It seems strange 1987's The Princess Bride works at all. It's a story that seems to sabotage itself at every step, undercutting its own tension and drama, but it comes off as a remarkably effortless picture. But only sure hands could have pulled it off, the most important being William Goldman, who passed away yesterday. He had decades of experience as a screenwriter, having written Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Marathon Man, among others. Princess Bride was obviously a very different kind of work but it's a story that does something that only somebody with a real intimate familiarity with storytelling could do.
The key is in that the movie's not about saving Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) or Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) avenging his father. These things are important but only insofar as they're important to the characters. It's not a story about people being kidnapped or the burning desire to exact some retribution for the cruelty of an impudent aristocracy. Anyone who's seen the movie knows this instinctively. The point is in how easily a story can take hold in the heart of a viewer or reader and what a wonderful thing it is.
The score is all synthesiser because of a low budget. The sets and costumes look cheap, just barely convincing as homages to mid-century swashbucklers. The plot about Buttercup's kidnapping being blamed on Florin's rival country is so flimsy you barely notice it despite the fact that it's supposed to be the central motivating factor. I never noticed it at all when I was a kid and watching it when I was older I had to concentrate to piece it together. It had no effect on my enjoyment of the film.
Billy Crystal's extended cameo as Miracle Max might have slowed the momentum of another film but there is no momentum in this film. Fred Savage is sick in bed and he's stuck listening to his grandfather, Peter Falk, read a story instead of playing a video game which is all momentum. The Princess Bride invites the audience to stop and stay in moments. Wesley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo talking about swords and backstories when they should be trying to kill each other is earnest even as it invites us to ignore considerations of plausibility.
It's great to think these two deadly rivals can stop and talk because of some instinctive idea of honour. It's not unlike the sustained fantasy of the film as a whole. It doesn't even feel like a cheat that Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) is left alive at the end. The protagonists' escape from the castle feels more like a group of friends heading home after a pleasant evening at Dungeons and Dragons.
It all seems so easy but The Princess Bride has never been replicated. It seems to be a genre by itself. Maybe The Court Jester is a bit like it. But mostly Goldman just seems to have sat down and casually delivered something extraordinary.