Is this a kissing DVD?
A young boy (Fred Savage) is lying in bed ill, actually playing a computer game, when he’s visited by his grandfather (Peter Falk) who tells his grandson that he’s there to read a story. Groaning, if not audibly then certainly within, the little boy sits back and prepares to listen but tells his grandfather that he won’t like it if there’s any kissing. And so the old man begins reading the story of S Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride.
Beginning with life on a small farm, wherein Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) is attended by a stable boy, Westley (Cary Elwes), the two fall in love with one another but are ever respectful of the difference between their positions. Buttercup, who is very beautiful, teases Westley but all that he ever says in return is, “As you wish.” One day, though, Westley leaves her to make his fortune at sea and though Buttercup waits for him for five years, he never returns. Finally, word comes that he was killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts and, distraught by his loss, Buttercup agrees to marry Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), the crown prince of Florin despite there not being anything resembling love between them. Yet, as she rides out alone one day, she is kidnapped by three bandits – Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) – who intend on killing Buttercup to initiate a war between Florin and the neighbouring kingdom of Guilder.
But that night, a ship begins following them up river, never letting theirs stray from sight. In the morning, that ship is still there. It bears no flag, appears to have no crew but maintains a steady distance behind Vizzin’s ship. As the bandits step ashore beneath the Cliffs of Insanity, one man follows them into the mountains, a man dressed in all in black who, the bandits fear, may be the Dread Pirate Roberts come to capture the princess…
Based on the novel by screenwriter and Hollywood commentator William Goldman – his Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? are two superb books on the nature of the film business – The Princess Bride is that rarest of things. On the one hand, it is a postmodern fairy tale that references classic texts whilst updating them for a more modern audience. Hence, death is never final, at least not with Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) on hand, there are enough great gags to make a comedy blush and the wicked Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) takes himself to torture with the air of a particularly officious civil servant.
And yet, both for younger members of the audience or for those able to overlook Goldman’s knife-sharp script, The Princess Bride also works as a perfectly straightforward fairy tale, one in which the beautiful princess is rescued from marriage to a wicked prince by her handsome but very poor love, indeed her first love.
Bridging both interpretations is Goldman’s placing of as many fairy tale staples as he can into his story. Buttercup, Westley and Prince Humperdinck are a given as the heroine, hero and wicked prince but add to them a giant, an albino, a swordsman bent on revenge, a six-fingered count, enormous rats, a lisping clergyman and a wizard and you have a story that’s broadens into an archetypal fairy tale, which feels much larger than Goldman every allows of his story. Episodic in character – the plotting works from location to location in the manner of a Fighting Fantasy novel without the dice-rolling – The Princess Bride moves from the Cliffs of Insanity, through the Fire Swamp and the Pit of Despair before the finale in Lotharon’s Castle with each location setting a new challenge for Westley, including death. In the manner of fantasy films – it is, though, less The Lord of the Rings than Beastmaster played for laughs – it’s always faintly ridiculous but both cast and crew are well aware of this, never more so than in Westley and Buttercups journey through the Fire Swamp. “Rodents of unusual size? I don’t think they exist!” is Westley’s summation of the situation a moment before a giant rat attacks him.
The Princess Bride is, though, a marvelously funny film, occasionally gurning a laugh out of the action – Billy Crystal is the particularly guilty of this – but, more often, the laughs flow very naturally from the situations contrived by Goldman. The scenes between Westley, disguised as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Inigo Montoya, then Fezzik and finally Vizzini – listed as Swordplay, Wrestling A Giant and Battle of Wits in the Scene Selection menu – are wonderfully written and paced and serve as the best examples of the level of inventiveness in the film. Thrown in after the very decent sword fighting – “I’m not left handed!” – and the sight of the average-sized Cary Elwes fighting the much-bigger-than-average-sized Andre the Giant is the struggle between the intellects of Wallace Shawn and Carey Elwes with such lines as, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders…the most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia!”
Unlike, for example, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, which, though a comedy, was played seriously, The Princess Bride has a peculiar air about it. Reiner described it to his actors as a film that ought to have them playing their roles in the manner of a poker player on the verge of showing their hand, in which the audience can see something of the hand but not all of it. To this, the cast never let the director down, choosing a point somewhere between seriousness and being completely tongue-in-cheek that’s a perfect match to Goldman’s script. Cary Elwes, who’s never quite fulfilled the potential he shows here, harks back to Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn with his dashing portrayal of Westley while Christopher Guest goes for menacingly camp, which, awful though it sounds, actually works. Yet it’s Mandy Patinkin that catches one’s attention as the film draws to a close, his initial failure and disappointment turning to heroism as he steadies himself and his sword. Westley and Buttercup may be the film’s beating heart, for most of its running time at least, but it’s Inigo Montoya that emerges as its soul.
Delve deep enough, though, and there’s vengeance, torture and murder but even as we watch Westley pass away on The Machine, the material continues to have a lightness about it that we, no matter our ages, still believe in that happy ending. So too does Fred Savage as the little grandson who learns even to accept a little bit of kissing as the film ends. And, as he tells his grandfather, maybe he could visit again and maybe bring the book with him.
