1987: The Princess Bride
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by William Goldman
There’s a certain feeling that creeps over you when you’re watching a film you know is going to become a classic. It’s sort of like falling in love. You’re meeting someone new, and you’re spending a little time getting to know them. At first, they’re charming and say all the right things, but you’re waiting for that misstep, that flaw. Then they surprise you by not making that mistake. After a while, you’re smitten, but you’re not sure there’s more to it than that. Amazingly, there is. There’s a whole other level you didn’t expect, and that’s the moment you’re head over heels and want to see them again as soon as possible. That was me seeing Star Wars. And Raiders of the Lost Ark. And The Fellowship of the Ring. And that was nearly everybody who saw The Princess Bride.
Hollywood covets the four-quadrant film, the one that appeals to male and female, young and old. And while The Princess Bride wasn’t anywhere close to being a blockbuster, even by 1987 standards, the sheer strength of its endurance is a testament to the fact that there’s something in it for everyone. Like the posters said, “Heroes. Giants. Villains. Wizards. True Love.” What more could you possibly want? I feel truly sorry for the grizzled, shriveled soul that can’t find room in their heart for at least one moment from this film.
What makes it so memorable is that it’s not content to simply throw together a bunch of old tropes and let us smile as we recognize them. It’s in the way the film simultaneously pays homage to and affectionately sends up those tropes. The brilliant conceit of framing the film as a book being read aloud not only allows it to work as a statement on the power of storytelling, but lets the film comment on itself in a natural way. That doesn’t mean the characters themselves don’t realize they’re in a fairy tale, but the deconstruction is all so warm and affectionate, you walk out believing in magic as opposed to having had the curtain pulled away.
And just when we’d driven nearly every quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail into the ground, along came The Princess Bride to resupply us for the next decade. We really needed it too. I love me some Python, but man did we need some new material. But instead of being the sole province of geekdom, The Princess Bride worked its way into the mainstream. Say, “Have fun storming the castle,” and I bet 9 out of 10 people will know what you’re talking about. And the tenth person is one of those grizzled, shriveled souls I talked about earlier.
I first saw The Princess Bride at a draft house, an incongruously adult place to see such a child-like film. We bought a pitcher, but after a while, we were drunk on what was up on the screen, and the beer was forgotten. It maybe a four-quadrant film, but it’s the child inside the film truly speaks to.