The Princess Bride

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

22 February

Ladislaus the Posthumous born, 1440

On this day in 1440, Ladislaus the Posthumous was born. His father, Albert II, had died four months before and so it was that Ladislaus became Duke of Austria and head of the house of Habsburg as soon as he arrived in the world. Ladislaus grew up under the protection, as a prisoner more or less, of Frederick V, who was the de facto ruler of Austria. Meanwhile John Hunyadi ruled Hungary in Ladislaus’s stead, and George of Podebrady fulfilled the same function in Bohemia. At the age of ten, Ladislaus swapped one guardian for another after Ulrich II, the Princely Count of Celje, freed the boy from Frederick V. Ulrich then took over ruling Austria in Ladislaus’s name. At the age of 13, Ladislaus was crowned King of Bohemia, and Ulrich became governor of Hungary. It was after commotion caused first by the murder of Ulrich by the Hungarian Ladislaus Hunyadi, then by Ladislaus the Posthumous’s reprisals against Hunyadi (he had him beheaded) that Ladislaus, aged only 17, died of a mystery illness. Poisoning was suspected at the time, though 20th century scientists ascertained it had been leukaemia.

The Princess Bride (1987, dir: Rob Reiner)

Director Rob Reiner was on something of a roll when he made The Princess Bride. The previous year he’d directed Stand By Me, one of the great films about teenagerdom. Two years later he’d make When Harry Met Sally, one of the great romantic comedies. Sandwiched between we have a film which didn’t quite fit an easy category at the time but now looks, in retrospect, like the template for Hollywood’s “kiddie films for grown-ups”. Like the other two mentioned films, The Princess Bride is brilliantly written, by the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman in this case, whose pet project it was. It tells the entirely fairytale story of a beautiful princess kidnapped by a ne’er-do-well and rescued by the stable boy she fell for years before, though he is now disguised as a pirate. Swordplay, giants, torture chambers, a wicked prince, a questing suitor, The Princess Bride is the full medieval sword and sorcery shtick, though Goldman relays it all at ironic distance – this is a story being read as a bedtime treat by grandfather Peter Falk to grandson Fred Savage, who is mostly concerned that the story might have kissing in it. The casting within the fairy tale continues to be spot on – Mandy Patinkin as a cheesy Zorro, Cary Elwes as the stable boy, handsome, clean of cheek and as blond of hair as the princess, Robin Wright. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane provide an extra layer of comedy as a pair of old necromancers who can bring the dead back to life, when they get the spell right. Looked at now The Princess Bride looks like a dry run for Shrek – a good story for kids with whispered side jokes for the adults. It glories in what Hollywood can do and it’s alive to its shortcomings too. Auteurists will lump it in with Reiner’s work, but it’s really Goldman’s film and his screenplay is bursting with writerly smartassery and plot curlicues (hence the pirate business). Depending on your point of view this either works against the forward drive of the film, or it enriches it, making this a film worth watching repeatedly. Certainly the performances are – Mandy Patinkin alone is worth tuning in for.

Why Watch?

  • The template for future Hollywood product such as Shrek and Toy Story
  • One of Reiner’s golden run of movies including Spinal Tap and Misery
  • British comedian cameos by Peter Cook and Mel Smith
  • The finest hour of Cary Elwes

The Princess Bride – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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