Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: a whip-smart fractured fairy tale that did the ironic fantasy thing long before Shrek Forever After was even a glint in an executive's eye.
There are certain works of art which become, through time, the sacred texts of a generation: most beloved sitcoms, for example, or Pet Sounds, the Harry Potter books, the '50s films of Marlon Brando, and so forth. For my particular cohort, born in the United States alongside the VCR and cable television, one of the most important cinematic objects we possess is the 1987 romantic comedy-adventure The Princess Bride - a movie generally well-received by everybody who's ever seen it, but given the august profile of a universal cultural touchstone by those of a certain age. Which makes this a little more daunting for me than just writing another movie review. It's more like a Biblical exegesis.
Like most things encountered in childhood that survive adult re-evaluation, The Princess Bride is a great deal subtler and richer than I'd have known to give it credit for when I was six - the difference perhaps between finding the fast-talking bald guy amusing, and being helplessly delighted by a movie that made a whole generation fall unwittingly in love with Wallace Shawn. Or Mandy Patinkin, or Peter Falk. My point being, there's a difference between watching a movie and being dazzled by its surface elements (this is the obvious goal of all mainstream entertainment, and it is sometimes cheap and tawdry and sometimes extraordinary and revelatory), and being aware that e.g. that's "My" in My Dinner with Andre, and he gets a Vietnam joke on top of it. One of the most gratifying things about The Princess Bride is returning every couple of years to find that, in fact, director Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman (adapting his own novel) were making an inordinately smart and sly motion picture, one that has enough simple pleasures to succeed as one of the better popcorn movies of its decade, with enough subversion hiding in its veins that it can hold up to far more intellectual puffery than most of its stablemates.
Not that the film couldn't just be a great popcorn movie, mind. The 1980s were a bit of a wasteland for cinema generally, but the one thing that nobody can take away from the decade is that it was a truly excellent era for high-concept comedies. It's incredibly difficult to imagine a movie like The Princess Bride getting made today; the kinds of filmmakers who specialise in romantic comedy aren't the kind who specialise in family-friendly adventure, and neither kind tends to specialise in films that are remotely good in any way. It has never been clear to me why, since the end of the 1970s, film comedy has suffered from such a widespread deflation of technical quality: virtually no comedies, however funny they are, are made with the same level of skill and competence of even a very unendurable drama. But that change hadn't completely happened yet in '87, and Reiner was at any rate not a comedy director, nor an adventure director, nor a family director, but simply a very good filmmaker, who elected to make this particular movie, and to make it as well as he might.
And yet, I can't go very far down that path before running into a brick wall, because in a certain sense, The Princess Bride isn't a "well-made" movie at all - in a certain sense, it is in fact a very clumsy, weird movie, and I'm sure that Reiner and Goldman were very deliberate in their choices that it should be that way. If you have not had the pleasure (God forbid!), or simply haven't seen it in a while, the film's plot goes a bit like this: in the medieval Ruritanian kingdom of Florin, a peasant girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn, without the Penn in those days) falls in love with a farm worker named Westley (Cary Elwes), who travels to find his fortune. He is lost at sea to the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Buttercup, as the loveliest girl in Florin, is taken in betrothal by Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Shortly after their engagement is announced, she is kidnapped by the nasty Sicilian mercenary Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his henchmen Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (André René Roussimoff, better known by his professional wrestling name André the Giant), who is planning to frame Florin's traditional enemy Guilder and begin a war between the two nations. In this he is thwarted by a man dressed all in black who starts to follow the kidnappers' boat, and later tracks them across land.
