"In other words, gentlemen, in effect, we declare war on Monday, we are defeated by Tuesday, and by Friday we will be rehabilitated beyond our wildest dreams!"—Count Rupert Mountjoy (Peter Sellers)
Welcome to the Independent Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the smallest nation on Earth. Nestled among about 15 square miles of Alpine splendor, this little bastion of English propriety is known for its tasty pinot and nothing else. Ruled by the doddering Duchess Gloriana XII (Peter Sellers) and her prime minister, Count Rupert Mountjoy (Peter Sellers), Grand Fenwick is home to friendly folks like forest ranger (and sometime field marshal) Tully Bascombe (Peter Sellers).
Grand Fenwick's economy is dependant on the success of its local wine. But when an unscrupulous competitor knocks the pinot out the American market, the Prime Minister has a stunning idea: declare war on America—in order to lose and get millions in aid.
Little does he know that Tully and his longbow-wielding squad of invaders are about to win against the mightiest country in the world.
Satires of often judged by their timeliness. It is impossible to make heads or tails of the Roman satires of Juvenal without a million annotations. Gulliver's Travels and the biblical book of The Revelation of John have drifted so far from their original satirical contexts that they are regularly read as something else entirely (children's literature and apocalyptic prophecy, respectively). In 1959, audiences watching The Mouse That Roared would have easily understood the joke. Germany and Japan, the losers in World War II, had just been rebuilt thanks to huge economic support from the winner, the United States. And both were poised to soon overtake their conqueror in industrial power. So Count Mountjoy's crazy plan has a certain logic
Given America's tendency in the last couple of decades to invade countries, often on the thinnest of pretexts, and then provide little assistance (at least on the scale of the Marshall Plan) after the troops pull out, a modern audience may find the Cold War antics of The Mouse That Roared a bit dated. Indeed, an American diplomat even dismisses the notion that the U.S. would ever invade "tiny, defenseless countries." What an audience might have viewed in 1959 as a sign of America's unfailing generosity toward the world (which the film never questions), becomes the most ironic joke of all to our generation.
But The Mouse That Roared is very much about the Cold War, with jokes familiar to an audience of the period. When Tully's army (a dozen guys with longbows and chain mail, no less) invades New York City, they find the streets deserted: everyone is hiding in bomb shelters during an air raid drill. Wandering through the city in search of someone to surrender to, Tully stumbles upon mad scientist Professor Kokintz (David Kossoff) and his daughter (Jean Seberg, fresh from playing Joan of Arc for Otto Preminger)—and the ultimate weapon. The "Q Bomb" is so dangerous that the United States immediately surrenders to Grand Fenwick, and every nation comes knocking at the door with offers to trade.
Peter Sellers, used to playing multiple roles from his Goon Show days, slips into the Duchess and the Prime Minister so easily that he seems like completely different actors. But he seems a little uncomfortable with the…well, ordinariness of Tully, mumbling through his part as if he got caught without his makeup or wig behind the scenes. The part is too laid-back for him, perhaps to make Tully sympathetic and lend credibility to the obligatory romantic subplot with Jean Seberg.
The film tries a bit to play its satire broadly, even including silly melodramatic music, like some old silent movie. But it all seems so tame now. Some Cold War satires (Dr. Strangelove for instance, also with Sellers, this time attacking his three parts with more enthusiasm) still have bite because they are about more than strictly the Cold War. Kubrick's film, for example, is, like all his movies, a satire on masculinity, and man's obsession with violence is something that transcends any particular historical period. But The Mouse That Roared, while mildly amusing, does not take any real risks. Oddly, I recall the movie being much funnier 20 years ago. Now, it seems to have completely lost its edge. Nonetheless, it probably looks better than I have ever seen it in the past. Columbia's DVD, while devoid of extras (other than a trailer), is pretty clean, except for a little wear due to age.
The Mouse That Roared is a pleasant diversion for its 83 minutes, although at $25, it is rather overpriced for a disc that comes with no appreciable extras and a film that feels more like an amusing relic of a bygone age than the "the film that united the nations in roars of laughter." Fans of Peter Sellers might want to check it out though.
This court has no jurisdiction in the Independent Duchy of Grand Fenwick and must await extradition proceedings for whomever at Columbia pictures released this film without supplements. Court is in recess.
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