Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.
I could have sworn I grew up in the 1980s. I remember that ridiculous decade, in any case. People said “Not!” to indicate contradiction. They had fuzzy dice in their mirrors and wore Swatch watches. Ladies sported big, sticky hair. Kids watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and cool kids had a Walkman so they could break dance, listen to hair bands and walk like an Egyptian. All we wanted were our microwave ovens and our MTV, but we also got our fair share of celebrities with mullets, Cold Wars, Star Wars, Gremlins, Goonies, Pee Wee Herman, dumb shits wearing sunglasses at night and dumber shits moonwalking, sporting “Members Only” apparel and quoting Crocodile Dundee. In other words, it was a pretty cheesy, fucked up, stupid decade in the mainstream, and I thought I experienced it all. But I was wrong: Somehow, The Princess Bride passed me by.
More than 20 years after the fact, I finally sat down to take in director Rob Reiner’s so-called “greatest love story ever told,” and I found this retro time capsule as charming as it was predictable. For those fellow film dunces who somehow missed a flick that included a young Fred Savage, Andre the Giant as a rhyming, big-hearted behemoth and a soundtrack composed by Mark Knopfler, the plot goes a little something like this: A farm girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) falls in love with a farmhand named Westley (Cary Elwes) who, seeking fortune so the two can marry, sets sail. When Westley is supposedly killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup agrees to wed the vile Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Before the wedding, though, Buttercup is abducted by a trio of bandits (the intellectual leader Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and the film’s other protagonist-hero, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), who are pursued by both Humperdinck’s army and a mysterious masked man (obviously Westley). Westley thwarts the bandits, killing their snarky mastermind Vizzini during a battle of wits, outdueling the expert swordsman Inigo and even emerging victorious over the giant Fezzik in hand-to-hand combat. A hodgepodge of fairy tale drama ensues, and eventually Westley wins back his true love and Montoya tracks down the torturous Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), the six-fingered vizier who murdered Inigo’s father 20 years ago. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, Westley, Buttercup, Inigo and Fezzik ride away into the sunset, and Westley and Buttercup share a fairy tale kiss as the credits role.
If the storyline sounds simplistic and nearly clichéd, it’s because that’s exactly how this movie comes across (and probably the way author William Goldman intended). Any attempts at plot twists – Westley assuming the role of the Dread Pirate Roberts, Inigo thwarting his nemesis Rugen despite being injured, Westley not really being dead after the Count tortures him to death – can be seen a mile away. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” Montoya says repeatedly to Rugen when they meet at last, but his foreboding prophecy, though memorable, is entirely unnecessary; from the moment we hear of the count slaying Montoya’s father, after all, we already know, without the slightest medieval doubt, that Inigo will exact his revenge by movie’s end.
In an age when even the visual effects of Jurassic Park are starting to look dated, the action scenes in The Princess Bride are damn near prehistoric, and it’s impossible not to notice just how comically retro much of this movie is, particularly Westley’s ascent up the Cliffs of Insanity, the Rodents of Unusual Size and the storming of the castle. Likewise, there are some head-scratching moments that even the least critical viewer can’t help but notice: Buttercup doesn’t recognize the man in black as Westley when his only disguise is a mask that barely covers half his face; as the man in black, Westley is able to outmaneuver a master swordsman and overpower a giant, but a fragile princess throws him down a steep hill into a gorge; Westley’s demise at the hands of Rugen is lamely dismissed by Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) as Westley being “only mostly dead.” Many of the plot explanations come across as overly typical, suggesting that this film, though more of a spoof of the fairy tale genre than a serious viewing experience, could use a shot of originality.
Nevertheless, despite its immense shortcomings, I wouldn’t mind watching this movie again and again. With a healthy balance of humor, fantasy adventure and romance, The Princess Bride is certainly not lacking in charm (Fezzik and Miracle Max alone make the movie worth watching). The actors may come across as caricatures more than real people, but they play their parts well enough to make me actually root for them and empathize with their love lives and revenge plots. And though the film’s predictability may be a turn-off for many, not every film has to be loaded with twists and turns, and it’s a testament to the movie’s immediately likable characters that, despite the obvious storyline progression and timeworn visual effects, the film remains easily watchable in 2010. At its best, The Princess Bride is a snapshot of everything that was wrong and right about ’80s pop culture: campy but fun, simple but memorable and sporting the type of happily-ever-after ending that characterized the best and worst of the decade’s mainstream cinema, Reiner’s love and adventure story is equal parts Velcro and Van Gogh, Bee Gees and Beethoven – a feel-good achievement that’s as dated as it is timeless, and as likable as ever.