I’ll tell you what I think to be true of Rob Reiner’s 1987 classic The Princess Bride, more and more every time that I watch it: Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Wesley (Cary Elwes) are not the heroes.
Sure, the book which Grandpa (the late, great Peter Falk) reads to The Grandson (Fred Savage, now a successful television director) begins and ends with the two lovers. But for me, anyway, their relationship is just a supporting character sandwiched around the tale of drunken swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) hunting the six-fingered Count Rugen (Christopher Guest of This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show and many other classic comedies).
Inigo’s love for his father is at least as great as Wesley’s for Buttercup; note that Inigo is the only other one who recognizes the “Sound of Ultimate Suffering.” More than that, Inigo’s love and pain is easier to relate to. “Not one couple in a century” gets to have true love like Wesley and Buttercup do, says evil Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon), and the movie never goes out of its way to prove him wrong. But almost everyone can identify with losing a parent and devoting one’s life to revenge. In the Justice League of Princess Bride characters, Wesley is Superman and Inigo’s is Batman, and if comic book and movie ticket sales over the past ten years are any indication, a great many people like Batman more.
William Goldman’s story, adapted from his own novel, is basically a full-on deconstruction of the fairy tale and the fantasy adventure story. That’s the whole point of the framing story with Savage and Falk, of course: Savage is the audience surrogate, representing our most childish expectations from a story like this. You can bet that Goldman, who was an Academy Award-winning screenwriter four years before the release of this novel, knows exactly what those expectations are and how to play with them.
A good example of this is the section with Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife Valerie (Carol Kane). To call what Max does “magic” is more or less an insult to every fantasy author who ever came up with a complicated system of magic for his wizard characters to use. Max is basically just a plot device whose presence is required because the logical conclusion of the story up until then required Wesley to die, but the expectation is that Wesley’s true love will win out in the end. The presence of Crystal and Kane is just to perk up the scene and make it funny so that the audience doesn’t tune out.
The Miracle Max scene is the only one in the movie that I liked as a kid but dislike now. Crystal and Kane are simply mugging too hard and going too loud. Every other actor is exactly as big as they need to be, and has the exactly right amount of tongue in cheek. Wright, for instance, plays every shot of the movie completely straight, as though she’s not even aware that there are genre conventions in play (perhaps her experience in soap opera, where the female characters are usually Buttercup types written by someone who’s not self-aware, helped with that). On the other hand you have Andre Rene Roussimoff, a.k.a. Andre the Giant, who seems to be acknowledging the oddity of his appearance in every scene.
Speaking of Andre, the urban myth is that he was so proud of the film that he would show it endlessly to his fellow wrestlers, even if they had seen it several times before. This is interesting because Andre was probably the biggest wrestling star in the world at the time.* As nice as that level of stardom is, it can’t beat being in a movie that, despite it’s minor flaws, is endlessly rewatchable. Six years after the release of this film, Andre the Giant was gone, his physical condition combining with hard living to lead to heart failure; most of those six years were spent in lackluster wrestling matches as his body broke down. But every day someone pops in a disc or fires up Netflix, and the French giant’s prime gets to live on again.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The Princess Bride was shot before, but released after, the Hulk Hogan – Andre the Giant storyline that catapulted Hogan into superstardom. Prior to that match, Andre was without question the most famous wrestler in the world, as this legendary Sports Illustrated profile shows.