expandyourbrain

learn stuff, review stuff, just stuff

As You Wish: A Critique of The Princess Bride

Warning: Please do not use my work and submit it as your own. Students have been caught plagiarizing from this site, and at least one university knows about this site due to that issue. This blog is not peer-reviewed, and thus is also not acceptable for scholarly research. Feel free to read the articles and papers here, but do your own research for your own schoolwork. Thank you!

“Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles,” The Princess Bride (1987) has it all (Reiner, 1987).  Filmmakers use a variety of techniques from narrative structure, acting technique, cinematography, tempo, sound, style, the potential for societal impact, and genre convention to tell the story they desire. The Princess Bride is one of the great movies, using all the techniques mentioned to create a satire of the fairy tale, meanwhile becoming one of the most beloved movies decade after decade.

The Princess Bride uses a unique structure to tell a story as old as story itself.  Nothing is entirely clear when analyzing the structure due to the unique writing of William Goldman’s book, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure/ the “good parts” version, abridged by William Goldman, which Goldman then translated to screenplay.  The book is written as an abridgement of a nonexistent political satire infused with excerpts from Goldman’s fictional life.  The film maintains this formula by using Columbo’s Peter Falk and The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage to frame and interrupt the storybook tale (IMDB, 2011b; IMDB, 2011c).

The framing storyline is a three-act narrative focusing on the internal conflict and growth of a sick grandson.  The beginning introduces the unnamed grandson as a sports-loving, ill child with a grandfather he barely tolerates.  The strength of the story draws the kid in, and the climax comes with his explosion of emotion when the apparent protagonist is killed only halfway through the story.  “Jesus, Grandpa!  What’d [sic] you read me this thing for?” he yells at his grandfather (Reiner, 1987).  It is at this point that the grandfather explains that life is not fair.  After this, the interruptions stop as the book reaches its climax, and the ending shows that the grandson has grown to appreciate not only the “kissing parts,” but also his grandfather’s love.

The story is a little less clear where the boundaries lie.  The obvious protagonist is Westley, but Inigo steals some of the spotlight, and Buttercup also makes a strong argument for the title.  The border between exposition and action is clear, between the narration of Peter Falk and the kidnapping of the princess.  The climax, however, is very confused.  Inigo’s duel with the six-fingered Count Rugen is the last bit of action, but does not have any connection to the main conflict of Westley and Buttercup versus Prince Humperdinck.  Instead, that conflict is decided by nothing more than clever dialogue.  The storybook ending is remarkably short, and follows the “To the pain” bluff with all storylines being neatly wrapped up in a ride on four white horses.

As has been mentioned previously, there are several conflicts in the story.  The main conflict of the modern story is the internal conflict the grandson has with the adult themes of love and the unfairness of life.  The main conflict of the storybook tale is between Buttercup and Prince Humperdinck.  Westley’s conflict with Prince Humperdinck is a more obvious choice for the main conflict, but it does not encompass the entire plot.  One of the more entertaining conflicts is in the Spaniard Inigo’s lifelong search for the six-fingered Count Rugen.  Also included are the conflicts between Vizzini and Inigo, Fezzik and the Man in Black, and the conflict between true love and death.

The Princess Bride is a satire of fairy tales written as the abridgement of a political satire.  Inigo is the best swordsman, Fezzik is the strongest man, Vizzini is the smartest, yet Westley beats them all at their own strength.  During life and death struggles, like the duel at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity, the fight is punctuated with humorously emphasized sound effects and sharp dialogue, such as Inigo’s complaint that “there is not much money in revenge” (Reiner, 1987).

Adding to the humor of satire are several moments of irony.  There is at least one example of each type of irony present in The Princess Bride.  Verbal irony is seen when Buttercup is mourning her separation from Westley, but Humperdinck blames her attitude on the king’s failing health.  When Humperdinck kills the most obvious protagonist only halfway through the movie, nobody expects him to actually die, showing situational irony.  Finally, in the scene before the wedding, Buttercup says Westley will save her.  Humperdinck smiles because he knows that he killed Westley, but in dramatic irony, the audience knows Westley has been revived by Miracle Max.

Finally, the narrative deals with the universal truths of love conquering all, the glory of retribution, and the understanding gap between generations.  Westley is supposedly murdered by pirates, still manages to beat all the masters of strength, steel, and mind, and even comes back from the dead because of true love.  A life spent in study and pursuit pays off in the end when Inigo avenges his father’s death.  The last example is that of a young, sports-loving kid who barely tolerates his loving grandfather, but grows to appreciate him in the end.

Part of the humor and greatness of The Princess Bride is in the decisions made in casting and acting technique.  The acting itself is slightly stylized- the filmmakers want the audience to know that the storybook tale is not reality.  Every scene has an almost imperceptible nod or wink from the characters as if they know they are in a book, or film.

