A Comforting Film with a Dash of Everything
A Film Review of The Princess Bride (1987) by Christopher Wostenberg
All of us have comfort films that we watch when we are feeling down. If they are on television, we stop and watch no matter where in the movie it happens to be. We can quote lines in various everyday contexts irrespective of their appropriateness. And we like them regardless of what others think or their artistic merits. Some stem from a special memory of our childhood; watching with a loved one or first time in a theater. For some, their comfort movie is an action film. For others, it is romantic comedy. And still others, it is a fantasy story. For me, one of my comfort films is The Princess Bride (1987) which is a combination of all of them, making it easier to watch no matter my mood.
The film tells the story of Buttercup (Robin Wright) who is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) of Florin. Buttercup was originally in love with a farmhand, Westley (Cary Elwes), who left Florin to seek his fortune on the seas but is presumed dead after his ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Before Buttercup’s wedding to Prince Humperdinck, she is abducted by three outlaws — the brains Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the muscle Fezzik (André the Giant), and the master swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) – in order to initiate a war with the neighboring kingdom of Guilder. The film is full of comedy, romance, sword fights, wit, wrestling, miracles, torture, and devious schemes. A framing device of a grandfather (Peter Falk) narrating the story, The Princess Bride, to his sick grandson (Fred Savage), with occasional interruptions, is utilized to tie the story with the real world and provide additional comedic moments of juxtaposition.
To me the greatest appeal of the movie, which also makes it comforting, is the well-constructed incorporation of many different genres. At the heart of the film is the love story between Buttercup and Westley. Their love grows throughout the film. At the start of the story (not the film) Buttercup realizes that Westley loves her, and that she loves him in return through minimal dialogue and outward affection. Their love in the beginning is summed up in the phrase, “As you wish.” This is spoken by Westley to state that he would do anything that Buttercup asks of him. It is very basic, in the sense of one person doing little things for another, e.g., fetching a water jug, chopping wood, or polishing a saddle. As the film progresses, their love is more encapsulated in the phrase, again spoken by Westly, “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” Throughout the film Buttercup and Westley are fighting various obstacles placed in the way of their love. The obstacles to their love are no longer simple everyday items. It is these challenges that make and strengthen their love, much in the same way marriages are challenged by financial downfalls and medical issues. But as with many of the best love stories, it ends with the couple – Buttercup and Westley – embracing in a display of their love.
Besides the love story, the other genre that is front and center throughout the movie is fantasy. This mainly comes from the setting of the film taking place during the Middle Ages. Kings preside over the peasants from castles. Combat is relegated to sword fighting or hand-to-hand combat. There are few instances of make-believe creatures, such as dragons, mermaids, ogres, or unicorns. In addition, most of the events seem believable with a few exceptions adding to the approachability of the film to the wider audience. Ultimately, the fantasy of the film is a tamed down Disney animated fairy tale in the vein of SleepingBeauty or Beauty and the Beast.
Much like a Disney animated film, a large part of the humor originates from the larger-than-life side characters. In The Princess Bride, this comes in the form of comedic actors playing bit parts. For example, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane who play an old bickering couple that produce miracles. Or Peter Cook who plays a clergyman presiding over the marriage of Prince Humperdinck and Buttercup. In both cases these characters only have one scene but steal the show for the entire time they are on camera. It is these characters, and others, that provide much of the quotable lines and memorable bits that breathe life into the storybook romance. While Westley and Buttercup are great main characters, their story alone is not enough to elevate the movie apart from other fantasy romances. It is the minor characters – in my opinion – that makes the movie re-watchable and stand out.
In addition to the main storyline of Westley and Buttercup’s love, the film includes many side plots that connect the characters together and add to the film as a whole. For example, Inigo Montoya seeks revenge for his father’s death at the hand of a six-fingered man. The six- fingered man turns out to be Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), the right-hand man to Prince Humperdinck. This subplot allows for an additional action in the form of sword fighting in the film and character development for one of the initially minor characters at the beginning. It is similar with a few other of the minor characters that helps to flesh out the fantasy world of the film.
Another great supplement to the main story, is the framing storyline of the grandfather and grandson. The occasional interruptions of the grandson to the story helps to subvert expectations of the fairy tale plot. There is a good moment when the story is interrupted as the grandson says that his grandfather read the book wrong because Buttercup would not marry Prince Humperdinck. He, in fact, uses the childish reasoning “it’s not fair,” to which the grandfather replies, “Who says life is fair.” Here the grandson is speaking what the audience expects to happen based on common fairy tale stories from childhood, while the retort speaks more of the reality of life compared to stories. This moment (and the framing aspect in general) speaks to the irony in the whole film of what is expected in contrast to the actual story being told. The audience knows it is a fantasy, so certain outcomes are naturally expected. But at the same time, we constantly get surprised and wrapped up in the story much like the grandson. The framing device is not just used to bookend the film, like in classic Disney productions, but it is also used to add to the overall impact of the film as a parody of fairy tales.
Buttercup and Westley entering the mysterious and dangerous fire swamp.Retrieved from The Princess Bride (Reiner, R., 1987, 20th Century Fox), scene at 0:40:56
Favorite Scene: My favorite scene is when Buttercup and Westley trek the dangerous Fire Swamp. The scene occurs after it is revealed that Buttercup’s rescuer from the outlaws is the Dread Pirate Roberts AND Westley as they try to escape from Prince Humperdinck and his men. Through minimal exposition, it fills in the gaps of Westley’s years away from Buttercup while at the same time having Buttercup and Westley avoid the three terrors of the fire swamp – the random fire spurts, lightning sand (quicksand), and rodents of unusual size (ROUSes).
The scene works at combining the different elements of the film. The scene is one of the more fantastical in the film with its dark and murky environment due to the huge over-looming trees and unrealistic perils. This is further elaborated by the eerie music and sounds. In the case of the ROUSes, the audience is constantly shown how dangerous they can become, as one follows the couple through the swamp prior to attacking only upon the verbally mentioning them. This combines elements of suspense and horror to the fantasy realm of the scene. The film’s hero, Westley, gets to display his abilities at saving Buttercup multiple times within the short scene. This is in contrast with the previous scenes, which show him as the unknown man in black taking out the abductors one by one within unknown motives. At the same time, the scene is still witty and romantic. Just the way the two look at each other purveys their love for one another. In essence, this one scene condenses the major theme of love coupled the other elements of the film down to less than ten minutes with the focus squarely on the two main characters.
By now, you should get a sense that The Princess Bride is a film that has something for everyone and as such you should go out and watch it, if you have not already. Hopefully, you find it comforting as well, and it will become a movie you want to watch over and over again. If not, then maybe you will at least understand the Once Upon a Deadpool (2018) reference to the film. Additionally, I would love to hear about your comfort films and why you enjoy them so much. As is traditional with these reviews, I leave you with a movie quote. To go with the theme of books and fantasy, here is a quote from The NeverEnding Story (1984) given by the bookstore owner, Carl Conrad Coreander (Thomas Hill):
“The video arcade is down the street. Here we just sell small rectangular objects. They’re called books. They require a little effort on your part, and make no bee-bee-bee-bee-beeps. On your way please.”