I was a preteen in the illustrious 1980s, and as much as I loved Family Ties and Remington Steele, I watched a lot of movies. Many of them I watched over and over again. In fact, I made my father rent Real Genius so many times that he finally saved himself some money and bought the damn tape. Sadly, I had the dialogue completely memorized shortly thereafter. (It was a moral imperative.) In the years since, I have logged countless hours up-selling “topping” on popcorn at movie theaters, renting porn to PTA members at my local video store, indulging my imagination and bankrupting myself in film school, and amassing a respectably large—though often questionably broad—video collection. (Yes, Shanghai Surprise is there on purpose.) These days, when I consider my desert island list, I feel I have matured into a first-stringer in the biased and zealous sport that is watching movies in America.
And then I spot a holdover from my innocent youth. In the gruff and glamorous group that constitutes my favorite films, The Princess Bride sticks out like a virgin at the breakfast table the morning after prom. Faced with this incongruity, I immediately remember why it has remained on top all this time: “We are men of action, lies do not become us.” On this lean scrap of dialogue rests the indubitable value of the film as a whole, but I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual.
First, let me prime you. This is not a typical review, as in a critique, but a review in the sense of re-experience from a particular perspective. So, if you haven’t seen this movie… Do It Now! There are many good reasons to check it out: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles!” In short, it is the perfect fairytale, low-sap and high-satire with just as much character as charm and a self-awareness that defies mockery. Throw in an albino and André the Giant in a speaking role and you’ve got a damn near perfect flick.
Now that you have seen it (and love it, natch!), imagine what these characters represented for a twelve-year-old girl watching awestruck in the dark in 1987. You see, despite its title, this is a movie about men, and that is a subject I was paying attention to early on.
Westley and Buttercup, our two in true love, were admittedly somewhat empty ideals, easily molded to fit the contents of our individual hearts and minds. Everyone envied Westley’s dashing, daring charm. All of us believed that, like Buttercup, we too were intrinsically lovable—complete with a perfect pair of breasts, or the beginnings of them. It was in their friends and foes that we found the qualities to seek or steer clear of in searching out our beloved.
Vizzini, the ultimate example of those who talk tall and walk small, showed us the danger of false pride. When challenged in the slightest, he denounced his compatriots: “When I found you, you were so slobbering drunk you couldn’t buy brandy!” (Which has what to do with your willingness to murder, Mr. Smarty-Pants?) When faced with the fact that his flawless plans are foiled on the boat, the Cliffs of Insanity, and again on the road to Gilder, he consistently spouts, “Inconceivable!” Besides bungling a kidnapping, an escape, and the starting of a war, in one final display of his true wit he drops dead.
Prince Humperdinck, the yellowest rat bastard of the bunch, displayed the downsides to dating a killjoy and a coward. He managed to get the lay of the land—literally, if not by consent—and all he wanted to do was kill her so he could send his legions to war. You just know this kid was looking for a fixed fight from the day he was born. When Buttercup refused to marry him he killed Westley in a fit of rage: “You truly love each other, so you might have been truly happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance, no matter what the storybooks say!” Not that he wanted her for himself, mind you, he just couldn’t stand the thought that no one would ever feel that way for him. Which is why Westley, of course, never killed him but challenged him to a duel To The Pain—an ordeal of amputation and disfigurement meant to leave the loser with the lifelong anguish of being obviously lesser.
Count Rugen, the six-fingered man, was simply a bully and an antiseptic bore. After his first session torturing Westley in his dungeon/study, the Pit of Dispair, he explained that he was compiling a definitive study on pain and said, “I want you to be totally honest with me about how the machine makes you feel… And remember, this is for posterity.” Then there is the fact that he battled and scarred an 11-year-old Iñigo Montoya, for which I could never forgive him—ever. This reprehensible sin was compounded in the finale when Rugen told Iñigo that his was the most pathetic story he had ever heard. Well, apart from his requisite moment of contrition, these are the last words he speaks.
Fezzik, the strong but not so silent type, shows the importance of being a good sport and a good friend. What can I say here that isn’t glaringly obvious? He was a poet and a walking wall (“It’s not my fault that I’m the biggest and the strongest, I don’t even exercise!”), and without his thoughtfulness our gang would never have gotten to ride off into the sunrise. “There they were, four white horses, and I thought, there are four of us if we ever find the lady—hello, lady—so I took them with me in case we ever bumped into each other, and I guess we just did.”
Which brings us to Iñigo Montoya. Though he was not technically Prince Charming, he was the realistically flawed version—a man whom we may hope to meet and one day beguile. How, you might wonder, could a drunk with revenge in his heart be the ideal man?
If you look, you’ll see that flourishing in his imperfect humanity are a sense of duty to his family, honesty, chivalry, loyalty, dedication, determination, faith, self confidence coupled with humility, and quixotic optimism. Need I remind you that once the six-fingered man killed his father and beat him in a duel, Iñigo did nothing but study swordplay and pursue Rugen—and for 20 years? Or, that even though he meant to “do him left handed” when he first met Westley (“You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you.”) he ended up admitting that only the man in black could help him? Or, that he relied on the spirit of his dead father for guidance in his most desperate moment? Or, that he rushed Westley’s “mostly dead” body to Miracle Max for a cure? Or, that no matter how many times Rugen seemed to kill him he rallied again and said, “My name is Iñigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” He was the embodiment of Westley’s great words—he was a man of action.
Like Peter Falk, you might say that I am taking this all very seriously, but to even the most worldly-wise 12-year-old girl Westley and Buttercup were a sort of promise. It was as if someone was telling us, if you are good and you are patient you will find someone wonderful. Not for a minute did we expect this to be easy, I mean, we were ready for the modern-day equivalent of the shrieking eels. But listen, William Goldman and Rob Reiner, now that we are older, we know: You mislead us! The ratio of men of action to faithful women is cruelly skewed. Men today are afraid of calling us, much less pledging devotion. They won’t give us a seat on the subway, much less their word of honor. They are loyal to bands. They are devoted to PS2. They are determined to get laid. Men, in this day and age, are boys.
This outlook is bleak and cynical, I know, but it’s not news. Most women I know, save for the few fortunate and the fools, echo these complaints. Here’s my attempt at quixotic optimism: Maybe this consistent disappointment IS the faithfulness part. Maybe we have to wait diligently for our dearest loves to come for us before we have even met them. Maybe they won’t be quite as cool as Iñigo Montoya (horrors), but hopefully they won’t be drunks or killers either. Maybe they won’t always say, “As you wish,” but hopefully they won’t make us say, “I’m not a witch, I’m your wife—but after what you just said, I’m not sure I want to be that anymore!” Massively disappointing alternatives notwithstanding, I am holding out for the ilk of Iñigo. I hope you will too.
[Originally published by The Simon.]