Cary Elwes was a fairly new actor when he was cast as Westley, but had established himself as a dramatic actor in period pieces.  Robin Wright, likewise a new actress at the time, was also considered a serious actress.  The villains, played by Christopher Guest and Chris Sarandon, were well-known, unlike Elwes and Wright, but were also considered serious actors.  In fact, the only comedian cast in the film was Billy Crystal as Miracle Max (IMDB, 2011d).

Cinematography uses lighting, mise-en-scene, different shots, and special effects to help tell the story.  The cinematographer, Adrian Biddle of Judge Dredd (1995), Event Horizon (1997), and V for Vendetta (2006), had only been Director of Photography for one movie, Aliens (1986), before heading cinematography for The Princess Bride (IMDB, 2011a).

Before the first line of dialogue, there are several things we can determine about the story.  First, the title of the film is shown in a font that evokes the old fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty (1959).  This sets the story as a fantasy tale.  The title word, “Princess,” marks The Princess Bride as fantasy, while the title word, “Bride,” hints that it may be a love story.  Immediately following the title, while the screen is still black, is a cough that sounds small, hinting at a sick child.  A video game appears on screen, Accolade, Inc’s “Hardball,” about baseball.  This shows that the sick child is likely a boy who likes sports.  As the camera pans around the room, we see several Chicago sports teams and players on the walls, and a Chicago Bears t-shirt on the child.  This places the setting of the framing story in, or near, Chicago, Illinois.  In this way, the mise-en-scene can enhance the audience’s knowledge of characters, setting, and plot.

Lighting can also help tell the story by establishing the mood of a scene.  Most lighting is natural, since it takes place in wide open countryside with the lights simulating the torches of the castle and lights in the grandson’s room.  There are a few notable exceptions.  During the scene in the grove when Inigo asks his father to guide his sword, the close-up of his face and sword are shot from below with streaming backlighting.  This enhances the spiritual feeling of asking his deceased father to help avenge his own death, providing a sort of halo around Inigo’s head.  In the fire swamp, the lighting is dark and mostly comes from behind to show that the fire swamp is a scary, eerie place that people avoid.  Finally, in the scene Fezzik claims to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, his face is lit from below, partially to simulate the flames engulfing his body, but also to show the unsettling effect he is having on the gate guards.

The Princess Bride is relatively low budget, and used few special effects to help tell the story.  Most of those special effects were used to disguise the fact that Andre the Giant could not support the weight of even Robin Wright due to a recent back surgery.  For example, Rob Reiner, in his commentary on the special edition DVD, explains that they had ramps for Cary Elwes to walk along instead of hanging from Andre’s back, and he was supported on a board when he caught Buttercup at the end (Lear & Reiner, 1987).  One effect that could go unnoticed is the unnatural, likely painted, sky of the fictional Florin.  The sky, much like in the movie Vanilla Sky (2001), seems to show that this land is only in the imagination and not reality.

Finally, there are a few times that different shots with a telephoto lens or subjective camera are used to enhance depth or terror in the audience.  Depth is achieved when Fezzik, as the Dread Pirate Roberts, points at the gate guards.  His pointing finger comes into focus, and his face out of it, when he says, “Soon, you will not be here” (Reiner, 1987).  This emphasizes the view the guards must be seeing, complete with an oversized finger pointing in their collective face and bathing in fire.  The shots of Fezzik are a bit of light subjective camera, mixed with the objective camera showing Inigo and Westley behind Fezzik.  This shows how the image of a burning pirate is being created by the characters, while also showing what the guards are experiencing.  Another example of depth is when Westley finishes his “To the pain” speech, lifts his blade, and says, “Drop your sword” (Reiner, 1987).  The point of the sword is blurry as if it were too close to Humperdinck to see it clearly in another example of light subjective camera work.  The other examples of subjective camera are seen in the monster scenes when Buttercup is being charged by a shrieking eel and when Westley is being attaked by an R.O.U.S.  These both allow the audience to feel more of the fear the characters must be experiencing.

The way the shots are put together in editing has a large impact on the effectiveness of the story.  Having dual storylines, especially with the grandfather and grandson interrupting the fairy tale, qualifies as incongruous editing.  As with most films, the vast majority of the movie uses direct cuts.  There is evidence of a series of jump cuts when the grandfather is returning to the shrieking eels after an interruption scene.  As he struggles to find the place he left off, he “scans” the book, with each sentence fast-forwarding in visuals as well.  This is also an example of the tempo created by The Princess Bride.  For the first half to two-thirds of the movie, scenes with serious or tense emotion are interrupted by the Chicago plot.  From jump cuts to remove the kissing scenes to worry for Buttercup’s safety amid the shrieking eels, and the scene Humperdinck kills Westley, The Princess Bride keeps the mood light by showing the storybook through the child’s eyes, and keeps the tempo a bit off-beat to maintain the satirical humor.

There are several dissolves apparent in The Princess Bride as well, three of which in particular enhance the story.  The first is in the beginning while the grandfather starts reading.  The scene dissolves to the shot of the farmhouse as the grandfather becomes a voice-over narrator to show that the fairy tale has started.  The next important dissolve is used to show the passage of five years’ time between Westley’s supposed murder by pirates and Buttercup’s engagement to Humperdinck.  Finally, during the wedding scene, the long shot dissolves into a closer shot to more quickly transition from establishing shot to action shot without the disruption from a direct cut.

