As You Wish
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
I can recite “The Princess Bride” almost entirely from memory. I can make this claim about very few films. “The Wizard of Oz” as well. “Batman.” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” “Stand By Me.” More recently (meaning when I was in Junior High), “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Clue,” and “Army of Darkness” fell into my brain. I’m not sure if this is a claim I should be proud of, that I can recite entire films, but it is the truth. You see, when a VCR first moved into the house, I didn’t have a library like I have now, so I was forced to watch the few films that were at hand. There were others besides the ones listed above. “Little Women” was in there, as were a few animated Disney films. But I swayed toward “The Princess Bride” and its kin. I try not to mention too loudly that I have these films memorized. I get the same nerdy feeling a Trekkie gets trying to pick up a woman. When talking to adults, I keep this information comfortably oblique.
Yet, the thing is, I can mention it. When among my peers, I have let it slip. Someone will slightly misquote a line of dialogue from “The Princess Bride”, and I, nerd that I am, will correct them. And no one bats an eye. I mention that I have memorized the film, and a quiet genial consensus will arise. Most of the people in the room have also memorized this film, or at least know it very well. We then begin to reminisce on our favorite scenes, lines of dialogue, and characters. I once spent a merry evening with my church pals reenacting the scene where Wesley and Buttercup roll down a sharp slope, only to meet at the bottom. “Can you move?” Wesley asks. “Move?” Buttercup says back. “You’re alive! If you want, I can fly.”
The point is: everyone of a certain age knows this film, and knows it well. It’s a landmark of a generation. Anyone born between 1973 and 1982 has fond memories of seeing this film, loving it. Many young critics site this film as being the gateway to their love of cinema. Was it one of mine? Hey, I can recite it, can’t I?
“The Princess Bride” is a good film, to be sure, but why has it, of all the films available, become such a large force within my generation? I can’t say for sure. Who knows what makes a film gain a cult following? I think it largely has to do with timing. Most people saw it when it first came out in 1987, or shortly thereafter on video, aged 5 – 14. It has a cheerful energy, witty dialogue, funny character, exciting swordfights, and the occasional ROUS. Kids can easily understand what is going on. And while some of Vizzini’s intellectual jibes may have flown over the wee ones’ heads, everyone gets a great laugh seeing a clergyman turn around and proudly announce “Mawwage!” Or seeing Wallace Shawn, diminutive and loud, shouting at André the Giant, 6’11”. It’s universally appealing.
But that could be said of a lot of films. Many films have humor and action which can be appreciated by many age groups (and studios are ready to point out what they have done: looking through the papers, and reading the blurbs thrown in by various unnamed critics, one could swear that every film produced was the best film ever made.) In fact, that’s what most contemporary films shoot for. It’s long been a standard of genre filmmaking and overenthusiastic pitch sessions.
An aside: I worked in a film studio (albeit a straight-to-video B-film studio, but a studio nonetheless), and I read many fantasy and action scripts, most all of them bad. Each of them, it seemed, stuck to a certain tone. Each screenplay tried desperately to cover every base when it comes to movie action, including fights, wit, love, intrigue, Heroes ‘n’ Villains, etc. But one could tell that each writer was not trying to genuinely create something new and exciting. In fact, it was the opposite. It seemed that they were envisioning their own pitch sessions to The Boss, waiting for the part after the character outlines and story synopses, where they get to say “…and we can market it to every age group!”
My imaginary writers seem to have missed a crucial point: there’s a difference between a film that has universally appealing components, and one that is genuinely appealing.
I think what I’m trying to say here, with all my pontificating and prevarication is: “The Princess Bride” is formulaic, but somehow transcends the formula. Which leads me to ask again: why this one? Why has this become a landmark of a generation of filmviewers?
The answer is: irony. “The Princess Bride” has an undeniably sarcastic tone to it. Not in a bitter, hurtful sense, but in a more playful sense. We are swept up in the action, but at the same time, are constantly reminded that we are watching a fantasy film. Indeed the introduction sets up Fred Savage and Peter Falk as a grandson being read the film out of a book by his grandfather. The story opens on a small farm, and looks like a cheesy romance novel. The heart-attack-inducing-ly cute Cary Elwes plays Westley the farmboy, and Robin Wright plays the innocent and bossy horse-lover Buttercup. He never speaks, except to say “As you wish.” He peers at her from under his scraggy blonde bangs. He has stubble. They admit they’re in love! The music swells! They’re about to kiss! Then the grandson stops the action. He looks at his grandfather and asks suspiciously “Is this a kissing book?”
We are kept, at one level, on our toes. Most other fantasy films invite us to suspend or disbelief for 90-150 minutes while we are taken fully into another world. Only sometimes with success. This one isn’t inviting us to plunge into a world of giants and monsters, dwelling alongside the fantastical. “The Princess Bride” is asking us to look at a fantasy for what it is. To look at how we, as film watchers, view fantasy. Smile at the fact that not only is it effective, but that it affects us. And, I think, this self-awareness makes the film all the more enjoyable. It invited us to enjoy a rather silly story without any shame. Is drains any chance of embarrassing ourselves by actually suspending our disbelief. The cynicism of the audience is replaced by a gentle wink from the film, letting us know that it’s in on its own joke.
