Rachel Thibault on the Enduring Cult of The Princess Bride


By Rachel Thibault

More than any other genre in the ’80s, the fantasy/adventure film dominated. Broadly defined, these films ranged from the glossy blockbuster films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, E.T, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) to mainstream, postmodern comedies with sequels (BACK TO THE FUTURE, GHOSTBUSTERS), to the creature-features aimed at children (GOONIES, GREMLINS) and beyond to the absurd, futuristic, and often unclassifiable (BRAZIL, ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BONZAI). Although many fantasy films of the ’80s were marketed to young people between the ages of twelve and twenty-nine, a demographic that made up 75% of the movie-going audience, many films appealed to both children and adults, hoping to find the “kid in all of us.” 

THE PRINCESS BRIDE is one of those beloved family fantasies. Although it made a meager $30 million at the box office, loyal followers welcomed its appearance on video and helped the film earn its current cult status. It’s both a witty tongue-in-cheek swordplay fable and a celebration of the fairy-tale in all its trappings, complete with a fair blonde maiden, a dashing hero, sumptuous rolling hills, castles, swordfights, kidnappers, evil sidekicks, Cliffs of Insanity, a Pit of Despair, and one wise man with potions to cure the mostly dead. Written by William Goldman based on his 1973 novel for adults, the fairy-tale romance of Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes) is framed as a story read by a grandfather (Peter Falk) to a sick grandson (Fred Savage). Appropriately, the grandson is skeptical of the tale, keenly aware of its predictabilities ( “this a kissing book?’ ‘She can’t marry Humperdinck!’ ‘That’s NOT how the story is supposed to go!”), just as the viewer may be skeptical at first that this fairy tale film will try too hard, or not hard enough. Indeed, THE PRINCESS BRIDE arrived on screen in 1987 after a series of fantasy films that, while often visually interesting, tried too hard to please, unable to find the right balance of visual, aesthetic, and narrative elements. THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984) LEGEND (1985) WILLOW (1986), Jim Henson’ DARK CRYSTAL, and LAINTH (1986) all come to mind.

So what draws viewers back to an ’80s film that was never a blockbuster, is devoid of spectacular effects, offers no pop music score or blinding star power? How does a film that on the surface looks rather ordinary belong on the top comedies list by cable network Bravo, and appears in the top 250 films of all time by imdb.com users?

Surely, the answer lies in Reiner and Goldman’s ability to create a character-driven fantasy, blending the right amount of sardonic wordplay and swordplay. Unlike Mel Brooks’ exercise in ludicrousness, SPACEBALLS (1987), Reiner’s BRIDE is gentler with his parody; he has too much affection for his characters to completely spoof them. This was also evident in Reiner’s first effort, THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), the “rockumentary” that made viewers empathize with the dilemmas of washed-up rockers Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins. In THE PRINCESS BRIDE, characters are earnest and rather silly on occasion, but never over the top; they possess a respect for each other even when it’s unexpected (“You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.”) Inigo Montoya’s lifelong vow to exact revenge on the six-fingered man who killed his father, proclaimed with a mantra (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to Die”), sounds absurd on paper but gallant and possibly noble as fleshed out by Mandy Patinkin; Westley remains playful yet serious while saving his Buttercup from spitting fire, lightning quicksand, and Rodents of Unusual Size. Even the diminutive Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) gets to display his intellectual talents (however briefly) with an earnest battle of the wits, which is also a battle to the death. Performances here are synchronized, calibrated, and harmonious, and each actor romps along at the same pace. Its humor is heightened for adults by playing on their knowledge of fairy tales,’30s films, and history; children (let alone some younger adults) may not understand just how clever Vizzini’s advice to “never get involved in a land war in Asia” really is.

Although THE PRINCESS BRIDE’s cult status was achieved in part by the sheer volume of quotable wit and puns, one of the true joys of watching the the film remains in the comfort and reassurance of reading a bedtime story: sympathizing for the characters, experiencing their highs and lows, and as the grandson does, clutching the covers in concern when a character is in danger. Ironically, the film savors the act of sharing a book with another; we are frequently reminded that reading the words on the page generates these images. Peter Falk’s grandfather admonishes his grandson for interrupting the tale, asking, “Do you want to hear the story or not? Maybe you’re too sick to handle it?” In turn, the grandfather threatens to stop reading, to take away the pleasure of the fairy-tale. Just as our favorite fairy tales were read to us over and over, so THE PRINCESS BRIDE invites multiple and often obsessive viewings. Ultimately for the audience, we are reminded to celebrate the art of storytelling, and its ability to breathe new life into a well-worn, dog-eared genre.

Caitlin Written by: