Director: Rob Reiner
Screenplay: William Goldman
Based on a Novel by: William Goldman
Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, André the Giant, Fred Savage, Peter Falk
Producers: Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman
Running Time: 98 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
In the 80's (and just into 1990), director Rob Reiner had one of the greatest runs of films in the history of filmmaking. Being of the generation that experienced them pretty much first hand (on their VHS and first TV runs – I'm a little too young to have caught them on cinema), these were films that helped shape my love of film and still stand up incredibly well. This is Spinal Tap and Stand By Me will probably always be in my top 10-15 films of all time for sheer quality as well as pure enjoyment and nostalgia. Add When Harry Met Sally, Misery, the underrated The Sure Thing and this, The Princess Bride and you've got six 'modern' classics that all have a huge fanbase. A Few Good Men came next, which a lot of people love too, but for me it wasn't on a par with those aforementioned titles.
After that his films steadily declined in quality. I keep hoping for a comeback, but I'm not holding my breath. However, we still have those six greats to go back to time and again – their re-watchability being among many strong points. So that brings us to the well-loved The Princess Bride, which is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year with a new feature-packed Blu-Ray edition.
For those of you that haven't seen The Princess Bride, before you march straight to the nearest shop to buy yourself a copy in shame, here's a summary of the plot. We open on a young boy (Fred Savage of The Wonder Years fame) who is a bit poorly and bed-bound for the day. His grandfather (Peter Falk of Columbo and A Woman Under the Influence fame) hears of this and comes round to comfort the boy by reading him a story that his own father used to read when he was ill. The video-game loving youngster reluctantly allows this. The story that follows is of Buttercup (Robin Wright), a beautiful young woman whose true love Westley (Cary Elwes) is supposedly murdered at sea by the Dread Pirate Roberts. In her misery she does little to stop the cruel Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) from claiming her for his wife. Whilst awaiting the big day though, she is kidnapped by Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his assistants, the sword-master Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant). Hot on their trail however is a mysterious masked man who is revealed to be the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. Or could he be someone else entirely?
And the story goes on, although part of the genius of it is that things regularly get stopped at climactic moments as we jump back to the boy and his grandfather reading the story. The youngster isn't interested when it becomes a 'kissing story' for instance and these scenes are skimmed over. When hope frequently seems lost he also stops the story in disbelief, questioning his grandfather's telling of it. These postmodern elements, taken from the novel by famous screenwriter William Goldman (who adapted it himself for the screen), add an extra layer to the film, making it more about the practise of storytelling than the actual quest of Westley and Buttercup. And it's this script that stands above anything else to make The Princess Bride the classic it is regarded as today.
Goldman's script (as well as a little input from a couple of the actors) is packed with witty and immensely quotable lines (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”). It rockets along too, with plenty of action spread through the cleverly constructed story and large doses of humour. The characters he creates are also wonderful, aided by an incredible cast of largely underrated character actors. There are even small parts for some great British comedians that I'd totally forgotten were in it, with Peter Cook particularly memorable as the vicar who attempts to marry Buttercup and Humperdinck.
With all the praise I am lavishing upon the film, you may wonder why I haven't given it a perfect 5 stars. Well, I haven't seen the film for over 15 years, so my memory of it was clouded over with nostalgia and when I watched it again last week, although I still thoroughly enjoyed it, I couldn't help but feel ever so slightly disappointed. The script was still as stellar as I remembered and classic scenes such as Inigo's incredible sword fight with the masked man and his climactic showdown with the 6-fingered man (in fact any scene with Inigo) still gave me the shivers. Partly due to the new ultra-clear HD transfer of the film, some of the low budget effects and sets stood out this time around though. That didn't bother me too much – it is a 25 year old film and by all accounts the budget was rather low so you have to give it some credit. I think what irked me a little was just that a couple of the set pieces, such as the fight with the ROUS (rodents of unusual size), were quite weak with not enough excitement to cover up the ropey effects. Humperdinck's comeuppance at the very end is rather underwhelming too.
That slight tinge of disappointment wasn't enough to stop me loving The Princess Bride though. It's still a hugely entertaining film, one of the best family films out there and has the brains and wit to keep it engaging for all ages. I imagine if I saw it again without the 15 year gap and nostalgia-fuelled hype the score would bump back up to 5 stars anyway, so don't let me make you think the film has lost its edge.
The Princess Bride: 25th Anniversary Edition is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Lionsgate. The transfer is impeccable. I've seen some reviews online saying it's been cleaned up too much with edge-enhancement and the like. I can see where they're coming from – the spotless HD presentation certainly highlighted some of the low budget effects, but I didn't notice any distractingly tampered-with shots. Audio is equally strong in 5.1 DTS Digital Surround.
The film received a Blu-Ray release in the UK only 2 years ago, so it seems a bit soon to be bringing out a new edition and the previous release had quite a lot of extra features as it was. So what are we getting new this time?
Well, this 25th Anniversary Edition is as jam-packed as any fan would want. All of the features from the earlier Special Edition are here as well as over an hour and a half of further featurettes, making this quite a colossal package that took me a couple of days to get through.
From the older set of features you have two commentaries, one from director Rob Reiner and one from writer William Goldman. Reiner is a little low energy, but he remembers a number of interesting anecdotes about the film. I listened to Goldman's commentary afterwards and the first half an hour or so was disappointing, with him focussing on a number of stories I'd already heard in Reiner's track as well as in some of the other features, but as it goes on it gets more interesting, with him chatting about the nature of 'success' in Hollywood as well as more information on the writing of the book and process of turning it into a film.
Also from the previous release is a 27 minute documentary called 'As You Wish'. This is a decent look back at the making of the film, with lots of stories to tell. Yes it's a bit self-congratulatory, but that's to be expected. You get two featurettes from back in 1987 when the film was released – these are a bit 'quaint' for want of a better word and obviously more promotional than anything else, but interesting enough to warrant a look. Also taken from the time is some on-set footage shot by Cary Elwes himself. This is really nice actually, showing the fun the cast and crew had together. It's only short though. Also repeated from previous releases are a bunch of trailers and TV spots that probably won't be of much interest to people.
The new features are a series of featurettes looking back at the film and it's reception over the years. 'True Love: The Princess Bride Phenomenon' has Reiner, Elwes and Robin Wright sat together reminiscing about their experiences. It's obviously set up to look more informal than it actually is, but it still works very well as a more conversational and nostalgic piece than your usual talking heads 'making of'. 'Entering the Zeitgeist' is a look at how The Princess Bride has become a minor cultural phenomenon over the years, developing quite a cult following. This is fluffy, but interesting to see the lengths some fans have gone to honour the film. Next up is 'The Art of Fencing', which has a top Hollywood fencing master discuss the swordplay in the film. This is vaguely interesting, but not one of the stronger features.
'Dread Pirate Roberts: Greatest Legend of the Seven Seas' is a spoof look at the 'history' behind the Dread Pirate Roberts character/legend. I found this a bit painful and not as funny as it wants to be. Following this is 'Miraculous Makeup' which shows speeded up footage of the makeup being removed from the faces of one of the 'experts' from the Dread Pirate Roberts featurette, revealing Cary Elwes beneath. It shows some impressive makeup work, but it bears little relevance to the film itself.
'The Untold Tales' contains some more snippets from the cast and crew interviews which make up the new features. The final two featurettes, 'Fairytales and Folklore' and 'Love is Like a Storybook' look at the fairytale influences and storytelling craft behind the film's story. They're not as deep or involving as I'd have hoped though and end up being largely made-up of talking heads with the cast and crew again.
Such a mass of interviews spread over so many featurettes from various time periods means you get a lot of crossover and some of them can be hit and miss. So watching all of the features at once can be a bit of a slog, but you can't say there isn't enough here. Even if you find some of the extras don't do much for you, there are plenty that will, so it's hard not to give the package a full recommendation. Fans will probably buy it anyway and for those that haven't seen the film, now is the best time to remedy that.