Underground Reading: A Quartet of Hard Case Crimes

Monsters & Mullets: The Princess Bride (1987)

Princess Bride The Princess Bride. This isn't a "does it hold up" kind of post, because, frankly, I'm so prejudiced in this film's favor that I couldn't possibly watch it with even the barest pretense of impartiality.  I wholly and unreservedly love The Princess Bride, the end.  So instead we're going to talk a bit about why The Princess Bride is important.  And awesome, of course. And continually worthwhile.  And why it wholly deserves its spot at the eleventy-billion-percent awesome end of our Monsters & Mullets Comprehensive Awesomeness Spectrum.

I'm sure every generation prides itself on having the privilege of growing up with the best, most quotable movies.  But, seriously - did any decade have it better than we did in the '80s?  No only did we have Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Heathers, The Wrath of Khan, Ferris Bueller, Airplane! and Aliens, we had The Princess Bride.  Is there any single movie that's more quotable?  More quoted?

Princess Bride "A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought," demurred Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers' 1935 novel Gaudy Night.  The great irony, of course, being that approximately a quarter of Lord Peter's conversation is composed of quotes.  An appropriate quote isn't simply an easy way out of a difficult conversation.  A quote is a badge; it identifies the speaker as a person of education (of whatever kind), a person who cares enough about the source material to commit it to memory.  A quote identifies listeners, as well, as persons of similar tastes, perhaps, or at least knowledgable enough to recognize and respond in kind.  Sayers understood this, and used quotations as a way to allow her characters to speak to each other on multiple levels.  We do the same. Not everyone likes Star Wars, but anyone who's anyone will tell you whether these are the droids you're looking for (they're not).  Our identities are forged in reference to the things we love.  And we geeks love our movies.

Endlessly quoting films isn't just a game for geeks, (although we are are terribly good at it).  Nope, quoting from mutually appreciated films is one of the fastest, cheapest ways for people to establish relevance, both cultural and personal.  Group recitations of Obi-Wan Kenobi's lines from Star Wars allows everyone in the circle not only to establish their cultural credibility, but to give it - and themselves - cultural resonance.  It's the ultimate reverberating circuit, a positive feedback loop whereby a group confirms and increases its own relevance by contributing to the continued relevance of a mutual interest, each making the other larger and more meaningful.  The group establishes a mutual interest and, by proving their knowledge of it via quotations, prove both its credibility as a source of personal expression and cultural expression.  It becomes culture by virtue of the fact that everyone knows and loves it; everyone knows and loves it because it is culture. 

So there's this kid, and he's sick.  He's an '80s kid, so he's playing some ridiculous '80s videogame, and there's a bag of '80s-style Cheetos (yum) in the background, and some action figures and some baseball stuff, and it's all Bears and Cubs stuff because this kid knows that Chicago is a pretty awesome place. Also, it's the 80's, and the Bears were bloody everywhere in the 80's.
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The kid is sick.  Mom pops in and says, hey, gramps is coming!  The kid whines that grampa is  going to pinch his cheeks.  Grampa enters, and pinches the kid's cheeks.  Rimshot!  But it's okay, because grampa is Peter Falk, aka Columbo, aka the best grampa ever, and so we love him.  Grampa olds a bit about how television used to be called books and pats his pocket and gives the kid a book.  The kid's all "..."  and grampa pats his pockets some more and olds about how this is an awesome book so shaddup already.  And then he starts reading.

In an amazingly beautiful land lives an amazingly beautiful girl, Buttercup.  She's every little girl's aesthetic ideal, what with her long, long dresses and long, long blonde hair.  She lives on a farm and delights in tormenting her farmboy.  Farmboy is every teenaged girl's (et al.)  romantic ideal, being a lissome 25-year-old Cary Elwes. It turns out, of course, that Buttercup is in love with her farmboy, Westley.  Hooray, he loves her too!  They kiss in an explosion of astonishing and beautiful - rolling green hills, a setting sun, gently-wafting tresses, etc.  But he's poor, so he leaves to seek his fortune so he can marry her. (The sick kid objects to the mushy stuff.)  Naturally, Westley is immediately killed by pirates, off-screen.  Buttercup is very sad for a very long time and vows never to love again. (The kid is happy about the pirates.  Pirates always bode well.)