That gets us pretty damn close to 30 minutes into a 98-minute movie, and it's a chaotic and unformed a first act as you could hope to find - at the very least, there is no standard guide to screenwriting in all the world that would have let Goldman get by with any of what he did here. In this sequence, we have no protagonist to speak of: hindsight tells us that the man in black, who is revealed to be Westley, back to save his true love from the slimy prince, is our hero throughout, but nothing - nothing - about the presentation of a single moment prior to his revelation of his identity to Buttercup indicates that we're supposed to be rooting for him. Partially, this is for intensely pragmatic reasons: later on, Inigo and Fezzik are going to be made heroes themselves, and it's a much easier thing to do if we get to know them and like them in the beginning, which leads to something of a trifurcated protagonist. But then again, Vezzini gets as much screentime as any of the others, and he's dead by the film's one-third mark. No protagonist, then; which somewhat naturally means there aren't any stakes, since we don't know that we dislike Buttercup's abductors more or less than the prince (who is obviously bad news from the word "go"), or if we like them more or less than the man in black, and Buttercup herself is a profound cipher, who we've barely learned to identify by sight by the time that the plot kicks in (The Princess Bride, in case you've forgotten, is one hell of a fast-moving film).
It's sloppy, and it's absolutely brilliant - so let's all be grateful that Goldman was a genius who didn't need to bother with rules (by this point, an incomplete list of his great work would include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, and All the President's Men). The other thing that we've been introduced to by the end of the first act is the story of a sick young boy (Fred Savage) and his grandfather (Peter Falk), who's come to read him the classic S. Morgenstern story The Princess Bride (Goldman here reiterating his game that he was the redactor of a much longer, better fantasy novel). All told, there's not very much of this frame narrative - certainly less than ten minutes by the end of the film, and it can't be much more than five - but it's tremendously important, more than I think it usually gets credit for. This fact is easily overlooked: we are not watching the story of Buttercup and Westley. We are watching a filtered version of the story being told (with occasional, snotty interruptions) to an obviously sarcastic old man to a young boy, and the old man takes no small delight in twitting the boy, though most of his asides seem to fly over the kid's head. Parts of the story are abridged or skipped, and the narrator twice kills the momentum of the internal story's emotional drive solely to irritate the boy, who has expressed a certain smug superiority over the material. In both cases, the boy is forced to confess that he's so into the story that his grandfather was right, and he was wrong. And it's for this reason, I think, that the story begins so fitfully: Goldman, adopting the grandfather's position, is placing us in the boy's place, daring us to call him out on the frankly artless presentation of some of the material, when we find ourselves too caught up in the individual beats to care if it "works" (in that way, my question, "Who is the protagonist?" relates to the boy's interjections that such-and-such a plot point doesn't make sense: shut up and pay attention, says the grandfather/Goldman, it'll all come together). The Princess Bride is as much a commentary on the lack of real-world grounding of traditional fairy tales as it is a traditional fairy tale itself, and thus becomes something of a brilliant post-modern text about generic convention.
In keeping with this idea, Reiner presents the material in a mixture of the hyper-real and the patently false, such that the film keeps bouncing back and forth between locations in the English and Irish countryside and obvious sets, without our being able to comfortably settle into the film's "reality". This is most readily seen in the duel between Inigo and Westley on the cliff-top: you can't put your finger on what's "off" about the setting, but there's something wrong about it. The lighting has a lot to do with it; so does the convenient placement of rock formations to maximize the possibilities of the fight choreography.
But as I said, all of this brilliant, difficult matter of the film stressing its own fiction, and pointing out the ridiculousness of its genre (with lots of obviously-capitalised idiotic place-names like the "Cliffs of Insanity", "Fire Swamp", "Pit of Despair", and a great many traditional characters like the evil albino and the local magician played as modernist parodies), is merely the film's way of forcing us to concede that yeah, it's still all very exciting and romantic and fun. The Princess Bride is still a great fantasy, even as it is a great deconstruction of fantasy, anchored by some excellent performances of characters who are just about aware that they're archetypes but can't quite come out and say it. All the distancing effects in the world can't keep the fairytale from working, and in this respect, the filmmakers seem almost to be patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves for having made a story so entirely watchable that the audience cannot help but fall in love with it. I'll let them have their victory: for The Princess Bride is surely a masterpiece of adventure-comedy-romance filmmaking even in the age when that weird subgenre was at its peak. "It's as real as the feelings I feel" croons Willy DeVille in the movie's annoyingly memorable theme song, and that's the experience in a nutshell: so damn fake, but it grabs you anyway, and you can't do a thing to stop it.