In the first moments of The Princess Bride, the narrating grandfather (Peter Falk) describes the story with a litany of genre elements: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles,” but that doesn’t begin to cover all the things that draw people to the film. The Princess Bride seems to be aware of its own broad appeal. That runs the risk of coming across as smug or self-satisfied, but under Rob Reiner’s direction, it’s actually charming.
How does such a self-aware, self-referential (what today we might call “meta”) film still come across as totally sincere? In other words, why does The Princess Bride work so well?
Self-aware comedies, rare as they are, can sometimes feel mean-spirited. Spoofs of the Epic Movie variety turn their subjects into punching bags, whereas The Princess Bride elevates its fairy tale structure while still poking fun at it. In boiling down certain fairy tale tropes and ideas to their most basic elements, it casts them in a humorous light and builds on them in original ways.
The grandiosity with which objects, things and places in the film are named is a great example. In a fairy tale, everything is amplified to seem more mythical and legendary. The Princess Bride takes this idea and sends it up affectionately. Something as simple as a large cliff face in this world is of course called The Cliffs of Insanity (and are, in fact, the real world Cliffs of Moher), complete with a dramatic musical sting.
This amplification of the mundane pays off brilliantly when the Rodents of Unusual Size are introduced. For such terrifying, fantastical creatures, their name isn’t very imaginative. But after building our expectations with titles like the Fire Swamp, these animals nevertheless demands our attention.
The performances, in turn, are turned up to eleven. They aren’t hammy, but they still feel at home in a storybook world. Even the most minor characters have something going on beyond whatever archetype they conform to. The most memorable, of course, is Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patankin), whose quest for vengeance coincidentally lines up with the journey of the main characters. Patinkin’s role has since become iconic in its own right.
One of the most interesting things about The Princess Bride is that a lot of it is played straight. Yes, it’s a comedy, but that doesn’t mean that its characters are disposable or that its stakes don’t matter. Westley’s (Cary Elwes) torture in the Pit of Despairi isn’t played for laughs; it’s genuinely horrifying. Near the end of the film, Buttercup (Robin Wright), prepares to commit suicide before Westley intervenes. The film never forgets that to these characters the story is real, and it never lets the audience forget it.
The fact that it’s primarily a comedy doesn’t excuse it from putting effort into its story. Mainstream comedies have forgotten that lesson in recent years, functioning more as joke delivery machines than actual movies. Nowadays, we qualify movies like The Princess Bride by appending other genre labels to “comedy.” Today, it’d be an “action-comedy” or something along those lines, because a simple “comedy” bears with it the connotation of lazy, cheap laughs.
The Princess Bride takes on traditional fairy tale structure, but it isn’t mocking anything. It really can’t be called a parody, spoof or satire. In those films, the jokes happen within the context of the main story; here, the framing device of a grandfather reading a book to his grandson is where a lot of the “meta” stuff comes from. Bringing in an outside party (the kid, played by Fred Savage) to talk about the story as it’s being told gives the film its own diegetic commentary track.
The film protects itself from scrutiny by scrutinizing itself, and it makes the audience a lot more forgiving of whatever shortcomings they might perceive. “Well, sure, that’s a problem in my opinion, but they must have known it was a problem,” one might think. “After all, the movie points out all those other silly things about itself.” Of course, it also places these critiques in the mouth of an immature young boy, which sends a pretty clear message to potential detractors.
Yet I think biggest reason why the film resonates with people is its tone. Everyone’s familiar with fairy tales from their childhood, and The Princess Bride indulges in nostalgia without glorifying it. At the same time, we wouldn’t feel comfortable if someone merciless mocked the things that were important to us in our younger years, so The Princess Bride’s kind-hearted take is refreshingly palatable. In some ways, watching The Princess Bride is like looking through your old social media posts – just without the embarrassment.
I doubt the filmmakers knew when they were putting the film together that it would be such an enduring cultural touchstone. It’s not something you can ever accurately predict, and the initial reaction to the film was muted to say the least. It gained importance in pop culture entirely in retrospect.
It’s a film that works best as a nostalgia vehicle, because it’s designed to stimulate a deep emotional memory. It’s the kind of film that you fall in love with as a kid and don’t feel guilty about revisiting as an adult. It redresses the stories we consumed in our youth in sly, intelligent clothing. It makes us feel good about our childhoods, rather than making fun them for being dumb. And since it isn’t tied to any particular time period, it can continue to function this way far into the foreseeable future.
I have no doubt that it will.