The Princess Bride
R.I.P William Goldman

Even as a teenager, I disliked the spoiler nature of movie trailers. And I never got all that caught up in the (albeit rudimentary) pre-Internet forms of marketing and hype about films that were “coming soon to a theater near me.” I just opened the local paper, pored over the print ads for what was playing, and went to whatever looked good. And, of course, I saw commercials on TV for upcoming features, which is how I learned of The Princess Bride in 1987.  I was in high school and saw a commercial that consisted simply of the first 30 seconds of the film’s fifth reel: a close-up of a little door within a bigger door, on which a hand knocks frantically. The little door opens to reveal the face of a grumpy Billy Crystal (then a huge TV star just beginning his film career), made up to look ancient. In his familiar New York, Old Jewish Man accent, Crystal tells off whoever the goofy-looking guy was doing the knocking; the little door slams shut, the movie’s title pops on the screen, and an announcer informs us that The Princess Bride was “a new film by Rob Reiner,” “a comic tale of true love and high adventure.” That was all I needed to get excited seeing it. But apparently the stand-alone TV clips like this one, and the disjointed assembly of moments that constituted the movie’s theatrical trailer, didn’t do a great job selling the picture to audiences. The Princess Bride got solid reviews, but while it did modest business at the box office, taking in about twice the sixteen million dollars it cost to make, it was far from a hit. Reiner and his producing partner Andy Scheinman were so frustrated by the way they felt 20th Century Fox had bungled the release that they started their own production company, Castle Rock Entertainment, which went on to produce scores of successful films and TV shows.

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Fox’s advertising department didn’t grasp the tone of The Princess Bride, or how to market it: was it a satire, like Reiner’s groundbreaking mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, or a straight-up romantic fairy tale? Was it for kids? If so, was it meant to be aimed at boys or girls? It had a few recognizable faces, but certainly no marquee-value movie stars. Of course, all these things are what won the picture a cult following when it was released on video. Its delightful blend of PG-rated comedy and emotionally stirring fantasy adventure delighted audiences of all ages and all generations.  It made stars out of nearly everyone in its cast and has become a modern classic over the decades, appearing on many top 100 lists of films (including this one). 

The Princess Bride tells the story of Buttercup, the most beautiful young woman in the kingdom of Florin, who is drawn to a handsome farmhand named Westley. They fall into the kind of unassailable “true love” that only exists in movies, fairy tales, and the imagination of children, but that resonates powerfully with many adult audiences because we’ve experienced emotions so strong they seemed eternal, or because we long to experience such passion one day. When Westley leaves the kingdom to seek his fortune so that he and Buttercup can marry, it initiates a tale of duplicitous intrigue, swashbuckling action, long-sought revenge, pageantry, romance, and laughs.

The film is based on the 1973 sardonic yet affectionate fantasy novel by William Goldman, the celebrated screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and Hollywood memoirist who won Oscars for his scripts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President's Men (1976). He also penned several deliciously funny books about his career in Hollywood, including Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?—must-reads for anyone who loves filmmaking. The novel The Princess Bride grew out of the stories Goldman would tell his two young daughters. One night, when he asked them what kind of story they next wanted to hear, one asked for a story about princesses and the other a story about brides, and thus the title was conceived.

Goldman presents his whimsical novel as an abridgment of an original work by the author S. Morgenstern, and refers to the slim volume as "the good parts version." In the preface he writes a fictional account of how The Princess Bride was his favorite book and how his father would read it to him over and over as a kid, but that later in life he discovered he’d never actually read the whole thing. His father would skip all the historical period detail Morgenstern (supposedly) painstakingly chronicled and just read him the parts that were exciting or character-based, as one might if reading Moby Dick to a child. Goldman constantly makes notes, asides, and editorial commentary on “Morgenstern’s work” throughout the pages of The Princess Bride.