Princess Bride Five years later, Buttercup is engaged to the crown prince of her astonishingly beautiful land (Florin).  She's reassured Prince Humperdink she'll never love him, but he weirdly doesn't care.  So she rides around Florin on her horse and tries not to be sad about being rich and beautiful.  Out on her ride one afternoon, Buttercup is kidnapped by three men: the Sicilian Vizzini, the Spanish Inigo Montoya, and the giant Fezzik. They sail across the sea that separates Florin from its rival country Guilder, an interlude that allows everyone to reveal a little personality.  Buttercup, bless her, although not the brightest bulb, does try to escape (the screaming eels put the kaibosh on that plan).  Vizzini, we learn, is the gang's splenetic boss, while Inigo and Fezzik are its sword and its muscle, respectively.  Inigo and Fezzik are also, it turns out, very good friends - so much so that they speak in impromptu rhymes, which irritates Vizzini no end.  This is completely adorable
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Despite Vizzini's assurances that it would be inconceivable for anyone to have followed them,  someone is following them.  But this person or persons unknown does not have a giant!  So when the little band of mercenaries reaches their destination, the Cliffs of Insanity, Fezzik suits up in some harnesses, the other three saddle up, and he strong-arms the group straight up the like 9000 foot vertical cliff face.  It's pretty awesome.  They reach the top, but their mysterious tail has made it to the cliffs and is forging his way up the rope as well.  Vizzini cuts the rope, but their shadow remains undeterred - now he's clinging to the bare rocks, and still scrabbling upward.  Inconceivable!  Inigo begins to suspect that Vizzini isn't really that clear on the definition of "inconceivable."  Vizzini insists that Inigo stay to dispatch the stranger, and then he and Fezzik take off with Buttercup.    Eventually, Inigo becomes impatient and helps haul the other up. 

The other is a really, really, really hot guy, dressed all in black and sporting a major mask.  No, seriously.  So hot.

Princess Bride Inigo and the man in black banter a bit while the latter gets his breath back, and then they fight.  And what a fight it is.  The swordplay in this film is as astonishingly beautiful as everything else (their fencing coach was Darth Vader's sword double), but what's especially impressive is how carefully written and choreographed the scene is.  They banter and test each other but become increasingly serious as the fight progresses.  Each has something to live for - Inigo is on a quest to find the six-fingered man who murdered his father, while the man in black... well, it has something to do with Buttercup, maybe?  Ultimately the man in black wins, knocks Inigo out, and dashes off after Vizzini.

Vizzini and the others watch the fight from afar.  Vizzini squeaks about the outcome's inconceivability and then leaves Fezzik to deal with the man in black Fezzik's way; that is, smashing his head in with a rock.  Fezzik worries that his way isn't very sportsmanlike, and when the man in black approaches, Fezzik calls him out rather than ambush him.  The two wrestle, and Fezzik gets a couple good knocks in before the man in black chokes him into unconsciousness.  The man in black rushes off.

Oh, you know this part so well.  The man in black finds Vizzini and the princess, blindfolded and bound, sitting at a rock set as for a meal.  Vizzini and the man in black make a deal - a battle of wits.  To the death.  The man in black sneaks a lethal dose of poison into one of two goblets and challenges Vizzini to drink from the safe one.  Vizzini talks a bit, distracts the man in black, switches the goblets, drinks, and starts chuckling.  When the man in black asks what his deal is, Vizzini explains that the man in black fell victim to one of the classic blunders: "The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"!  And then falls over dead.  (Both goblets were dosed; the man in black is immune to the poison he used.)  The man in black grabs Buttercup and they take off.

Princess Bride Running, running, running.  They stop to catch their breath at the crest of a steep ridge.  Buttercup fronts with the man in black a bit, correctly identifying him as the Dread Pirate Roberts - the man who killed her beautiful, servile farmboy Westley.  The Dread Pirate, for his part, sneers about her lack of romantic constancy.  She gets seriously pissed off and pushes him over the side of the hill.  As he falls, he shouts out "as you wish" - farmboy Westley's catchphrase - and Buttercup finally groks that the super-freaking-hot blond pirate is also the super-freaking-hot blond farmboy and throws herself after him.

Much bruised, they reunite at the bottom of the hill.  When he wonders why she got engaged to someone else instead of waiting for him, she responds very reasonably that he was dead. He scoffs at the idea that mere death could prove an obstacle for true love, and she promises never to doubt again.  Realizing that her fiance, the prince, is on their trail, they scamper into the nearby Fire Swamp to hide.  There they discover all the dangers on offer, including spitting fire-spouts, puddles of very quick quicksand, and ROUSes.  Although Westley is good at keeping them away from the former two, the latter give him a spot of bother, and he gets a good and goozy wound on the shoulder from the man in an opossum suit Rodent of Unusual Size before running it through.  It dies deliciously horribly.  But Prince Humperdink and his faithful vizier Count Rugen catch up to them eventually anyway.  Although Buttercup surrenders herself to save them, she makes Humperdink promise that he'll put Westley back on his pirate ship.  Humperdink, however, has other plans.  Rugen (who has six fingers, oooo) bonks Westley on the head and that's that.

