Saturday, February 27, 2016

Stubs - The Mouse That Roared

The Mouse That Roared (1959) Starring: Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg, William Hartnell Directed by Jack Arnold.  Screenplay by Roger MacDougall, Stanley Mann. Based on the novel, “The Mouse That Roared” by Leonard Wibberley. Produced by Walter Shenson. Run Time: 83 minutes. United Kingdom Color. Comedy

Inspiration comes from many sources. The inspiration for the book The Mouse That Roared came from the treaty between the United States and Japan that ended World War II. Several years later, Los Angeles Times editorial writer Leonard Wibberley wrote a satirical editorial about the treaty in which he mused that Japan was awarded so much aid for losing the war that perhaps it was better for them to lose than win.

Not wanting to let a good idea go to waste, Wibberley expanded his into a serialized novel about the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declaring war on the U.S. in order to lose and reap the benefits. The story appeared in six issues of the Saturday Evening Post from December 25, 1954 to January 29, 1955 under the title “The Day New York Was Invaded”. In February, 1955, it was published as a novel as The Mouse That Roared. The book was later published in the UK under the title The Wrath of Grapes, a takeoff on John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Walter Shenson was working as Columbia Picture’s head of publicity in the UK in the late 1950’s. Actor Tyrone Power gave Shenson a copy of the book and he was so impressed that he bought the film rights, quit his job and became a film producer.

Peter Sellers was not a household name in the US when he was cast in the film. Well known in England, Sellers had been on the Goon Shows radio programme for most of the 1950s. He had also been appearing in movies since 1950’s The Black Rose, in which he dubbed the voice of Lu Chung. The best known of his early films may be The Ladykillers (1955) opposite Alec Guiness and Herbert Lom.

The film was shot at the Shepperton Studios in London between October 27 and December 22, 1958. The World premiere was in Geneva, Switzerland on May 23, 1959, but the film didn’t open in London until July 17, 1959 and in New York until October 26, 1959. It was released through Columbia Pictures, Shenson’s former studio.

The Mouse That Roared begins with the opening credits. Miss Columbia, the studio’s trademark, is chased off her pedestal, frightened by a mouse that is under her gown.

Miss Columbia flees the opening credits.

We are informed through narration about the smallest country in the world, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the only English-speaking country on the European continent. Ruled by the popular Duchess Gloriana XII (Peter Sellers), a descendent of the founder of the country, the main source of money is the export of a particular wine to the U.S. We are introduced to Count Rupert Mountjoy (Peter Seller), the country’s Prime Minister and to Tully Bascome (Peter Sellers) leading the country’s Army through drills with a bow and arrow. The narrator acknowledges the resemblance making reference to the fact that the founding father of Fenwick was truly the father of his country.

But the country is about to go bankrupt when a California winery markets a similar tasting and similarly named wine of their own. The country’s protests to the U.S. have gone ignored. Facing insolvency, the country’s Prime Minister, Count Rupert Mountjoy, has a rather desperate sounding plan, declare war on the United States, then recognized as the most powerful nation on earth.

The Duchess Gloriana (Peter Sellers) watches as Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Peter Sellers)
announces his idea to save the Duchy of Grand Fenwick by declaring war on the United States. 

While Mountjoy doesn’t mention it, his idea is based on how the U.S. treated Japan after World War II. He figures that as soon as the U.S. defeats the Duchy, they will pour money into the country. With the support of opposition leader Benter (Leo McKern) and the Duchess, Mountjoy sends a declaration of war to the U.S., but once again it is ignored.

Tully Bascome (Peter Sellers) reluctantly accepts his appointment to lead the Army.

He then appoints Tully Bascome, the country’s forest ranger as well as field marshal, to lead 20 volunteers from the country’s army, which still utilizes the long bow as its primary weapon to invade. Tully is not thrilled by the appointment, rather wanting to stay behind in the forest. But with the help of Sergeant Will Buckley (William Hartnell), who had real experience in the British Army, Tully manages to recruit twenty reluctant soldiers and they board a dilapidated freighter in Marseilles bound for New York City.

Tully drills his troops aboard the ship on the way to invade New York City.

When they land in the harbor and dressed in the chain mail, the troops invade, but find the city deserted due to a city-wide air raid drill. Unopposed, the troops move through the city. Tully picks up a paper and reads about the drill, which was called as a reaction to the impending development by Dr. Alfred Kokintz (David Kossoff) of the most deadly weapon known to man, the Q bomb.

Dr. Alfred Kokintz (David Kossoff) and his daughter Helen
(Jean Seberg) decline to hide when the air raid sirens go off.

On his way to surrender, Tully takes a wrong turn and ends up at the New York Institute of Physics, where Kokintz and his daughter Helen (Jean Seberg) are putting the finishing touches on the football-shaped bomb. Despite their protests, Tully has the doctor, his daughter and the bomb taken hostage.

Reports circulate that New York is under attack from Martians, so General Snippet (MacDonald Parke) accompanied by New York City police officers are sent out by the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Austin Willis) to investigate. When the jeep they are travelling in is attacked by arrows and the men are taken prisoner. As quickly as they came, the invaders leave and set sail back to Marseilles.

General Snippet (MacDonald Parke) surrenders to Tully's men in New York City.

Back in Fenwick, the government is preparing to welcome their American conquerors.

Meanwhile, the Duchy prepares to greet their American conquerors.

Back in Washington, the Secretary of Defense is only then becoming aware of Fenwick’s Declaration of War and aware that the Q bomb is missing. After consulting with the Army, the decision is made to declare defeat and he is sent to Fenwick, the Secretary of State is apparently busy elsewhere, to negotiate surrender.