This amusing literary device is one of the things that make the book so much fun. In it, Goldman claims to have added nothing to Morgenstern’s text, but allows that he did create one original scene himself: a loving reunion between Buttercup and Westley. However, he explains, his publisher strongly objected to any additions to Morgenstern’s work. So Goldman invites readers to write to the publisher and request a copy of his "Reunion Scene,” which countless readers did. But instead of getting the promised pages, the publisher, as instructed by Goldman, sent each of these excited readers a letter that outlined the many legal problems Goldman and his publishers faced with the S. Morgenstern estate and its lawyer, Kermit Shog.

The meta-humor of Goldman’s approach to the novel and the extra-textual ways he engages readers is a chief reason why many filmmakers wanted to adapt this book, but also why most of these attempts failed.  Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II) came close to getting a feature version off the ground in the ‘70s.  After that stalled out, Norman Jewison, Robert Redford, Terry Gilliam, and François Truffaut also made attempts. But no one could put a film together. Goldman became very protective of the property, buying the rights back from the studio that had purchased them, and writing his own drafts of screenplay adaptations. He very much wanted to make a movie of the book, but after more than a decade, and more than one studio head losing their job after committing to The Princess Bride, the novel gained the reputation of being “unfilmable.”

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Rob Reiner, who was given the book as a gift from his comedy legend father Carl, was eager to make The Princess Bride into a film after launching his directing career with three successful pictures in three consecutive years: This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Sure Thing (1985), and Stand By Me (1986). Studios were willing to consider backing Reiner on this odd material, especially because each of his films to date had performed better than the one that preceded it, and each had a distinct tone that was hard to pin down on paper, but still struck a resounding chord with audiences. Once again, studio financing for the seemingly jinxed property fell apart. But Reiner convinced his former boss, All in the Family creator Norman Lear, to come aboard as executive producer, and cast several of his well-known comedic friends, like Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Carol Kane, in supporting roles.  But more than anything - even more than Goldman’s script, I would argue - what makes this film transcendent is Reiner’s intuitive, spot-on casting of the leads.

Cary Elwes, who plays Westley, was an attractive English actor with leading roles in two small British features on his resume. It was not hard to picture Elwes as the dashing young lead. He was not an established star, but he had an old-Hollywood, Errol Flynn / Douglas Fairbanks quality—tailor-made to play Robin Hood, or a musketeer, or any swashbuckling hero. While this film didn’t make him a major movie star, it secured a solid career ranging from historical dramas like Glory (1989) and Cradle Will Rock (1999), to comedies like Hot Shots! (1991) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), to horror thrillers like Saw (2004).

Twenty-year-old soap opera regular Robin Wright, who made her film début playing Buttercup (unless you count her tiny part in Penelope Spheeris’ 1986 action comedy Hollywood Vice Squad), was neither famous nor British.  Reiner and casting director Jane Jenkins were only seeing English actresses for the role, but after months of auditions they had not found someone who could perfectly embody what Goldman had described in his book as “the most beautiful girl in all the land.” Wright, adopting a flawless English accent, auditioned for Jenkins when the search was expanded to up-and-coming Americans like Uma Thurman, Courteney Cox, and Meg Ryan, and handily won the role that launched her long, prolific, and estimable career. In the thirty years since The Princess Bride, she has shuttled effortlessly between blockbusters like Forrest Gump (1994), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and Wonder Woman (2017), and acclaimed indies like She's So Lovely (1997), White Oleander (2002) and The Congress (2013), and has become one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses.

Wright’s star power in The Princess Bride is deceptively simple. Goldman may have been inspired by his daughters to embark on this story, but he clearly wrote it for himself (and for young boys like the one Fred Savage plays in the movie), and thus the role calls for Buttercup to do little more than be beautiful, vulnerable, and pure of heart. The titular character in the story functions mostly as a pawn in the narrative, and the romance of the movie only works because Wright is able to embody the impossible qualities of this fantasy damsel-in-distress purely through the power of her screen presence. It probably also helped that she and Elwes were smitten with each other from the first read-through, and remained that way through the shooting—famously inventing imaginary problems so that their final day of shooting would be extended.

