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THE PRINCESS BRIDE – Mark Knopfler

October 12, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Is there a more beloved, more quotable 1980s movie than The Princess Bride? If we’re talking about pop culture consciousness, then director Rob Reiner’s 1987 romantic-comedy-fantasy-adventure may be the cream of the crop. Based on the novel by William Goldman, the film is basically a story about a grandfather reading to his sick grandson, and the way in which great literature can inspire us, enthrall us, and move us in equal measure. In the film’s framing story, the grandfather (Peter Falk) reads the story of The Princess Bride to his computer game-obsessed grandson (Fred Savage), and the tale unfolds before us: it’s a classic adventure about a handsome and heroic stable boy named Wesley (Cary Elwes), who falls in love with the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright); years later, with Buttercup betrothed to be married to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), Westley must team up with a gang of adventurers to save her.

The amount of classic scenes, classic quotes, and iconic characters in The Princess Bride is seemingly endless. From Westley’s repeated phrase of ‘as you wish’ to tell Buttercup he loves her, to the inconceivable game of wits Westley plays with the Sicilian Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), to Peter Cook’s Impressive Clergyman (“mawwiage…”), and of course Mandy Patinkin’s legendary performance as the flamboyant Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya, who is searching for the man who killed his father, The Princess Bride stands the test of time. It’s a funny, clever, sincere fantasy film with its heart in the right place, and which has rightly gone on to attain cult status in the thirty years since it debuted.

The only – and I do mean the only – thing that doesn’t work about The Princess Bride is it’s score. This is a film that cries out for a traditional, swashbuckling adventure score, of the sort that Erich Wolfgang Korngold used to write. The sweeping romance, the epic adventures, the swordfights and battles; all the ingredients are there. However, instead of commissioning a score like that, Reiner for some reason turned to an unlikely source – the British guitarist and songwriter Mark Knopfler, best known for his work as the front man of the group Dire Straits. Knopfler is an excellent rocker, and many of his songs with Dire Straits are rightly regarded as classics; also, to be fair, Knopfler had dabbled in film prior to scoring The Princess Bride, and had enjoyed a modicum of success in the UK with the scores for Local Hero in 1983 and Cal in 1984. However, with the best will in the world, Knopfler clearly didn’t have the chops to write something as broad and sophisticated as was needed by The Princess Bride, and the end result is a score which feels curiously unfinished, like listening to the unpolished demos prepared prior to the actual recording.

The score is entirely synthesized on keyboards performed by Guy Fletcher, with the only live instruments being guitars (performed by Knopfler), bass (performed by Mickey Feat), and percussion (performed by Errol Bennett and Jamie Lane). The main theme, as heard throughout the score, isn’t even by Knopfler; it’s actually by the late New York punk songwriter Willy De Ville, whose original song “Storybook Love” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1987.

De Ville’s theme is the melodic heart of the score, and is highlighted through beautifully-rendered guitar solos in the opening cue, “Once Upon a Time… Storybook Love,” the subsequent “I Will Never Love Again,” and the conclusive “A Happy Ending.” Pretty synth woodwind textures, harp glissandi, and gauzy washes of sound give these parts of the score a dreamy ambiance of pastoral warmth, a sunny sheen of intimacy and fairytale magic that is quite lovely. Meanwhile, the third cue, “Florin Dance,” is a lively piece of renaissance pastiche enlivened by hand-claps, and is authentic but forgettable.

However, for me, these few cues and the conclusive song are the only parts of the score that work. Everything else, especially in scenes where Knopfler is asked to provide dramatic impetus, emotional heart, or kinetic action, is desperately lacking. I don’t want to sound unkind, but some of Knopfler’s music sounds terribly amateurish, like the noodlings of someone completely out of their depth, floundering around and not knowing what they are doing. Listen to cues such as “Morning Ride,” “The Friends’ Song,” and “Guide My Sword,” specifically in terms of how their superficial prettiness cannot mask how simplistic they are, and how little meat they have on their bones.

Most disappointing of all is the entire middle section of cues, from “The Cliffs of Insanity” through to “Revenge,” all of which sounds thin and under-arranged. Listen to “The Cliffs of Insanity,” in which Westley desperately tries to scale a near-vertical edifice as he pursues his true love; this is tension and drama personified, death defying heroism with the highest stakes. What do we get? Plodding ascending scales that fail to convey any of the emotions inherent in the scene. Listen to “The Swordfight,” which underscores the superb scene between Westley and Inigo Montoya, as they engage in an entertaining duel of flamboyant fencing one-upmanship. The music under this scene should be a nimble dance, as colorful and energetic as the protagonists are, full of orchestral panache, flips and rolls, as first one, then the other gains the upper hand. What do we get? Random and un-focused runs, like the faltering steps of a composer who doesn’t appear to have ven the most basic grasp of rhythm, tempo, or counterpoint.

In his audio commentary of the film on the Princess Bride Special Edition DVD, director Rob Reiner said that only Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits could create a soundtrack to capture the film’s quirky yet romantic nature. I couldn’t disagree more; I could name 50 composers who were working in Hollywood in 1987 who could have captured the film’s quirky yet romantic nature, and done it with a great deal more style, orchestral musicianship, dramatic flair, and emotional depth than Knopfler brought to bear. It’s such a shame, because as good as the film itself is, the potential for it to have a classic score was enormous. Willy De Ville’s song aside, the music for The Princess Bride is a missed opportunity of the highest order; in fact, from where I sit, it’s inconceivable that Knopfler’s music remains as beloved as it is. And, yes, I know I keep using that word. It does mean what I think it means.

Buy the Princess Bride soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Once Upon a Time… Storybook Love (4:00)
  • I Will Never Love Again (3:04)
  • Florin Dance (1:32)
  • Morning Ride (1:36)
  • The Friends’ Song (3:02)
  • The Cliffs of Insanity (3:18)
  • The Swordfight (2:43)
  • Guide My Sword (5:11)
  • The Fireswamp and the Rodents of Unusual Size (4:47)
  • Revenge (3:51)
  • A Happy Ending (1:52)
  • Storybook Love (written and performed by Willy DeVille) (4:24)

Running Time: 39 minutes 20 seconds

Warmer Bros./Vertigo 9-25610-2 (1987)

Music composed by Mark Knopfler. Performed by Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher. Additional musical soloists Errol Bennett, Mickey Feat and Jamie Lane. Recorded and mixed by Bill Schnee and Marc de Sisto. Edited by Michael Dittrick. Album produced by Mark Knopfler.

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