This is an almost perfectly structured film: it starts quietly, introducing characters and situations one by one and then building the stakes and tension until you can’t stop watching. It begins and ends with the framing device of a sick boy being read to by his grandfather and the story gradually takes over with only occasional interruptions (in our house it has become an occasional joke to press the “pause” button at a crucial moment in a movie and say quietly, “She doesn’t die at this point.”).
I remember reading an article with Albert Finney when he was talking about pacing. He said that comedy should be very tightly disciplined: you shouldn’t give an audience much opportunity to laugh in the first third of a play, then you slowly release it over the course of the second act and let rip in the last. The Princess Bride is an almost textbook example of how this should be done: although, production-wise, it is a fairly average film, the pacing and tension is almost perfect. It goes quite slowly until you reach the scene where Buttercup dives into the water with the screaming eels and then it begins to let itself go. Then you realise that you might really be enjoying it. The moment where Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) tells Fezzik (Andre the Giant, “Did I mention that your job is on the line?” is, for me, when it starts to relax and you become totally caught up in the proceedings. Then it lets rip and doesn’t stop until the closing scene.
Anyway, the story within the story is about Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes) who discover that they feel true love for each other. Westley leaves to seek his fortune but is reported as being killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, scourge of the seas. Buttercup resolves never to love again. Five years later she is engaged to Prince Humerdinck (Chris Sarandon). One morning she goes out riding and is abducted by three plotters, Vizzini, Inigo Montoya (a career-defining role for Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik. They plan to murder her and lay a trail blaming another kingdom, but they haven’t reckoned on the mysterious Man In Black who is pursuing them…
Adapted by William Goldman from his own novel of the same name (read it, it’s even better than the film!) and directed by Rob Reiner, The Princess Bride was released in 1987 to a fairly lukewarm reception before becoming a classic on video. It’s a perfect rainy weekend movie with a surprisingly gentle heart to it. It’s also amazingly quotable. And while it can’t hope to compete visually with more recent films it is a perfectly acceptable way to wile away 87 minutes of your time over and over again.
(I normally include details of where you can buy these things that I’ve written about but there are so many beautiful editions of both available that I just couldn’t pick one. You’re on your own here.)