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Reiner’s choice for the role of the intense, swarthy swordsman Inigo Montoya was also a surprise. Mandy Patinkin was known as a singer, not a comic actor. He had won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for playing Ché in the 1979 Broadway production of Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and had starred in the 1984 run of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. He also played opposite Barbra Streisand in her directorial début film Yentl (1983), in a non-singing dramatic role. But Patinkin owns the part of Inigo from his first moment onscreen. Goldman filled both the book and screenplay of The Princess Bride with endlessly quotable dialogue, but without a doubt its most famous line is Patinkin’s signature, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Patinkin and Elwes also engage in a duel that Goldman outlined in the script simply as “the second-greatest swordfight in movie history—the first-greatest comes later.” The two actors spent three weeks learning to fence (both left- and right-handed) and devoted almost all their downtime to rehearsing their choreography so that they could perform the scene themselves in long, unbroken takes.

Patinkin was an inspired choice. One can imagine Kevin Kline—at that time known for playing dashing swashbucklers like the Pirate King in the 1981 Broadway revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance—in this role. But Kline would probably have played Inigo too broadly, the way his hilariously dim Otto in John Cleese’s A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is slightly out of tone with the rest of the cast. Of course, Otto won Kline a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, a rarity for a comedic performance, but if there was any justice to the Academy Awards, the more deserving Patinkin would have won that same award the year before for Inigo. I believe he is the main reason people return to The Princess Bride over and over.

Chris Sarandon, who plays the main villain, was also not an actor known for comedy. He was most famous for his début film performance as Al Pacino’s transgender lover in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), for which he was Oscar-nominated. But anyone who had seen Sarandon play Jerry Dandrige, the vampire next door, in the previous year’s horror hit Fright Night, knew he could be both menacing and hilarious. His Prince Humperdinck is more of a pompous pretty-boy than a sinister scoundrel, and having the main antagonist be as handsome as the hero and just as funny as the comical supporting roles is another of the film’s unique twists. 

For the most evil character, Count Rugen, Reiner cast his old friend and Spinal Tap collaborator, Christopher Guest. Arguably the greatest and most under-appreciated comic actor of his generation, Guest is best known for writing and directing mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman (1997) Best In Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003). But what sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries (including most of those that populate the movies he directs) is his commitment to authenticity in his characters over just getting as many laughs as possible, which makes his style of comedy all the more effective. Count Rugen doesn’t land too many big laughs, but he brings real menace to the film and hilariously exposes the cowardice of most bullies and sadists.

Wallace Shawn was Reiner’s first choice for the brilliant and slippery Sicilian Vizzini. The novel called for a tiny man who said brilliant things: an apt description of Shawn. While his face, voice, and stature were slightly recognizable from the small parts he’d had in movies since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), outside of the New York theater scene and fans of his great film My Dinner With Andre (1981), most audiences would not know Shawn until after The Princess Bride. Shawn was under the impression that he was the second choice when Reiner’s friend Danny DeVito wasn’t available, and was convinced DeVito would show up to replace him throughout the production. But Reiner had wanted him from the start and was delighted with his performance.  

The diminutive Vizzini’s counterpart was the enormous Fezzik, played by the iconic professional wrestler André the Giant. Though he spoke little English, the French giant had a small career in movies and TV (often playing himself), but no prior role offered him as much screen time, or required him to speak as much English, as Fezzik. Reiner recorded all of Fezzik’s lines on a tape so André could learn them phonetically. The colossal performer charmed everyone on the set. Goldman described him as one of the gentlest and most generous people he ever knew. Billy Crystal loved him so much, he wrote the rather unfortunate show-biz comedy My Giant (1998) as a tribute. Patinkin loved to talk about how lovable André the Giant was on set, especially an anecdote about the early scene when Fezzik has to climb up the daunting “Cliff of Insanity” carrying Buttercup, Inigo, and Vizzini. Even though the actors weren’t scaling an actual cliff, they were rather high off the ground attached to a crane via a harness that raised them higher and higher. Shawn had a debilitating fear of heights, but was too nervous about getting fired and replaced by Danny DeVito to voice any of his concerns. He sweated anxiously away, clearly terrified, and one time between takes Andre just patted Shawn on his head, and on his back, and he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.” He was so sweet and gentle he put the petrified Shawn a bit at ease.

This level of caring and appreciation translates directly to the screen. We can sense, especially after multiple viewings, that Elwes, Patinkin, and André the Giant enjoy and count on each other as much as Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik do. This comradeship is written into the text—the scene where Inigo comforts Fezzik after Vizzini calls him an idiot by engaging him in a rhyming game that the giant is particularly good at, is similar to André the Giant’s comforting of Wallace Shawn during their “Cliff of Insanity” shoot—but its projected via the chemistry between the actors even more. Indeed the great love at the heart of The Princess Bride, isn’t the romantic love between Buttercup and Westley, it’s the love of friendship embodied by the trio of heroes who work together on their individual quests to make themselves whole.

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The entire cast and crew had a wonderful time making The Princess Bride, as Elwes chronicled in his amusing memoir, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride. Often, the fun people have making a film doesn’t translate at all to viewers; the resulting movies are often sloppy, overlong, or self-satisfied. But such is not the case with this picture. It’s a rather modest production, lacking any major set pieces. Reiner was working with the limited budget Norman Lear could put together for him, but the director knew exactly what was required (and what wasn’t) for the comedy and the narrative to succeed. Where Goldman’s script called for a massive army, Reiner felt eight guys on horses would be sufficient. Where Goldman’s script called for Wesley to escape from a “Zoo of Death,” Reiner felt one torture machine would be plenty. Each of these cost-cutting choices enhances the charm of this humble little movie and makes it far more memorable than fantasy films made in the age of CGI, where armies of thousands and impossibly large sets are commonplace. 

Cameraman Adrian Biddle, who had come up through the ranks of Ridley Scott's advertising company and made an incredible début as a cinematographer with James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), photographs The Princess Bride with lovely, colorful, but unshowy visual flair. And the score, composed by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, gives the picture a sweeping sense of grandeur while never seeming out of step with its humble, low-budget, playful nature. It’s almost as distinctive as the score Knopfler created for Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983)—another of my 100 favorite films.

Working in London at a time when little movie production was going on granted the filmmakers access to some of England’s greatest cinematic craftsmen, including the production designer Norman Garwood (Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) and costume designer Phyllis Dalton (whose distinguished pedigree includes Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Jim, and Doctor Zhivago). Notable British comics Mel Smith and the legendary Peter Cook round out the cast with hilarious cameo roles.

American actors Fred Savage and Peter Falk play a sick little kid and his grandfather who drops by to read the boy S. Morgenstern’s book. This frame story takes the place of Goldman’s editorial notes and commentary in the novel. Clearly designed to undercut any hint of false sentimentality that audiences might expect from a fairy story, Falk’s warm narration and Savage’s frequent interruptions provide a contemporary yet unironic spin on classic folktale plots, characters, and tropes. Narrative devices like this one rarely succeed in movies the way they do in literature. Bookending the main plot with a storyteller often works, but most films that employ a gag like the narrator being continuously challenged by a little kid invariably come off forced and tedious. The Princess Bride is a rare exception. Though each interruption completely stops the movie, Falk and Savage have a delightful chemistry, and the sincerity of tone contained within the main narrative is so authentic that, despite the whimsical perspective on adventure and romance, we never stop believing in the characters, their objectives, or, most importantly, their feelings. Wesley and Buttercup aren’t just fictional people in a fantasy movie—they’re fictional people within a fictional story in a fantasy movie. Yet their final moments on screen are more powerful than any happy-ever-after coda in even the greatest cinematic fairy tales. (Although even at this potent moment, Reiner and Goldman have the grandson stop the film again.)

