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Prisoner of Zenda, The
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by dionwr

"The Chick-Lit Swashbuckler"
5 stars

At one time, goes the story, a Rembrandt could be bought for a song, so completely unfashionable had his style of painting become. Art has its fashions, as the tastes of the time shift and change. In movies, the best example I know is the 1937 "The Prisoner of Zenda." There are two archetypal swashbuckler heroes from Hollywood's Golden Age, and they are Rudolf Rassendyll from "The Prisoner of Zenda," and Robin Hood in the MGM "The Adventures of Robin Hood." With Robin Hood, it's all about style; with Rassendyll, it's all about character.

The plot, for the two or three who might not know, is the old one about the king's double who impersonates him to stave off a plot to steal the throne and ends up doing a better job at being king than the original. We've seen this story in multiple versions, down to the Kevin Kline update, Dave, and in possibly every sitcom that was ever on the air long enough to get around to it. It was old hat even in 1937, based on a book which was originally a huge success in 1894.

It was a presumption of Victorian British melodrama that an Englishman could successfully fill in for those lesser kings of foreign parts (such as eastern Europe) that lacked England's inherent nobility, but the key elements that The Prisoner of Zenda gets from its Victorian origin is the belief that duty trumps all else and a certain attitude as to what constitues a hero.

Everyone today is familiar with Errol Flynn's Robin Hood; cocky and insolent, committed to doing the right thing but having a grand time doing it, charming, stylish and cool. That image resonates with modern audiences, and despite the differences, Flynn's wise-cracking hero is akin to Arnold Schwarzanegger and John McCain and Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Malcolm Reynolds and dozens of others since. It's no accident that The Adventures of Robin Hood is on that silly AFI list of the "top 100 movies of all time"--that's the estimation of a modern audience, and the film is very much to our modern taste.

However, The Prisoner of Zenda was almost as popular in its time, so popular that David O. Selznick considered making a sequal but abandoned it when he got caught up in producing his Civil War epic, and MGM did a shot-for-shot remake of it just fifteen years later. (Not as good, alas; Stewart Grainger was no Ronald Colman.) These days, it is not nearly so well known as the Robin Hood, or as remembered. A Google search shows five times as many hits for Robin Hood, and there are ten times more external reviews for Robin Hood listed on the IMDB than for Zenda.

Both films were expensive productions with superb supporting casts, good scripts, and lavish budgets. Against the lovely Warners cast of the best character actors working (Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Eugene Palette, Alan Hale), Zenda offers a cast of mostly lead actors, in what today we would call an ensemble piece (Raymond Massey, C. Aubrey Smith, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and an impossibly young David Niven). Both films feature a lead actress who could actually act as well as be beautiful (Olivia DeHavilland in Robin Hood, Madeliene Carroll in Zenda). But the hero of Zenda is strikingly different, and the more interesting for those differences.

There's a key scene, early in the movie. After a night of heavy drinking, our hero has fallen asleep in his chair. Colonel Zapt dashes a pitcher of ice water on his face to wake him up. Our hero, sputtering, angry, looks around, sees what's happened. registers that it was done deliberately, and coldly addresses Colonel Zapt, "I don't think much of your joke, sir!" Can you imagine Arnold Schwarzanegger playing this?

One of the beauties of this scene is that it requires a certain quality to make you believe it, and Ronald Colman has it. Among modern actors, Colin Firth might be able to play that scene believably, possibly Rupert Everett, and Viggo Mortensen definitely could, but after that it's a pretty thin list.

That iron self-control--passion and anger completely evident, yet utterly contained--is the key to the character. For Rudolf Rassendyll is one of nature's noblemen, literally a perfect gentleman, and while he is as comfortable tossing off bon mots as Flynn's Robin Hood, his character is more than just his style. To the contrary, Rassendyll is sketched by his actions, as he consistently, inevitably, does the right thing. He may quarrel with his fate, he may put up a resistance to the imposture, but once he's put himself into the game, he will do his damnedest to make it work, whatever the cost to himself. By successfully foiling the conspirators, he makes himself more than unneeded; for the good of the kingdom, he must leave, so that no one will ever know the truth.

And that bring us to their motivations. Robin Hood seems to be fighting the good fight for its own sake and a boyish love of battle, romances Maid Marion as a side-issue and for the fun of it, and when he succeeds, he gains everything. Rassendyll, however, enters into what is meant to be a short imposture to stave off an evil plot but he continues in it to protect Queen Flavia, with whom he falls in love. Because of his love for her, he will risk himself totally, commit himself fully, and gain nothing by it for himself.

There's also a thread of Prisoner of Zenda which is directly critical of the usual, charming characters at the center of this type of swashbuckler. The primary antagonist to Rassendyll is Rupert of Hentzau. It's a part that could have been written for Flynn, who apparently Selznick wanted for the part and couldn't get. Rupert is cocky, charming, witty--and has a heart as black as coal. Charm doesn't have much to do with values. Fairbanks is clearly having the time of his life as he struts and sneers his way through the part; murdering with a smile, romancing with a grin, insensible to the idea that anyone ever does anything that isn't in their own self-interest, contemptuous and unbelieving of even the concept of heroism. Imagine Robin Hood gone over to the dark side of the Force, and you've got him.

At one point, in the climactic sword fight, Rassendyll himself notes that Rupert is an ill-tempered brute, underneath all the charm, when things aren't going his way. And the Prisoner of Zenda climatic sword fight is the template for the Climatic-Sword-Fight-With-Bantering we've seen countless times since, and which is only equalled by the fight between Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts on the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride.

There's a lovely two-disc DVD available of Robin Hood, but Prisoner of Zenda has yet to be released here in the US. There is a pretty good Brazilian region 1 edition available.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" may be the choice of the teen-age boys of all ages and both sexes, but "The Prisoner of Zenda" is a dream of the perfect gentleman/lover that goes straight to the heart of teen-age girls, and romantics everywhere.

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originally posted: 08/14/06 23:43:37
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User Comments

3/03/20 Suzanne Superb cast, especially Coleman and Fairbanks 5 stars
5/22/11 brian I prefer Mr. Hood, but Colman definitely belongs in the same ballpark. 4 stars
12/22/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess Hay, for once I'm in the majority! 5 stars
12/12/08 S. Russo A rare, cinema classic of noblesse oblige w/ a great devil-may-care turn by Fairbanks 5 stars
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  03-Sep-1937 (NR)



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