Ought to be a no-brainer, right? Apparently less so than I thought.
I went to a 30th anniversary screening of The Princess Bride the other night. It was organised by a local political figure, and the film played on a small dropdown screen in a space above a sports facility. Nevertheless, the room was full — perhaps eighty people? And more interestingly, when asked for a show of hands to discover who had not seen the film before, nearly half the room put hands in the air.
We watched the film. (Also, those of us there from the Stoccata School of Defense put on a limited display of broadsword fighting after the manner of George Silver… which was fun, and seemed to make the audience happy. Nothing like the clash of steel to enliven the evening!) And yes, it’s thirty years old — but it was pretty cool to hear that audience laughing in all the right places, appreciating the lines and the action. Made me feel warm. Or maybe that was just the weather, and the gin-and-tonic they gave us swordslingers to say thanks for the attack on the hanging light fixtures.
Do you know The Princess Bride? If not, stop reading now. Just go watch the film. You can read other reviews if you like. I don’t care. But I don’t want to spoil what ought to be a magic experience. I’d have hated it if someone had spoiled it for me, after all. How much do I like this film? Well, there are three movies I watch every year simply because I find myself wanting to do so. They are the director’s cut of Blade Runner; Casablanca, and yes, The Princess Bride.
So why do I like a thirty-year-old film so much? Well, it’s not that complicated. It’s a kind, warmhearted, funny film with gorgeous characters which delivers perfectly on what’s advertised: action, adventure, romance, swordfights, treachery, torture, true love…
It works in a simple way. The story is framed by another story: an ageing grandfather (Peter Falk) turns up to read a story to his home-and-unwell grandson (Fred Savage). Grandson is initially reluctant: he likes video games and sports, doesn’t like books, and particularly dislikes all the kissing stuff. But as Grandfather reads the story, Grandson is gradually drawn in until finally he’s as much in love with the tale as the rest of us are.
This framing mechanism allows just enough distance from the story for the viewers to accept something very powerful: the gentle and ironic deconstruction of a whole raft of classic cliches and tropes from adventure and romance films. The characters are not aware of this, mind you. It’s the story, and the book — only the “good bits” have been left in by the original (fictious) writer, S. Morganstern. (William Goldman wrote both the book and the screenplay.) Thus we can skip from kidnapping to swordfight to adventures in the Fire Swamp without missing a beat — but at the same time, the characters are allowed to shine through, and become more than the roles they must enact.
Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), the famously revenge-obsessed Spaniard is at heart a kind man, and a devoted friend to the huge but equally kind and gentle giant Fezzik (Andre “The Giant” Roussimoff) — a man hired for his size and strength in battle, who loves nothing more than childish rhymes. Evil Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) who scientifically tortures the hero of the piece also piously wishes his friend and employer the cowardly Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) the best of health, because “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) demands a ‘noble cause’ to revive mostly-dead Westley (Cary Elwes), but leaps gleefully into action when he discovers that bringing back Westley will lead to ‘humiliations galore’ for Prince Humperdinck.
All the characters get their moments — even the nasty ones (who are satisfyingly nasty, but still wonderfully human.) And those moments come with an incredible raft of quotable lines. I know many films that people like to quote, but The Princess Bride may be the only film I have ever seen where pretty much every character who gets a line also gets to say something funny and memorable.
This ironic deconstruction of classic cliches and tropes — well, thirty years ago it was pretty much unheard of. (Unless you saw director Rob Reiner’s almost-as-cult-friendly ‘mockumentary’ This Is Spinal Tap.) Movies either embodied and embraced those cliches and tropes, or they pulled away from them. Watching a movie that both embraced them, yet simultaneously made fun of them for being so well-worn — that was a revelation. But here’s the sad thing: that was then. This is now.
Small children still appreciate The Princess Bride. The irony goes past them, and they don’t care. Older adults enjoy it too. But younger adult types and older children, growing up in an era saturated by media and mockery — the gentle humour of The Princess Bride does not reach them so well. And I’m sorry for them.
I can understand it, of course. By now, the cliches and tropes have been mocked so thoroughly that even the mockery has become dull and repetitive. (Your Highness, I’m looking at you.) How can you really feel the humour in an eyebrow lifted with perfect timing if your culture now delivers ‘humour’ with a cream-pie cannon on autofire?
That’s okay. I introduced the film to my kids at the right time, and I have plenty of friends who also ‘get it’. And that’s cool, because there’s one more thing about the film which I adore — it’ theme.
The one cliche that doesn’t get skewered in The Princess Bride is the oldest and hoariest of all: “True Love”. Buttercup (yes, that’s the female lead’s name! Played by Robin Wright.) and Westley and everybody else in the film deliver lines about ‘true love’ with the straightest of faces and the stiffest of upper lips, and the film is allowed to deliver the proper and traditional payoff. Again, it’s the framing that matters. Young Grandson begins the story with the proper eight-year-old revulsion for all things romantic — but by the end, he wants to hear about Buttercup and Westley’s kiss just for the satisfaction and the closure; just to know that things end properly for them. And by that stage, so do we all.
Love is championed by the film at every step, and not simply in the romantic sense. The friendship between Fezzik and Inigo supports them both, and the friendship that develops between all four of the protagonists (surely we must give Fezzik and Inigo that status!) is built on risk and trust and respect, and rewards them all. Best of all, at the very end of the film Grandson sheepishly asks Grandfather if perhaps he might come back and read the story again the next day — to which Grandfather answers only: “As you wish,” which in the language of The Princess Bride means the truest of true love. And so the final cliche is embraced and simultaneously subverted, and the credits roll, and if you have anything left unwithered in the space where you used to keep your soul, you too will smile, and cheer, and look around for people that you love.
I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing more I would ask of a movie.