There have been countless screen adaptations of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, but Richard Quine’s 1979 version – his last as director – is the least timely. Less than two years after Star Wars changed the cinematic landscape, fewer than six months after Doctor Who introduced robot doubles into its own variation on the story, and exactly three weeks after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais’ script harkens back to the likes of the 1950s Ealing comedies, and Sellers’ own The Mouse That Roared – but feels misplaced in the year that produced Alien, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and, later on, Sellers’ reinvention shortly before his death in Being There.
Co-starring Sellers’ fourth wife Lynne Frederick in her last film role and one no bigger than those played by Elke Sommer and Catherine Schell, The Prisoner of Zenda tells the tale of a cab driver who is the spitting image of the fatuous King Rudolph V, set to inherit the throne of Ruritania after the death of his father (also Sellers) in a hot air balloon accident. But Rudolph’s half brother Michael (Jeremy Kemp) has other ideas, intending to take the crown for himself – and thus cabbie Sydney Frewin is co-opted into impersonating the king as a diversion, to facilitate the irresponsible Rudolph’s coronation.
It’s a breezy enough film, with a plethora of British character actors – including John Laurie in a small role, and Simon Williams as Frewin’s “handler” – giving it plenty of stiff upper lip, with the usual diversions along the way, among them Gregory Sierra as a cuckolded count determined to get his revenge on the roving would-be king. But much of the comedy is somewhat superannuated, the jokes obvious and the action rather tame. The Henri Mancini score, celebrated on the film’s release, is probably doing rather too much of the director’s work for him, but is as lacking in subtlety as everything else.
Unquestionably it is Sellers who dominates almost every scene. Famous for playing multiple roles (notably in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove), Sellers is even named twice in the opening titles, and we really are getting two performances from him here. Surprisingly, given the actor’s then recent comments about having everything of himself but the characters he plays “surgically removed”, it is in the parodical Rudolph where he’s weakest, the part being a collection of toffee-nosed ticks and verbal distortions. Whereas Sellers manages to give the modest cockney cabbie just enough life to persuade you to care, and the actor is never less than supremely watchable even when he’s off his best form.
One for Sellers fans, then, or those who like their comedies to remind them of gentler times.
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1979) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: RICHARD QUINE / SCREENPLAY: DICK CLEMENT, IAN LA FRENAIS / STARRING: PETER SELLERS, PETER SELLERS, LYNNE FREDERICK, LIONEL JEFFRIES, ELKE SOMMER / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 5TH