It is hard to believe that the film The Princess Bride is now 30 years old. For its anniversary, it will have a return to the big screen, with show-times across the country in mid-October. After numerous failed attempts to secure a movie deal, William Goldman’s story—he wrote the screenplay as well as the original story—finally made the transition to film, in 1987, directed by Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Sure Thing), who masterfully identified a perfect cast. Not a huge box office success in its initial release, the film has become a cult hit. With a combination terrific characters (and performances by actors well suited to their roles), memorable, witty dialogue (few films are as quotable), and a credible romance at its core, The Princess Bride holds up remarkably well.
It is a love story of a beautiful young woman, Buttercup (Robin Wright), and a farm boy, Westley (Cary Elwes), the two of whom vow fidelity to one another. To her every request, he responds, “As you wish,” which—the narrator informs us—means, “I love you.” But the impecunious Westley cannot afford to marry her, so he goes off in search of fortune. In his absence, the local Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), whose status means he can choose his own bride, selects Buttercup. Then, three men kidnap her: the crafty Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the gigantic and gentle Fezzik (Andre the Giant), and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin).
It turns out that only Vizzini means harm. But, like all the villains in this fantasy world, he overestimates his talents. Early in the film, Vizzini, who fancies himself a genius, responds to each surprising turn of fate, with a sharply uttered: “Inconceivable.” Inigo says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Vizzini’s boasting reaches a peak—and signals his imminent doom—when he proclaims to Westley: “Have you heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!”
The plot consists in a series of chase scenes, interrupted by duels—the latter as much an occasion for displays of verbal dexterity as for swordplay. The demonstration of verbal skill is a mark of virtue. Those incapable of adroit conversation are vicious and take refuge in sullen edicts (Humperdinck) or in bullying rants (Vizzini). Witty exchange is not just a sign of intelligence; in pithy give-and-take with others, interlocutors comes to appreciate one another and remain open to the possibility that an apparent enemy could become a friend.
Just as is the case in so many classic American romantic comedies of the 1940s and 1950s, so too here verbal repartee pits the lovers against one another, tests them, and finally unites them. The lovers in this case are also tested by encounters with shrieking eels, the Fire Swamp, the Pit of Despair, and the Cliffs of Insanity.
The various ways in which the plot separates the lovers from another and tempts them to suspicion and jealousy of one another afford the couple numerous opportunities to exit the relationship. True love must be maximally free—a point made with some subtlety after Humperdinck and Buttercup’s botched wedding ceremony, led by the memorable priest who begins by shouting: “Mawwage.” Because the priest has pronounced the pair man and wife, Buttercup fears she is irrevocably bound to Humperdinck. But Westley, who surprises her in her bedchamber as she is about to commit suicide, clarifies matters: “Did you say, ‘I do?’ If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.”
If the primary quest of the film is for true love, the secondary quest is for justice. It involves Inigo Montoya, whose life is consumed, Hamlet-like, with avenging his father’s murder and freeing his soul to rest in peace. He seeks to find the culprit and pronounce these words: “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” Having rehearsed that line and the ensuing act of vengeance for many years, Inigo’s actual confrontation with the murderer underscores the limits to justice. With the target in his grasp, he taunts the murderer, who tries to bargain with Inigo. Finally, when the murderer says he will offer him anything he wants, Inigo responds, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and runs him through with his sword. Although he can avenge his father’s death, he cannot perfectly restore justice—that is, he cannot bring back what has been lost.
These storylines captivate and entertain in ways that appeal to adults as well as children. Framed by a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a story to his ill grandson (a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage), the opening of The Princess Bride has the grandfather coaxing his grandson away from the isolated activity of playing a video game and into the richly imaginative and social experience of listening to a story being read from a book. The structure, which moves back and forth between the story itself and the response of the grandson to the story, risks distraction, yet it works well, as the boy’s comments heighten the audience’s own growing involvement in the tale.
The boy is at first indifferent, even irritated at the romantic parts (“Is this a kissing book?!”). Then, as he begins to identify with the plight of the couple, his interest is piqued. Fearing the defeat of the love of Buttercup and Westley, the boy objects, “If she doesn’t marry him, it wouldn’t be fair.” To which his grandfather responds, “Who says life is fair?” As if to build up further his grandson’s interest, the grandfather at one point expresses concern that he is taking the story too seriously and perhaps they ought to stop.
The device of a story-within-a-story and of second-order commentary on the story renders the film highly self-conscious. Such self-conscious irony is also palpable in the way characters engage in banter in the midst of threats to life and love. But this is not the cold, detached irony that has become pervasive in our popular culture in the years since the release of The Princess Bride. Instead, it is a playful irony in which characters alternate between self-deprecation and self-revelation. It is the irony of classical comedy, which—even as it immerses us in plot lines that threaten to thwart our most fundamental desires for love and justice—winks knowingly at the audience as if to say, “Trust us. Things might look awful, but all shall be well.”
Thirty years on, all is indeed well with this delightful romantic comedy. Like the young boy at the end, who asks his grandfather to come back tomorrow to read the story again, viewers will continue to welcome viewings of The Princess Bride.