Remember video stores? They tended to be hole-in-the-wall shops stacked floor to ceiling with VHS cassettes of every movie you didn’t want to rent, but you couldn’t rent the one you wanted because it had been rented already. In terms of customer satisfaction, this unhappy arrangement was problematic.
But if video stores did one thing well it was to make The Princess Bride a cult classic. The movie had an underwhelming opening weekend at the box office: $206,243. But when the movie became available on videotape, The Princess Bride finally found an audience thanks to word of mouth recommendations. Today it’s not only a beloved movie parents like to screen for their kids, it’s also one of the most quoted movies. That’s because the screenplay is insanely well written.
The Writers Guild of America lists William Goldman’s screenplay as the 84th best of all time (I’d give it a better score, but nobody ever asks my opinion about these things).
In addition to a killer screenplay, the movie has a stellar cast, led by the late Peter Falk. The set-up is Falk’s grandson (played by 11-year-old Fred Savage) is sick in bed, so Grandpa comes over to distract the kid from feeling lousy by reading him the best storybook ever. Initially, the grandson isn’t buying it — the book isn’t about sports, and there’s kissing in it. But Falk is gonna read the story, and so we begin.
The hero is Cary Elwes who plays Westley. No male lead has enjoyed so much being dashing and debonair in a role since Errol Flynn played Robin Hood.
The princess is Robin Wright. She was 21 at the time, and this was her first movie. She is absolutely lovely in the picture, but I think she was the weakest member of the cast — she had two emotions, pained expression and practicing patience while being victimized. But at least she is on the receiving end of one of the movie’s many great lines. As she’s about to kill herself by plunging a dagger into her heart, Westley says, “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours.”
Chris Sarandon plays the wicked but really well dressed Prince Humperdinck with the perfect level smarminess.
Wallace Shawn is hilarious as the kidnapper and otherwise all ’round evildoer, Vizzini. He is inordinately arrogant about his high IQ score. As he says to Westley when they are having a duel of wits over which goblet is poisoned, “You’ve heard of Aristotle? Plato? Socrates? Morons.”
And Vizzini has picked up two of the funniest henchmen. Mandy Patinkin plays a brilliant Spanish swordsman on a quest to find and kill the man who murdered his father. He explains that he only works for Vizzini to pay the bills, because, “There’s not much money in the vengeance business.”
Patinkin brought Broadway star power to the role, and he has as much fun playing Inigo Montoya as Cary Elwes does playing Westley. And he has a tagline that has become famous. Take a bunch of guys out to a bar, introduce the topic of The Princess Bride, and I guarantee you they’ll all recite in unison: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Montoya’s best friend is a giant named Fezzik, played by the late wrestler, Andre the Giant. He played to his size and his strength, of course—that’s what the role called for—but he also had perfect comic timing. Out of his many great lines, my personal favorite comes when he’s feeling a bit defensive: “It’s not my fault that I’m the biggest and the strongest. I don’t even exercise.”
But the performances that bring down the house is the scene at the dilapidated hovel of an ancient unemployed miracle-worker, played by Billy Crystal, and his crone wife, played by Carol Kane. Crystal decided to introduce some Yiddische shtick to the movie. Although he’s supposed to be a wizard in a medieval-style world, he talks like a disgruntled Lower East Side pickle maker. Kane chimes in when she’s making the miracle pill that will bring the mostly dead Westley back to life: “The chocolate coating makes it go down easier. But you have to wait fifteen minutes for full potency. And you shouldn’t go in swimming for an hour? At least an hour.” They also get their own damn-near universally quoted line: “Have fun stormin’ the castle!”
By the way, the movie keeps cutting back to the sickroom, where Fred Savage is getting more and more sucked into the story.
Finally, since this is supposed to be the perfect fairy tale, it has to have the perfects sets. The Fire Swamp is the gloomiest and most dismal. The torture chamber the most chilling. And the exterior of Prince Humperdinck’s castle is better than anything Disney ever built. And it is so pristine, you would think the prince has a team of peasants who come by every morning to Lemon Pledge the walls and roof.
I love this movie. Does it show? These days, if you’ve never seen The Princess Bride, you can watch it tonight. And if you haven’t seen it for a while, you can rewatch it tonight. And you won’t have to run out the video store.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life.