the_princess_brideBefore we start, I want to be clear that I’m not asking if The Princess Bride (1987) is a perfect movie. It isn’t. The movie can be very dated at times. The setting of the grandson’s (Fred Savage) bedroom practically screams 1980s and for all the efforts made in having real locations, the set where Westley (Carey Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) duel is very clearly a set complete with jungle gym accessories. There are also the less than stellar special effects in the Fire Swamp, the Rodents of Unusual Size (ROUS) come to mind, but that kind of adds to the charm of the movie even now. No, what I’m really asking is if The Princess Bride is the perfect movie; as in does it have universal appeal regardless of gender, age, and genre?

This is, of course, my biased opinion, but I think The Princess Bride is the perfect movie. It’s actually one of my favorite movies, one that I watch whenever it comes on television or pop into the DVD player if I’m feeling low and need a pick-me-up. When I told a friend that it was my favorite movie, he responded, more or less, with, “All girls say The Princess Bride is their favorite movie.” His response stuck with me because I think it’s too easy to assume that only women like The Princess Bride. Is it because it has the word “Princess” in the title? Because the genre is fantasy? Because there’s a romance at the center of the story? None of these potential responses predetermine who will and who won’t like the movie. It’s just easier to assume that these factors will draw women more than men, especially by Hollywood’s standards of what will attract certain groups to certain movies. Look at how Disney whittled down John Carter‘s title or the change of Rapunzel to Tangled after The Princess and the Frog didn’t do as well. Based on specific parameters, people assume what the demographics for certain movies will be, but The Princess Bride rises above all that.

So how about we look a little deeper and see how?Westley and Buttercup

Obviously The Princess Bride has a fantasy setting, but to entirely describe it as a fantasy movie is too simplistic. Fantasy, like Science Fiction, is a sponge genre capable of absorbing other genres into its setting. So while the overarching genre of the film, adapted for the screen by William Goldman, also the author of the book, is fantasy, the movie also includes action-adventure, comedy, romance, and drama. Getting the white elephant out of the room, yes, at the center of the story is a romance between the titular princess bride, Buttercup (Robin Wright), and Westley. The whole premise is the idea that true love can conquer any obstacle, even death, which our lovers prove over and over again as Westley rescues Buttercup from the nefarious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Romance, however, is too specific. The story should really be examined through the concept of love and what that means romantically and platonically. It’s a given that Westley and Buttercup love each other. There’s a reason the story, as read by the grandfather (Peter Falk) to his grandson starts with the two pretty much falling in love on the spot. The rest of the movie is about earning their happy ending through the various trials they go through together and separately.

Fezzik, Inigo, VizziniButtercup’s journey is one of believing in true love on a psychological level. Her biggest obstacle is her own doubt and her reactions to the two “deaths” of Westley show her growth from passive to active, for the most part. When she believes Westley died while at sea, she falls into despair allowing Prince Humperdinck to sweep in and offer marriage as a means of masking her grief. When Westley returns, the first time, she’s practically brought back from the dead herself, stepping between Westley and Humperdinck outside of the Fire Swamp to save Westley’s life and talking back to Humperdinck when she finally wakes up and realizes what kind of man he really is. Even if she needs a second reminder when Westley technically doesn’t save her from her wedding (he’d just recovered from being mostly dead), one could interpret her suicide attempt, though overly dramatic, as a sign that she’s taking her life into her own hands. Stretching, I know, but work with me here.

Westley, on the other hand, goes through the physical trials of earning his happy ending with Buttercup. We only hear about his time with the previous Dread Pirate Roberts, but the story itself is one of a man willing to do anything and become anything to return to the woman he loves. His love for her pushes him to best Inigo’s steel, Fezzik’s (Andre the Giant) strength, and Vizzini’s (Wallace Shawn) genius. Westley never doubts his love for Buttercup, he literally dies for her and manages to come back (with help from a little miracle), but it’s all due to how strongly he feels for Buttercup. Even a pesky thing like the Fire Swamp, an area most people never come out of alive, doesn’t faze him so long as he has the love of his life. Westley’s at his worst when he believes Buttercup threw away their love for Humperdinck because he’s a prince. He’s bitter, testy, and rude towards her until he learns she doesn’t love Humperdinck and then he’s all about true love conquering everything.

