September 25, 2012

Westley: Lover, Fighter aaand…Kind of a Dick

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 9:00 am
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Inconceivable as it may seem, today marks the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride‘s theatrical release.

Twenty. Five. Years.

This little movie, which grossed only about $30 million at the box office, ranking 41st on the list of 1987’s highest grossers, has built up a following that bursts beyond the parameters of cult to become one of the most beloved movies of all time.

Yes, I’m saying of all time.

No, I don’t think this is hyperbole. People’s affection for The Princess Bride transcends mere love to achieve true love, which doesn’t happen every day. Not only is it exceedingly rare, but with the exception of a nice, perky M.L.T., where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe, it’s the greatest thing in the world.

Now, stay with me here: I do want to take issue with one small aspect of The Princess Bride that I’ve thought about many times over the years that I’ve been enjoying and revisiting the movie. But first I must make it crystal, face-shining-in-polished-horse-saddle clear that this is one of my all-time favorites, a movie that came to me at that time in my life – as I’ve pointed out in various posts this year – when movies were overcoming my imagination. I remember seeing a short behind-the-scenes piece on HBO and being immediately interested. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact scene that made me want to see the movie. It was that moment during the sword fight between Inigo and the Man in Black, when the former asks the latter his identity, the Man in Black declines to reveal himself, and Inigo – having pressed the issue – just shrugs and gets on with the duel. I loved that. I loved the timing, the rhythm, the delivery. I knew I had to see this movie. It didn’t hurt that the cast included Andre the Giant, seeing as I was a huge World Wrestling Federation fan. I probably hadn’t quite accepted yet that wrestling was fake, so the premise of WWF bad guy Andre the Giant playing a good guy in a comedic fairy tale intrigued me. Only the second movie I ever went to see with just a friend – no parental accompaniment, which was a big deal – The Princess Bride didn’t disappoint. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it since, but there are scenes – like the Man in Black’s showdown with Vizzini, or the encounter with Miracle Max – that I know by heart. Not just the words, but the pauses, the inflections…I sometimes run through the scenes out loud, the way you sing a song in the shower or while making dinner.

I highly doubt I’m unique in either my ability to accurately quote whole passages, or the frequent act of actually doing so.

I read William Goldman’s source novel a year or two after the movie came out, and was surprised to see the humor came straight off the page, right down to the Impressive Clergyman’s speech impediment and Miracle Max’s personality, both of which I assumed at the time came directly from Peter Cook and Billy Crystal, respectively. Goldman’s book is interesting, in that he writes it as though he has abridged it from a longer version by the original author, S. Morgenstern. He frequently interrupts the narrative to add comments about things he deleted from the complete text, and why he made his decisions. It was a device that he and director Rob Reiner adapted to film by having The Grandfather read the book to The Grandson, which is also part of Goldman’s own story contained within the book – that his love for Morgenstern’s novel came from his own father reading it to him when he was a child, and that the first time he heard it, he kept interrupting his father with questions and comments. (The line in the movie when The Grandson says of Prince Humperdinck, “You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?!?” is taken almost verbatim from the book.) Many of the film’s best lines, in fact, come right from the book…no surprise, since Goldman adapted his own novel for the screen. If you call yourself a Princess Bride fan but have never read the novel, stop reading this meandering post right now and go to a bookstore or a library, or log onto Amazon. The movie is a faithful adaptation of the book, but as always, the book offers more than the film can squeeze in, including detailed backstories for Fezzik and Inigo, and a much more elaborate alternative to the Pit of Despair – a five-level descent known as the Zoo of Death.

Not to get too far off track, but for several years – up until just a couple of months ago – I was under the impression that Goldman had written a sequel, called Buttercup’s Baby. It turns out this isn’t exactly true. In 1998, the year the book turned 25, a new hardcover edition was published, which included the first chapter of a sequel, once again abridged by Goldman from Morgenstern’s original text. I thought this was done as a legitimate teaser for a full sequel, but it was just part of Goldman’s game. He never wrote – as of yet, anyway – the full Buttercup’s Baby. Instead, that first chapter which came in the anniversary edition of the book was preceded by a lengthy story from Goldman about how, after years of lawsuits from Morgenstern’s estate concerning his original abridgement, the rights to the sequel were given to Stephen King. Having a cordial relationship with King stemming from writing the screenplay for Misery, Goldman approached him and requested that King pass and allow him to do the project. King, for reasons Goldman explains, refused…but did allow Goldman to adapt the first chapter. (Keep in mind…none of this actually happened. It’s all part of Goldman’s elaborate fiction.) So what we get is 50 pages that include the immediate aftermath of the escape from Prince Humperdinck, a backstory detailing a romance for Inigo and a fragmented tease involving Fezzik’s attempt to rescue Buttercup and Westley’s daughter from a devious kidnapper. Again, any Princess Bride fan owes it a read just for the sake of being a¬†completest, if nothing else. But no, don’t expect a full sequel…to the book or the movie.

Really though, who needs a sequel? The book, and especially the movie, are just about perfect as they are.

So here we are, 25 years after the release of this modest little movie which is just as popular and relevant as ever. Last December, director Jason Reitman staged a one-night only, unrecorded, live-reading of the script as part of a benefit series he’s been doing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Reitman’s amazing, It’s-Times-Like-These-I-Wish-I-Lived-In-Los Angeles LACMA series has also included readings of The Apartment, Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, Shampoo, The Breakfast Club and just a couple of weeks ago at the Toronto Film Festival, American Beauty).

In February, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin held a Valentine’s Day screening and dinner with a Princess Bride-inspired menu.

There have already been a few special edition DVDs of the movie, and yet another version – with new special features – will be released on October 2 to commemorate the 25th anniversary.

The same day, Reiner and cast members will attend a screening of the film as part of the prestigious New York Film Festival.

Around this time last year, Entertainment Weekly reconvened most of the cast for a photo shoot and oral history as part of their annual Reunions issue. (Here are some video interviews from the shoot. It’s so great to see in this, and in the DVD extras that have come along, how much the cast still love the movie and how proud they are to be a part of something that has affected so many people so profoundly.)

And who could count the ways that individual fans around the world choose to honor the movie in their own lives. Surely The Princess Bride has been incorporated into many a wedding these last 25 years. Several years back, a friend of mine hosted a screening of the movie at her house that included a game of Princess Bride bingo. She made these great bingo cards (I still have mine) with quotes from the movie, and as we watched, we marked off when a quote came up. ‘Twas good fun.

In the oral history, Goldman and the Princess Bride herself, Robin Wright, talk briefly about the long casting process that was required to find the perfect Buttercup, but their comments barely scratch the surface. The search for Buttercup was a trying ordeal for casting directors Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson, which they recount in their terrific book, A Star Is Found. I wish I could reprint the entire tale here, because it’s so well-told, but the short version is that Jenkins, who was handling casting for the film, saw dozens of beautiful young actresses who, for one reason or another, could not convey the right mix of qualities necessary for Buttercup. It was only out of desperation that she agreed to see Wright, who she remembered from a not-great audition a few years earlier. Yet when Wright arrived, Jenkins saw a more mature young woman than the one she’d met last time around. Now she saw someone who had come into her own, and who proceeded to give the reading that every previous auditioner had been unable to deliver. The exuberance Jenkins describes upon realizing she’d found her girl, and then conveying the news to Reiner over the phone, is palpable. She really makes you appreciate the difficulty of the search, and the rewarding feeling of finding the right match between actor and role. Jenkins and Hirshenson’s book is a great read for anyone interested in how casting works and how stars have been discovered, but the 14 page section about finding Buttercup alone merits picking it up.

Alright, I can’t put it off any longer…I was supposed to get to that one thing…the dark element of The Princess Bride that no one ever seems to talk about: that Westley is…I’m afraid it has to be said…kind of a dick.

Has this occurred to anyone else? Consider. When his dogged pursuit of Buttercup and her kidnappers pays off with Vizzini’s death, leaving them alone together and safe at last, what does he do? Does he rip off the mask to reveal himself and take her in his arms? No. He keeps his identity a secret, and treats her roughly, with condescension. As they flee across the rocky landscape, tracked by Prince Humperdinck, his contemptuous treatment only intensifies. At one point, he nearly slaps her across the face. (In the corresponding scene from the novel, he does strike her. He’s a little meaner, a little more insulting in the book.) While taking a breather, he admits to being the Dread Pirate Roberts, which leads to this exchange.

Having already sorrowfully described Westley as “poor and perfect, with eyes like the sea after a storm”, and after plainly admitting that she does not love Humperdinck, Buttercup’s feelings for Westley should be quite clear. Her sadness is evident. Yet still in that scene above, he attacks her, calling her faithfulness into question and accusing her of quickly and callously forgetting her love and moving on to Humperdinck. And he means it. He’s not putting on an act. He seems to regard her as a woman who discarded her love for him and went on with her life, just like that. So…where is he headed with his ruse? What if she hadn’t pushed him down that hill? What if they had continued running, gone around the Fire Swamp, made it back to Roberts’ ship Revenge and sailed away from Florin? How long would he have played his game? When would he have unmasked himself? And what would he expect when he did? Obviously when he falls down the hill and cries out “As you wish”, the game is up; she follows him down, lands nearby and at last they have their romantic reunion. His anger is forgotten, his behavior forgiven. But would it have gone so smoothly if he waited until he had her on his ship as a prisoner? Somehow I doubt it. What are his intentions? To punish her for as long as possible? To go on humiliating her until he feels like she’s suffered enough, then unmask himself and say, “Haha, just kidding. It’s me. I’m alive. Yay, true love! Kiss?” Is this how you treat the woman you love? It’s the uncomfortable truth tucked into Westley and Buttercup’s true romance that no one wants to acknowledge, but it’s right there, plain as day.

Perhaps we forgive this because we know that when it comes down to it, Westley really does love Buttercup and he really will always come for her. He will die for her. He does die for her. But so too does he come for her. That, along with knowing that she would kill herself rather than live life without him (and with that rotten Humperdinck), allows us to focus on their true love and, you know, forget that he treats her with extreme misogynistic hostility on the way to their happily ever after, and might have gone on doing so for a while had she not shoved his ass down a steep hill. But Westley is a charmer – so skilled and so smart that we overlook he can also be a bit smug and perhaps more than a little bit cruel. (Not to mention that he’s sailing around the seas in the guise of the most feared pirate there is, murdering people and stealing from them. But fine, I’ll let it go…)

So there’s that.

Now back to loving it anyway. Which its legions of fans do, as much as ever. Just as The Grandfather explains to The Grandson of S. Morgenstern’s book – that his father used to read it to him when he was boy and he used to read it to his son – those of us who grew up with the movie pass it on to the next generation. This is true of any movie people love, of course. They want to share it with their kids, nephews, nieces, etc. But there are a few that people seem particularly eager to bequeath, and I have to think that The Princess Bride is pretty damn close to Star Wars at the top of that list. Its timeless quality helps; other than the outdated video game The Grandson is playing in the first scene (which I remember had me thinking I must be in the wrong movie, even though it immediately followed the title card), there’s nothing whatsoever to date it or attach it to a specific period. In making a movie that satirizes fairy tales, Reiner succeeded completely in making one…and one that would live on with the best of them. So here’s to another 25 years of enjoying The Princess Bride. The humor still kills, the performances remain indelible and even Westley’s questionable behavior can’t stop the sweep of the love story. It’s a movie that is deservedly adored by everyone who’s seen it.

Whether or not they want a peanut.

Art By: Adam Juresko, Chad Trutt, Purple Cactus Design, Phantom City Creative, Mark Welser, Tom


  1. Of course Westley is a dick! Of course he tortures Buttercup far too long for her “faithlessness”. It is classic Shakespeare – Taming of the Shrew. (Actually, I like Much Ado about Nothing because Beatrice is just as big a jerk as what’s his name. But that’s the exception.) if Westley was all Alan Alda, it would not have been a classic tale. And overreacting men with weak egos (especially where love is concerned) who takeout their insecurity through misogyny (sp?) are essential to the period. Even for heroes.

    Comment by Donna T — September 25, 2012 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  2. I love that you think of this stuff. Never realized it was bugging me too. But here’s to 25 more years of loving it! Hoozah!

    Comment by Lisa — September 25, 2012 @ 11:58 am | Reply

  3. I wrote a very long response this morning, and WordPress killed it. I will reconstruct the main points, but with far less brio.

    I agree wholeheartedly that The Princess Bride is among the great movies of all time. It’s one that I would call perfect in its conception and execution (and I am glad it is being well-preserved, because there’s a shortage of perfect films in the world; ‘twould be a pity to ruin this one). However, I disagree with your assessment of Westley, or rather, I think you miss the point. The Princess Bride is not a satire of fairy tales; it IS a fairy tale, simply more clever, inspired, complex, and delightful than most. As such, its characters are not intended to be seen as “people”; they are stock characters hewing to well-worn archetypes. To imagine an alternate path that the story might have taken had Buttercup not pushed Westley down the hill begs the film to be some kind of character-driven vehicle that it simply isn’t. She has to push him because it raises the drama of the moment, and story is more important to a fairy tale than character. If he had simply torn off his mask right away and she’d leapt into his arms, then what? Instead, the moment of tension teases us with dramatic irony, delayed gratification, the sudden suspicion that just maybe something is amiss, and ultimately, after the “As you wish…” yell and her realization of his identity, delivers that classic fairy tale moment of reunion with its affirmation that true love will always win. Because, again, it’s a fairy tale, and that’s what a fairy tale is supposed to do. Not to mention the fact that their new point of departure requires the trip through the fire swamp, which provides some fun action and “other world” context, a few moments for the audience to relax and enjoy the renewed bonding of the hero and heroine, and their ultimate capture by the Count and Prince, which brings us to Act II and propels the rest of the plot forward. So Westley’s rudeness is necessary as a plot device to best satisfy genre requirements which, again, are not being satirized, but rather elevated to the apotheosis of the form. And at what other point in the film does Westley’s purported dickishness emerge? He helps everyone who richly deserves it and hurts only those who richly deserve it, and does it all with panache: a true fairy tale hero. Finally, for what it’s worth, even if you DID want to explore the scene at the hilltop as a character study, it holds up. Westley had good reason to question her loyalty given her engagement to the prince. He’d learned nothing, yet, that could give him positive confirmation of her faithfulness. The scene as written allows both of them to be reassured that the others’ promise had been kept. The stuff of fairy tales.

    That aside, great recap of a great film. I was a little older than you when this came out (I still am, actually), and my high school friends and I loved it just as much as you did, and for all the same reasons. It’s the best fairy tale ever written or filmed.

    Comment by Alan Burnce — September 25, 2012 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

  4. Plus, he’d just beaten up two brilliant fighters and killed an idiot in a tense battle of wits… to the death. A little extra adrenaline’s not out of the question, is it?

    Comment by Alan Burnce — September 25, 2012 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

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