British funnyman Peter Sellers’ ability to play multiple roles in the same film had gotten to be a crutch by the late ’70s, and many of his final films, including Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), rely on the gimmick of hiding Sellers behind silly accents and even sillier costumes. So, while The Prisoner of Zenda goes light on facial prosthetics and outrageous wardrobe, the central contrivance of Sellers playing both an endangered monarch and his commoner lookalike is so unimaginative that watching the movie becomes a chore. Having said that, Sellers isn’t entirely to blame, because everything about this flick is tiresome. Although the Anthony Hope novel upon which the film is based provides such a solid narrative that the tome has been adapted for the screen several times, the producers of this version opted for a style of lighthearted irreverence that requires inspired scripting; put more bluntly, The Prisoner of Zenda is a satire that isn’t funny.
Rudolf V (Sellers) is the ruler of a small European country in the late 19th century. While traveling in England, Rudolf is targeted for assassination, so his underlings recruit a salty London cab driver, Syd (Sellers), to stand in for the king. Unfortunately, the handlers withhold key information from their dupe, who finds himself mired in palace intrigue he doesn’t understand. The straightforward premise should lead to culture-clash comedy, but instead, the filmmakers focus on idiotic bedroom farce and laborious slapstick. For instance, one running gag involves a hot-blooded count (Gregory Sierra) perpetually trying to start a duel with Syd because Rudolf is sleeping with the count’s wife (Elke Sommer); this leads to scenes of the count getting knocked down on streets, set on fire, and so on. Making matters worse, the filmmakers don’t give Sellers scene partners worthy of his skills, so he flounders as competent but utilitarian actors deliver bland performances. If Sellers looks bored playing his trite dual roles, who can blame him?
The Prisoner of Zenda: LAME