Inigo MontoyaSo, yes, there’s romance, but it’s about what love does to a person and motivates them that elevates the film and the story. This similarly applies to characters like Inigo and Fezzik. Inigo is entirely motivated by love for his father, but it’s been twisted into an obsession for revenge because of his hate for the six-fingered man. Recently, Mandy Patinkin revealed his favorite line in the movie during an interview for his show Homeland on CBS News. It’s actually one of Inigo’s last lines: “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” Patinkin explains that it’s a very powerful line and emphasizes the all-consuming negativity of revenge and what it can do to a person, Inigo being the primary example. I would argue that Inigo is the greater hero of The Princess Bride because his emotional journey is more visceral to the audience. When we learn his plight, what happened to his father, and his search for the six-fingered man, we understand him and we’re on his side so much that when he gets his revenge we feel the same satisfaction. It helps that he has a badass line to emphasize the point (pun intended). Fezzik, more than any character, is purely motivated by the love of friendship he feels for Inigo. Possessed of great strength and an almost child-like view of the world, Fezzik pretty much does what he’s told until he finds Inigo at his lowest low in the Thieves’ Forest. Seeing the man who treated him like a friend and equal suffering so much, he nurses him back to health out of friendship, which is its own kind of love. It sets Inigo straight and reinvigorates him in his purpose, leading the two to Westley and the remaining events of the film.

Humperdinck and RugenOther than being a romance or love story, The Princess Bride is just as action-oriented with revealing moments of intense drama. As noted before, Westley goes through several trials just to retrieve Buttercup from Vizzini and then Humperdinck. His duel with Inigo is one of many highlights in the film for the swordplay and the banter exchanged between the two. Moving about the top of the Cliffs of Insanity, they get to one-up each other, display their skills, and the audience gets to know them a little better. The scene is vital to Inigo’s character arc and the payoff from this one scene is monumental when we get to Inigo’s duel with Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), the six-fingered man. It’s an intense fight, made more so by Inigo’s repetition of his mantra, but also because we understand the importance of this duel and what it means to Inigo. Contrast this with Westley and Humperdinck’s “duel” where Westley never gets off the bed till the very end. It’s a psychological duel in which Westley has to so thoroughly convince Humperdinck of what he’s capable of doing to him, and the events that will transpire afterwards, that Humperdinck willingly allows himself to be tied up out of fear.

princessbride-miraclemaxThe comedy of The Princess Bride is top notch. It shows how skilled William Goldman is as a writer that he can take his own material, a very dry and witty book, and turn it into a comedic tour de force. There’s as much subtle wit in The Princess Bride as there is overt humor with almost every scene infused with some form of comedy. Half of it is the script, but the other half is director Rob Reiner’s decision to cast wisely. While he did use comedic actors in specific roles (Billy Crystal and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and Valerie, Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman) Reiner also filled the main cast with mostly dramatic actors, giving them the freedom to play the roles straight and let the comedy come through the dialogue. Do they ham it up every once and a while? Of course, but there are as many small moments that display as much humor as the entire Miracle Max scene. The albino (Mel Smith) clearing his throat so he doesn’t rasp dramatically, the quick shift of arms on the chair between Humperdinck and the Captain of the Guard, even the casual conversation between Rugen and Humperdinck about plotting to kill Buttercup and blame the rival kingdom. It’s all there, blending in with the drama and the action so seamlessly you don’t quite realize it’s there.

The-Princess-BrideAs I stated earlier, there is an assumption that The Princess Bride is mainly popular amongst women. Whether it’s the silly idea that the word “princess” will automatically draw girls in or the fact that the story primarily focuses on Westley and Buttercup’s romance, the idea that The Princess Bride is a movie for girls persists. If that’s the case, why is the story being read by a grandfather to his grandson? If Goldman and Reiner had really wanted to pigeonhole this movie as a “girls only” affair, they would have had a grandmother read the story to her granddaughter. Instead, they went in the opposite direction. Part of the decision appears to be a way of emphasizing that kids are too caught up in modern technology (the grandson is only interested in playing his video games, which is itself another gender stereotype for another day) to appreciate a book’s timeless story. The other half of the decision opens the movie up to all ages and all genders. The grandson resists, at first, but at about the midpoint he’s been sucked into the story, even the romance. He worries for Buttercup, dreads that Westley might actually be dead, gets angry when he learns 25th AnniversaryHumperdinck lives, and, in the end, he wants his grandfather to come back and read it to him again. It’s the filmmakers’ way of telling the audience, “This is for everyone. You can all enjoy it because it has everything.”

That, I think, is why The Princess Bride is the perfect movie. It has everything you could want from a movie. Everything. Creating a timeless classic, something that lasts longer than anyone ever intended it to, is obviously difficult and even though The Princess Bride is only 26 years old, it has the timeless quality of a much older film, like a book that gets passed down through the generations. The story remains the same, but we fall in love with it regardless. The themes and genres are transcendent, luring us in before we even realize we’re hooked.

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