When Tully arrives back in country, his own country is not overjoyed by his apparent victory. As word spreads, nations from all over the world, including England, France, China and the USSR offer their support of Fenwick.

Mountjoy and Benter are not happy with the outcome and suggest that they return the bomb to the U.S. But the Duchess has other ideas and order the bomb held in the dungeon. Mountjoy and Benter resign their posts and Tully is appointed Prime Minister.

Still determined to return the bomb and lose the war, Mountjoy visits Helen and tells her he wants to send her and the bomb back and offers to facilitate her escape. Her father, Dr. Kokintz, has caught the eye of the Duchess and she is busy serenading him on her harpsicord. Mountjoy and the now freed Snippet retrieve the bomb from the dungeon.

Montjoy, with the leader of the leader of the opposition (Leo
McKern) offer to facilitate the Americans' escape.

While she’s waiting for Mountjoy to return, Helen decides to take a shower. That is when Tully decides to visit her and the two get into a heated argument and which time he realizes he’s fallen in love with her. But when he returns to testify his love, Helen and Mountjoy escape out the back window and to the Duchess’ antique roadster where Snippet and the police officers are already waiting.

Before escaping, Helen decides to take a shower.

As they drive off with the bomb, the story is interrupted by footage of a nuclear explosion. The narrator explains that this is not the end of the film, but that the footage was included to "put audiences in the mood." The action then continues as "Tully" runs after the car on foot.

Meanwhile, the diplomats, stuck at the border, are playing a Monopoly-like board game called Diplomacy.

When the Duchess’ car sputters up the hill, Snippet, who is carrying the Q bomb, orders everyone else out to push. But after they get it over the hill, there is no one left to steer the car and it crashes into a haystack. There is a scramble for the Q bomb, which Snippet punts when it starts to emit warning noises. Tully ends up with it after it’s tossed around between the diplomats.

Now with the bomb firmly in Fenwick’s hands, Tully is ready to negotiate the U.S. surrender. In addition to the million dollar demand, which the U.S. raises to a billion, Fenwick demands the removal of the Enwick wine from the U.S. market. But the sticking point is the Q bomb, which Fenwick does not plan on returning. They plan to use their leverage with the bomb to force a worldwide disarmament. The U.S. acquiesces allowing Fenwick to keep the bomb.

On behalf of the U.S., the Secretary of Defense (Austin Willis) surrenders to Fenwick.

Dr. Kokintz, who plans to stay in Fenwick to develop a new chewing gum, accompanies Tully and Helen, who are now engaged to be married, down to the dungeon to disarm the bomb. It is only when Kokintz sneezes and drops the bomb that they discover it is a dud. The three agree to keep the secret to themselves.

The Q Bomb turns out to be a dud.

The film ends with the written proclamation: "The end. We Hope” after which Miss Columbia then climbs back onto her pedestal. 

The movie, like the book, makes a political statement, not about how the U.S. treats enemies of war, but about the then current state of the world politics post World War II. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were involved in the infamous Cold War. While everyone talked disarmament, both sides increased their nuclear stockpiles and invented new and more powerful bombs. Perhaps it would have taken a third-party with the world’s most destructive weapon to bring both sides to the table. The message is a little heavy-handed, but it is timely given the context in which the film was released. The film's message may explain why the premiere took place in Geneva Switzerland for a group of diplomats.

There are a few changes made from the book to the film. Because Peter Sellers plays three parts, some accommodations had to be made. The Duchess in the book is more a young Queen Elizabeth, but Sellers plays her more as an older Queen Victoria. There are supposedly two ingenues in the book, but only one in the film. And finally, only Dr. Kokintz finds out the bomb is a dud in the novel, in the film he is with Tully and his daughter Helen.

Jean Seberg doesn’t really have that much to do in the film. She is supposed to be the pretty daughter of Dr. Kokintz and she is definitely that. But her other characteristics, her scientific smarts and her loyalty to country take a backseat to the improbable love that develops between her and Tully, a man she spends most of the film hating.

Jean Seberg plays Dr. Kokintz's daughter Helen in The Mouse That Roared.

Peter Sellers is no doubt the star of the film, as he plays three characters. This was not the first time he would play multiple characters, nor would it be the last. He was a very talented, though troubled, actor and while he doesn’t really disappear into character, he does infuse each with a unique personality.

It is clear that Peter Sellers is the star of The Mouse That Roared.

But despite Sellers' presence, and even though he was hailed in a Life magazine review of the film as "the funniest actor England has sent to America since Alec Guinness” (and that statement may give some of you pause), the movie is not really all that funny to watch now. There are no really laugh out loud moments here, no really quotable lines nor remember when moments to recall. This is a comedy that does not deliver on that front.

That is not to say the film wasn’t successful enough when it was released to spawn a sequel, based on another one of Wibberley’s novels, The Mouse on the Moon (1963). (Irish by birth, Wibberley would publish over 100 books.) While Sellers would not return, he did recommend director Richard Lester to producer Walter Shenson. Sellers and Lester had previously worked together, most famously on the short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). Lester and Shenson’s next two films together starred another British import to America, The Beatles; A HardDay’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965).

The question is should you watch this movie? I’d have to give The Mouse That Roared only a tepid recommendation. If you’re a Peter Sellers fan, which is the reason I wanted to watch it, then you may enjoy seeing it because of him. But he is really not at his funniest or most memorable here. If you’re looking for something truly funny from Sellers’ early oeuvre, I’d recommend The Pink Panther (1963). And If you like Sellers’ comedy to come with a strong anti-war anti-nuke message, then you would be better off with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

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