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Anthony Hope's classic tale gets a decidedly 'un-classic' treatment at the hands of Peter Sellers. Following the story somewhat, friends of the new King Rudolph of Ruritania fear for his life, and switch him with a look-a-like London cabby. Throw in two(!) lovely blondes, treachery, and a battle for life and honour, and enjoy life at its zaniest. Written by
Derek Picken <email@example.com>
Peter Sellers made a career mining humor and whimsy from weakish scripts; problem is you have to look hard to find those lesser-if-worthy vehicles where his performances make a major difference, and when you do, you may feel disappointed anyway. But give something like "The Prisoner Of Zenda" a chance, and you may be entertained, albeit fitfully.
With the sudden death of Ruritania's ruler Rudolf IV, the crown falls to his clueless, lascivious twit of a son. Already being hunted by a cuckolded count (Gregory Sierra), Rudy (Sellers) now must also escape the murderous attentions of his half-brother Michael (Jeremy Kemp) and his confederates. But help arrives from an unlikely place, a hansom cab driver named Sidney (also Sellers) who is the spitting image of Rudy. Sidney goes along for the sake of a comfortable sinecure for his aging horse, but soon wonders if "this king game" is worth the risk.
The clock was running out on poor Sellers, and you can see it. The old manic energy that once drove him visibly flickers as you watch him here. Making his life's dream "Being There" was just around the corner, but being Sellers, he couldn't resist another trip to the light- comedy well first for some quick cash.
"You might have noticed the king has trouble with his R's," Sidney is told, referencing the speech impediment which Sellers employs when playing "Wudy."
"Yeah, I had that once," Sidney replies. "You get it from sitting on damp grass."
That's about the apogee for the one-liners offered in "Zenda," which coasts along more on ambiance, colorful supporting characters, a glittery Henry Mancini score, and Sellers impressing by working the corners effectively in his two starring roles. He plays Sidney especially with the same lighter touch he would employ more effectively as Chance the Gardener in "Being There," this time channeling Michael Caine rather than Stan Laurel.
I like this film, sometimes a lot, but it's not an easy one to defend. It starts out painfully slow, opening on the soon-to-be-departed Rudolf IV (Sellers again, in what amounts to a cameo in his own movie) taking a balloon ride to celebrate his 80th birthday, a sequence that involves him cackling a lot and playing with a telescope and a champagne bottle before literally ending with a wet splat when the doddering monarch does a full header into a well.
Scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais don't offer much in the way of comic setpieces; for the most part they are content simply replaying the familiar "Zenda" storyline and sneaking in light humor where they can. After a while, a long while, it sort of works, as when Sidney finds himself caught in bed with Rudy's mistress and her very angry husband.
Sierra is very much over-the-top, but solidly so, as the avenging count, setting up various silly traps that end up hurting only him. Meanwhile, Lionel Jeffries and Simon Williams as a pair of Rudy's loyal aides enjoyably try to keep a reluctant Sidney working for them. Stuart Wilson makes a strong impression as the wicked but sporting Rupert, working against Rudy but playing his own side. His maniacal laugh is one of the movie's more amusing recurring bits.
Director Richard Quine supplies his twin Peters with the affectionate attentions of three leading ladies. Elke Sommer and Catherine Schell starred with Sellers in other films, while the third, Lynne Frederick, was at the time Sellers fourth wife, and would become his widow the following year. All add to the general merriment without standing out too much; Schell does so the most when she leads Sidney in an exchange of chicken imitations.
By this time, the movie finally kicks in as something worthwhile, but it may be too late for all but Sellers' faithful fans. As I count "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" as my all-time favorite film, I enjoyed the way "Zenda" works in the same spirit, Mancini music and pratfalls involving Sellers doubles abounding. There's even a scene between Sidney and regular Sellers cohort Graham Stark involving a growling dog that brings to mind one of "Strikes Again's" most remembered scenes, even getting its own agreeable payoff.
But if you aren't a Sellers fan going in, "Zenda" may not only fail to pull you in but leave you wondering what the fuss with him was all about. It's the subtle stuff that clicks for me, the little moments of grace and dignity from Sidney, and Rudy making randy with Sommer's stately torso ("We have mowtains to cwimb!") The real problem with "Zenda" is not its own fault, but the fact it was about all Sellers would have left to give in the way of silly comedy. I liked what I got, but wished it had been more.
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