Princess Bride Westley wakes up, shirtless but well-tended, in some sort of dungeon.  He's strapped to a table and being cared for by an albino with an appropriately sepulchral voice - hah, no, dude's just got a frog in his throat.  The albino explains that Westley is now in Rugen's clutches; later, Rugen will come along and explain that he's experimenting with a machine that sucks the life out of people.  Apparently the process doesn't feel so good; he sucks away a year and poor, shirtless Westley whimpers in pain.

Meanwhile, Buttercup - now back in Humperdink's castle - decides she simply can't go through with marrying someone else while her true love lives.  Humperdink, who is actually trying to engineer a war with Guilder, pays lip-service to Buttercup's demands, promising to send letters to Westley in advance of the wedding.  If he shouldn't appear in time to sweep Buttercup up, though, perhaps she'd marry Humperdink anyway?  Buttercup, not bringing her A-game along, accedes. Buttercup may not actually have an A-game to bring.  Humperdink continues in his plans to murder Buttercup and frame Guilder for it (he'd hired Vizzini to do the job initially), Rugen tortures Westley, and Buttercup... mopes. 

Princess Bride The day of the wedding, Buttercup finally, finally cottons to the fact that Humperdink was stringing her along.  He locks her in her room and rushes off to Rugen's dungen, where he smacks the life-sucker up to its highest setting and kills Westley.  Westley's screams of anguish are so loud and so wrenching that they can be heard miles away, even by Fezzik and Inigo (the latter well into his cups).  Fezzik, now a member of the brute squad hired to clear the local forests of human riffraff, finds Inigo drinking his sorrows away in a dingy tavern.  The look Inigo gives Fezzik when he recognizes him is about the most astonishingly beautiful moment in a movie composed entirely of astonishingly beautiful things. 

Fezzik nurses Inigo back to health and explains that the six-fingered man is in the castle.  Inigo despairs of getting at him, having no head for strategy, until he realizes that he might be able to coopt the man in black into helping out.  They search and, after appealing to the spirit of Inigo's slain father, find Westley's body in the deserted dungeon.  Unbowed, they take the body to Miracle Max, the king's former miracle worker.  Max takes a little cajoling (and spousal browbeating) but finally agrees to bring Westley - fortunately only mostly dead - back to life.  The miracle pill works and Westley revives... although without much motor control.  Miracle Max and his wife wish our heroes luck in their bellicose endeavors.  Westley, Inigo and Fezzik work out a plan for getting into the very well-guarded castle while, inside, assorted nobles assemble for the wedding.  Humperdink drags Buttercup to the altar, but Buttercup's pretty sanguine about the whole thing, certain that Westley will pop in and save her before it's too late. 

Princess Bride In the movie's best and most beloved gag, the ancient and impressive clergyman begins to speak - and has a wonderfully charming, not at all impressive, speech impediment.  I know!  It sounds like I'm making fun of people with rhotacism.  What it is, however, is a prime example of the film's commitment to undercutting expectations.  The clergyman looks impressive but is ridiculous, just as Inigo's obsessive search for the six-fingered man seems ridiculous, but becomes increasingly meaningful.  Anyway, as Humperdink sweats and the guests look around, the sounds of combat from outside increase.  Inigo, Fezzik and Westley beat off the sixty men guarding the castle gate via a combination of chutzpa and intimidation, and the three dash into the castle. But they're too late - Humperdink has already demanded that the clergyman skip straight to the "man and wife" bit, jammed a ring on Buttercup's finger, and hustled her off to her room before abandoning her to fight the oncoming hordes. 

  Princess Bride Rugen stumbles across Inigo and flees. Inigo gives chase, leaving Fezzik in charge of the still-mostly-paralyzed Westley.  When Fezzik leaves him to break down a door for Inigo, Westley disappears.  Inigo sprints after Rugen, who ambushes him with a knife to the abdomen.  Inigo, despite the blood gushing from his side, pulls himself together and fences with Rugen, eventually disarming him, and all the while chanting his creed:  "Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die."  Finally, with Rugen at his mercy, Inigo orders the man to beg, to offer him anything.  And then he runs that fucker through. 

Meanwhile, Buttercup is sitting at her vanity contemplating suicide.  Westley, however, has somehow managed to propel himself into her room and is lying on her bed.  He announces himself by suggesting she not kill herself, and she responds as any right-minded person faced with the prospect of young Cary Elwes reclining on a bed ought, by throwing herself on him.  She's not really married, he assures her, because she never said "I do."  Unfortunately, Humperdink chooses this tender moment to intrude.  Humperdink and Westley spit and hiss for a bit, but ultimately Westley staggers to his feet and stares Humperdink down.  Humperdink, at Westley's command, sits down in a nearby chair, and Buttercup ties him up.  Westley's interrupted by Inigo, and then Fezzik, who calls to them from the courtyard below, just as he's outlining what bits he's going to be depriving Humperdink of.  Fezzik has found four astonishingly beautiful white horses; would they like to ride them off into the sunset?  Who could turn down an astonishingly beautiful white horse?  No one.  So our heroes leap from the window and gallop away.  Westley and Buttercup share one last astonishingly beautiful kiss.  The end.

Except it's not!  The sick kid is all, yeah, that was actually totally awesome.  He asks grampa to come back tomorrow and read the book all over again.  Grampa, wonderfully, replies "as you wish."  The end!  (Ignore the stupid song over the closing credits.)

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 Okay, obviously I absolutely love this movie.  But that doesn't mean I'm totally blind to its faults - and it does have faults (despite being one of the five most perfect movies ever made).  The score is silly, and there's an awful lot of ridiculous contrivance at work in the plot:  the six-fingered man happens to be the central villain's right-hand man, Inigo and Fezzik somehow know about Westley and his relationship with Buttercup despite not apparently ever having been told of it.  And Buttercup's about as dippy as a female lead can be (although still not as achingly dumb as her counterpart in the novel), spending the majority of her time on screen waiting to be saved.

But these are really just the slightest imperfections.  There's so much The Princess Bride gets right, from the casting (which is perfect, down to a man) to the fight scenes to the scenery to the plot to that brilliant, sparkling dialogue.  Truly, no movie so deserves its places in the high court of quotable films as The Princess Bride.

But The Princess Bride's achievements don't stop there.  Everything I've cited makes this movie good, even great.  What makes it totally awesome, however, is how well it stands up as revisionist high fantasy.  There's the beautiful girl who becomes a princess, the stable-boy who loves her, the strongman, the brilliant swordsman, the evil prince, his evil vizier.  But the film cheekily undercuts every stereotype within moments of introducing them, from the rasping albino henchman (he's just got something caught in his throat; his voice is actually totally normal) to the really quite personable villains.  No one's chosen, no one has any special destiny revealed to them.  The girl doesn't really want to be a princess; the stable-boy becomes a pirate wholly by accident; the swordsman is great because he trained for twenty years, not because of any innate or magical ability.  Everyone is smart and there's a refreshing dearth of brooding.  Together they don't provoke regime-change or war or even a minor uprising; they just get in, defeat the bad guys (only one of the film's two villain's die), and vamoose.  There's no condescension, no irony; just a sincere delight in the appurtenances of fantasy, and the cheeky urge to undercut them.

And even these things don't get to the heart of the movie.  Yes, The Princess Bride is a love story.  But it's not just about Westley and Buttercup.  There's the love between Inigo and Fezzik - Inigo's dazzling smile when Fezzik finds him, soused and belligerent in some low-rent tavern, is far and away the most astonishingly beautiful thing in a movie bursting with astonishingly beautiful things.  There's Inigo's love for his long-dead father, a love which drives him to make himself the greatest swordsman alive so to revenge his father's murder.  And there's even the relationship between Humperdink and Rugen, that rare thing in cinema: a relationship based on mutual trust and respect... between male villains.  Humperdink doesn't treat Rugen as a servant, but as an equal and a friend.

All of this with a production budget of $15,000,000?  This is fantasy pared down to its basic components... and succeeding.  It's not about the special effects, the magic weapon, the massive dragon-puppet or the ridiculous flower petals floating through the air.  It's about a good story, well-acted and well-directed, a couple of kick-ass action scenes, and a few memorable, believable relationships.  And - probably most importantly - a sense of humor. 

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 tomato is ripe. 

Monsters:  One giant!  Several Rodents of Unusual Size.

Mullets:  Nary a one, though Mandy Patinkin's Inigo rocks some mulllety extensions.

Hookers, Victims & Doormats:  Buttercup really is pretty useless. And there is that weird scene where Westley threatens to hit her, before she realizes who he is.

Ruining my Childhood by Inches:  I shall be very put out when this movie is, inevitably, remade.

Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Cartesian Coordinate System Placement:  Is there any doubt?  This movie is ninety-eight billion percent totally awesome.  It is the anti-Caligula