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The film works specifically because it’s a story of the actual love between a boy and his grandpa, as much as a fantasy love story about a princess and her true love, and also because the movie is not a satire. It isn’t trying to lampoon its subject, but rather to spin a terrific yarn and make a few wry observations along the way.  Goldman filled the script with comical lines, and some of the actors embellished their dialogue, but (with one slight exception about never getting involved in a land war in Asia) the film doesn’t indulge in contemporary references or go for any laughs that violate its established internal reality. All the feelings The Princess Bride taps in the viewer are well earned; be they about friendship, vengeance, loss, or a long delayed reunion, the comedy never subverts or undercuts the emotional stakes. 

When Peter Falk signed up for the role, he only read the scenes he was in. He spent a pleasant couple of days shooting with Reiner and Fred Savage—the year before the gifted ten year old became a major TV star playing the lead in The Wonder Years—and then went home. Falk was called back at the end of the production to reshoot the final lines of dialogue, which were a last minute inspiration of Goldman’s. But all the narration Falk recorded was part of his brief three-day stint. When the iconic veteran of countless television, film, and theater productions sat down to finally watch The Princess Bride in a cinema, it was perhaps the least he knew about any piece of work he’d ever been involved with prior to viewing it. Indeed, he knew little more about the movie he was about to see than I did when I first saw it. He knew the director, he knew some of the cast, and (since he had read all the narration) he knew it was “a comic tale of true love and high adventure,” just as I did from seeing that thirty second TV spot. Falk claimed it was the most delighted he’d ever been by seeing something he was in. He considered it a perfect film, as do many others.

I can’t say I think it’s a “perfect” film. The general criticism that Buttercup, the only female lead character, lacks agency is both accurate and valid. I’m not always one to agree with contemporary critiques lobbed at nearly every female role created by a male writer in the history of cinema, but it certainly applies here—especially because so many princesses in classic fairy tales and literature this story draws on are active protagonists and not mere damsels in need of rescue.

I also consider the lyrics to Willy DeVille’s end titles song, "Storybook Love" so banal and cliché ridden that it’s sinful to have them in the same universe with words penned by William Goldman. “My love is like a storybook story, but it’s a real as the feelings I feel,”—to this day I have no idea why the gifted songwriter Mark Knopfler opted to go with this platitudinous composition instead of penning his own title song (and I’m even more baffled that the Academy nominated it for the Best Original Song Oscar). Fortunately, Knopfler’s haunting production of the track makes it palatable and gives the end credits an unexpectedly dark, wistful quality that creeps into the subconscious of viewers for whom the picture has opened up their heart and soul. (When the credits roll I just try to pretend the vocals are just another instrument). So I’d call the film mostly perfect. And, really, what higher praise can one give to a “fractured fairy tale” that winkingly trades on ideas of truth and perfection that are unattainable in the real world. The Princess Bride is so good it makes one believe in those fantasy ideals, if only for the short time of its duration. It is one of those movies I put on when I need cheering up, or when I want to renew my faith in the film industry. 

My greatest regret when it comes to my long history of movie-going, is that I didn’t get a ticket to the 25th anniversary commemorative screening at the 2012 New York Film Festival. I was in town that week and could have gone. I’d seen other reunion screenings held at NYFF and they are often magical events. By all accounts, this one was truly special, perhaps most so for the story’s author. Goldman was a famously cantankerous character who claimed not to like any of the things he’d written except for his screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, of course, The Princess Bride. He always considered the book the best thing he’d ever written, and the only thing he wanted on his tombstone. He was shocked that the film version could give him the same satisfaction, but even more surprised and delighted by the movie’s longevity. For Goldman, that screening in front of a devoted, cheering, sold-out crowd at the 1,086-seat Lincoln Center venue was the capper of a lifetime of work. As he walked off the stage with the rest of the company at the end of the Q&A, he was visibly moved, and spent the rest of the night trying to comprehend how any professional experience could have ended up being so fulfilling. When he died this November, The Princess Bride was indeed on most people’s minds as they remembered him. I can only assume it will also be on his tombstone. And, like so much of his work, it will live on for many decades, delighting and inspiring many generations.

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