Review Date: 6-23-09
Release Date: 9-25-87
Runtime: 98 min.
Period: period-non-period, vaguely 14th – 16th century
Costume Designer: Phyllis Dalton
So, when Maggie and I were talking about the next review we might do together, we went back and forth about which film we should choose. My taste in film is different (darker, bloodier and more violent) than Maggie’s, but certainly there are some common denominators. When Maggie suggested The Princess Bride, I quickly accepted. Because, like Inigo Montoya says to Westley during their swordfight, “I know something you don’t know – I am not left-handed!”
What Maggie doesn’t know is that I wrote my college thesis on The Princess Bride.
Now I am not going to sit here and bore you for thirty pages, comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to The Princess Bride, in French, but I will tell you a funny story about it. The film is based on a 1973 novel by Academy-Award-winning writer William Goldman, who eventually wrote the screenplay for the 1987 movie. In doing my literary comparison, I studied the book as well as the film. Both reference the fairytale The Princess Bride, written by S. Morgenstern. The references to Morgenstern are elaborate (talking about getting permission from his estate to use the material, etc), and frequent.
Since I am a million years old, and I went to college before the days of the internet, laptops, even laser printers, I set off on a search to find the original book by S. Morgenstern. I called every bookstore. I searched every library. I called every antiquarian bookstore in this country, and no one had a copy of the original S. Morgenstern book. None of these experts even knew where else to look for the book. And to add insult to injury, no one had ever heard of the author S. Morgenstern. With a few days left before I had to turn in my thesis, I was in a real jam.
Desperate, I called William Goldman’s agents in Los Angeles. I explained my situation to them, and asked if there was any way to get in touch with him, as I had a deadline. Incredibly, they agreed to help me. Mr. Goldman was in Ireland, on location with the film Far and Away, but they gave me a phone number, and I left a message for him with the production secretary. Side note: Goldman is not credited with any of the writing for Far and Away, but I can attest that he was there.
The next evening, William Goldman, THE William Goldman, called me back. I was kind of speechless, but with only forty-eight hours before my deadline, I was starting to panic. I needed the original S. Morgenstern book in order to do the accurate comparison – did he know where I could find it?
There was a long silence on the phone. And then he said, “Oh honey. There IS no S. Morgenstern. I made him up!” And I think my knees gave out from underneath me.
I had fallen for the oldest trick in the book: my own imagination and gullibility. In the forty-seven hours that followed, I wrote in great detail about the suspension of disbelief that we experience when we engage in a story. How we learn to do this as children, and how we think (once we become educated, intellectually-savvy adults) we grow out of it. But the truth is, if we are lucky, we never actually do grow out of it. Fairy tales and legends stay with us as murky truths. Our imagination becomes a part of our truth, whether you lived centuries ago and believed the King Arthur/Sir Gawain myths, or whether you live today, and believe the S. Morgenstern myth. These myths become a part of your truth and your experience.
Needless to say, my professor (whom I had displeased greatly by proving him wrong, in front of the class, in an examination and analysis of the costumes of All That Jazz – a story for another time, but I owe a debt to Albert Wolsky) was not amused by my less-than-academic, sociological approach. Did he care that I had gone the distance to contact the award-winning writer? No. Was he moved that I uncovered what was, for me, an epiphany? No. He was forever mad at me for presenting a letter from Albert Wolsky to the class that proved him wrong. And so he gave me a C- for the class, a grade I certainly did not deserve. Sometimes the ivory tower is a lonely, prideful, soul-crushing place.
In any case, I have never had the chance to thank Mr. Goldman for his kindness in helping me arrive at this understanding. If any of you know him, please pass along my sincere gratitude. The epiphany about imagination as truth has stayed with me and shaped my work from that point forward.
