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The Prisoner of Zenda
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The Prisoner of Zenda More at IMDbPro »

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16 out of 16 people found the following review useful:

A crown jewel of silent swashbuckling cinema!

Author: DrMMGilchrist ( from Hull
20 March 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As a Ruritanian completist, I made it my mission to seek out this film on tape, and had to find it in the US. It was well worth the effort! There are some spoilers in my comments, but I find it hard to believe there can be anyone around who hasn't already seen at least one version of Hope's classic adventure story or read the books. My main points are comparisons between this version and the better-known talkies.

The first half of this film is more effective than the 1937-1952 versions in opening out the action: it was scripted for cinema rather than being an adaptation of an 1890s stage version. So we start off with Rassendyll at home in England with his brother and sister-in-law, and are introduced to the plotters before we see him arrive in Ruritania - building the suspense. There are more exterior shots and landscapes - perhaps filched from travelogues of Central Europe. The Cathedral is Gothic, as described in the book, but, most strangely, the signs at the railway station are in Cyrillic script: given Ruritania's location and culture, Fraktur (German Black Letter) would have been more appropriate. But at least, unlike the talkies, the country has not been transplanted to the route of the Orient Express! The costumes are striking: late 19C interpreted with an early 1920s sensibility. They are therefore not historically accurate, but their slightly off-key style heightens the sense that the story is taking place in an imaginary realm, an alternative universe version of late 19C Europe. Some of the plot is changed in the second half. Unfortunately, we lose the fight in the summerhouse, and there is an utterly bizarre, positively Petrine plot involving a *dwarf would-be assassin*. The circumstances of the King's rescue and Michael's fate are also altered.

The leads are excellent. Lewis Stone is almost the double of Ronald Colman, but (correctly) lighter-haired. Novarro is a sinister Rupert - more malevolent than Douglas Fairbanks jr. The Rassendyll/Flavia romantic scenes - especially their parting - are played less soppily than in some of the later versions. Some supporting characters omitted in other versions make their appearance: Helga, and old Marshal Strackenz. Sapt and Fritz look exactly as one imagines from the book - Sapt short and burly, more like Bismarck than the patrician C. Aubrey Smith. But the Six are reduced to Four (no von Lauengram or Krafstein). The casting of Johann (here abbreviated to Hans) as comedy relief seemed unnecessary and distracting. And I'm afraid to say that Michael's allegedly dangerous 'Black Cuirassiers' looked about as threatening as the doddery troops from 'Dad's Army'...

I was glad to see some telling details from the book retained, such as the 'All is well' telegram, Michael dropping his helmet in the cathedral when he sees Rassendyll, & c. But as usual, Michael and Antoinette are played as older man/younger woman, instead of vice versa, and Stuart Holmes, as Michael, is on the plain and chunky side. (I still cannot imagine that he played Alec - the "handsome, horsey young buck" - in 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles'...). However, Holmes turns in a creditable performance, more sympathetic than the character has been portrayed in the later versions. He is not a 2-D villain: his shift from specifying that the coup should be bloodless to plotting murder suggests an initially well-intentioned man sinking deeper into conspiracy as Rassendyll's involvement makes his plans unravel out of control. We see and hear, too, that he has supporters: although we do not see the public demonstration, there is a conversation between men in the Cathedral (I could not help but smile at the Michael-supporter being a Karl Liebknecht-lookalike!), and the narration tells us that the city is divided. There was little sense in the later versions that he was the more popular of the brothers.

The tragic Barbara LaMarr is hauntingly exquisite as Antoinette, although much too young. As in all the film versions (and, indeed, the books) she is a far more interesting female lead than the sweet Princess Flavia (Alice Terry). The Antoinette/Michael relationship is established more convincingly, early in the film, than in the later versions. Her betrayal of him is played rather differently, as is his death. In this version, Rassendyll gets the three-cornered fight he had feared, versus Michael *and* Rupert! At least Jacob's Ladder is depicted correctly as a large drainpipe over the moat. But I still wish a version would be made which gave Antoinette her great tragic scene, pursuing Rupert like an avenging angel...

However, the ending is closer to the book than that of the talkie versions, which wrongly (and quite unbelievably) implied that Rudolf V was going to become a reformed character: perhaps a result of the Hays Code's view of authority? I hope this version will get the DVD release it clearly deserves: it is a silent swashbuckling gem!

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