My first love

Film Still, The Princess Bride, 1987, MGM
The Princess Bride (film still), MGM, 1987.

I didn’t start reading romance as a genre until I was 20, but that doesn’t mean my young life was devoid of romance. I watched the 1985 TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables over and over, just to watch Anne fall in love with dear Gilbert Blythe. (I can still recite swaths of “The Lady of Shalott,” the Tennyson poem Anne re-enacts until her boat begins to sink, leaving Gilbert to come to the rescue.)

My first love, though, was Westley from The Princess Bride, the Rob Reiner film that came out 25 years ago. Westley was dashing, daring, and kind, and I wanted to be his.

Based on William Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (Goldman attributes the story to the fictional “Morgenstern”; he also wrote the screenplay), The Princess Bride was not particularly successful in theaters. On video, however, it gained a cult following for its cheeky humor, its adventure plot, its quotable quotes (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”), and of course, its wholehearted embrace of True Love.

Film Still, The Princess Bride, 1987, MGM

The Princess Bride (film still), MGM, 1987.

The phrase “True Love” gets uttered 12 times during the 98 minutes of the film, with additional variations such as “she truly loved him back.” But what, exactly, makes True Love “true”?

The film offers several clues. Some point out true love’s internal qualities. As Westley and Buttercup kiss, for example, we’re told that “Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.” One mark of True Love, then, is a perfect blend of “passion” and “purity,” qualities that remain unbalanced in other, lesser loves. Another sign, a little more visible, is True Love’s invincibility. Tested, it passes: as Westley grandly declares, “Death cannot stop True Love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

The most striking thing about True Love in The Princess Bride, though, is its power over everyone’s imagination. The unmatched cynic Miracle Max may doubt himself and everyone around him, but he calls True Love “the best thing in the world” in both the book and film. The evil Prince Humperdinck also believes in its power. Before killing Westley, the Prince tells him, “You truly love each other, and so you might have been truly happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance, no matter what the storybooks say.” He says this to torment his victim, but its effect is just the opposite. This “storybook” mixes grand proclamations and sly humor in order to preach True Love to its younger viewers while it disarms its older ones, and that mix may be where its real magic lies.

When I was a girl, I scarcely noticed the humor in The Princess Bride. I just wanted to grow up so I could fall in love. As an adult, though, I can see how Goldman uses humor both to laugh at and to reaffirm what might well strike us, in our more jaded moods, as the clichés of romance. If the movie seems over-the-top in its pronouncements about True Love, it uses the humor of exaggeration to beat us viewers to the punch—after all, we can’t really object to the clichés when the movie is already winking at them.

As we smile, we lower our guard, and get a glimpse of that same optimistic and hopeful world view we held as children. You may have learned to laugh at True Love, the movie asks, but like Humperdinck and Miracle Max, don’t you secretly believe in it, too?

As Westley might say, “Even adulthood cannot stop True Love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Lindsay Hayes

Lindsay Hayes earned her MA in communication studies at the University of Oklahoma where she focused on mass media. She is particularly interested in romance studies and the role entertainment media play in our everyday lives.

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