The Princess Bride


"Remember to switch your phones off and keep talking to a minimum" says Toby, the "duty manager" at Bristol Everyman "Because everyone loves the Princess Bride." 

The film came out a little after Return of the Jedi. I never saw it at the cinema, but then, neither did you. One tends to imagine that it erupted spontaneously onto the shelves of Blockbuster and the bargain bins of Woolworths. The sort of film you watched by accident and were surprised by how could it was. Full disclosure: I saw it at an SF&F video night, in double bill with Hell Comes to Frogtown. So the opportunity to finally see it on the big screen was irresistible. 

What is there to say that hasn't been said before, over and over again? It really does stand up. The main thing which struck me watching on the sofas is how much use Goldman and Reiner make of close-up; huge, iconic, screen filling images of Wesley's and Inigo's faces; which pass you by on those 1980s TV screens. It does feel a little like a TV special. Maybe it's the relatively low budget; maybe it's the presence of Mel Smith and Peter Cook and Peter Falk and the lad from The Wonder Years in the smaller parts. 

The idea of the frame narrative remains inspired. A fairy tale has an implied story-teller and am implied listener: someone is saying "once upon a time: to someone. There is a very good card-game with that title, incidentally. It's common enough for a movie to have a frame: James Whale put Byron's house party at the front of Bride of Frankenstein, and Uncle Walt frequently opened his movies with shots of picture books and curly italic writing. Goldman's own Butch Cassidy is very aware that it's a cowboy movie and opens with a clip from an older film. The original Christopher Reeve Superman is very odd indeed. But it's unusual for the frame to remain such a forceful presence within the narrative itself. Disney did make "the narrator" an actual character in his Winnie the Pooh cartoons, suggesting that someone involved had read AA Milne. 

The frame is essential: the Princess Bride is both a story and a story about a story. Everyone is far too beautiful and strong and witty, too brave or cowardly, too noble or wicked for us to believe in them as real people. But we have to be invested in them emotionally, or the whole exercise is pointless. The Grandson comes to care about the story as a story. When Westley apparently dies, he isn't sad, exactly. People do experience pseudo-grief, say when Beth succumbs to scarlet fever or Bambi's mother gets shot. But the Grandson suffers a literary critical disappointment. Westley shouldn't die because that's not what is supposed to happen in fairy tale. Westley isn't, in fact, faking: but William Goldman certainly is. The Princess Bride is a fairy tale; it does have a mostly happy ending. (Mostly happy is slightly sad, but it's a lot better than all sad. The novel gives us three endings to choose from.) The frame gives us permission to buy into the outrageous sword-fights and the massive coincidences. "You have six fingers on your right hand. Someone was looking for you." In a movie, the revelation that Westley is the Man in Black would be corny, telegraphed, obvious. In a fairy tale, it feels just right. 

Goldman knew a thing or two about screenwriting, and the script is as tight as an extremely tight thing. There are a couple of moments where it helps to have read the book -- it may not be clear why Inigo and Fezzik are trading rhymes on the boat, and I think Inigo's "I'll do it left handed" could do with more emphasis. I don't actually know how Fezzik found out that Rugen was the six fingered man. But over and over again, one is impressed by the succinct construction. The author has to get the subsidiary heroes (Inigo the swordsman and Fezzik the Giant) to the place where the main hero (Westley) is being held prisoner. The main bad guy (Humperdinck) puts Westley into a torture machine, and Westley screams. Fezzik and Inigo hear the scream, so they know the location of the pit of despair. But how do they know it is Westley screaming:

"Do you hear that? The sound of Ultimate Suffering..."
Cool turn of phrase: compare with True Love and Rodents of Unusual Size.

"My heart made that sound when the six fingered man killed my father". 
Character point for Inigo; reminding us of his sub-quest.

"The Man in Black makes it now"
Emphasis on the hopelessness of Westley's predicament: reminder that the subsidiary heroes don't know his real name or identity. 

"His true love is marrying another tonight" 
Emphasis on the main hero's plot arc

"...So who else has the cause for ultimate suffering?"
Tells us how Inigo knows who is screaming (even though he doesn't particularly know that Westley is being tortured); raises the stakes; removes any sense that Westley isn't physically brave. And underlines the point that Humperdinck's absurd cruelty in turning the torture machine up to maximum and killing Westley is precisely what causes Westley him to be rescued: if he'd just left him rotting in the Pit of Despair, Inigo wouldn't have found him and Buttercup wouldn't have been rescued.

And that's one line. If Inigo had said "A scream! He must be in the dungeon!" we would hardly have noticed the problem.

Inigo is driven through the movie by his quest for revenge; but when he finally catches up with Rugen, Rugen runs away. The novel says that this is genuinely surprising, which in a way it is. But if we stop and think, we can see that it's the only way it could have happened. Having shown us the Greatest Sword Fight Ever Filmed -- between Westley and Inigo -- at the beginning of the movie, Goldman is hardly going to top it with an even bigger one at the end. And we couldn't treat a grudge-match between Inigo and the man who killed his father (prepare to die) as a bit of swashbuckling fun. The duel between the two sword-wizards at the top of the cliff is art-for-arts sake. 

But it's the wit, the dialogue -- and actually the underlying streak of cruelty and cynicism, even from the goodies -- that makes the movie so superlative. The line that always takes me by surprise, and chokes me up, is when Buttercup surrenders to Humperdinck outside the Fire Swamp. Rugen says he is going to take Westley (still pretending to be a pirate) to his ship, according to the terms of their deal. "We are men of action" replies Westley. "Lies do not become us."

That's the point, isn't it. The framing device imparts a studied contrivance on the proceedings. We don't question the fact that the Bishop is a famous English comedian and the Miracle-Man a famous American one. We know that the idea that you can suck out someone's life with a suction pump is absurd. Everything is artificial; everything is slightly absurd. 

Except the emotion. The emotion is all real. 

Maybe we could go back to the cinema tomorrow and watch it again?

The fact that Andre the Giant used to chat about cricket with Samuel Beckett never stops being astonishing. 

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