olde hope farms

The Princess Bride (1987)


by Erica Cantoni

If I were trying to talk a child into watching The Princess Bride today—because it seems you’re always having to negotiate their buy-in on anything that is actually good for them; kids are officially the worst at knowing anything about what’s good for them—I would say this:

“Listen, there’s going to be sword fighting and princesses, pirates and true love. Rodents of Unusual Sizes and burning castles, screeching eels and flaming swamps, magic spells and torture racks. Mental trickery and revenge, poison and riddles and wistful gazes cast from balconies. Billy Crystal and Andre the Giant are going to make you giggle and you’re going to love it. It has the best gang of characters of any movie you’ve ever seen. Vizzini with his sleazy cunning and Fezzik with his kind brute force, Miracle Max with his bullshit and Inigo Montoya and his noblest hunt to avenge his father’s death. Six fingered villains and princes manipulating kingdoms, albinos and legendary pirates!  NOW PUT DOWN ICE AGE AND JUST GIVE IT A DAMN CHANCE, OK?”

What I wouldn’t tell them, is this: This movie is going to delight and entertain you right now, but you’re probably not going to really appreciate it until you’re much older and, even then, aspects of it are still going to drive you a little mad.

Because frankly, that’s not a terrific sales pitch.

The Princess Bride is, of course, the story of a farm hand who is maltreated by his employer’s daughter -  an impossibly flaxen near nobility who clearly resides on the posh side of the proverbial tracks. But love is a funny thing and Princess Buttercup, against her snooty judgment, eventually finds herself ass over tea kettle for quiet Westley.  To make a name for himself and presumably to secure a dowry for her hand, Westley departs to conquer the world. Years pass without word and Princess Buttercup, sure that her beloved is lost, somehow agrees to marry the loathsome Prince Humperdinck.

Days before the wedding, Humperdinck stages Buttercup’s kidnapping to justify a war he’s itching to wage.  Enter Dread Pirate Roberts – an undercover Westley who has inherited the infamous title and its power – to steal her back.  Chases ensue. Wesley rescues the girl, pisses off the girl, renews pledges of eternal love with the girl, and loses her all over.  Is all but killed, is brought back for love and rescues the girl again.

When I was a kid, I watched The Princess Bride with my breath held.  I lay on my stomach in the basement, on the unkind industrial carpet my father installed to withstand children and I studied the adventure like an alien documentary. I loved the music, Buttercup’s silky silhouette, the menacing Cliffs of Insanity, the way Wesley’s hair slipped from his ponytail and his furious smart ass gaze. I knew it was a fairy tale, but I sensed there was also so much more there that I didn’t quite understand yet. There was mystery.

Do you know what I love more than just about anything? Something clever and layered enough to evolve with you. Something that means one sparse and beautiful thing to you at ten years old but a hundred different things to you at thirty.

At ten, I couldn’t understand why Westley would leave, would come back as someone other than the man Buttercup loved. They had each other in the start – why on earth wasn’t that enough?

Today, I think The Princess Bride is fascinating because it’s a fairy tale about the most realistic, pragmatic thorns of love: The balance of power. The importance of autonomy.

When I was a kid, it drove me crazy that Princess Buttercup was always leaning around, succumbing to impassioned vapors and waiting for Westley to save her. Or worse!  Giving up on Westley and giving in to the next man waiting in line….still half-hoping that the old farm boy would come around in the nick of time.

And still, it vexes me a little. I watch my seven year old nieces watch the princess and I want to pull them aside and give them each a cigarette. Listen, I’d say, It’s going to be tempting once in a while to put all you’ve got in a man’s hand. To give him your worth and your allegiance and wait to see if it’s enough.  Don’t do it. The thing you’ve got to know from the start – I’d tell them through the smoke – is that you’ve got to keep some semblance of control.  No man can be your entire fate; because even the best disappear for a hundred reasons sometimes beyond their power and you’ve got to be able to get yourself out of that damned arranged marriage on your own. You know what I’m saying?

But kids shouldn’t smoke and they wouldn’t understand my lecture anyhow. They’re busy swooning over Buttercup’s satiny get-ups and dreaming of braiding her hair with pink ribbons they twirl deliriously on the couch. They’re busy taking turns pretending to marry Westley and cheering as he comes back to life to save his seemingly helpless love.

Maybe the wisdom in The Princess Bride is halfway between their romanticized childish acceptance and my guarded feminist doubt.

I used to get so pissed off at Westley for leaving and for staying away so long, for breaking Buttercup’s heart, for not revealing his identity the second he moored. The minute he earned his freedom from the Original Dread Pirate Roberts, he should have fled back to Buttercup, I decreed.

But I’m starting to reconsider a little. I think of Westley’s brow-beaten love in those young years, how humbly he worked to be enough for Buttercup. And I understand that he needed a little time to exceed that goal: To become a good enough man for himself.

And I see Buttercup’s penance, too. I see how love tames your early superiority and how it abides outsiders misunderstanding your late resignation.  How it allows you to be contentedly mocked for waiting for what you want, for having grace with each other’s evolutions. For submitting yourself quietly to what might arrive in time.  I see too, maybe even, how you can only love a certain way once.

The Princess Bride makes me feel tremendously confused, consternated and inspired. And I suppose that’s a rare thing for a children’s movie. But then, weren’t the best movies of our childhood mostly lost on us then? Maybe the beauty of being a grownup is that I can stay up too late tonight with a coffee mug of wine in my hand and watch it one more time, one more time in the hope that I’ll get it yet.

Erica Cantoni works in the non-profit world by day and writes by night. She believes in Radical Sincerity, aims to earn admission to the Travelers Century Club before she dies and reveres movies, books and things on the internet that make her cry in the best possible ways.