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This is a classic swashbuckler. Rudolph Rassendyll, Rudolf V's identical distant cousin, is asked to risk his life and impersonate the would-be king when his relative is kidnapped before his impending coronation. If Rudolf V isn't present at the ceremony, he will forfeit the crown to his older half-brother. Complications ensue when Princess Flavia, the king's cousin and betrothed, begins to notice a "personality change" in her fiancé. Written by
Albert Sanchez Moreno <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The sword fight in the castle of Zenda between Coleman and one of the king's guards appears to be with rapiers, however when the fight is picked up again in the outside room the rapiers have become sabers - necessary in order to cut the rope of the drawbridge. See more »
Ronald Colman shines in the dual role of the dissipated Crown Prince Rudolph and the "simple Englishman", Rudolph Rassendyl. The crown prince's predilection for the bottle recalls Colman's earlier portrayal of the dark side of Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. In contrast, Rassendyll's reluctant gallantry and abiding integrity and honor epitomize the qualities for which matinée idol Colman had become known during his famous film career.
His scenes with the incandescent Madeleine Carroll are especially felicitous, both visually and aurally. The poignant, penultimate scene of the film left this reviewer with a wistful sense of regret that The Prisoner of Zenda was to be their only cinematic collaboration.
Raymond Massey was never better as the ambitious Duke Michael. The expressionistic qualities of his facial contortions make his lines almost superfluous.
The rakish Count Rupert, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., represents the archetypal rogue. His perennial smile, abiding charm, and sardonic wit make him a curious composite of Don Juan and Mephistopheles. Like Massey, I have never seen the underrated son of the silent screen's most dashing hero in better form.
The film's remaining actors acquit themselves more than adequately. Mary Astor is the lovely Antoinette, Duke Michael's devoted, yet unfairly, neglected paramour. Her consistently dark raiment and shadowy movements are perhaps reflective of her lover's illegitimate origins, while at the same time belying her kind heart. Visually this is contrasted with the always radiant Princess Flavia.
The two royal bodyguards, Colonel Zapt and Captain von Tarlenheim, are a case study, to my mind, as to why films like The Prisoner of Zenda are consistently superior to today's mediocre fare. Although relatively lesser roles, they are capable of, and on more than one occasion, do dominate a given scene; moreover, in their own way they are as fully developed as any of the principals. The abiding sense of honor and loyalty expressed by C. Aubrey Smith's Colonel Zapt is so profoundly felt and reflective of a long-vanished ethos, that one laughs to think of any contemporary actor making such utterances. The paradox would be striking!
As for Zapt's protégé, Captain von Tarlenheim, given the camera's fondness for the handsome young star, it will come as no surprise to learn that this role was reputedly David Niven's first acting breakthrough. His gift for dry English understatement is the occasion for one especially humorous scene-stealing moment that I will generously leave to the curious viewer to enjoy for himself.
With such an outstanding, marquee cast that lives up to its advanced billing and then some, it is not difficult to understand why this film was such a rousing success when it premiered in 1937; so successful, in fact, that it was copied verbatim by MGM 15 years later after it purchased the rights from Selznick. With no slight intended to Stewart Granger et al., you cannot improve on perfection.
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