I’m at home sick as I write this. It’s a mild cold—sore throat, headache and general lassitude—but the most unbearable symptom (for those around me, anyway) is pernicious self-pity. Fortunately, this is eminently treatable with baby aspirin, pats on the head and repeated applications of The Princess Bride on DVD.
The film—which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with a splendiferous new coffee-table book, The Princess Bride: A Celebration (Universe Publishing), to mark the occasion—was neither a box-office smash nor a big award-winner; it received only one Oscar nomination, for its theme song. But in its long afterlife on cable TV and home video, it has taken its place as one of the most beloved films of all time. It’s easy to see why. William Goldman’s screenplay is wise, funny and endlessly quotable, the performances are joyous and the direction is pitched just to right side of knowing affection—never condescending to the material, but delighting in its solemn ridiculousness. It is a film to lift the spirit—just the sort of cinematic comfort food that a sniffly shirker like me craves on a day like this.
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That kind of prescriptive use is part of the film’s metafictive framing; The Princes Bride is a story that calls attention to its own fictional nature. In the movie, The Princess Bride is a book read aloud by kindly grandfather Peter Falk to ailing grandson Fred Savage. (Frankly, the kid doesn’t look that sick to me; I suspect his main complaint is a bad case of feeling sorry for himself.) “This is a special book,” Falk explains. “It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today, I’m gonna read it to you.” It’s a medicine for melancholy—in part because, beneath its fairy-tale trappings, The Princess Bride is a polemic against self-pity, an exhortation to stop being such a crybaby.
Curled up on the couch with this huge hardcover in one’s lap—an experience nearly as good as watching the movie again, since the book reprints great whacks of Goldman’s screenplay along with lush production stills, design sketches and hundreds of on-set Polaroids—one finds that nearly every character faces a choice between wallowing in misery and taking action. While Buttercup believes that her true love is dead, Robin Wright is radiant in her sorrow but her passive despair leads the kingdom to the brink of disaster. As Westley, Cary Elwes shows flashes of the bitterness he must struggle to overcome in his caustic comments to Buttercup while disguised as the Man In Black. (Later, he is a bit down in the dumps after being mostly dead, but manages to pull himself together for the big showdown. He’s obviously a Type A personality, our Westley.)
Read on, and the facsimile-screenplay conceit gets a little shaky; we’re into Billy Crystal’s scenes now, and I’m pretty sure that his best lines were never in Goldman’s script. But Miracle Max, too, must emerge from his funk of self-doubt to save Westley’s life. Not everyone passes the test, of course; Chris Sarandon’s Prince Humperdinck surrenders without a fight rather than risk losing his good looks, and Wallace Shawn’s petulant cries of “Inconceivable!”—a word that does not mean what he thinks it means—express the character Vizzini’s outrage at a world that simply will not go his way. (Shawn contributes an amusing essay, professing not to understand why he was cast: “I had absolutely no understanding of the sense of humor behind the particular film in which I happened to be performing.” But part of what makes his performance so funny is that he actually looks like a big baby.)
Looking over this rich trove of prop and set blueprints, makeup test shots and reminiscences from the cast and creators, it’s clear that a lot of hard work and determination went into making The Princess Bride. That’s true of any movie, of course. But even writer William Goldman wasn’t sure if his novel should even be adapted. Rob Reiner writes in his foreword of his awkward first meeting with Goldman, where the unspoken question hanging in the air was, “How were we going to destroy his precious baby?”
What Reiner and his team showed—to Goldman and to all of us—is that when your cause is righteous and your will is strong, you can get over anything: impossible odds, self-doubt, even being (or feeling) mostly dead. That message, moreso than any chocolate-coated miracle pill, is strong medicine indeed.
Jack Feerick is an editor for Popdose.