So, about the costumes in this fine film. It’s interesting. This is a period film in which the period is very, very muddy. It’s not exactly mediaeval. It’s kind of non-specific Renaissance-ish. And the country, Florin (by the way, totally made-up, fake! I searched antique maps for a week looking for Gat Damm Florin or Guilder) does not give us an exact location from which to derive historical fashion influences. This is a film that takes place in the “olden days” and never stops to be specific about it. Essentially, director Rob Reiner and costume designer Phyllis Dalton were free to create their own storybook reality, in terms of the costumes, sets, props, scenic details, and so forth.
With a blank slate, the possibilities are endless. Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) transitions from farm girl to unwilling princess-bride-to-be, to hostage, back to unwilling bride. The costumes illustrate her journey using color, fabric and texture.
Stage one: farm girl. Buttercup wears slubby fabrics, natural fibers (looks like flax/linen, raw silk, woolens, cotton) in colors that are rather muddled. Everything looks hand-dyed, using natural earth tones, as would be appropriate for the “period”.
Stage two: the bride-to-be is paraded in front of the village. This is a pale pink gown in fine fabric (it has the luster of silk taffeta). Buttercup wears a gold, jewel-encrusted cap, a pearl choker necklace, and a grim scowl. She is miserable.
Stage three: Buttercup rides on her horse, is kidnapped, rescued and taken away by Prince Humperdinck. This is the red dress with cartridge-pleated sleeves, with a gold jeweled belt. She also wears tiny gold stud earrings, a gold open-weave metallic cap, and red boots that match the color of the dress so perfectly; you never, EVER notice them. The fabric of the dress looks to me to have the drape of raw silk. During her scenes in this dress, she performs many stunts, so they probably made twenty of them.
Stage four: Buttercup is imprisoned in the castle, awaiting the wedding, and is eventually saved by Westley. Costumes in this stage include a white nightgown with light blue robe, a pink taffeta and brocade gown, a light blue taffeta gown with long white silk sleeves, and finally the bridal gown, a burnout silk velvet gown in either very pale blue or grey. At the wedding, she wears a beautiful silver crown and a pearl choker. She continues to be totally miserable.
It should be noted that the construction of these Buttercup costumes is exquisite. All of her garments (all of them!) lace up in back, conspicuously pointing to period detail. Phyllis Dalton is a thrice nominated, two-time Academy-Award-winning designer (Dr. Zhivago, Henry V), and it seems impossible that she could ever do less than a thorough, beautiful job. Based in the UK, where the film was shot, she would have had her A-team, and all of her vendors, at her disposal. No stone was left unturned here.
As I interpret the Buttercup costumes, I think the use of color speaks volumes. Farm girl: natural color. Princess Bride: pastels. Riding her horse: red, the object of desire. The transition between naturalness and pastel is Buttercup’s transition from freedom to imprisonment. It seems counterintuitive to think of pastels as colors of prison, but in Buttercup’s reality, they are. It makes the choice of the color red for her “hostage” costume even more interesting.
Prince Humperdinck, when addressing the village and introducing princess Buttercup, wears red. Could it be his “official” color – the color he wears when addressing his people? So then, when Buttercup goes off to the forest riding, wearing the same color (which no one else wears in the film), and is taken hostage, that it’s all of Florin being taken hostage with her? Or is the use of red in this costume leaning more toward the general symbolism of the color: desire, passion, blood? I think it could be a clever combination of all of those ideas.
When Buttercup is taken back to the castle, she is thrown back into her prison of taffeta, pearls and pastels. It’s pretty interesting to see how they could make taffeta and pearls undesirable. Robin Wright Penn’s performance sells it, without question.
As far as the Westley costumes go – he really has two looks: farm boy, and the masked man (Dread Pirate Roberts). As the farm boy, his costume echoes Buttercup’s in texture and color. Everything looks natural and homespun. His colors are earthy and hand dyed. As the Dread Pirate Roberts, he conjures Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk with his pencil moustache, billowing black shirt with puffy sleeves, loosely laced up at the chest, tight black pants, cuffed boots, gauntlet gloves, all in black. The mask is a Zorro nod, but it helps keep up the flimsy disguise. I can’t stop thinking about how much a Douglas Fairbanks/Tyrone Power/Errol Flynn tribute the costume (and the character) actually is. The funny thing is that Errol Flynn went on to play Robin Hood in the eponymous big-screen epic of 1938. Cary Elwes went on to play Robin Hood in Men in Tights (1993). He really nailed Flynn’s energy.
The contrast in Westley’s character (going from soft, natural fibers to solid, swashbuckling black) is significant – just as significant as Buttercup’s earthy-to-pastels transition. It is a total change in the way the two characters are perceived by others. As the Dread Pirate Roberts, Westley evokes fear. As Princess Buttercup, she evokes reverence. The costume tells the outside world how to feel about these characters, while the characters are essentially the same souls inside.
The trio: Vizzini, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya, are perfectly realized. Movie magic generally comes in the form of threes. I know it sounds far-fetched, but there is a formula to filmmaking. It’s not just restricted to filmmaking, either; you see it all the time in literature. Think about the three bears: Goldilocks tries one bed; it’s too hard. The second bed: too soft. The third bed: perfect. Many script elements come in threes – whether it’s three trials before the successful effort (as in Goldilocks’ case) or three people working together to solve a problem (Three Amigos, The Mod Squad, Charlie’s Angels, Three Little Pigs, Three Stooges, Three Blind Mice, and even if you stretch it to what some people consider the most sacred literature: Father, Son & Holy Ghost). The concept of “the trio” follows storytelling’s most fail proof formula.
In the case of The Princess Bride, the different body types of Vizzini (short, round, bald), Fezzik (Seven feet tall, 525 pounds, frizzy hair), and Inigo (slender, fit, medium-height, and shoulder-length black hair) present perfect clay from which to mold these characters and their costumes. They only have one costume change each, so it makes the defining of those characters much easier.
Vizzini: thick, embellished, earth-toned, striped doublet with dark pants. Fezzik: slubby grey lace-up neck tunic, thick leather belt, striped pants and red boots. Inigo: tan linen lace-up neck tunic, brown vest, leather belt, and leather pants. Their colors blend beautifully and their physicality sets them apart. It’s textbook “trio” costuming – their silhouettes are articulated perfectly, and their colors blend beautifully, to seal them as a “unit”. These are iconic costumes!
Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen are also beautifully designed – luxurious fabrics drape perfectly, and set them apart from the “commoners”. The Impressive Clergyman is exactly that – his vestment is exquisite, ornate and embellished with gold. It’s so over-the-top; it’s hilarious. The Albino might be one of my favorite costumes – it’s sad, droopy, grey, lifeless. It’s hard to see the details of this costume in the film, but in the scene where he encounters Fezzik and Inigo in the forest, you can see the whole thing. It’s dreadful, and by that, I mean good-dreadful.
It is also worth mentioning the contemporary aspect of the film, the Grandpa and Grandson roles. The sick young boy is dressed in a new Chicago Bears jersey. As I understand it, this part of the film was to have taken place in Evanston, Illinois – a curious detail because that is precisely the location where I went to college and had to write my thesis paper. The Grandpa is costumed in clothing from another era – overcoat, fedora, grey cardigan sweater, skinny tie. He is obviously behind the times and hasn’t purchased any new clothes in a long time; he’s a relic and that’s perhaps why the grandson isn’t looking forward to spending time with him. It’s a nice touch from the costume team to imbue the characters with this built-in dynamic.
I could go on for days about this film, but I will save you the experience. The Princess Bride is a film that I have seen easily twenty or thirty times. It never gets old, and it always sends me over the edge with laughter. As Vizzini, Wallace Shawn delivers some of the best lines ever committed to celluloid. What am I saying; they all do. I’d like to thank Mr. Goldman for writing this beautiful script, one that has kept me in stitches for so many years. It is so clever, sweet and funny. It’s a true cinematic treasure; one that the entire family can enjoy.