The Princess Bride opens with Fred Savage in bed suffering from a dire illness, the likes of which has seldom been encountered by mere mortal men. I can empathize because, indeed as I write these very words, my body is under assault from some vicious scourge more suited to a zombie horror movie (or a Cloverfield med station) than real life. Which, ironically enough, makes it a perfect time to watch The Princess Bride and delight in the trials and travails of a hippopotamic land mass, a drunken sot of a swordsman, a cold-blooded pirate dead set on stealing the prince’s most prized possession, and a simple peasant girl who almost married the future king. (And, of course, to marvel at the humble service performed by the sick lad’s grandfather.)
The Princess Bride evokes delight in nearly every facet of the production. The script is pervasively joyous and humorous; immortal lines and phrases drop from every character’s mouth every time they speak, and even bit players are given great lines, lines EVERYBODY knows, like:
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Buttercup: We’ll never survive.
Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.
Then there was…
Fezzik: We face each other as God intended. Sportsmanlike. No tricks, no weapons, skill against skill alone.
Man in Black: You mean, you’ll put down your rock and I’ll put down my sword, and we’ll try and kill each other like civilized people?
The Grandson: Has [the book] got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…
The Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
The casting is impeccable, from Robin Wright’s luminous and beautiful Buttercup to Wallace Shawn’s cheerfully malevolent Vizzini to André the Giant’s gentle giant Fezzik. Truly, there is no part I’d recast, from the very top of the bill all the way down to the hag who appeared in but a single scene, to lambaste Buttercup over and over again.
What strikes you most about the movie is this: despite being humorous, and clearly a self-aware play on the tropes of fairytale romances, there is a total and utter lack of ironic detachment. The movie is sincere. Westley truly loves Buttercup, and she truly loves him back, and the movie treats this as the rare and precious thing it is. Inigo Montoya’s father was slain in front of him, and his pain drives all his actions in the movie. Even the ironic and detached Count Rugen is utterly sincere in his love of causing pain, and his desire to truly understand the suffering he causes others. The character is detached and ironic, but the movie never is.
This sincerity is what gives this bagatelle weight far beyond what would ever be apparent from reading a synopsis. A grandfather reads a book to his grandson? So? That’s commonplace, and boring. And yet, by the end of the book their entire relationship has changed, and his simple act of lovingkindness has brought them both closer together. The sincerity in their relationship makes their relationship matter to the audience.
Westley loves Buttercup, and shows it through constant service and humility. She truly loves him back, which is what makes his sudden loss at the hands of pirates so jarring. The characters care about each other, deeply and passionately, and as a result, the audience cares about them and their plight. And with every humorous line, incongruous situation, or unexpected plot twist, the movie rewards that investment with delight.
There’s something to be said for movies that delight people. Something? Nay, everything.
Delight is, all too often, a forgotten ingredient in popular fiction. Even people who believe in good, and eagerly fight for it, fall into the trap of writing books in which there is no joy, no delight. And delight—that light-hearted feeling, sibling to true joy—is an emotion that is rare and precious. Creators that can reliably evoke delight in their audiences have the potential to make something truly great. Walt Disney had the touch, as have several others, but as time has passed it’s became rarer and rarer. Today… well, I’m not sure I can remember the last time a movie evoked genuine delight. All is dark and ugly, and more interested in pushing propaganda than in serving the needs of the audience. Fantasy without wonder or delight is grimy and sad, and not at all “realistic”.
Movies, books, TV shows: these which thrill their audiences, which delight them, which evoke a sense of awe or joy or wonder, are the most precious of jewels, especially in today’s debased entertainment marketplace. In olden days, Hollywood execs soul their souls for money. Today they sell their souls to virtue signal, and lose all the money. And along the way, those ingredients that made their fictions memorable, enjoyable, and lasting have all faded and fallen away.
Which is why this movie has become the perennial delight it has.