The Princess Bride: Let Me Sum Up

The Princess Bride: Let Me Sum Up

On Film / Essays — Oct 30, 2018

There are certain films that one must first be exposed to as a child in order to still enjoy as an adult. Take Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. A timeless classic, but not necessarily one that glues itself to the imagination in adulthood. Or Clue, a movie that seeps into the comic DNA at age thirteen (“Mr. Body’s body!”—is that witty or what?) but becomes almost gratingly over-the-top to the grown-up ear. Before revisiting The Princess Bride, I worried it would fall into this category of film. It’s not that I suspected it wouldn’t “hold up”—it’s a whip-smart, widely beloved film, not some obscure Luke Perry vehicle I stumbled upon in the wrong sleeve at Blockbuster in 1993. But it had been a while. My concern was that after I rewatched it as an adult, I would find it had somehow been demoted to a less magical place in my memory. Because The Princess Bride does warrant the word magical. This is a movie in which the central action is Peter Falk reading a book.

Like many American children of the late eighties, I cannot count how many times I’ve seen The Princess Bride. Even the addition of a sixth finger on my right hand would not speed the process. For my generation, this is not just a movie; it’s a facet of our adolescence and a building block of our world-view. To call the movie influential, personally or culturally, would be an understatement. It’s why I know the words putrescence (real) and hippopotamic (real) and blave (fake). It’s how I first learned about hydraulics and hangovers (though the idea that Inigo was once so drunk he “couldn’t buy brandy” made zero sense to me as a kid and makes only marginally more sense to me as an adult). It’s where I heard the only pickup line worth deploying: “Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.” It’s why people of a certain demographic don’t get married, they get “MAH-weed.” It had a palpable effect inside Hollywood as well. The film’s opening—a tight shot on a screen showing a video game (being played by Fred Savage, as a young kid home sick from school)—would be replicated in the more commercially successful Big less than a year after The Princess Bride’s release. The Princess Bride may have had a lackluster opening in theaters in 1987, but by the early nineties it had become something of a VHS phenomenon. And now? It is a statistical fact that every twenty seconds, someone in America is instructed to “have fun storming the castle.”

In addition to The Princess Bride’s more obvious charms—the satirical humor, the range of insults, the perpetually windblown blonds, the Billy Crystal and Carol Kane cameos of the century—it manages to extract the exact tone and structure of William Goldman’s novel and put it onto the screen, like one of those little New England houses that gets airlifted and dropped onto the roof of a New York City apartment building (yes, this happens). With most adaptations, a few screws come loose in the process. But Goldman’s script and Rob Reiner’s direction of this story within a story are so adroit, one can only cringe at the idea of the material in anyone else’s hands. The tale of Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright) and their madcap medieval adventures is like a universal blood type, embraced by theater geeks, cool kids, romantics, loners, and artists. “Something for everyone” is not always a good selling point—not for viewers who fancy themselves as having tailored taste—yet who wouldn’t love The Princess Bride? Only a miserable, vomitous mass, that’s who.

My question was, could I go back and see it now as purely as I once had? Could I sink back into the world as one does into lightning sand? Could I still accept Buttercup as a plausible name for a human being? Now that I tell my own stories for a living, I am perhaps too aware of how the mutton gets made. Thus, in order to preserve my own magical impressions of The Princess Bride, I decided I needed some insurance. So I took a note from the matryoshka structure of the film itself . . . and borrowed a child with whom to share the story. 

The movie happens to be the favorite of my niece, Zoe. For her eighth birthday, she decided to have a Princess Bride–themed party, complete with “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” name tags. Having been introduced to The Princess Bride by her mother (my older sister), Zoe is now spreading the gospel to a new generation of would-be fencers. Thus, on a bright spring afternoon, I took the train from Manhattan to suburban New Jersey. I met Zoe after school, and we walked to my sister’s house, where our entertainment was cued up and ready to go.

Me: So I thought I’d shamelessly use my adorable niece for this. But since I couldn’t find her, I guess you’ll do.

Zoe: Very funny.

Me: Did your mom tell you about what I’m doing?

Zoe: Yeah, she said you’re writing about The Princess Bride.

Me: But did she tell you why I want to watch it with you?

Zoe: Because it will be fun.

Me: That’s presumptuous. 

Zoe: What’s that mean?

Me: It means you don’t know for sure if it will be fun.

Zoe: It will definitely be fun! It’s the best movie. 

Me: Well, I’m also curious how you would recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen it a billion times.

Zoe: Hmmm. I would say that if you like revenge and fencing and true love and miracles, you’ll like this. But if you don’t, you probably won’t. 

Me: Fair. Hit it.

I had assumed Zoe would have a moonier take on the movie than I would, seeing as how our sensibilities should be thirty years apart. As it turned out, her precociousness and my immaturity met pretty squarely in the middle. My favorite bit of dialogue is an underheralded line that comes right at the beginning, when Peter Falk as the grandfather reads the story of how Westley’s ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts. His grandson, thirsty for some macho story elements, says, “Murdered by pirates is good.” To me, it’s a comedic cue-ball break, setting the tone for all the humor that follows. Zoe laughed out loud too. When I asked her for her favorite line, she thought for a second and replied, “Hahaha. Hahahahaha. Hahahahahaha,” and then pretended to fall off the sofa. The Sicilian criminal mastermind Vizzini dying midlaugh is indeed the most famous piece of slapstick in the film, and surely the first image people under forty-five conjure when they think of Wallace Shawn. But her selection did not betray a general lack of nuance. Apparently, my niece is a Princess Bride sharpshooter. If anyone’s innocence bubble was in danger of bursting, it was mine.

When we’re told that, for days, Buttercup “neither slept nor ate”:

Zoe: Wouldn’t you die if you didn’t sleep or eat?

Me: I think you can survive on just water for, like, twenty days.

Zoe: But she can’t even fetch her own pitcher of water.

When Westley approaches Vizzini, who has a knife to Buttercup’s throat:

Zoe: Why are there apples and cheese? There’s a whole picnic!

Me: Maybe they’re poisoned too.

Zoe: But Westley has the iocane powder. Unless he got there first?

Me: I don’t think so, actually. He’s following them.

Zoe: Well, then, it doesn’t make sense.

On the eve of the wedding between Buttercup and Prince Humperdinck, in Humperdinck’s office:

Zoe: Why is he sharpening a knife if he plans on strangling her?

Me: Maybe it’s a letter opener.

Zoe: No way. And why does Humperdinck say that guy should “try ruling the world sometime” when he doesn’t even rule the world?

Me: He just thinks he does. That happens.

After the elaboration of the mutilation to befall Humperdinck in a sword fight with Westley:

Zoe: They say his ears would stay perfect, but they’d probably be pretty scratched up.

Me: Westley’s accurate with a sword when he has his strength.

Zoe: No, they’d be scratched up.

Upon the coating of the miracle pill in chocolate:

Zoe: Miracle Max is retired. Would they have that much chocolate around? They would have probably eaten it themselves by now.

Me: Maybe they’re allergic to chocolate.

Zoe: Both of them?

Me: Do you even like this movie?

Zoe: Yes . . . It’s only that nothing that happens can actually happen.

She is only mostly correct. 

Most of the movie cannot actually happen. Nature does not allow for the existence of a fire swamp or the reanimation of the dead or tree-accessed torture chambers. And while true love is real, it’s not real as it’s presented here. Even as a kid, I think I knew that. The coded “as you wish” (“That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish,’ what he meant was ‘I love you’”) spoke to me as someone who was already starting to read into what it meant when a boy lent me a pen in class, but beyond that, I found Westley and Buttercup’s relationship about as intriguing as Zoe does now. It may have been featured on the poster art, but it’s not the selling point. If there is a lesson to be learned from revisiting The Princess Bride, it’s this: I do not think this movie is about what we think it’s about. 

It’s allegedly about true (romantic) love—a blatant satire of its clichéd depiction, but still about it. The noblest cause. The most unbreakable bond. But we never actually witness Westley and Buttercup’s romance, because it never actually happens, any more than her marriage to Humperdinck ever actually happens. These two haven’t communicated with each other in five years, and they were barely an item before that. Throughout the entire adrenaline-fueled adventure, Buttercup is a semi-helpless doofus who has 1.5 moments of chutzpah but is otherwise the kind of person who allows herself to be subjected to a Vulcan death grip. Meanwhile, Westley gets all the good lines of their relationship (“I’m not saying I’d like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely”; “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours”). He’s got that post-piratey glow (combined with undiagnosed PTSD from having his life threatened every night for years). Are we meant to believe that after Westley and Buttercup ride off on their white horses, Westley reverts to being a farm boy? I don’t think so. Plus, if Buttercup can’t so much as club an R.O.U.S. over the head while her true love is being mauled, she doesn’t seem like she’d be good at pulling her weight in any other arena I can think of. 

All of this should matter. And yet none of it matters. Because that relationship is just a host for the film’s rightful soul, which is about love, but not the romantic kind. The most moving pair here is Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (André the Giant), who have each other’s backs from the start (when Fezzik is chastised by Vizzini, Inigo comforts his friend through rhyme). It’s their bond that builds to the most affecting moment of the film. This takes place in the Thieves’ Forest, when Fezzik plucks up an inebriated Inigo by the collar. Inigo touches the familiar-looking meaty hands as his gaze travels up to meet Fezzik’s face. “It’s you,” he whispers.

Zoe: I like the friendship between Inigo and Fezzik and kind of Westley. Especially at the end. But the stuff with those guys is the funniest. The stuff about friendship. 

Me: Like what stuff?

Zoe: Like the stuff about them being a team.

Me: Is that what makes a good friend?

Zoe: I think so. Nursing your friend back to health. Or planning things with your friend. Or, like, breaking down a door for your friend so they can kill someone.

Friendship—loyal, ribbing, hard-won, true—can actually happen. Kids of all ages know this. It may play out differently in real life—perhaps “breaking down a door for your friend so they can kill someone” takes the form of helping a friend move apartments or reporting on the whereabouts of his or her ex upon request—but friendships of this nature have more wherewithal than Westley and Buttercup’s relationship. The Inigo/Fezzik (“and kind of Westley”) dynamic is responsible for the magic in The Princess Bride that crosses generations. Here are outsiders who band together. Here are reminders that life is less about perfect romances between perfect people than it is about imperfect friendships with imperfect people. 

At the end of The Princess Bride the book, after our heroes have all safely ridden off into the sunset, Goldman writes: “I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” This is the other way in which Zoe’s assessment about the realism of the material is both right and wrong. Like life itself, The Princess Bride is ridiculous on the outside but contains much truth on the inside. The movie is a miracle pill. Buried in the farce is a heartfelt and sincere worldview, one that knows pure magic can actually happen, no matter your age.

Me: You were right, that was fun.

Zoe: Can we go outside and jump on the trampoline now?

Me: Okay, but don’t break your face. Your mom will kill me.

Zoe: As you wish.

Me: That’s my line.

Zoe: No, it’s not.

Me: Yes, it is.

Zoe: No, it’s not.

Me: We can’t go on like this.

Zoe: Yes, we can.