Twenty-five years on from its initial release, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987) has lost none of its ability to enchant. Adapting his own novel, William Goldman toned down the post-modernism of the book, but enhanced its buccaneering adventurousness and swooning romanticism – whilst retaining a hearty dose of irony. Reiner worked the same magic as he did on Spinal Tap (1984), showing an innate understanding that parody only works if you stay faithful to the form you’re lampooning. Accordingly, The Princess Bride works brilliantly as both a family fantasy romp and a delightfully idiosyncratic comedy.
The film opens with an old man (Peter Falk, of Columbo fame) telling his reluctant grandson a story. After the boy wearily enquires whether there will be any sports in it, his grandfather assures him it has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”. And thus begins the story of Buttercup (Robin Wright), a beautiful girl in love with farm boy Westley (Cary Elwes, complete with Douglas Fairbanks moustache). When he fails to return five years after setting off to make his fortune so he can marry her, Westley is presumed to have been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts and Buttercup must settle for the wretched Prince Humperdink of Florin (Chris Sarandon).
Reiner’s The Princess Bride is simply spellbinding from start to finish. The absence of the sniping authorial interruptions of the book allows for a warmer, gentler film, but one that never loses its wry sense of humour. Indeed, the one-liners are liberally scattered throughout and are among some of the best in cinema (“You rush a miracle man, you get lousy miracles”). The numerous comic cameos from the likes of Peter Cook and Billy Crystal, manage to be memorably hilarious without ever detracting from the frantic drive of the narrative. The creaky sets, dodgy stunt work and, in the case of Andre the Giant, thick French accent, all add to the film’s irrepressible charm.
While there’s an undoubtedly cynical streak to proceedings, Reiner judiciously offsets it with plenty of witty wordplay and anarchic silliness. It’s easy to see why the film has been so often imitated, but rarely equalled. The jokes may come thick and fast, but the director never lets them get in the way of what is essentially a contemporary swashbuckler. And therein lies the success of The Princess Bride; the sensibilities may be modern, but the cinematic reference points remain defiantly old-fashioned.