Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride abounds in curious interruptions. The film is essentially about the sentiments underlying storytelling, and like cherished memories of storybook time, the framing scenes of a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a fairy tale to his sick grandson (Fred Savage) are easy to take for granted in the bigger picture. At one point, the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) jumps ship to flee her kidnappers. As she swims away, ravenous eels encircle her. The film then cuts away from this tense scenario to the grandfather reassuring his grandson: “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels, you understand.” The old man even offers to stop reading to his grandson, but the boy says he’s fine, and the action returns to follow Buttercup’s journey.
While most of The Princess Bride‘s running time focuses on the love between Buttercup and “poor and perfect farm boy” Westley (Cary Elwes), it’s these moments that acknowledge the relationship between the storyteller and the enrapt listener that carry the soul of the film. Such digressions are a jarring structural gesture on the part of screenwriter William Goldman, adapting his book within a book into a book within a film. The story of The Princess Bride is less important than the almost sacramental reading of that story.
Not that the contents of that book aren’t engrossing. Alongside the grandson, we fall under the romance’s spell. After Westley is murdered at the hands of pirates, Buttercup becomes betrothed to the devious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). But this isn’t a love triangle merely beset by desire, because it turns out that the prince has conceived a conspiracy in hopes of starting a war, hiring Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his cohorts—the gentle giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and stealthy swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin)—to kidnap and murder Buttercup, then blame the crime on foreign invaders. These enterprises, after all, are propitious for new leaders.
Such hidden motives add that much more to the film’s engrossing content, as characters are established as commedia dell’arte archetypes, only to have their familiar masks suddenly flung off. The Princess Bride hits its story beats with an impeccably bouncy rhythm, with the characters not only developing with the plot, but blooming in opposition to their introduction and to the viewer’s expectations. Westley, it turns out, isn’t dead, having taken up the black garb of a swashbuckling pirate, besting Fezzik and Inigo in combat, and Vizzini in a game of wits. Humperdinck initially comes across as valiant, putting up a dashing front while pursuing Vizzini, before it’s then revealed that he’s the dastardly villain who set this conspiracy into motion. Fezzik and Inigo, introduced as a villain’s comic stooges, blossom into a lovable fraternal pair who crucially help Westley in a time of need.
Words and personal titles then come to function as masks. Consider the scene where Fezzik uses a cloak to disguise himself as the mythically malevolent Dread Pirate Roberts, then overpowers a squad of 30 soldiers simply through the use of words. As Westley—himself having masqueraded as the same pirate for years—notes to Buttercup, it’s the name Dread Pirate Roberts that matters more than what the holder of the name actually does. And for the viewer, when the grandfather closes the book shortly before The Princess Bride‘s final act, the world unravels. Goldman and Reiner’s point is that the meaning generated by words holds the universe together.
Accordingly, the film’s characters absorb us through their rhetoric: Fezzik and Inigo’s rhyming game; Westley and Inigo’s parley about fencing theory and technique as they sword fight; and Vizzini’s repetition of “Inconceivable!” (which, Inigo infers, probably doesn’t mean what Vizzini—perhaps not so clever after all—thinks it means). Buttercup discerns Humperdinck’s dishonesty in how he fails to send a promised message to Westley through his boat fleet, whereas Inigo’s quest is to fulfill a rehearsed speech to his father’s murderer, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest): “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Similarly, the sham of Buttercup and Humperdinck’s royal marriage is hilariously expressed through the presiding clergyman’s (Peter Cook) speech impediment.
And so while Humperdinck lives, as we were told he would, his defeat isn’t at the hands of a “to the death” duel, but Westley’s rhetorical bluff of “to the pain.” Westley, ostensibly incapacitated save for the use of his mouth, verbally hurls a decoratively meaningless description of Humperdinck’s hypothetical dismemberment and humiliation. Confused, Humperdinck calls the hero’s bluff, to which Westley unexpectedly rises and points his saber, saying, “Drop your sword.” The prince relents in his cowardice, and after he’s tied up, Westley breaks character, slumping in exhaustion.
The hero’s ploy was a performance of valorous posturing—an act of words working more magic than swordplay. The Princess Bride‘s underlying theme of the spoken word’s power corresponds to how we may see through the “kissing book” bullshit of fairy tales, where old wizards (like Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max) can resurrect the (mostly) dead, and love prevails over all obstacles. The grandfather’s act of reading—and promise to do so again—is the more vital love story and hero’s journey, perhaps reflected in how a generation comes back to Reiner and Goldman’s film again and again.
The significance of Criterion's 4K scan of The Princess Bride's original 35mm announces itself almost immediately, as the earthy, sun-kissed settings have a lovely and subtle layer of grain. More than any previous editions, color is more vibrant and deeply saturated. Shadows are more finely defined, as are the black levels. The fuzziness of earlier versions of the film makes way for incredible range of motion in the images. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio is the same from the 25th anniversary Fox Blu-ray, with a crisp front audio of dialogue, action, and score, all cleanly aligned, with some rather full-bodied surround effects dancing around in the real channel.
Most of the extras here have been ported over from earlier editions, including making-of documentaries, trailers, on-set video diaries, and short programs on aspects ranging from mythic storytelling to fencing. But instead of featuring the two commentary tracks—one by Rob Reiner, the other by William Goldman—that initially appeared on the film's 2007 DVD, Criterion recycles the track that appeared on their 1996 laserdisc edition, which features, alongside Reiner and Goldman, Peter Falk, Billy Crystal, and Reiner's producing partner, Andrew Scheinman. There's also a separate audio track with selections from Reiner's 1987 audiobook reading of Goldman's novel, a fascinating tool tracing how the writer adapted his own novel. This all works to confirm that the star of this package is really Goldman, who's also the subject of the two most enriching new features on this release: "Pure Enchantment," an appreciation of Goldman's screenplay by Columbia University professor Loren-Paul Caplin, and a program with Goldman walking us through a medieval-styled tapestry in his apartment, which he personally commissioned to complement his book.
Criterion gives one of the most compulsively rewatchable movies of the last generation its most fully satisfying home-video edition to date.