Author and screenwriter William Goldman openly refers to his 1973 novel The Princess Bride as his best work – a view that speaks volumes considering his résumé. For a decade it seemed as though the whimsical tale of Westley and Buttercup would never make its way to the cinema screen. That is until Director Rob Reiner received the green light. The rest, they say, is history. December 4 marked the 30th anniversary of the film’s release in Australia and what better time to reminisce.
At a glance, The Princess Bride (1987) appears to be your classic fairytale of true love conquering all. But this would be a huge oversimplification. It’s an oddball story that successfully combines satire, adventure and romance. Despite opening to great reviews, the film was only a modest success at the US Box Office, bringing in $30 million. The studio didn’t understand what they had in The Princess Bride and, subsequently, had a hard time marketing it. As Goldman puts it, “when you mix genres you’re in trouble”. Reiner talks about being angry that they didn’t have marketing tools, including a one-sheet or a trailer, until the day the movie opened. That’s hard to imagine in this day and age where promotion can often begin a year ahead of a film’s release.
It also didn’t help that a little film called Fatal Attraction (1987) opened the same weekend and went on to become the second-highest grossing film of the year. The Michael Douglas-led thriller brought in over $7 million on the opening weekend which made The Princess Bride’s $200K seem like chump change. Before its release, Reiner feared the film would become another The Wizard of Oz (1939) as, although hard to believe, when that movie released in 1939 it made next to no money and was considered a flop. Thirty years on, we now see that the comparison was somewhat appropriate. The boom of the VHS market in the 90’s was the film’s saving grace, allowing it to build in popularity.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Rob Reiner bringing The Princess Bride to life, but the truth is that a string of directors were all tied to the project at one point in time. If it weren’t for the firing of the studio production head just before work was to begin, the film would have been made ten years earlier by Richard Lester, who’s previous work included Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983).
Reiner, son of comedy legend Cary Reiner, had a personal interest in the project. He read the novel fourteen years earlier, when he was twenty-six, after Goldman sent the book to his father. “It was like it spoke to me,” recalls Reiner on how the book instantly became his favourite. After directing two successful projects, This is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Sure Thing (1985), Reiner was given the opportunity to make anything he wanted – and there was nothing he wanted more than The Princess Bride.
So how is it precisely that ‘they’ got the casting so right? The cast, which Reiner handpicked, was relatively unknown at the time. He was interested in Cary Elwes for Westley after seeing him in Lady Jane (1986), but was unsure whether he could pull off the humour the role required. Reiner flew to Berlin to meet with the young actor who was twenty-three at the time, and offered him the part just four days later. Perhaps it was due to the Fat Albert impersonation, as Cary recalls in his book As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, a New York Times bestseller. Like Reiner, Elwes was a fan of the novel, having read it when he was just thirteen. The film was Cary’s first big Hollywood project and that which he credits for launching his career. In fact, Mel Brooks offered him the lead in his 1993 spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights thanks to his performance as Westley.
Finding the perfect actress to play Buttercup was a little more challenging. Two weeks before shooting was to commence and the lead still hadn’t been cast. That is until Robyn Wright read for William Goldman in New York. Just nineteen at the time, Wright was one of the last of hundreds of girls to audition and, if you ask her today, she’ll tell you her accent ability got her across the line. At the time, Wright was contracted on the NBC soap opera Santa Barbara (1984-1988) and desperately wanted to get out of it. She refers to her experience on the set of The Princess Bride as heaven and talks of how Reiner put her at ease. Unlike on the soap, she was given the luxury to take her time.
Today, Wright’s days of playing a damsel in distress are long gone as her more recent work includes that of an Amazon warrior in Wonder Woman (2017) and as first lady Claire Underwood in House of Cards (2013-2018). Since Netflix cancelled the series after unsettling allegations against Kevin Spacey surfaced, we can only hope that petitions circulating the web for a spinoff with Claire Underwood as the lead become a reality.
Several of the other cast members had the freedom to pick their characters. One being Mandy Patinkin who was sent a copy of the script by Reiner and told, “just tell me which part you’d like to play.” Having lost his father in 1972 to pancreatic cancer, Patinkin connected to the part of Inigo Montoya from the moment he read the script. His experience on set proved to be healing. Patinkin speaks of a particularly cathartic moment when filming the scene where Montoya finally confronts Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) – “The reason I made the movie was coming to fruition. I killed the cancer that killed my father. And for a moment he was alive. And my fairy tale came true”.
Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal also had free reign. Reiner, having worked with Guest on This is Spinal Tap (1984), has gone on record to say he would cast Guest in every film he made if he could. Billy Crystal is particularly hilarious as Miracle Max and even improvised his most memorable line from the movie – “True love is the greatest thing in the world. Except for a nice MLT.” At Crystal’s request, Miracle Max’s facial characteristics were a cross between Casey Stingle, a Yankees manager from the 1950’s, and his grandmother. Just do yourself a favour and Google Stingle – the likeness is spot-on. Crystal went on to work with Reiner again in the rom-com When Harry Met Sally in 1989.
It would seem as though Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) was the only one who wasn’t the first choice. The producers had initially wanted Danny DeVito, but he was unavailable. Unfortunately for Shawn, his agent had shared this information with him before filming which made him incredibly anxious on set. As Shawn himself puts it, he was “haunted by the ghost of Danny DeVito”. If you ask fans today, they would surely say that to imagine someone else in the role would be ‘inconceivable’.
When it came to playing the part of Fezzik, there was only one who could – professional WWE wrestler André the Giant. In fact, Goldman had André in mind when he wrote the character. Aside from his WWE coverage and a few walk-on roles, André had never acted before but embraced the role wholeheartedly. He did, however, have difficulty holding weight on set since undergoing major back surgery right before filming.
There is no one the cast speaks more highly of than André who sadly passed away in 1993 at the age of forty-six from congestive heart failure. Patinkin refers to André as a “giant of a human-being in every imaginable way but particularly in the way of his heart”. He was always thinking of others, even warming Robin Wright’s head with his large hands between takes. Earlier this year HBO announced they are working on a documentary about his legendary WWE career. The film is scheduled for release sometime in Autumn of 2018.
The sword fight between Westley and Inigo is an iconic scene, but did you know that actor Cary Elwes had a broken toe at the time? The injury was the result of a joyride André convinced him to take on his ATV. Elwes initially tried to hide it from Reiner out of fear of being fired but later confessed. If you look closely, you’ll notice that Westley has a light step since Reiner didn’t want to use stuntmen or stand-ins.
Bob Anderson, a former Olympic fencer, and stuntman Peter Diamond trained the actors and had previously worked with legends Errol Flynn and Burk Lancaster. Here’s a tidbit for your Star Wars fans out there – Diamond was the Tusken Raider on Tatooine in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). The sword fight, initially scheduled for the start of shooting, was moved to the end giving Elwes time to heal. The preparation was vigorous, nonetheless, with the actors practising eight hours a day to master both right and left-handed fencing. I think we can all agree the result is worth it.
Thirty years on, there is no denying that The Princess Bride has made its way into the list of classics. The film has an endless supply of quotable lines so let’s finish up with, arguably, the five most memorable:
Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it.
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
Inigo Montoya: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
Vizzini: He didn’t fall? Inconceivable.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Prince Humperdinck: Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.
Miracle Max: Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe.