Cynics have a tough time during February. We are surrounded by the Hallmark romanticism of Valentine’s Day with every turn. Even those who seem so grounded get swept up during these few weeks. As a romantic cynic, it is tough for me to fully dive in to a romantic film; so many of them are saccharine, and ring hollow to us non-believers. Rob Reiner’s now classic THE PRINCESS BRIDE is different. Though it is drenched in romance and love, the inclusion of cynics within the film make it more relatable, and ultimately persuade the darkest hearts over to the lighter side.
The first, and most unreliable, dissenter is the young grandson; this presents the intended audience for the whole story. Played by Fred Savage—before we collectively fell in love with him on THE WONDER YEARS—he is a young kid, stuck inside for the day with a cold. Rather than mindlessly disappear into his video game for hours, his grandfather (Peter Falk) decides to come over and read him a book. The book is THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and the boy balks at it instantly. And who can blame him? His anticipation of boredom and obvious unease around his grandfather means that he won’t be able to get his way at all on a lazy day home. On top of all that, the book is a romance with, ew, kissing. While I cannot always claim to having the same reaction to kissing specifically, I can relate to thinking that all that romance junk slows down a perfectly good adventure movie.
The grandson’s concern is well-founded. The swashbuckling sword fights and cliff climbing and riddling resolving does get periodically interrupted by feelings and, yes, kissing. But what ropes him in to the plot of the fact that love (“wuv, twue wuv”) is the reason that all of the adventure happens in the first place. Without the pure love between Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright), we would have never met the Dread Pirate Roberts or entered the Fire Swamp. Without the romance we would have never met my favorite romance denier in THE PRINCESS BRIDE; Miracle Max.
Miracle Max (Billy Crystal, in the role he was born to play) is hired by Fezzik (André the Giant) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) to bring Westley back to life, after essentially dying at the torturing hands of Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). As he is considering preparing the miracle potion to revive Westley, we find out that Max had been fired by Humperdink and was willing to come out of retirement to exact revenge. Part of the procedure involves filling Westley’s gullet with air, asking him a question (“What’s worth living for?”), and listening carefully to the answer wheezing out of the mostly dead body. Westley very clearly states “true love” as the reason to come back to life. Though Max concedes true love is a great reason to live, he insists that Westley was instead making a reference to a card game. With the help of his wife (Carol Kane) and Inigo, Max eventually admits his evasion of the truth and helps Westley.
Max’s initial denial of the romantic element of Westley’s plight is a different take on the rebuttal of romance in THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Rather than turning up his nose at the mere mention of kissing like the grandson, he is instead world weary enough to deny that true love and not money is what motivates men to defy death. After his dismissal by Humperdink, Max become bitter and lost faith in humanity. He had lost his belief in the good in the world, and stopped believing in true love. But meeting Westley changed all that. Hearing that love can defeat Humperdink, by hurting him where his money and power cannot save him, was the best reason to help the cause.
Including these anti-romantics in an intensely romantic film gives THE PRINCESS BRIDE an edge into melting the cold hearts of cynics in the audience. I can relate to being annoyed by the constant kissing interruptions in the film. I’d rather watch the epic clifftop swordfight. As the film goes on, however, we get to know Westley and Buttercup. We cynics get see how hard they are willing to fight to be together. And just like the boy and Max realize, romance might not be so bad. After all, love inspires men to wrestle giants and sail across eel infested waters. These feats are not only motivated by love, but love makes all of this craziness worth fighting. Even after the long journey and fierce battles, everything is worth it because Westley and Buttercup finally win. Including the romantic dissenters, and showing their eventually embrace of the romance, not only gives me characters to relate to during all of the mushy stuff; it gives me permission to get swept up in the storybook romance.