In this classic satire, the Duchess (Peter Sellers) and the Prime Minister (Peter Sellers) of the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick have come up with a brilliant plan to keep their country from going broke- make war on the United States, lose, then collect lots of American post-war aid. Their only mistake is not telling their invasion force leader (Sellers again, in chainmail!) that he’s supposed to lose. Sellers lands in New York City during an air raid drill and finds the streets empty. He then proceeds to capture a brilliant scientist (David Kossoff), his assistant (Jean Seberg) and his awesome new weapon. The U.S. is forced to surrender! Grand Fenwick then forms the League of Little Nations which presents the big nations with its terms- PEACE FOREVER.
eyelights: Peter Sellers. its message about nuclear war and proliferation.
eyesores: the contrived plot. the weak reasoning supporting certain plot developments.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought gentlemen and I’m perfectly positive that I am right. You must remember, the Americans are a very strange people. Whereas other countries rarely forgive anything, the Americans forgive anything. There isn’t a more profitable undertaking for any country than to declare war on the United States and to be defeated.”
‘The Mouse That Roared’ is a 1959 comedy based on the 1955 satirical novel by Leonard Wibberley. It tells the story of the fictional duchy of Grand Fenwick, a miniscule country hidden away in the French Alps which finds itself bankrupt when its only export, the Pinot Grand Fenwick, is emulated in California and sold at a cheaper price (amusingly, the original title of the book was ‘The Wrath of Grapes’).
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, their Prime Minister convinces the government to wage war against the United States – with the intention of losing and reaping the benefits of the post-war effort. Little does he know that Tully, the incompetent Field Marshall leading the Fenwick archers, would find a way to spoil his plans – by actually winning the war.
Both the book and the movie were not just satirical but also critical of global politics and the nuclear arms race. Evidently, this timely commentary (it was released in the midst of the Cold War) intended to make its audiences reflect upon the then-current state of things while laughing at the absurdity of it all – much like ‘Dr. Strangelove‘ would do even more effectively five years later.
That’s the picture’s most laudable trait, naturally. But the real reason to watch the picture is for Peter Sellers, who plays three main parts in the picture: Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy, and Tully Bascombe. For fans and non-fans alike, this is quite a treat: even though not each performance is equal, more Sellers is always better.
Case-in-point, the afore-mentioned ‘Dr. Strangelove’.
Sellers is terrific as the PM: he’s slimy, wily, a good orator. Sellers plays him appropriately broad given the context. He’s not as efficient as the Grand Duchess, partly because he can hardly pass as a woman. But as caricature, she’s decent enough. The weakest link has got to be Tully, unfortunately: as a main character, he’s far too meek, boring, and, thus, unfunny.
But it’s still a gas to see the lead actor play many parts, irrespective of their quality. And Sellers gets plenty more opportunities in that he also plays the founding father of Grand Fenwick (thereby justifying why so many characters look alike: it appears that he planted more than just one seed). And so we see Sellers’ likeness in various statues and paintings as well.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, but (aside for William Hartnell as Tully’s side-kick) none of them have a distinctive flavour. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, without Sellers in the lead, ‘The Mouse That Roared’ would have very little bite – unless they found an equally capable actor or three superior ones to replace him, that is. Not that we’ll ever know.
The story itself is a series of contrivances which could only exist in comedy. For example:
- As the Fenwick archers approach New York City by boat, the US president coincidentally calls a city-wide drill, leaving it deserted.
- The State Department takes Grand Fenwick’s declaration of war as a joke, ignoring their oncoming “invasion”.
- The US are testing a Q bomb in New York, and it so happens that Tully and his crew inadvertently find it, capture it, and take it home.
- The PM resigns when he realizes that he’s lost control of the situation, and the Grand Duchess appoints Tully in his stead – even though he’s merely a Field Marshall.
What really irked me, though, was not these comedic gymnastics, but the picture’s failed attempts at zaniness. For instance:
- Throughout the picture, we’re told that the Q bomb is extremely sensitive, volatile and dangerous. And yet everyone’s lugging it around indelicately without any effect – except for artificial laughs and tension.
- A couple of men on a contamination crew see Tully’s invasion army and somehow think they’re from Mars (even though don’t look alien at all), panic, and spread the rumour of little green men – which takes like wildfire.
- The finale consists of a silly chase, and a football match with the bomb. It’s bloody awful. And painful.
And yet, ‘The Mouse That Roared’ has its moments – some of the political shenanigans, in particular, are pure delight to watch unfold. I also savoured its message about the risks of nuclear war, of the insanity of building larger and more destructive devices. It was timely then, and it (sadly) remains a potent critique of our inability to contain humanity’s self-destructiveness.
In a certain light, with the right frame of mind, the absurdity of it can be uproariously funny.
Nota bene: Leonard Wibberley wrote four more books in the “Mouse” series, but what is most surprising is that there was a sequel to ‘The Mouse That Roared’. Based on the third book in the series, ‘The Mouse on the Moon’, which was released in 1963, was directed by Richard Lester (at Sellers’ recommendation, although he himself would not return).
Lester would immediately follow this up with the delicious ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘. If he was remotely in the same form as he was with that picture, perhaps ‘The Mouse on the Moon’ is worth checking out – even if none of the principal cast returned and there appear to be no returning crew members aside for the producer. You never know. And I will find out.
Date of viewing: September 6, 2014