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  Prisoner of Zenda, The Pale Imitation
Year: 1979
Director: Richard Quine
Stars: Peter Sellers, Lynne Frederick, Lionel Jeffries, Elke Sommer, Gregory Sierra, Jeremy Kemp, Catherine Schell, Simon Williams, Stuart Wilson, Norman Rossington, John Laurie, Graham Stark, Michael Balfour, Arthur Howard, Ian Abercrombie
Genre: Comedy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 2 votes)
Review: King Rudolf of Ruritania (Peter Sellers) is celebrating his eightieth birthday by taking a balloon ride above his kingdom to see the sights, but when he decides to have a tipple while he does so, his champagne cork pops a hole in the balloon and he crashes to earth. Or crashes to a tree anyway, pleased to see he has survived, or at least he has until he tips out of the basket and down a well. Now the country needs a new king, and his son, also named Rudolf (Sellers again) is sought to take his place on the throne - but he is gambling and womanising in London, unaware of the plot against him...

There was a comedy version of The Prisoner of Zenda already by the time this little-loved effort was released, but you might have missed it even though it was a substantial hit in its day. That film was The Great Race, a marathon comedy that took as its final act a spoof of the classic Anthony Hope novel, and which might have inspired the producers of this to make a feature length version starring one of the great screen comedians, Peter Sellers. Alas, there were troubles from the off, with their star proving eccentric at best, and a liability at worst, nearly sabotaging the production before it was completed.

How bad things got is uncertain, because you cannot see much egregiously wrong with the final work, except that it simply was not funny. In fact, at times - too many times - it didn't come across as being a comedy at all, as if writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were so keen on sticking to the original that they were reluctant to elaborate humorously on it in any way whatsoever. Even when there is a joke, or a set-up designed for laughs, those laughs never arrive, as nobody's heart seems to be in this, nobody except the stuntmen perhaps, who take care of the action sequences with such skill that it's embarrassingly obvious that the actors are not performing in them.

You'll probably know that the plot of Zenda is concerned with doubles, and Sellers plays those doubles, both Rudolf and the lowly London cab driver who happens to be his exact twin, even though as far as they know they are not related (there are light hints that they may be, if you notice them, but nothing major). Rudolf is introduced to us gambling and trying to make off with Count Gregory Sierra's wife (Elke Sommer), which leads to the Count following him about for the rest of the film trying to get justice for such an affront. Sierra does his best, but with not one funny line there's only so far that amount of eye-rolling will take you. Cabby Syd Frewin, however, shows up on the street outside.

Syd foils an assassination attempt on his double, thereby attracting the attentions of the soon-to-be-King's aides, played by Lionel Jeffries and Simon Williams. It's a mark of how subdued almost everyone is here that even Jeffries isn't his usual scene-stealing self, and once Syd has been transported to Ruritania to play the King when a kidnap scheme is put into effect, what you might expect to be an exciting story anyway, if not a hilarious one, just trundles from one bit to another. The writers did their best to mix up the style of jokes, so in one scene you'll get a Wile E. Coyote would-be chortle, the next a spot of bedroom farce, but with hardly anyone rising to the occasion, you can hear the tumbleweed rolling by. Sellers' then wife, Lynne Frederick, was the love interest Princess, and she's beautiful without being interesting, which leaves the acting honours to go to Stuart Wilson's Rupert of Hentzau, always a plum role and he does liven things up, but not enough to save it. Music by Henry Mancini.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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