Something is gained and something is lost when a full creative work breaks down into familiar pieces that pass from hand to hand like baseball cards. It happened to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it happened to "The Simpsons," it happened to "The Big Lebowski." And over the 30 years since its release, it happened to "The Princess Bride."
On the one hand, the fact that "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means" — applied in "The Princess Bride" to the word "inconceivable" — is so handy and ubiquitous marks the deep embedding of the film into the culture. But on the other hand, repetition can build a callus, so that people stop really appreciating the lines they've heard so many times in the fourth-generation photocopies that are imitations of remembered imitations of Mandy Patinkin or Wallace Shawn.
The 30th anniversary of "The Princess Bride" is a fine opportunity to track it down and watch it, trying not to anticipate its famous lines — or trying to leave them out of your understanding of it altogether — and just appreciating it for the simple, good-natured, off-kilter comedy it was when it was released in 1987.
It was directed by Rob Reiner, who was in the midst of a dynamite run that also included "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Sure Thing," "Stand By Me," "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery" and "A Few Good Men;" and written by William Goldman, who also wrote the book on which it was based. Goldman also wrote the screenplays for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All The President's Men."
The film they made together goes something like this: in a fantasy kingdom, the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) decides to marry simple farm girl Buttercup (Robin Wright), who is mourning the loss of her true love, Westley (Cary Elwes), following his untimely demise. When Westley reappears, he must save her from the evil prince and his henchman, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), with the help of bad-guys-turned-good-guys Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Inigo (Patinkin), while avoiding their still-a-bad-guy boss, Vizzini (Shawn). And this all takes place inside a modern-day frame, in which a kind grandfather (Peter Falk) reads the book to his sick grandson (teeny Fred Savage, before "The Wonder Years").
Like Goldman's book — which is built on a fictional frame claiming it's a retelling of an old book by someone named "S. Morganstern" — the film is built as a story that knows itself to be a story. That contributes to its timelessness, because it knows its own old-fashioned qualities, but holds them at a certain distance.
When the music swells behind a romantic kiss, for example, we instantly cut to young Savage, looking up at his grandfather with suspicion, asking, "Is this a kissing book?" It is a kissing book, although it is also, as his grandfather has promised, full of adventure and sword fights and dangerous creatures.
Goldman knew the points of resistance when he wrote the book; that knowledge lives in the film, too. Its self-knowledge feels like a precursor to the popularity of "meta" storytelling, like you find in mockumentaries (of which, of course, "This Is Spinal Tap" had already been one) and fourth-wall-breaking comedies like "30 Rock."
On screen, "The Princess Bride" also benefits from impeccable casting. It brilliantly deploys people who were movie-and-TV famous (Billy Crystal and Carol Kane as a wizened maker of miracles and his wife), people who were other kinds of famous (Shawn and Patinkin, both of whom were well-established, but perhaps best-known in literary and theatrical circles; Andre the Giant, who was a wrestler), and people who weren't well-known at all, like Wright and Elwes, neither of whom had wide recognition with movie audiences.
Plus Christopher Guest! Chris Sarandon! That perfect and inexplicable cameo from Peter Cook as "The Impressive Clergyman"! And Peter Falk, well after we got to know him, sharing scenes with Fred Savage right before we got to know him.
So don't post a quote on your timeline and go about your day. Actually find the film, watch it, and remember why we shared all those little pieces in the first place.
"The Princess Bride" is coming back to theaters Oct. 15 and Oct. 18 for its 30th anniversary. You can find a screening here.