The Greatest Story Ever Told: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

I sometimes wonder whether Rob Reiner ever realized when he was filming The Princess Bride that he was directing what would come to be one of the greatest films ever made. Of course, in all likelihood, the answer is no. Had he had the hubris to have harbored such thoughts, it is unlikely that the film could have turned out as simply beautiful and as pure as it did. A large part of the film’s triumph is in its gentle, seemingly contradictory mixture of innocence and wisdom. This is a film that works perfectly on every level–as a fantastically realized fairy tale saga, as a witty and knowing send-up of such, as a meditation on storytelling itself, as the simple tale of a young boy, sick in bed, whose relationship with his grandfather is strengthened by a wonderful book that manages to captivate him for a whole afternoon, even though it has no flashy video game graphics, the pictures instead coming alive in his head as he listens to his grandfather read.

A boy (Fred Savage) and his grandfather (Peter Falk)

Even more stunningly, people at different stages of life can appreciate or connect with each different level. When I first saw it as a child myself, I naturally viewed it as a straightforward fairy tale. The winking jokes and nudges to the audience and the dry satire flew right over my head, but I was mesmerized by the story of Buttercup and her beloved Westley. Later on, as a teenager, I came to understand why it is considered to be a comedy classic, with some of film’s all-time wittiest dialogue. “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.” “You seem like a decent fellow. I hate to die.” Furthermore, after having spent years devouring countless fantasy novels and films, I was able to appreciate its satirical element, and how it was spoofing conventions that run throughout all of these stories. In college, once I started learning about postmodernism and deconstruction, I had a field day with The Princess Bride‘s storytelling framework, and the meta manner in which the young boy and his grandfather comment on the action of the story, because it is as much a film about reading a book as it is a film of that book (whole new meta levels are added when one takes the book itself into consideration, which I’ll discuss shortly).

And now, when I watch it, I find myself really connecting with the idea of exposing a child to the power of imagination. I don’t have any children yet, but when I do, I would want them to discover for themselves the lesson that the boy in this film learns, that words on a page can be the most potent magic in the world. Viewing it now, the fact that some of the special effects aren’t as technologically impressive as those that could be achieved today, works in the film’s favor. Even with its obvious puppetry in the form of the ROUS and shrieking eel and its lack of CGI or many special effects at all, really, is it any less dazzling a work of fantasy than, say, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings? In some ways, it is more so, because, as with Labyrinth, it feels hand-crafted, tactile, real in a way that CGI never can. It is a not dissimilar act from conjuring up images in one’s head while reading a book, this act of taking otherwise ordinary objects and shaping them into creatures and effects of fantasy, creating illusion from the tools at one’s disposal. In that respect, The Princess Bride may be even a better film today than when it was released, as it exemplifies authenticity amidst a sea of filmic worlds rendered via computer graphics.


It has aged remarkably well. Ironically enough, the only aspect of the entire movie that truly dates it is its opening shot, which at the time was meant to establish the dichotomy between the then-present day and the fantasy world of S. Morgenstern’s story of “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, [and] miracles.” There is something audacious and very funny about the manner in which the storybook title card, The Princess Bride, fades into the now-laughably archaic video game that comprises the first shot. It is a jarring and intelligent shot that sums up the film in microcosm as a clash between technology and a more old-fashioned form of imagination. And today, of course, we see just how swiftly and how much technology has shifted and developed, for the graphics of that baseball game instantly establish the framing story as being set in the 1980s, whereas the actually archaic section of the film, set in a secondary world medieval universe (or at least in a number of fictional countries located very long ago in our universe), remains timeless, because it happens so very far in the past, in the fantasy medieval world of our collective unconscious. Besides the lack of CGI, most shots in the “within-the-book” portions of The Princess Bride potentially could have been filmed today.

The other aspect that makes The Princess Bride feel completely current is the manner in which its story is told. The grandfather’s reading is continually either interrupted by his grandson or himself, the former because the grandson is either bored, concerned, angry, or sad at the events of the story, as he gradually begins to engage with the book more and more, the latter often because the grandfather notices the grandson acting concerned, angry, or sad at the events of the story. These are represented on screen by pauses–during which the film literally freezes–replays (on these occasions, we see events a second time, sometimes with the grandfather’s voice replacing that of the actors, whose mouths move in unison to the dialogue that was once theirs), and quick cuts from the story to the boy’s bedroom. Many of these filmic techniques seem remarkably ahead of their time, closer in line with the film storytelling done today than what we think of when we think of 80s movies. And yet there is something so charming and straightforward about The Princess Bride that it is easy to take these thoroughly postmodern innovations for granted, to not realize how very cool it is that Rob Reiner is deconstructing both traditional storytelling and cinematic storytelling here with one gesture, literalizing the concept of a book adapted into a film by not only depicting a narrator reading the book but using film-based tricks to dramatize the readers’ relationship to said book.

Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes)

In other words, he is illustrating the relationship between book and cinema by demonstrating what happens to the imaginary film playing inside a person’s head as he or she reads, when he or she puts down the book for a moment, or even skims it: the film pauses or speeds up or skips ahead a drop. One wonders if The Princess Bride could have been conceived in the days before video, which gave people an advantage and control over cinema they never had before: the ability to watch it, stop it, rewind it, and fast forward it whenever they wanted (on some level, videos and DVDs have transformed film-watching into a practice more similar to reading than before, when one had to either go to a theatre or wait for a show to air, in order to watch it). This ability seems to have left its mark on The Princess Bride, which was filmed only a handful of years after this technology was introduced, another example of the interesting, at times adversarial, at times complementary relationship between technology and storytelling depicted in the film–to wit, technology is being utilized to convey a message of the importance of turning off the television and reading a good book.  So richly rendered is the film, however, that this never becomes contradictory, as The Princess Bride is one of those relatively rare films of such high quality and intelligence that it encourages thought, imagination, and further reading.

The film is also modern in the way the boy and his grandfather provide a running commentary to the story-within-the-story. One of the reasons it succeeds in appealing to so many people, male and female, young and old, is that it undercuts much of its own drama to prevent events from ever getting too sappy or the story from taking itself too seriously. Each time Westley and Buttercup kiss in the early part of the film, the boy expresses disgust. Even when Westley dies, Buttercup’s mourning is contrasted with the kid’s heartless “Oh, brother…” It is a certain magical trick that the film plays that we, as viewers, find ourselves both being fully drawn into the story and aware of it as a story, at the same time. We laugh at the boy’s reactions but are also able to compartmentalize and become just as captivated by the story as he eventually does. It’s as if the lack of “sacredness” with which the film holds its text–fully willing to josh it a bit, and cut it down to size–allows us to purely enjoy it. We can’t nitpick the film for being a silly fantasy, because the film does it itself before we have a chance.

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya

There is also a honesty to every performance in the film, from Robin Wright’s lovely portrayal of Buttercup to Cary Elwes’ dashing, sardonic Westley to Mandy Patinkin’s impassioned, sincere Inigo Montoya, and so on that allows us to care for them as people first, even while appreciating that they also fulfill certain fantasy tropes. Inigo, for example, is such a legitimately noble and lovable character that every time I first hear his famous “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” mantra, I get goosebumps, even as I know the punchline at the end of the film will subvert it, when he will come to repeat it again and again and again while facing Count Rugen. Even this scene, however, while very funny, is also deeply touching, in how he gathers strength in himself and survives due to repeatedly reinforcing and reaffirming his moment of glory for himself. Meanwhile, both Fred Savage and Peter Falk are sheer perfection as the grandson and grandfather, Savage flawlessly navigating the arc from I’m-too-old-for-this-stuff–or so he wants people to think–to awestruck and fully ensnared by the story, at first reluctantly, and finally, wholeheartedly, Falk providing flawlessly deadpan reactions to his grandson’s gradually shifting mood. He knows the story will cast its spell over the boy eventually but doesn’t gloat when it does.

The film also features superb dialogue, which runs the gamut from cheekily sarcastic to gloriously poetic, from sardonically humorous to searingly real. “You can’t hurt me. Westley and I are joined by the bonds of love. And you cannot track that. Not with a thousand bloodhounds. And you cannot break it. Not with a thousand swords. And when I say you are a coward, that is only because you are the slimiest weakling ever to crawl the earth.”;  “A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect, with eyes like the sea after a storm.”;  “Your ears you keep, and I’ll tell you why…so that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish — every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, ‘Dear God, what is that thing?’ will echo in your perfect ears. That is what ‘to the pain’ means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.” Gorgeous.

The Man in Black

This is the rare film that is worldly in its often harsh truths–”Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”–and yet is also unreservedly romantic: “Hear this now: I will come for you.” “But how can you be sure?” “This is true love. You think this happens every day?” There is something achingly, rapturously beautiful about this exchange, yet also down-to-earth. Westley speaks about such a lofty thing as true love as a matter of fact. He will return to her–he will come back from the dead twice for her, in fact, once figuratively and once literally–and he will accomplish this due to the simple fact that this is true love, and that is what happens. Again, this honesty grounds the film. We can accept the fantastical occurrences that continue to reunite Westley and Buttercup due to their conviction. Near the end of the film, when evil Prince Humperdinck tells Buttercup that he killed Westley, she doesn’t lose her resolve. “Then why is there fear behind your eyes?” she asks. She had allowed the belief that Westley had died to break her faith once, but it won’t again. Nothing will separate them, not even death. In Westley’s words, “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” Another simple truth, expressed in prose worthy of poetry, in a film that is otherwise considered a satire. Remarkable.

I also must discuss one other element to the before-its-time, meta conceit of The Princess Bride, which is that the film also deals with the dilation of time in a manner still being explored today in cinema, perhaps most recently in Inception. From the moment the grandfather opens the book through Buttercup’s poor treatment of Westley through their courtship through their separation through Buttercup’s five year period of mourning and eventual betrothing to Humperdinck, and through to her kidnapping at the hands of Vizzini, Inigo, and Fezzik, all takes place in less than seven minutes of screentime. It is the magic of the movies, and storytelling in general, however, that time works differently than it does in the outside world. If one is not looking at the clock, it becomes easy to be so caught up in the story, and so quickly, that one doesn’t even realize how few scant minutes have passed. The Princess Bride sets up two characters, gets us to fall in love with them, splits them up, and causes us to feel the woman’s pain at the man’s death in only a smattering of moments, which demonstrates the power of both a great story and a great film. The funny thing is also that the grandfather’s narration should make it very obvious to us how dramatically time is being compressed, and yet there is something about the repetition of the three “As you wish” scenes (the magic fairy tale number), and the few, perfect shots of the lovers’ romance that creates the illusion that we have known them forever–an amazing achievement, as well as commentary on the nature of storytelling.

"The Princess Bride" Book Cover

Speaking of storytelling, I would be remiss in not mentioning William Goldman’s book, The Princess Bride, upon which the film is based. The novel and film make excellent companion pieces, as they each tell the same story from a slightly different perspective. The film is interested primarily in the concept of exploring what it means to tell and love a story, through the conceit of an elderly man reading a book to his grandson, whereas the novel is about revisiting childhood memories and discovering things aren’t quite as you remembered them. Goldman begins his novel in the first person, discussing a book called The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern that he claims that his father read to him as a child. He details his efforts to track down a copy of this hard-to-find book and the surprise he received, upon finally finding it, when he learned that it is a much longer book than he ever realized, filled with political and social satire, allegory, and history which his father had skipped through, in order to transform this adult epic into a suitable fairy tale for a child. He thus sets out to “abridge” the novel, just as his father did, skipping the boring bits and even providing annotations for what was excised.

In actuality, however, The Princess Bride never existed, and neither did S. Morgenstern. William Goldman simply created an elaborate fiction, disguising the novel’s forward as an autobiographical piece and the annotations as legitimate notes about an actual work of literature, when in fact he wrote the entire thing himself. His meta framework became even more meta later on, when he wrote an addendum to the 25th anniversary printing of The Princess Bride, in which he discussed the process of turning “S. Morgenstern”‘s book into a film with Rob Reiner, and his discovery of a sequel entitled Buttercup’s Baby, even going so far as to fictionalize a meeting with Stephen King, all of which serves to further blur the line between fact and fiction in his vast meta fabrication. That is not to say that his experiences with The Princess Bride (the fictional book-within-the-book, that is) don’t have some basis in reality. It is likely meant to comment on actual stories he was read as a child that either turned out to be very different or revealed themselves to contain life lessons he hadn’t realized at a younger age, when he revisited them as an adult. Along the way, Goldman also satirizes academia and scholarship (the notes reference “Morgenstern enthusiasts” who are horrified by the butchery he is making of the “original” work), and mocks huge tomes such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote that include hundreds of pages containing details that would seem to be easily excisable. His litmus test (and perhaps his suggestion to other authors) seems to be, “Is the story moving along?  Is it fun? Is it exciting? If not, cut!

Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and Valerie (Carol Kane)

The most amusing example of self-referential, meta humor might be in the Miracle Max/Valerie section, so wonderfully brought to life in the film by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane. Goldman notes that he decided to cut out 20 pages here, not because they weren’t good, but because they were too reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and that, even though they were written many years before Baum was born, modern day readers would believe them to be derivative. He also mentions that his editor thought that Miracle Max and Valerie sounded too anachronistically Jewish, to which Goldman responds that it’s not Morgenstern’s fault that the characters he wrote happen to come across as seeming similar to our modern, pop cultural conception of old Jewish people. The meta joke in both these cases, however, is that of course that “excised section” would have been derivative had it really existed and of course Miracle Max and Valerie are anachronistic–because they were actually created in 1973, when Goldman was writing the entire book. Just as the film pokes fun at itself through its framework, Goldman’s framework allows him to get away with things in his medieval-set fantasy that otherwise might have stuck out as being unrealistic for the time period.

Again, however, the novel and film are fascinating examples of how the same material can be used for different ends, even as both are united by the same themes of textual deconstruction and storytelling. The Princess Bride is the rare story that has appeared almost perfectly in two separate mediums, each one focusing on a different aspect of the work and thus mining different treasures from it. What they have in common is a beautiful story, beautifully told, of the most beautiful girl in the world and her farmboy-turned-pirate true love–a story capable of igniting a passion for reading and exercising one’s imagination, that can last a lifetime. “Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind. The end.”  Swap the word “kiss” for “film,” “book,” or “story,” and you will have described The Princess Bride to a T.

This review first appeared on Rob Will Review.

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Author: Robert Berg

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