Patheos by Paul D. Miller September 11, 2013
Review of The Princess Bride, Directed by Rob Reiner
It is absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable that The Princess Bride is not on everyone’s list of the greatest movies ever made. This movie is, objectively speaking, better than apple pie, Legos, a shiny new bike on your birthday, and little league baseball—combined. It is the apotheosis of all childhood fantasies rolled into one. It is also the most quotable movie ever made. As a professor international security affairs, I regularly counsel my students to avoid the classic blunders, the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” You know the rest.Incredibly, this gem was overlooked when it was first released. Then again, 1987 saw such films as Robocop, Dirty Dancing, Predator, Spaceballs, and Empire of the Sun, so maybe audiences were busy. (Interesting aside: 1987 seems to have specialized in highly quotable films. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” “May the Schwartz be with you,” and, of course, “Get to da choppa!” are immortal lines, all). The Princess Bride bombed at the box office and was neglected at the Oscars. It was nominated for its screenplay—by the Writer’s Guild, not the Academy. And it lost. If only it had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.
Among the many valuable life lessons learned from this fine movie are these:
Aristotle couldn’t have put it better.
2. When someone is all dead, there’s only one thing you can do: go through his pockets for loose change.
3. Revenge is really a fine calling if you have a suave Spanish accent and can capture your life’s quest in one pithy, memorable phrase.
4. True love conquers all.
Like stories about unicorns, leprechauns, and bipartisanship, these lessons only exist in fairy tales. This tale revolves around Westley, farmboy-turned-pirate, and his inexplicable love for Buttercup, farm-girl-turned-princess. If you think about it for a moment, Westley must have murdered hundreds of people during his five years of masquerading as the Dread Pirate Roberts, but that never seems to bother Buttercup. Also, he’s kind of a jerk for accusing her of giving up on him because he was dead. On the other hand, Buttercup isn’t the sweetest treat in the box either, having betrayed Westley to Prince Humperdink on the mere verbal promise that the Prince will not hurt him. All in all they make a fairly unappealing couple.
They win the audience’s sympathy because they have deep, abiding, passionate, true love for each other. I know this because they say so, repeatedly, right to the camera. “That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish’, what he meant was, ‘I love you.’ And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back.” The movie doesn’t bother to show why they love each other; it just declares it as a fact. Which is probably for the best.
This comes perilously close to the sins of “salvation by romance” and worshipping the false god of Eros that I regularly complain about. But not in this movie. This movie is a fairly tale. Fairy tales have different rules. They have a whiff of whimsy and nonsense about them. Characters are allowed—expected—to do silly or impossible things, like scale the Cliffs of Insanity, come back to life after being mostly dead, and fall in love instantaneously for no reason whatsoever.
Fairy tales are a sort of projection of what life feels like, rather than what it actually is, or maybe what we wish it felt like, or how we choose to remember our lives in our edited, sanitized, memories. My wife and I regularly have occasion to tell the story of how we met and fell in love and married—and sometimes the story evolves slightly to become funnier, shorter, and more foreordained than it really was. We already know the story has a happy ending, so the telling of it should be happy, too. We tell the fairy tale version of our lives.
What does the fairy tale of The Princess Bride say about what we wish life was like? We want it to be true that “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” In reference to romantic love, this is silly nonsense. Romance waxes and wanes with the seasons, with your hormones, and with what you had for dinner—but it is a pretty good description of Agape, God’s love. Consider a paraphrase of Romans 8:38-39: “Neither death nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus overcame death itself out of love for his church.
That got me wondering: what is the relationship between Eros and Agape? (Go read C.S. Lewis’ book The Four Loves for a good primer on the different kinds of loves). Is it possible that God gave us Eros as a type of earthly love the experience of which teaches us about heavenly love? When we fall in (romantic) love, we go a little crazy; we become wholly devoted to our lover; we actually, momentarily, lose ourselves. When we chose to set our Agape love on someone, we do much the same thing, but we do so from conscious choice rather than hormonal insanity and—here is the crucial difference—we do so for our lover’s good rather than our pleasure.
But the similarities remain. Not for nothing does the Bible tell us that marriage is an image of how Christ loves the church, and a whole book of the Bible celebrates the love of husband and wife. God, it seems, has built into our biology an instinctive drive to give ourselves to another, even just momentarily, so that we might have some inkling of what it looks like and have some capacity to recognize selfless love when we read of God’s love for us.
That is the use of fairy tales. They dress up timeless truths in narrative garb—fantastical, whimsical, entertaining narrative, so that we laugh and cry as we learn and celebrate something true, something noble, something right. The Princess Bride celebrates many such truths. Never trust a six-fingered man. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line. And true love conquers all.