heart problems. It was later revealed he was having back pain issues while having to film scenes. And a popular story has emerged that while filming, Andre had flatulence that was recorded for 16 seconds. When Reiner asked him if he was okay, he responded, “I am now, boss.”
Other actors such as Faulk, Cook and Smith have all passed away as well as Goldman. But the movie lives on as they always do. The score by Mark Knopfler is still as beautiful today as it was back then. And even though I initially thought Wright was wrong for the role, I realized that her inexperience at the time was needed. Even though she had been on TV with the soap opera Santa Barbara, this was only her second feature movie.
It’s not inconceivable to see how this movie has been so popular or remembered. Every now and again, a movie like this comes along with everything is firing on all cylinders. Even when it was rumored a remake was going to be produced, fans took to social media to denounce it. Because a remake to the original being just as good is inconceivable.
What do you think? Please comment.