Welcome to Alt-Christmas, our week of articles dedicated to movies that we like to watch this time of year, especially if we’re not entirely in the spirit of the season.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the need to re-appropriate some films as Christmas movies has very little to do with the holiday itself. People aren’t extolling the virtues of Die Hard or Rare Exports as a Christmas movie because they’ve burned through all the Hallmark movies and have no more overt holiday films to watch; the push for some movies to be included in an alternative Christmas cannon is more about gaming your family dynamics. The holidays are a time when large, heterogeneous groups of people come together and flounder for shared cultural touch-points. Your typical moviegoer, exhausted by the second run-through of A Christmas Story on TBS, starts looking for ways to Trojan Horse their favorite movies into holiday rotation. Maybe your Great Aunt Sally would never watch a movie like Tangerine under normal circumstances, but convince her it’s a Christmas movie and you’ve got your foot in the door. Once it’s on television, who cares what she thinks? You’re getting to watch something you love.
This explains why I always assumed The Princess Bride was a Christmas movie, even years before I noticed there are actually some Christmas decorations on display throughout the film. In my household, The Princess Bride was the holiday movie par excellence, the perfect film for adults and kids alike. Whenever my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would gather together for Thanksgiving or Christmas – twenty or thirty Monagles all crammed together in a single house – it would only be a matter of time before someone threw the same battered tape into the VCR. The kids would laugh at Wallace Shawn’s nasally voice or Andre the Giant’s size; the adults would chuckle knowingly at Peter Falk’s beleaguered delivery or Billy Crystal’s improvisations. For the next several hours, my uncles would quote lines about Sicilians and mawwaige, and all of this occurred with such regularity – as seasonal as hot chocolate and outdoor lights – that I never stopped to think that it wasn’t overtly about Christmas at all.
Of course, those who have seen it as many times as I will notice that The Princess Bride does seem to be set in the aftermath of the holidays. While the script doesn’t explicitly mention the holiday – it actually makes no note of the season whatsoever – the filmed version points to the aftermath of a successful Christmas. There are the Santa Claus toys on the bookshelf, of course, but the Grandson also appears to be enjoying a bounty of new Christmas gifts. Not only is he playing Hardball! – one of the best-selling Commodore 64 games of the year – he’s also wearing what appears to be a brand new Chicago Bears jersey. Anyone who was a sports fan as a kid would recognize the importance of that bedtime apparel: the new jersey or t-shirt you refused to take off, wearing to bed for days at a time before your parents finally bribed you to let them put it in the washing machine. If the internet, in its infinite wisdom, has canonized Die Hard as a contemporary Christmas classic, then surely The Princess Bride meets the technical requirements of a holiday film.
All of that is pretty self-evident, but there’s also the other reason why I keep The Princess Bride in my Christmas cannon, one that I’ve wasted countless hours arguing with friends and family. I really and truly believe that good holiday movies must cut across all different ages. A few weekends ago, my own in-laws stayed with us for a week around Thanksgiving; when prompted to find a movie that everyone could enjoy, I immediately queued up The Princess Bride on Amazon – watching it for the first time in perhaps a decade – simply because I knew it was the perfect win-win situation. It’s clever without being crass, old-fashioned without being stuffy, sentimental but not saccharine. It’s a movie that can be enjoyed by a mother-in-law who never watches anything that isn’t on the Hallmark channel, a father-in-law who gravitates towards crime thrillers (but prefers not to watch movies alone), and a wife who would rather watch two episodes of [anything] than a 90-minute movie. There’s a little something for everyone in The Princess Bride, and while it may seem silly to say that is in keeping with the Christmas spirit… well, what better way to bring people together than a story about a Grandfather and a Grandson finding common ground in literacy?
(Aside: I put my The Princess Bride theory to the ultimate test about a decade ago as the teacher of an after-school film program. I assumed that the film would be smart enough and entertaining enough to survive the ire of a middle school crowd; based on their reaction and subsequent demands that I show them the R-Rated American remake of The Strangers, I’m going to, um, declare that particular study ‘inconclusive’ at best.)
Middle school audiences aside, in every way that matters – theme, setting, and execution – The Princess Bride belongs alongside Home Alone and Die Hard in the millennial Christmas movie Hall of Fame. It may not be the most overtly Christmas movie you can put on this month, and it may be a little old-fashioned for some of the younger viewers, but it is the perfect way to pass the time with a group of people who exhausted their talking points about 4 hours into a 12-hour day. The holidays are a time to bring people together, especially when it means everyone keeping their mouths shut for 98 glorious minutes. The annual screening of The Princess Bride is one family tradition I fully intend to pass on.