Film makes us voyeurs. The ironic winks of “The Princess Bride” makes us voyeurs into the film, and voyeurs into our own selves. And it’s funny.
I think most people sensed the “honesty” of most fantasy films, and began to tire of it. Ten years after the fact, people were still trying to remake “Star Wars;” recreate it’s bold and unflinching silliness. After a childhood of films insisting that they were REAL, it was a hugely bracing splash of cold water to come across a film like “The Princess Bride.” The kids sensed it, the adults saw it, and now it’s been put on my 100 Best list.
I have spent all this time blathering about the theory of the film, and I haven’t been covering the film itself. I apologize for this.
Buttercup and Westley are in love. Westley leaves the farm to get money for a marriage and dies at sea. Buttercup claims she will never love again. Years pass. Buttercup finds herself betrothed to the egotist Prince Humperdinck (a wonderfully smarmy Chris Sarandon). She is depressed, and goes on daily rides. On one such ride, she is kidnapped by the enemies of Prince Humperdinck’s country. The trio, a Spaniard (Broadway star Mandy Patinkin), a gentle giant (pro-wrestler André the Giant), and the shrieking leader (“My Dinner with Andre’s” Wallace Shawn), bicker and argue about the ethics of what they are doing. They are trying to start a war.
On the run, they are followed by a mysterious man in black. He is relentless. We know not his identity. He bests Inigo the Spaniard with the sword. He bests Fezzik the Giant with strength. He bests Vizzini the leader in a (hysterical) battle of wits. Buttercup is not fond of him and pushes him down a slope. He bellows up at her “Aaaaas! Yoooouuuu! Wiiiish!” See above for the rest of the scene.
More complications arise, and I could describe each of them in detail, but I won’t bore you. You either know them well, or you haven’t seen the film yet.
We have fun with all this. The gentle music and honesty of the characters, makes us smile. When crisis arrives, we are swept along, but we smile. Even when we are confronted with a genuinely evil character, Count Rugen (played by brilliant comic chameleon Christopher Guest from “This is Spinal Tap”), a man interested in a new torture machine that sucks life out of people one year at a time, we sense that he will not win. We don’t boo and hiss him like we do, say, Darth Vader. We sense that he is indeed genuinely evil, but is surrounded by such good and gentle souls, that he cannot be all-triumphant. In the final scenes where Inigo and Rugen are finally facing off there is a moment where it looks as if he might win. Inigo is bleeding copiously from a knife wound. Rugen stands over him and says, calmly and collected, “You must be that Spanish brat I taught a lesson to all those years ago. Simply incredible. Have you been tracking me your whole life, only to fail now? I think that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” A pause. “How marvelous.” It’s chilling how calm he is. We’re almost at a loss. But then, of course, Inigo pulls the knife from his stomach and proceeds to triumph.
The film’s conclusion brings us back to the grandfather and the grandson. They both enjoyed the story. The grandson asks him to come back and read it again. The grandfather smirks at him in a way only Peter Falk can do and says “As you wish.” We’ve now been through a journey and moved by the proceedings. We can, after all, enjoy a good fantasy. And we can do it better if we know ourselves.
A whole generation, I think, was shaped, in part, by this film. The children of the 1980s were the first children without a war or depression or Grand Unifying Event. We were kids without a handle. Without an outside means by which we could define ourselves. So we began to turn inward. We embraced our childhood memories vehemently, and defined ourselves by our games, our products, and our movies. And, while our parents and grandparents talked about growing up in a time of tumult (The Vietnam War, WWII, The Great Depression), and stressing the fact that they were a Part of History, we started to celebrate that we had no history. We embraced the fun goofy irony of nothingness. There are subcultures who found this depressing and reacted with nihilism and violence (Punks and Goths come to mind), but, for the most part, we celebrated our own “selfness.” We became great because we could acknowledge who we are. And being ironic and self-aware (in the Buddhist sense) is now the mark of my generation.
“The Princess Bride” in a small way, expressed that for us, or (I may even be so bold as to say), taught it to us.
I hope that I haven’t mired the film in theory. I also don’t mean to speak for every one of my peers (far be it for me to declare myself The Voice of a Generation). All of this should be secondary to the simple humor, magic, fun, and fantasy of the film. It’s gentle, exciting and romantic. It’s everything it should be. It’s not encased in my generation’s experience of it. No. It is indeed universal. It is loved widely by everyone who sees it (I have yet to meet someone who speaks of it in anything less than glowing terms). It is a great film.
Director Rob Reiner also made “Stand By Me,” a film based on the Stephen King novella about growing up and coming of age in the 1950s, and explores a few similar theories. He’s made some great films (“Misery” also springs to mind). He’s made some good ones (“A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” “When Harry Met Sally…”). He’s made a lotta crap (“North,” “Alex & Emma,” “The Story of Us,” “The Sure Thing”). Even if he makes nothing but bad films for the rest of his life, I will be convinced he has talent for “The Princess Bride.”
At gatherings a common phrase heard is: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya.” It’s quite likely one will hear following, a chorus of people: “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” And we will laugh. We enjoyed it too.