We open on a television screen displaying a baseball video game from the 80s. A bedridden boy of about 8 is at the controls in his bedroom. His mother comes in and checks his forehead for a fever. He says he feels a little better, and she tells him that his grandfather has arrived to see him. The boy says he doesn’t like when his grandfather pinches his cheek, at which moment the grandfather bursts through the door with a flourish and pinches the boy’s cheek. The boy and his mother share a knowing look, and then she excuses herself from the room.
The grandfather presents the boy with a wrapped gift, which he opens to reveal a book called The Princess Bride. The grandfather says that his father read it to him, and then he read it to his son (the boy’s father) in turn, and will now read it to the boy. He proclaims the book’s many great attributes, from action and adventure to love and loss. The boy jokes that he’ll try to stay awake as he settles in to listen.
The grandfather begins reading and his words turn to narration as we fade to the scene he’s describing of a humble farm in the countryside, where we see a beautiful girl named Buttercup and her handsome servant, Westley. Buttercup refers to Westley as “farm boy,” and orders him to do various mundane chores for her, from polishing her horse’s saddle to fetching her water. His only response is consistently, “As you wish.” The grandfather narrates that in time the two realized their tacit love for each other, which soon turned to passionate, openly expressed desire. The boy interrupts to complain about the lack of action, and we return to the bedroom. He asks if this is “a kissing book.” The grandfather tells him to wait as he keeps reading. We then return to the farm. The grandfather describes how Westley has no money with which to support Buttercup and so sails across the sea to make his fortune, promising that he will always come for her, because what they share is “true love.”
The grandfather narrates that Westley never reaches his destination because his vessel is attacked and he is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Upon hearing of this, Buttercup falls into a deep depression and swears she’ll never love again.
Five years later, the main square of Florin City is filled with commoners awaiting an announcement from Prince Humperdinck, who speaks from atop his castle to the crowd below. He announces that in one month, on the 500th anniversary of the founding of Florin, he will marry a former commoner and make her his queen. He introduces her into the square, and she is revealed to be a forlorn Buttercup, now called “Princess Buttercup.” The townsfolk all bow before her, as the grandfather narrates that though the prince can legally marry whoever he wants, Buttercup doesn’t love him.
Buttercup takes solace in her daily horse ride through the countryside. One day as she rides, she comes across three outlaws posing as circus performers: a short Sicilian boss named Vizzini, an enormous wrestler from Greenland named Fezzik, and a Spanish fencing master named Inigo Montoya. They ask her if there is a village nearby, and when she tells them that there isn’t, they kidnap her; Fezzik grabs her by the neck, rendering her unconscious.
Vizzini leaves a piece of fabric native to Florin’s rival country of Guilder on Buttercup’s horse and sends the horse back to the castle, saying that it’ll raise suspicions that Guilder kidnapped the to-be queen, and that once her dead body is found on Guilder’s shores, it’ll start a war between the two nations. Fezzik and Inigo both protest killing Buttercup, enraging Vizzini, who reminds Inigo that he saved him from being a penniless drunk, and threatens to send Fezzik back to unemployment in Greenland. As they leave shore, Fezzik entertains himself by responding to everything Inigo and Vizzini say with rhymes, further infuriating Vizzini.
Night falls, and Inigo watches to make sure they’re not being followed, though Vizzini calls the notion “inconceivable.” Buttercup says that they’ll be caught and hanged for what they’ve done. Vizzini again reprimands Inigo for being so paranoid about someone following them, but Inigo points out that there’s indeed a small boat tailing them. Vizzini thinks it must be a harmless fishing vessel. As they ponder it, Buttercup jumps into the water and swims away, only to discover that the water is infested with huge, carnivorous eels. Vizzini bargains with Buttercup that no harm will come to her if she swims back to the boat.
As an eel lunges at her, we switch suddenly back to the bedroom, where the grandfather reassures the boy that Buttercup doesn’t get eaten, as he seemed nervous that she would. He asks if the boy wants to stop, but the boy says to read a little bit more. The grandfather returns to narrating Vizzini’s bargain, but the boy reminds him that he already read that part. They return to the moment that the eel lunges at her. Fezzik strikes the eel and pulls Buttercup from the water. Vizzini then ties her hands so she can’t escape again. Inigo says the boat behind them is getting closer, but Vizzini dismisses him.
At dawn, they see that their follower is very close now, but Vizzini says he’s too late because they’ve already reached the Cliffs of Insanity, a towering sheer rock wall ahead of them. They shore up by a small ledge where a long rope hangs down. They rig themselves to a harness on Fezzik’s back, and he begins climbing the rope, hoisting the four of them up the sheer rock wall. As they go, the chasing ship docks and a masked man in black jumps out and begins climbing the rope as well, gaining on them quickly. Vizzini angrily orders Fezzik to climb faster. When they reach the clifftop, Vizzini cuts the rope’s anchor with a knife, but the man in black grabs the rock wall and continues to scale it. Vizzini and Fezzik take Buttercup while Vizzini instructs Inigo to wait behind and kill the man if he reaches the top. Fezzik tells Inigo to be careful, and Vizzini hurries them away.
Inigo attempts to make small talk with the man as he climbs, but the latter declines to chat. Impatient, Inigo tells the man he’ll throw down what’s left of the rope to speed up his climb, promising not to kill him until he’s reached the top. When the man expresses skepticism, Inigo swears on the soul of his dead father, Domingo Montoya, and the man agrees. Inigo tosses down the rope and uses it to pull the man up.
The Princess Bride is among the most famous and quotable movies of all time. William Goldman’s book of the same name tells the story of a second book, also called The Princess Bride, written by a man named S. Morgenstern, on whose story Goldman supposedly based his own, calling it an “abridged version.” In reality, S. Morgenstern is a made-up author, and the credit for the story lies entirely with Goldman. The idea that Morgenstern wrote the story, however, is maintained in the film version of The Princess Bride, likely in order to preserve the notion that we are experiencing a story within a story, which supports the film’s themes of reality-checking the audience and keeping the stakes lighthearted and free from over-investment. The following analyses will discuss this topic at length.
The framing story of the grandfather and grandson is a clever, prevailing plot device. It provides easy exposition in the form of the grandfather’s narration, as well as glimpses into the characters’ minds as he describes what they’re feeling and thinking. Additionally, the framing story provides a way out for the viewer during tense, sad, or scary moments, as when Buttercup seems about to be eaten by the carnivorous eel. Here, the grandfather stops reading suddenly to comfort his grandson, who’s become uneasy listening to the events unfolding, and in doing so also comforts the audience who might have been feeling similarly. This illustrates the role of the grandson as a representation of the film’s audience. His reactions are taken into account to tailor the storytelling experience to his needs, and therefore ours.
The introduction of Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya is our first indication that this story is not intended to be a run-of-the-mill adventure romance, but in fact a subtle parody of one. Up until this point, Buttercup and Westley have experienced a more or less textbook love story wherein a beautiful girl and handsome man fall madly in love and swear to care for one another always. Once Buttercup is kidnapped by these so-called circus performers, however, and their antics begins to take the spotlight, we understand that the cookie-cutter premise was set up intentionally just to be torn down. Sure, Buttercup is still a damsel in distress, but under conditions and surrounded by events that will soon stray from the typical path these stories usually take.
Vizzini’s character is quickly established as being an obviously incompetent over-compensator: he is quick to anger, admonishes his subordinates for minor indiscretions, and loves to employ the multisyllabic word, “Inconceivable!” Next to Fezzik’s stature or Inigo’s fencing skills, however, he doesn’t hold up, and the way he reminds them of where they’d be without him hints to us that he probably knows this. His overt antagonism also serves to set up Fezzik and Inigo’s characters as more likable by contrast: they’re helping to kidnap the princess along with Vizzini, but the way their gentle, more compassionate personalities differ from his maniacal one tells us that they’re not to be viewed in the same light, and indeed that they may be characters that we root for later on.
The amusingly polite conversation between Inigo and the man in black as the latter dangles from the cliff face is the first example of a recurring motif in the film in which opponents engage in atypically cordial chitchat during tense moments. These instances remind us that this is a parody film, not a standard swash-buckling adventure, and that most of its serious moments are best viewed from an at-ease perspective. After all, as we are continually reminded by the interrupting grandfather and grandson, it’s only a story, and the fun comes from enjoying it without taking it too seriously.