The Princess Bride: Life Lessons, Optimism and the Pit of Despair

1 Jun

Everyone knows, or at least knows OF, the Princess Bride. How you feel about it is an entirely different matter, since it’s the kind of charming, straightforward and well-told story in which anyone can find something to like. Finding something to NOT like about it is the kind of thing that kills conversation at a party, tantamount to saying you’re an advocate of dog-fighting or the industrial use of kittens and baby ducks.

'I'm sorry, I cant' hear you over the sound of Westley screaming in anguish. Or, you know, me being awesome.'

To analyze the film is to make a careful truce with oneself about just how objective one can be. Film analysis is an inherently subjective medium–after all, the effects of a film, all the time, money, and most of all creative coordination that go into it are a multi-step process that can’t be reproduced, a fact that studios bank on. Anyone can make a movie, but what are the chances of two filmmakers and their actors and crew making the SAME movie, and having them come out the exact same? Thus is film, like food, an art rather than a science.

Which is a boring way to introduce the fact that most people on earth who have seen the movie like it, and those who haven’t probably would. I’m sure if you showed it in a theater in Shenzen with a decent translator, barring significant cultural and political barriers, most notable of which is the Chinese notion of saving and losing face,  there would be at least some level of appreciation for it.They’d get down to the fight scenes, if only because fight scenes without wires would probably be fascinating and new.

Is the film a crowd-pleaser? Yup. But crowd-pleasing is not always a bad thing. Humans on an evolutionary level enjoy fats in their diet–they are necessary to sustain movement and chemical functions since they are an energy source. If you give a health nut something with fat in it, but don’t tell them there’s fat in it, chances are their brain will tell them ‘you like this!’ on some level, even if they have trained themselves to be turned off to fats. Fats are necessary for survival, especially for hunter-gatherers like primates. Humans on another evolutionary level enjoy swordfights, stories about true love, witty dialogue, monsters, revenge, watching attractive people do things, and feeling smart. There’s no shame in appreciating something that other people appreciate–one thing I have come to loathe these days is the false-elitism of also falsely-jaded pop cultural enthusiasts. Anyone with an opinion and a scathing vocabulary will convince themselves why liking something is wrong and that everyone else is somehow a lesser being for not recognizing the speaker’s innate genius because the movie in question had cheap effects or dated stunts.

But I digress. Part of enjoying a movie you’ve seen before is remembering who you were then, and the experiences ancillary to the actual film.

Vizzini is happy to be anywhere, except a land war in Asia.

My mother, my Aunt Linda and I saw the film at the Cross County 8 theater in West Palm Beach, a theater in a mall that would become a decrepit, half-abandoned shithole I would work at in my teens, where weekday matinee showings were mostly attended by homeless people and prostitutes turning tricks. I remember going home from that fateful showing and telling my Father some of the best jokes, about Inigo urging the Man in Black to hurry up so he can kill him and the Man In Black countering with ‘This isn’t as easy as it looks, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t distract me.’ I used to recreate the swordfights in my backyard with sticks, and when speaking in front of a crowd I ALWAYS have a moment where I imagine I’ll hear that old crone shouting ‘Boo! Boo! Booooooo!’

An observation I read on the IMDB pointed out that Count Rugen visits five wounds on Inigo Montoya, and that when Inigo is exacting his revenge in the climactic swordfight scene, he visits the same five wounds– but no more than that. It’s an interesting observation, and an extremely good character study: a man who has dedicated his life to revenge gives exactly as he got, no more, and since Count Rugen is the most important person in Count Rugen’s life, Inigo kills him. But there’s something I’d like to posit beyond that observation on the 5 wounds–Inigo received the exact same five wounds as he gave the count–two on the face, one in the shoulder, one in the arm, and one in the stomach. He gave Rugen these same wounds – and Rugen died. This is an interesting point because since Inigo ostensibly dedicated his life to finding and killing Rugen, he really shouldn’t have lived past that moment, but he does. Since Inigo has put his life on hold in order to avenge his Father, he has other things he might probably like to do. Open a fencing school, take up piracy (the movie’s suggestion), hell, just take a vacation where he isn’t on the hunt for a six-fingered man. Some day I’d like to make a list of movies that could qualify as Great Movies for Secular Humanists, and this one is definitely going on the list.

On a sidenote: I read that Mandy Patinkin, when he was filming the big swordfight, imagined he was doing battle with the exact form of cancer that killed his father in 1972, which is probably why his acting is so evocative. The line ‘I want my Father back, you son of  a bitch’ is one of the few in cinema that ALWAYS gives me chills, every time I see the movie. It’s a small moment with huge meaning– Inigo doesn’t rail at the unfairness of losing his father or bitch about it endlessly in some terrible monologue, he just came up with a plan and that single line is the only indicator of the massive sadness he carried with him ever since his world was destroyed.

Are there flaws in the film? God, yes. I’m not putting this film on a pedestal as some great example to which all should aspire (although it’d be nice if modern filmmakers paid as much attention to story, character, nuance, ANYTHING besides effects or box office), but as an example by which to be inspired.

Cary Elwes’s simple and indirect love proclamation, ‘As you wish,’ hasn’t lost its ability to melt my heart; Inigo’s plan to find the Man in Black— who might be anywhere on earth– by the end of the day still stirs the blood to action, and Buttercup’s assertion that Westley will come for her no matter what bullshit the Prince gets up to (delivered, notably, while she is wearing blue, the color of loyalty) makes me believe in love, in the ability of two people to mean something more to each other than an alternative to being alone.

There’s just so much to love. From the synth soundtrack to Chris Sarandon’s tights to Vizzini’s maxims for a long life, this is a movie that will never get old for me, or for many in my generation.

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