By this point, it would seem apparent that if ’80s popular cinema was at an all-time low in larger-scale narrative creativity and form, at least ’80s genre cinema often knew it was as chintzy and fake as all hell and tried its damnedest to use this as an asset rather than a detriment. By 1987 we find this trend at its absolute apex with one of the few true unambiguous comedies to seek to re-energize tired genre filmmaking: Rob Reiner’s arch-fantasy parody The Princess Bride. And like most of the best films to come out of this trend, it approaches its chosen poison-pen love letter topic, fantasy, from a place of love rather than the smug self-superiority that would engulf and cloud any such genre riff post-1995. For this reason, more than any other, it attains the sort of genial fluffiness and ebullient effervescence most fantasy films can’t even dream about.
It’s a curiosity, perhaps less unexpected than it seems, that The Princess Bride’s greatest strength is also its only real weakness. Simply put: as a fantasy, the film sort of sucks. In fact, The Princess Bride fails to pass muster as a work of cinematic storytelling on several levels. It’s not, for one, a particularly air-tight or sensible story. Things happen half-assedly and with little consequence. The script by William Goldman (who also wrote scripts for films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, and who is here also adapting his own book) wildly over-indulges in some references and scenes and leaves far too much off the table for others.
You’ll notice I haven’t “explained” the plot. That’s because you already know it: a man (Cary Elwes) looks to rescue his long-lost love (Robin Wright) from a particularly fey, evil prince and finds himself afoul of the prince’s henchmen, some of whom will change sides, find their honor, and combine forces to save the day. It’s an altogether mess of a screenplay, and had it worked it would still have been one of the draggiest trope-filled hashed-over clotheslines for tired, hopeless fantasy cliches you could possibly imagine. The acting is also variable, but you know, I can handle bad acting. I’m much less sympathetic to bad directing though, and if The Princess Bride isn’t badly directed, it definitely has the mark of a comedy director in Reiner’s stilted framing and unambitious, bored camera.
But so much of the film’s success is wholly and entirely predicated on the fact that it is completely and entirely aware of how stilted and stodgy the whole damn thing is from beginning to end. As a serious film, it doesn’t work, but then The Princess Bride isn’t a serious film now is it? It is instead a mockery of just how dumb this film would be were it intended to be “serious”. The key, essentially, is that it doesn’t so much “joke” about its seriousness as let itself simply be serious, push this seriousness beyond itself, and come out the other side reflecting on how strained it has to be in order to even half-pull anything off. It’s so busy bending backward over itself that it can’t but expound upon the effort such movies have to place toward simply legitimizing their own fundamentally crippled, arbitrary narratives. To say that The Princess Bride is good or bad confuses words like good and bad most mightily.
The genre-study plays out at fundamental narrative levels too, making it un-detachable from the film. Opening on a quintessentially 1980s children’s bedroom, we find ourselves in a most horrendous sort: in a room alone with Fred Savage. Luckily, Peter Falk comes in to save us as his grandfather, here to read him a bedtime story of The Princess Bride (presumably by William Goldman, but then the book itself is of a much older, more arcane ornamentation, so it is difficult to say). When things transition to some of the most frightfully dumb, belabored fantasy straight out of a Harlequin hiztori-romanz you’ll ever be able to find, all with Falk’s avuncular narration guiding us about and keeping us sane, the film introduces us to its central fact: it’s all bullshit, but it’s about to become fun bullshit, and we’re about to fall for it all despite ourselves anyway. The framing narrative serves double duty, helping us sympathize with the film for its faults and its generally fake demeanor and eventually working extra hard to push the films over those faults by literally having the storyteller (Falk) convince the audience (Savage) of the material’s worth in the same way Reiner and Goldman are convincing us. We are Fred Savage, and the film knows it. That’s a damn difficult thing to sell. But then The Princess Bride is all about selling something that is damn difficult, and doing it effortlessly. It knows it’s assinine, and it gives us a proxy who knows it too.
Things then proceed accordingly, Reiner constantly interrupting us to remind of the film’s cheerful fakery, even going so far as to play out, in young Savage, our own reaction to the film: first, a sort of hatred, followed by slowly encroaching, non-specific begrudging concern, and ultimately ending with us being hogtied and gobsmacked by how carefully it wins us over in spite of ourselves. It’s wholly delightful, filling us with all sorts of over-eager dialogue and bursting line deliveries that don’t so much convey anything as spool off the page with gigantic loopy flourishes. It has some positively effervescent characters to this extent too, Andre the Giant’s gentle giant and Mandy Patinkin’s single-minded, noble swashbuckler in particular stealing scene left and right in their transformation from vague-villain into vague-hero (vague is all the film really can afford, but that seems intentional).
In the end, The Princess Bride earns back so many points for what it does with its essential mediocrity it’s sometimes easy to forget its limits. At the end of the day however things don’t quite come together in the snug package we might wish; the end result is less “unqualifiable masterpiece” than damn fine genre piece with a kitschy sensibility, fun thrown in by the bucket-full. It’s not great cinema, but it has a lot of fun with bad cinema. Still kind of a mighty price to pay in the fires of hell and a particularly weighty pound of flesh in the final analysis, but these are the kinds of difficult decisions one can live with, and even cherish.