The Prisoner of Zenda (1979): Why Peter Sellers’ Adaptation Didn’t Work

❉ A star-studded cast, a four-time Oscar winning composer and a 10-million-dollar budget… Why didn’t this film work? Foster Hitchman returns to Zenda…

There was a lot to love about 1979’s The Prisoner of Zenda – or at least in concept:  a star-studded cast (Peter Sellers, Lynne Frederick, Lionel Jeffries, and Elke Sommer), a well-rounded Jack of all trades director (Richard Quine), four-time Oscar winning composer (Henry Mancini), a 10-million-dollar budget, and distribution from Universal Studios. Based on the 1894 adventure novel by Anthony Hope, Hollywood had first adapted it into a film in 1913 and followed with four more adaptations leading up to Sellers’s version in 1979. So, it seemed there was an audience that would be enthusiastic about it. But ultimately this adaptation turned out to be an extravagantly over-produced film with lacklustre, one-dimensional and uninspiring deadpan performances. And in the years since its release, it has yet to find its audience like such films as The Pirate (1948), The Princess Bride (1987), or Ella Enchanted (2004).

Why didn’t this film work? In the interest of giving it a fair and honest review, I am not going to compare it to the four previous adaptations.

One of the biggest flaws in The Prisoner of Zenda unfortunately comes from Peter Sellers himself. While he is undeniably an icon, a fantastic actor, and a legend in the history of cinema, he just wasn’t convincing in the smouldering swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks/John Barrymore character prototype. A classic case of an amazing actor being terribly miscast in a role that film makers tailored for them based on their acting style. It’s almost as if they saw Sellers’s stock as being in the “too big to fail” concept. Consequently, the makers of this film lost their grasp of the essence and magic of the original story. And they were not thinking in terms of the mass audiences to which Peter Sellers always performed.

Peter Sellers is just not convincing in the Douglas Fairbanks/John Barrymore character prototype.

As previously stated, Sellers’s performance is difficult to take seriously. Not only because he’s miscast, but because his whole performance is just so offbeat, incompetent and stale. The discomfort and confusion in his mind comes through on screen. Sellers himself wasn’t always the best when it came to choosing quality roles, but it’s likely that he knew before anyone else that his version of The Prisoner of Zenda was being made for an audience that no longer existed.

But all the issues can’t be blamed solely on Sellers. The script went through many changes. In total, the film had four writers, and many sources state that the film was rewritten several times. When you have a multitude of writers putting together their two cents and creative mindsets to such a capacity, and at multiple interludes, you’re bound to get a convoluted result. Look at films such as The Exorcist II (1977) or Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004), both had multiple writers which resulted in a complex, unbalanced, and sometimes confusing storylines. The same thing happened with this adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda. The style of comedy and theatrical drama is so unbalanced that you can’t tell if the film is supposed to be a spoof, or something that is to be taken seriously. A classic case of the perils of writing a screenplay by committee.

Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer dressed in over the top costumes against sets that are too imperialistic.

Another aspect of the film that fails is the lack of chemistry between the lovebirds Peter Sellers and Lynne Frederick. Before the film came out, they were a much-loved celebrity red carpet couple (á La Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones). And with so much rapport and public interest surrounding their relationship, and this being a swashbuckling film, one would expect to see Peter and Lynne’s characters smoldering with such glorious romance and sparks flying between them. But alas, there is no spark, let alone the threat of a fire between them. They are in a few brief scenes together, and when they are together it feels forced and puts the story at a halt. Before we know it, they are at the altar running off into the credits and the film is over.

Let’s talk about those costumes. You may recognize some of them from other films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) (which also starred Lionel Jeffries), Anne of The Thousand Days (1969), and Nicholas And Alexandra (1971) (which also starred Lynne Frederick). They looked beautiful and romantic in those other films, but here (up against the zany wigs, campy beards, and opulent palace sets) they just looked imperialistic, over the top, and nutty. The ball gowns are so jarring and dazzled, that you might mistake them for the chandeliers – and the suits are so tailored and vulgarly Biedermeier, that you might mistake them for carpets.

Such a terrible wig to have made Lynne Frederick wear for the film.

And who could forget that godawful wig they had Lynne Frederick wear? Not only was it the wrong tone of blonde that didn’t suit Frederick’s skin complexion, but it wasn’t even a good wig. It looked like a badly permed mullet meets Nellie Olsen ringlet curls. It was a total disgrace to give to Miss Frederick, whose trademark was her beautiful hair.

Looking at it in retrospect, the swashbuckling farce comic style that production was going for, was about 40 years outdated, and not suitable or sellable to an audience who were feeling the grim after-effects of the Vietnam war. 1979 alone was quite a year for the sci-fi genre, with films such as Star TrekAlienStar Wars, and Black Hole. So with movie theaters being over saturated with films that had spaceships, natural disasters, aliens, and other out of this world elements with darker touches, there was no room for Zenda to turn a profit.

Is it the worst film of all time, no. But are there people out there who like this film… if there are, they are so few and far between. There is no faction or cult film audience that has openly embraced or praised this film (not yet at least as of 2022). The film was a plain and simple well-meaning failure, with the actors doing the best that they could with what they had, and the only saving grace being Mancini’s soundtrack score (but it pales into insignificance compared to his other works).

❉ ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ was released on December 5 2016 on DVD by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises, RRP £5.99.

❉ With credits including journalism writing, radio personality, lyric video producing, social media publishing, and graphic design, in 2019 Foster Hitchman released two independent film projects. The first was Lynne: The English Rose, which told the story and paid tribute to British actress, Lynne Frederick. The second was a three-part mini web series, Foster’s Features Interview with Julie Dawn Cole: All About Julie, where he interviewed British actress and star of the original Willy Wonka film, Julie Dawn Cole

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