Never amongst the best looking of films – it’s often all to obvious that sets, model work and creatures are exactly that – this is still a good transfer with Reiner’s film brought to DVD with a clear, clean picture but not a lot of detail. It is, unfortunately, much too soft a picture to really impress as you’ll see from the screenshots here, looking filtered rather than ever appearing particularly sharp. Also, it does appear, early in the film, to be a little pale but once the Man In Black, the Dread Pirate Roberts, begins his duelling with Vizzini, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya, the colours get richer, the picture gets slightly darker and The Princess Bride begins to look much, much better. The two highlights of the film are those scenes set in the Pit of Despair and in the Fire Swamp, both of which look very impressive on DVD.
The remixed soundtrack – The Princess Bride is now presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 – is really very good but any audio in the rear channels tends to be reserved more for ambient effects than action or dialogue. At times, this is very noticeable, with the creaking of Vizzini’s ship being a particularly great moment in the film, but, otherwise, these effects serve only to more involve the viewer in what is already a very rewarding film.
Commentaries: There are two tracks included here, one with director Rob Reiner and another with writer William Goldman, both of which are very different and complement one another well. It is, however, a shame that the two are not together on the one commentary as Goldman tends to leave more gaps than Reiner but between them both, one gets a very full picture of the making of The Princess Bride. William Goldman is, quite obviously, much between than Rob Reiner when discussing the writing of the book, the years when it sat unmade after being optioned by Fox and his adapting his book for the screen. The director, from being on the set each day, is the one that you’ll turn to for on-set trivia, for the actual production and for audience’s reactions to the film. Surprisingly, given how well-written his books are, Goldman’s quite a dry commentator and there aren’t a great many laughs to be had with either track, which suggests that he and Reiner would have been much better together.
There is also a Photo Gallery with eleven subsections, which cover Behind The Scenes, Special FX, Poster Art, the principal cast and director Rob Reiner.
Dread Pirate Roberts (11m43s): The real identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts is clearly a contentious matter – experts have almost come to blows over which historical character was the inspiration for the hero of S Morgenstern’s tale – so the makers of this DVD have gone far and wide to interview historians in search of the truth. Said truth doesn’t make an appearance, which leaves one particularly irascible contributor offering to eat his had should he be proved wrong.
As You Wish (27m17s): Featuring interviews with the cast and crew, including a grown-up Fred Savage, this is a very well made documentary that begins with the history of fairy tales, William Goldman’s writing of the story and, eventually, the actual making of the film, of which Rob Reiner has very fond memories. I grant you that it’s rare that a retrospective making-of ever describes a nightmare shoot, except maybe for the one that recently accompanied Valley of the Dolls, but this is a treat with William Goldman, Christopher Guest, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin and Robin Wright talking with some pride about their involvement in the film. Charming, funny and with some wonderful archive footage of the shoot, this is a perfect accompaniment to the film.
Battle of Wits: How well do you know The Princess Bride? Why does the Man in Black wear a mask? What is the world’s MOST classic blunder? If you can answer all ten, you get awarded with various clips before discovering the identity of the real Professor Rawscey.
TV Spots, Trailers and Previews: Within the Pit of Despair are these promotional shorts for The Princess Bride and various other films. The TV Spots (2m34s) only run in a Play All option and these are followed by two Trailers (2m23s, 2m20s) before being offered the Previews, which include a couple of Pink Panther collections, a trailer for the Steve Martin Remake as well as one for Fun With Dick and Jane. This section concludes with a preview for the Premiere Frank Capra DVD Collection.
Love is Like a Storybook Story (16m43s): Think The Princess Bride is the greatest of all fairy tales? Then you have something in common with the narrator of this feature, which looks at the themes shared by classic fairy tales and how The Princess Bride makes use of them in its plotting. Using another set of experts – all real ones this time – the structure of The Princess Bride is analysed and, unsurprisingly, is found to be worthy of comparisons to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and many, many other tales that begin, “Once upon a time…”
Miraculous Makeup (11m22s): If you can recognise Mel Smith and Billy Crystal under the makeup, maybe it isn’t so miraculous after all but, nonetheless, this looks at the process behind turning Crystal into Miracle Max. Unfortunately for Smith, it would appear that he’s not quite a big enough star to get called back so we have Crystal and make-up artist Peter Montagna describing what was needed as well as behind-the-scenes footage of how Crystal became, in his words, a cross between Casey Stengel, the old Yankee manager, and his grandma.
Cary Elwes’ Home Movies (3m56s): Over video footage of the cast and crew on the set, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright Penn have recorded a commentary that describes what was happening at the time. Though short, this commentary contains one great story about how Andre the Giant, who was too big for the school bus, was given a lift to school by his one car-owning neighbour, Samuel Beckett. As Elwes says, “Waiting for Andre…there’s a play there!”
Archive Features: There are two included here, one an Original 1987 Featurette (8m00) and the other a Vintage Making-of (6m55s), which feature some overlap. However, given that the recent making-of on this set don’t feature anything of the interview with Wallace Shawn that’s included here, these are very welcome.
Finally, there is Fezzik’s Guide to Florin, a booklet that explains the various locations in the film in the manner of a travel guide.
Already a classic family film, The Princess Bride is a rewarding film whatever your age. Based on one of William Goldman’s very best scripts, this is a funny, sweet and disarming little film and despite it often sounding as though it shouldn’t work, it does. In this beautifully produced Special Edition – Buttercup and Dread Pirate Editions are available – The Princess Bride ought to attract those who’ve previously given it a miss as, more than anything else, it is effortlessly charming, something that’s all too rare these days and which ought to be celebrated on the few occasions that it’s as evident as it is here.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum