Sunday, 19 August 2012

CULT CLASSIC: The Princess Bride (1987)

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The Princess Bride (USA, 1987)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest

IMDb Top 250: #191 (19/8/12)

The trick to making a really great spoof or satire is that the story should still work on its own terms and feel integral, even if its main purpose is to make jokes about other stories. Airplane! and Naked Gun both work because even in their wildest and most outlandish moments, they are grounded in something which is even faintly plausible. This is more difficult in the fantasy genre because it is easy to just invent your way out of a situation and pass it off as magic that you don't have to explain.

Comparing The Princess Bride to the Zucker Brothers is difficult because, unlike Airplane!, it was never envisioned as a straight-up comedy. Rob Reiner's adaptation of William Goldman's novel is attempting to have its cake and eat it, poking fun at all the silly aspects of fantasy fiction and filmmaking while also demonstrating its love and affection for those kinds of stories. Whether as a comedy or a sweet-natured love story, it is simultaneously a heart-warming triumph and a slight disappointment.
All of the problems with The Princess Bride result from the fact that it is never entirely consistent as to how far it is departing from convention as opposed to celebrating it or playing it with a straight face. According to the making-of documentary, Reiner instructed his actors to treat their roles like they were playing cards, almost but never entirely revealing what they had in their hand. The film keeps teasing us as to the cards that it holds, leaving us with the feeling that it would have been a more generally appealing film if it had chosen to go one way or the other.
Reiner's three previous directorial efforts suggest that he was the perfect man to take on Goldman's multi-genre work. He had done justice to Stephen King's distinctive characters in Stand By Me, sensitively handled young love in The Sure Thing, and created a comedy monolith for the ages in the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap. But while the characters are memorable and funny, they don't always deviate from their moulds in the way that they do in, for instance, When Harry Met Sally. Princess Buttercup may be headstrong and combative, but she's still a straight-up damsel-in-distress, with Robin Wright getting relatively little to work with.
The sad thing about this is that if The Princess Bride had been played completely straight, as an ordinary fairy tale, it would have still been pretty good. We really believe in the relationship between Wesley and Buttercup because the chemistry between Wright and Cary Elwes is so terrifically convincing. We like them so much that we would be willing for the film to embrace convention, since their relationship is enough to make it memorable. But when other aspects of the story break from the mould so deliberately, you feel disappointed that the whole film couldn't live up to those standards, and that turns these accepted conventions into unwanted clichés.
Speaking of clichés, much of the comedy in The Princess Bride hasn't dated very well. All the lines that are quoted by fans still retain their power, whether it's Inigo Montoya's speech to the six-fingered man, or Peter Cook's musings on "mawwiage". But Billy Crystal's comic interlude as Miracle Max brings the story to a grinding halt from which it never fully recovers. His Yiddish shtick feels more suited to a sub-par Mel Brooks film, and even with Crystal's great comic timing it doesn't gel with everything around it.
 
On the other hand, there are many moments in The Princess Bride which are still either wittily self-referential or laugh-out-loud funny. The best examples of the former both involve the Dread Pirate Roberts, first in his epic swordfight with Inigo Montoya and then his battle of wits with Vizzini. In both cases there is a self-awareness to the scenes, with Montoya quipping about the different sword-fighting techniques being used and oddities associated with the notion of fair play. As for Vizzini, he treats us to Hegelian dialectics and the writings of Field Marshal Montgomery while doing comedy acrobats, setting us up beautifully for a funny death and Roberts' punch line.
The conversations between the son (Fred Savage) and his grandfather (Peter Falk) also fall into this category of poking fun at these traditions as they are acted out in beautiful detail. They have arguments about why certain things have to happen in order for the story to make sense - or why kissing shouldn't be allowed in these stories. But unlike subsequent spoofs like Austin Powers, where the characters deliberately talk about the absurdity of their plans, in The Princess Bride all of these conversations feel naturalistic. The film is not just making a joke, it's making a point about the evolutions that stories undergo to match our changing expectations.
In the documentary, Reiner and actor Chris Sarandon talked about The Princess Bride as a testament to the importance of storytelling. The film gently illuminates the way that fairy tales carry moral lessons, which are conveyed in a certain visual or narrative language to help us understand the world around us. There are familiar lessons about following one's heart, bad deeds coming back to haunt you and good ultimately triumphing over evil, which are conveyed in a non-patronising way for children while reminding adults of the stories they grew up with.
 
There is also an interesting idea, which isn't explored in enough detail, about the transferring of character identity. Peter Falk's dialogue about The Princess Bride (that would read to him by his father) is mirrored by Wesley's conversation about taking on the mantle of the Dread Pirate Roberts. There is a hint in the closing words, "as you wish" that Falk and Wesley may have some kind of connection, with the real world and story world overlapping. With both characters there is the theme of different people keeping the same characters alive, like different actors playing James Bond, Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who.
 
The Princess Bride is also notable for its fantastic swashbuckling. The fight scenes were choreographed by the late great Bob Anderson, who worked on the original Star Wars trilogy, Barry Lyndon and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Reiner wanted to pay tribute to the swashbuckling adventure movies of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn, the latter of whom was trained (and injured) by Anderson. The fights are shot in long, wide-angled takes so that we get a real sense of scale, and all the stunts bar two somersaults are done by the performers.
The performances in The Princess Bride are to a large extent the secret of its success. Cary Elwes is really good in his first starring role: he's charismatic, funny, looks the part of an action hero, and delivers his lines with a great sense of timing and wit. Christopher Guest, who worked with Reiner on Spinal Tap, makes the very most of all too small a part, playing on Prince Humperdinck's insecurities and having great fun during the torture scenes. Peter Cook's cameo may be very close to Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian, but he's every bit as funny as Palin and looks more thrillingly ridiculous. And Mel Smith gets a very nice cameo as the albino assistant torturer, soothing Wesley after Count Rugen's torment.
The Princess Bride may not have aged all that well in certain aspects, nor is it quite as forthcoming in its satire as many would like. But its cult status is ensured thanks to a handful of very good performances, a solid central romance, a series of very funny moments and some great action scenes. In the grand scheme of 1980s fantasy it's on a par with Ladyhawke, at least as a love story. It's not Rob Reiner's finest hour, but it's still well worth a look. 

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: A fun and witty fantasy romp

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