Scene by Scene: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

Since its release, Rob Reiner’s fairly tale spoof The Princess Bride has gone from cult classic to one of the most beloved films of its generation. Which scenes make it tick? Rating each section on a scale of 1 to 10:

A Kissing Book (00:00) 7/10 The opening cough and Hardball! video game play with the audience expectations generated by the title card, hinting at the fantasy trope subversions to come. Fred Savage’s jaded kid pre-empts audience criticism by whining about the love story opening so unattractively that the audience feels subconsciously compelled to defend the story, on grounds of its lush cinematography, if not its overwrought, digest-form romance.

Three Lost Circus Performers (7:15) 8/10 Wallace Shawn, publishing scion and occasional character actor, shrieks so broadly as to clue even the youngest viewers in that they are watching a send-up, a Fractured Fairy Tale which one can enjoy in proportion to one’s familiarity with the original material which it parodies. The clear switch from location shooting to soundstage encourages us to see the work as a play.

A Damper on Our Relationship (17:20) 10/10 Is this the greatest swordplay choreography in the history of cinema, or merely the greatest comic swordplay? The Man in Black’s dry wit verbally fences just as spryly with Mandy Patinkin’s unexpectedly laconic sword-for-hire, with a final result somewhere between Buster Keaton and Woody Allen.

I Don’t Even Exercise (25:04) 7/10 Thanks to Andre Roussimoff’s gigantism-induced mushmouth, I couldn’t understand half his lines in the pre-subtitle era, but slapstick comedy comes through in any language.

Never Get involved in a Land War in Asia (29:30) 9/10 Shawn’s improbably confident Sicilian again steals the battle of wits, right up to the moment when, well, you know.

You’re Only Saying That Because No One Ever Has (39:00) 5/10 Despite the stagey perils of the Fire Swamp, the helpless waif and unflappable swashbuckler are less fun alone together than when playing straight man/woman to the zanier characters from whom they are temporarily separated.

If You Haven’t Got Your Health (50:24) 4/10 The films’ emotional nadir is also its least memorable section; torture never makes for entertaining viewing, only for setting up a cathartic rescue.

Mostly Dead (60:30) 9/10
Manic Miracle Max improvs, a compassionately shrewish wife, and a chocolate-covered pill bring the story back up to speed in time for the final act.

Storming the Castle (74:31) 7/10 What’s a holocaust cloak? Who cares? The lisping clergyman and doddering king remind us: all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good to be a moron, but thankfully more competent heroes know when and how to threaten dismemberment.

Prepare to Die (81:28) 9/10 Ah yes, I knew we had some catharsis around here somewhere. In fine heroic fashion, the knife in the belly is all but forgotten ten minutes later.

I Knew He Was Bluffing (87:23) 6/10 A quiet denouement; the once-skeptical boy’s shy request for a repeat performance gives voice to the audience’s approval of the film. The sitcom style “greatest hits” closing credits satisfy that wish to see it again.

P.S. I don’t know that the book is better than the movie, but it does help plug some of the “But what about…” questions raised by William Goldman’s Cliff Notes style adaptation of his own novel, which in turn claims to be “the good parts” of a still larger work. Cut, and cut some more: a lesson many recent movies should have learned in the editing suite.