I’ve told the story of how I avoided this film for almost twenty years before – but by all means, please reread it, you’ll need it for the last paragraph – but briefly, I never heard anything about it that appealed to me, and one day in 2005 somebody forced me to watch it and I spent weeks alternating between watching it again and kicking myself for missing out. Preconceived notions are sometimes terrible, terrible things. Eighteen years I could’ve known this movie was a triumph.
So anyway, I’m assuming that this is one of those movies I don’t need to describe very much to our audience or explain why I chose to show it to our son. It’s because it’s Rob Reiner’s finest moment, and every kid needs to see it! We started out with a little chat about narration. We talked about an unreliable narrator a few weeks ago, and I explained that this story doesn’t have an unreliable narrator, but it does have one who interrupts. Our son sees echoes of William Goldman’s original novel in lots of the modern entertainment that he enjoys, especially Captain Underpants. If you’ve not read the Underpants books, one of his regular devices is employing a “skip” chapter, where rather than explaining a complex part of the adventure, the writer just explains that to cut a long story short, the characters did whatever they were trying to do. The cartoon’s narrator regularly points out things that will be important later on.
And today, audiences take all that for granted. We’ve been primed by everything that’s followed in the wake of that era of postmodern literature (I’m reminded in particular of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published four years before Bride), but it took another thirteen years before a studio was willing to sink several million dollars into making a movie of this that would be true to William Goldman’s winking-at-the-audience novel. And while the interruptions and commentary are really kept to the frame story of Peter Falk reading the book to his allegedly sick grandson, the movie adds a heck of a lot that the book couldn’t do that toys with audience’s expectations.
For starters, there’s my absolute favorite swordfight between Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin. That could have gone on another hour and I wouldn’t have been bored. There’s the risky humor of turning Miracle Max into a stereotype greedy Jew, which would be pretty cringeworthy today if Billy Crystal wasn’t playing him. There’s the great gag of the fellow who cleans the torture chamber rasping in a hideous gargle that our hero is in the Pit of Despair before clearing his throat and speaking normally, which seems to have come straight from Monty Python. And certainly nobody, anywhere, was expecting Peter Cook to open his mouth and yell “MAWWIAGE,” except for everybody, everywhere, who knew to sit up straight when Peter Cook shows up. So there, movies can give you things that books can’t.
If movie audiences were just about ready in 1987 for the postmodern fairy tale that they might not have been in 1973, it’s expected by pretty much everything in 2020. So our kid knew just what was going on, jumped right in, sympathizing with the grandson that he’s having to suffer through a story with kissy stuff and waiting to get to something exciting. He loved everything about this, from the now-classic lines to the rude insults, and of course the fighting. He had the biggest laugh when Patinkin’s character finally, after two decades, gets to look in the eyes of the man he’s been tracking and give his immortal line at last, only to have the guy immediately turn and flee.
But, if I may be allowed a moment to brag, I think that I got the best laugh of the morning. I can boast that I had him collapsed in laughter and begging for an encore. I told him that story linked to in the first paragraph, about how Wallace Shawn, in a parallel world, might have been given the opportunity to play Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark. I built up to it well and reminded him of the wine scene between Shawn and Cary Elwes. In what I might humbly claim to be a passable parody of Vizzini, I bellowed “You fool, Man of Steel! Do you seriously think you could possibly trick me into saying Kltpzyxm?!” I didn’t even get as far as saying that would be inconceivable before the kid was doubled over, roaring, and begging me to do it again. No autographs, please…