Coverage, the use of several takes from different angles, has one particular appearance in The Princess Bride.  During the Miracle Max scene, Mandy Patinkin had a lot of trouble stifling his laughter at Billy Crystal’s performance (IMDB, 2011d).  Patinkin says the only injury he sustained during the filming of The Princess Bride was a bruised rib from trying to hold his laughter in, and Rob Reiner had to leave the set during the scene because he would laugh so hard, he would become nauseated (IMDB, 2011d).  Coverage was useful in this scene to ensure that all of Inigo’s shots showed him with a straight face.

A common use of selective cuts is shown when using stunt doubles.  Typically, a director will use longer shots when stunt doubles are used, not only to better showcase the action in the scene, but also to minimize the chance that the audience can tell a double was used.  In the sword fight, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence with both their left and right hands, and stunt doubles were only used for each character’s acrobatic flips (Lear & Reiner, 1987; IMDB, 2011d).  During the wrestling match between Westley and Fezzik, Cary Elwes had to walk along ramps on the close shots and a stunt double was used on long shots because of the aforementioned back surgery.  The last bit of special effects, and the only example of slow motion camerawork, is in the final scene of the fairy tale when Buttercup falls from the window to Fezzik’s arms.

Using a distinctive score, witty dialogue and emphasized sound effects, The Princess Bride uses sound to add emotion and humor to the film.  The Princess Bride’s theme is a romantic piece of music evident in the introduction and other reunion scenes between Westley and Buttercup.  There is also an exciting piece of music playing behind the sword fights and parts of the fire swamp to enhance the proper emotions.

Using a serious delivery of humorous or witty dialogue is one way the film manages to be funny without becoming ridiculous.  The film’s characters, such as Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini, have exaggerated accents that also add to the humor.  The juxtaposition of the humorous content of the dialogue against the deadly circumstances the characters find themselves in is part of the charm of this movie.  Inigo tells Westley there is little money in revenge before their duel.  Vizzini calls Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates morons before failing in the battle of wits.  Even the duel between Westley and Humperdinck is decided, not by the sword, but by way of dialogue.

Finally, sound effects assist in storytelling and add humor to the film.  The music and sound effects often coincide to emphasize action, such as the scene when Inigo throws himself against the locked door chasing Count Rugen, and Fezzik’s punches as he misses Westley in their match.

While a director is often considered the author of a film, using auteur theory, the film and screenplay follow William Goldman’s book so closely, it is hard to consider anyone else as the author.  Reiner wanted to make as authentic a recreation of the story as possible, and Goldman chose him to direct based on his previous film, This is Spinal Tap, which was also a satire (Lear & Reiner, 1987).

As a fairy tale satire, The Princess Bride does not offer much in the way of societal impact.  It extolls the virtues of following your heart and love over power, but also encourages a life in pursuit of revenge, supplemented by work to pay the bills.

When creating a satire, the typical genre conventions must be followed, if only to exaggerate them.  A common theme in fairy tales is “Love conquers all.”  The Princess Bride takes this beyond most fairy tales by allowing Westley to return from the dead, once by virtue of misinformation, and once via miracle.  Each of the three kidnappers is the best in the world at what they do, be it steel, strength, or wit, and have honed their respective craft for twenty years or more, but Westley, with only five years’ practice and motivation, manages to beat each at their strength.  Along the way, Fred Savage’s character makes comments about the typical conventions, asking his grandfather, “Who gets Humperdinck?” and explaining that “someone has do it,” before the grandfather explains to him that this is not the “typical” fairy tale (Reiner, 1987).

“Let me ‘splain [sic].  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up,” (Reiner, 1987).  The Princess Bride uses narrative structure, acting technique, cinematography, tempo, sound, style, the potential for societal impact, and genre convention to create an endearing story that nears the top of many lists of favorite movies.  Many people may list the numerous bite-sized quotes or the thrilling sword fight as reasons they love the film, but it may be the ability to tie all the aspects of great storytelling into such a tidy satire of the stories children were brought up to love that makes this film truly great.

References

Goldman, W. (2007). The princess bride: S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure/ the “good parts” version, abridged by William Goldman (30th Anniversary ed.). Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc. (Original work published 1973).

Goodykoontz, B. & Jacobs, C.P. (2011). Film: From watching to seeing. Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books

IMDB. (2011a). Adrian Biddle. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000939/

IMDB. (2011b). Fred Savage. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/ name/nm0000625/

IMDB. (2011c). Peter Falk. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000393/

IMDB. (2011d). The Princess Bride. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/

Lear, N. (Producer) & Reiner, R. (Director). (1987). Director’s Commentary. The Princess BrideL Special Edition [DVD].

Reiner, R. (Director). (1987). The Princess Bride: Special Edition [DVD].

Advertisements

11/02/2011 - Posted by | College Papers |

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: