*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 1937 version of 'The Prisoner of Zenda' has been one of my
favourite films for most of my life. The performances outshine those of
the shot-for-shot 1952 colour remake, while the Peter Sellers spoof
deserves to be forgotten...
The plot is taken from Anthony Hope's classic 1894 swashbuckling novel. Rudolf Rassendyll, the younger son of a British Earl, distantly related (illegitimately) to the ruling house of Ruritania, is forced to impersonate the new King Rudolf, whose double he is. There are complications, conspiracies and some excellent swordplay. Rudolf has to rescue the abducted King, but falls in love with the beautiful Princess to whom his lookalike is betrothed. The adventure is brought superbly to life by a terrific cast: Ronald Colman as Rudolf Rassendyll and King Rudolf, Madeleine Carroll as Princess Flavia, Douglas Fairbanks jr. as Rupert von Hentzau, Mary Astor as Antoinette de Mauban, C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Sapt, and a very young David Niven as Fritz von Tarlenheim. Raymond Massey as Duke Michael is perhaps less happily cast (see comments below), but he does well in a role which is, even in the novel, too thinly written for his plot-function.
I love this film - it is one of the classics of its genre, and I can only regret that the same team wasn't reunited to make the more tragic sequel, 'Rupert of Hentzau'. The most obvious gaffe I've spotted is the list of stations painted on the door of the train. As Hope-readers know, Ruritania is *not* in the Balkans, but is a German-speaking state between Saxony and the present-day Czech Republic: the nearest major rail-link in the real world is Dresden, therefore the Orient Express is not the best way to get there! Otherwise, the environment of the book is effectively realised. Oddly, the film sets the action in 1897, *after* the novel's publication (1894), whereas the sequel 'Rupert of Hentzau' implies that the events described are a few years in the past - probably c. 1876 for 'The Prisoner of Zenda'.
However, I just want to raise a few more points which I hope will encourage viewers to sample the book, too. Enjoyable as the film is, it is not a completely faithful adaptation: in some places, the film works as well as the novel, but in others it loses depth. Both are worthwhile on their own terms. There are one or two ***spoilers*** in here.
In the novel, it is very clear that this is a story of young people, and some of the casting in terms of age affects the dynamics of the relationships. While it doesn't matter too drastically that the 2 Rudolfs are here 40-something, not the 29-30 of the book, the script has altered the relationship between King Rudolf and his half-brother Michael. In the film, Michael is older, but (it is implied) illegitimate. In the novel, he is *younger* (probably mid-20s) and legitimate, although by a morganatic marriage; he is popular with the common people (not much in evidence in the film), and the sequel confirms one's suspicions that he could not have been any worse a King than Rudolf. Perhaps the story needs a somewhat more ironic and cynical touch, then, rather than endorsing Sapt's agenda without question?
What's more, in the book Antoinette is implied to be one of the 'poules de luxe' or 'grandes horizontales' typical of the era, and is a number of years Michael's senior: which makes her efforts to hang on to him rather more urgent and desperate. Mary Astor is ideal in the role, but she needed a younger partner: had Douglas Fairbanks jr. (an actor of far greater range than is sometimes credited) been cast as the intense, politically frustrated Michael, the relationship would have struck the right note. But then, one would have needed to cast someone like Errol Flynn as Rupert, and, fun though he is in swashbucklers, I'm not sure that would have worked.
Douglas Fairbanks jr. is a superb Rupert, and in many ways steals the show from Colman's gentlemanly Rassendyll and drunken playboy King Rudolf. He has style, swagger and sex appeal. What he is weaker on is the character's streak of sheer viciousness. When Rassendyll observes that he's a "bad-tempered fellow, underneath the charm", we never *quite* believe it of *this* Rupert. He's more of a dashing rogue than the novel's polished but out-and-out treacherous juvenile thug: the film's Rupert is a cad, but he doesn't attempt rape. The film makes the big sword-fight a duel between Rupert and *Rudolf Rassendyll*, rather than between Rupert and *Michael* - which is understandable in box-office terms, but sadly means we lose *another* terrifically dramatic scene: Antoinette, in her bloodstained nightdress, going after Rupert with a pistol.
In conclusion: this is one of *the* all-time great adventure films. Never miss an opportunity to see it, but don't forget to read the books, too! (They are now available on-line.)
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