Friday, August 5, 2011

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those films that you've probably seen even if you haven't ever watched it. It's an adaptation of the famous Victorian novel of the same name, and has been made into countless stage and screen productions. It's also been parodied relentlessly in film and television for the last fifty years, most famously in Peter Seller's 1979 spoof and the second act of Blake Edwards's The Great Race. Of all its various incarnations, however, this one is generally considered to be the best, and with good reason. A faithful screenplay, and the star power of Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, and David Niven makes this 1937 Selznick version the one considered absolutely definitive.

The plot is fairly basic, with Ronald Colman playing an English tourist in the (fictional) country of Ruritania, who is distantly related to the monarch of that nation and by an astonishing coincidence looks exactly like him. This proves to be advantageous when the king is drugged and falls comatose on the eve of his coronation, and Colman must take his place or the country will fall prey to the king's evil half-brother (Raymond Massey). The plan appears to go off without a hitch, although Colman instantly becomes smitten with the king's bride-to-be (Madeleine Carroll). Unfortunately Massey's evil henchman (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) stumbles upon the real king while the latter is still incapacitated, and kidnaps him in order to use him as a political leverage, possibly to kill him so Massey can assume the throne. The rest of the film is taken up in the thrilling rescue which includes Colman the infiltrating the castle of Zenda by swimming the moat, climbing the castle walls, and sword-fighting with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

I liken this film to a box of See's Candies: it's junk food, but it's high-quality junk food that tastes really good. The characters are extremely predictable with the bad guys do diabolical you can imagine them twirling their mustaches and the good guys impossible noble even if they do have their foibles (the king, for example, is a bit of a lush). Still, it's well executed, well acted, and has enough action and intrigue to keep the audience entertained the requisite two hours. Fairbanks has so much fun being evil, moreover, that you can't help enjoying his performance even if it is completely over-the-top.

I leave this film with a rating of 7.6.

buy it from Amazon:
The Great RaceThe Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1952 Versions) 

1 comment:

  1. It's a pretty darn good movie. Although I did have problems with immediately accepting Ronald Colman as an action hero. And I noticed that most of the movie's action is in the second half, making it a bit imbalanced for a swashbuckler.