Sunday, September 27, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: The Princess Bride

The Story: The Princess Bride contains one great scene after another, with William Goldman's borscht-belt take on the European fairy tale. Hilarious, satirical, out-of-time and yet of our time, The Princess Bride lopes along with zinger after zinger. It was Rob Reiner's third movie, and a gutsy movie for a relative novice (studios had been trying to make a film of The Princess Bride for years), and there are pacing problems over all—the movie's tone wobbles and there are slow parts between the great ones. There are just so many great scenes that you forget the slack ones.

It was hard to choose just one; The Princess Bride is a great snack-food of a movie. There were lots of candidates (and I'll hold them in reserve). But I chose this one for one line, one of those "wise-acre" lines that Goldman throws in to skew the time-frame.* It's this: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

That line cheers me down to my cynically blackened heart no end. Way to throw a bucket of water on a fairy tale, Goldman. And so, this scene. And a casual look at it reveals something about the entire movie.

The Princess Bride isn't terribly well directed from a composition angle. It's shot in close-ups more for television broadcast as opposed to using the full frame of the screen (probably because so much of a film's market depended on television sales and it was easier just to center everything than screw up the film with the practice of "pan and scan" for broadcast**). The sets are obviously sets, especially the ones created to simulate the outdoors. One can imagine Reiner doing this deliberately to better sell the "never-never" world of the fairy-tale.

Where it excels, though, is where most of Reiner's films excel: casting. Except for Christopher Guest's not-evil-enough henchman, every role is cast meticulously, with some odd choices (like André the Giant, and Mandy Patinkin as the spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya) paying off royally. However, Reiner hit the jack-pot with his two dewey leads: Robin Wright as Princess Buttercup, and Cary Elwes as her true love Wesley—the lowly stable-boy, who framed his love for her with the words "As you wish..." Elwes is amazing, able to play it straight, and yet maximize the comedy (Mel Brooks used him as the title character of Robin Hood: Men in Tights) to create belly-laughs, and Wright is able to maintain a schiksa etherealness while displaying an iron spine, and a comedienne's goofiness.

The Set-Up: Buttercup (Robin Wright), hearing that her true love Wesley (Cary Elwes), has died seeking his fortune on the high seas, acquiesces and agrees to marry the evil, vile Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), who intends to kill her after their marriage. But she has been kidnapped by three miscreants from Gilder (Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and André the Giant), who are inconceivably chased by the Prince and by a mysterious black garbed figure, The Dread Pirate Roberts—the very man who killed her Wesley. Now, the DPR has defeated the Gilder ruffians, and made off with Buttercup, with the Prince and his hunting party close behind.


The Dread Pirate Roberts: Rest, Highness.
Princess Buttercup:
I know who you are.
Buttercup: Your cruelty reveals everything.
Buttercup: You're The Dread Pirate Roberts, admit it!
Roberts: With pride! What can I do for you?
Buttercup: You can die slowly, cut into a thousand pieces.
Roberts: Tch, tch, tch. Hardly complimentary, Your Highness. Why loose your venom on me?
Buttercup: You killed my love.
Roberts: S'possible. I kill a lot of people.
Roberts: Who was this love of yours? Another prince like this one? Ugly and rich and scabby?
Buttercup: No! A farm-boy! Poor!
Buttercup: Poor and perfect.
Buttercup: With eyes like the sea after a storm. On the high seas, your ship attacked. The Dread Pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.
Roberts: I can't afford to make exceptions. I mean, once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and it's nothing but work, work, work all the time.
Buttercup: You mock my pain!
Roberts: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
Roberts: I remember this farm-boy of yours, I think. This would be what? Five years ago?
Roberts: Does it bother you to hear?
Buttercup: Nothing you can say will upset me.
Roberts: He died well. That should please you. No bribe attempts or blubbering. He simply said, "Please..."
Roberts: "Please, I need to live."
Roberts: 'Twas the "please" that caught my memory.
Roberts: I asked him what was so important for him here.
Roberts: "True Love," he replied.
Roberts: And then he spoke of a girl of surpassing beauty and faithfulness, I can only assume he meant you.
Roberts: You should bless me...
Roberts: ...for destroying him before he found out what you really are.
Buttercup: And what am I?
Roberts: Faithfulness he talked of, madam, your enduring faithfulness.
Roberts: Now tell me truly, when you found out he was gone...
Roberts: Did you get engaged to your Prince the same hour or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?
Buttercup: You mocked me once! Never do it again!
Buttercup: I died that day!
(Roberts turns, hearing horses)
Buttercup: And you can die, too, for all I CARE!
Roberts: Uhh!! As...
Roberts: ...wiiiiish!

The Princess Bride

Words by William Goldman (and S. Morgenstern)

Pictures by Adrian Biddle and Rob Reiner

The Princess Bride is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.

* And now that I think of it, this might be a little bit of baiting of brother William to brother James Goldman, whose The Lion in Winter  and Robin and Marian are up to their leggings with anachronistic details and lines. But then, William's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has some, too.

** At the time of his last film, The InterpreterSydney Pollack made no bones of the fact that he then felt free to shoot wide-screen, as opposed to shooting everything in a box-frame for television.

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