Movie Review Roulette #5: The Princess Bride, in 5 quotes
Sorry for taking so long with this (especially you, Nicole). The Princess Bride is one of the most quotable of films. Its wonderful dialogue needs to take the center stage of any look back at it. So I give you my review of one of my favorite films, inspired by its own words.
Is this a kissing book? You bet your bedridden ass, kid. This is a kissing movie based on a kissing book and by god, there will be kissing. And the romance is one of the reasons this movie holds up so well. For all its tomfoolery and silliness, The Princess Bride never gives in to the temptation to be a full-blown farce. This could have worked as a Mel Brooks-style celebration of vulgarity or even a Shrek-style sendup of the fantasy genre. But underneath the humor, The Princess Bride never views its story as a joke, least of all the love story.
The romance between Westley and Buttercup is delivered with the starry-eyed earnestness of Robin Hood courting Maid Marion. It would be easy to dismiss as maudlin, but instead it’s a confection, a welcome dose of sweetness that reminds us that the movie has enough self-awareness to both tease its material and embrace it with open arms.
I love when movies are unpredictable and challenging. But predictability needn’t be a pejorative. At times, we simply want and need to be entertained, and great entertainments are an art form unto their own. Sometimes, we just need a movie to give us what we want. When I see films that bore me to tears with mindless sequences of movement passing for action, thrusting characters on screen and expecting me to care about them without once giving me a reason to, I think of The Princess Bride.
Here is a movie that gives us, not just what we want, but what we didn’t expect to want and yet quickly grow to love. It’s like a surprise birthday party planned by a friend who knows you better than anyone else. Of course we expect sword fights, revenge, and stormed castles. But what we really love are this take on those things. This story could have been told any number of ways while attempting to cater to the masses and featuring none of this movie’s charm. The story wants to please. The characters and the dialogue, however, aren’t content to stop there. They want to be remembered.
The best comedy is well aware about how much life can suck. Some days you’re just going out on a voyage to make some quick dough and boom, the most feared pirate in the world captures you. Great comedy often ventures into dark places just to find the light again, because comedy is rooted in truth, the truth isn’t always good, and good always feels that much better when been through worked hard times to get it.
“The Princess Bride” embraces its more mature material, which often playfully dances just off the edge of good taste. There is some PG-level violence, but far more memorable are Westley’s threats of violence towards Humperdinck are so beautifully gruesome that “to the pain” conjures the exact same imagine in everyone’s mind, even though we never actually see what it means. Westley is tortured until he is (mostly) dead, but the procedure itself is bloodless. Still, he screams in agony. So loud, the entire kingdom can hear him, and Inigo Montoya can identify his scream entirely from the purity of its anguish (“My heart made that sound when the Six-Fingered Man killed my father; the Man in Black makes it now”). It’s that kind of movie. It digs up some dark material for its story and then mines every last bit for potential jokes.
I dislike the word “witty” as it is typically used to describe films. It’s usually used to describe speed of dialogue more than humor. Wit is far more than that; it’s the speed of critical thought and the execution of a perfect verbal delivery of that thought. The battle of wits scene is both a beautiful parody of this concept, and in being that, a demonstration of wit as well. Vezzini is nowhere near as intelligent as he makes himself out to be, something both Inigo and Westley figure out rather quickly.
And yet what he lacks in critical thinking skills, he makes up for in his ability to overstate those skills hilariously. Westley playing along, clearly three steps ahead of his adversary? Another beautiful example of the script’s wit and Cary Elwe’s wonderfully deadpan performance. It would have been funny for this scene to be a genuine battle of wits. For it to take a farcical approach was braver, and funnier, and significantly more memorable. More than that, it shows what fun the movie is having scene after scene. Nothing in this scene is dictated by the requirements of the plot. There’s an almost episodic quality to the film that adds greatly to its sense of fun. It’s like (director) Rob Reiner sized up every scene on its own terms and thought “what kind of fun can we have with this?”
If The Princess Bride was all parody, it would not be as beloved as it is. One of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a rare film that captures that sense of losing myself in my imagination as a child. Films rarely achieve that sensation. Hayao Miyazaki does it effortlessly. Guillermo Del Toro as well. Films like Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and the fantasy sequences of Pan’s Labyrinth pulse with childlike exuberance at the limitless possibilities for fun in the worlds they inhabit.
The Princess Bride is aware of the tropes of its genre, but it resists openly mocking it. Its humor is derived more from its characters being odd types for this sort of earnest old-fashioned material than from outright satire. The only character from old Hollywood central casting is Buttercup. Everyone else is their own brand of strange. But when the story calls for it, the film lovingly embraces its roots in old Hollywood classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood. Yes, Westley will stop Buttercup from killing herself by lamenting the potential damage to her breasts. But when time comes for kissing and swordfights, he can turn full Errol Flynn without missing a beat. And when castles need to be stormed, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be the most fun you’ve ever had.
This is perhaps The Princess Bride’s most enduring and beloved line, and really, it sort of exemplifies everything this movie does so well. On its own, it’s a platitude of revenge. Depending on the situation, it can be funny, or moving, or thrilling. The movie is all of these things and then some. It’s usually dangerous for a movie to try to be most things at once, lest they end up playing themselves into a death waltz.
But The Princess Bride manages it with nary a moment of tonal dissonance. Why? Because of characters like Inigo. As I said before, the humor in the movie isn’t Shrek-style parody. Its plot is straight out of an old Hollywood fantasy. Its characters come from almost everywhere else, and are well-defined, their motives clear and personalities vivid. And none perhaps are quite as defined and vivid as Inigo, a man who has devoted his life to one purpose, who through the course of the movie stumbles multiple times on his way to achieving it, before finally emerging victorious.
The Princess Bride is a sandbox, and every corner of it was sculpted into something delightful. Yes, the main plot is in the center, but in the far corners, you spot an impressive clergyman here, a cowardly gatekeeper there. There’s room in this sandbox for all sorts of stories, and swordfights, and kissing. Hey, want to include a subplot about a Spaniard seeking revenge for his dead father? Let’s put that in there, but don’t just throw it in. Sculpt it. Craft it. Make it just right. Every little detail has got to shine. There’s no room for throwaway dialgoue and pointless scenes in this movie. Every moment, from the first glance to the last kiss, needs to be remembered.
It’s easy to chalk up the enduring appeal of The Princess Bride to nostalgia. But nostalgia cuts out the bad memories and leaves us only with the good. We latch on to that good to return to another time and place we want to remember well. But we return to The Princess Bride for another reason altogether.
There’s a special feeling that comes when something is just just right. A perfectly prepared meal, maybe, or when the balance of the temperature perfect matches the weight and warmth of your blankets (my personal fave). That is The Princess Bride.
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.