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Film: The Prisoner of Zenda
Toward the close of the last century, when History still wore a Rose, and Politics had not yet outgrown the waltz...
The Prisoner Of Zenda is the 1937 David O. Selznick Swashbuckling film adaptation of the classic Adventure novel by Anthony Hope. Of the numerous adaptations of the novel (1913, 1915, 1922, 1952, 1979, and, in a TV version, 1984), this version, directed by John Cromwell, is generally considered the best, and, indeed, one of the greatest swashbucklers ever made. The film stars Ronald Colman in the dual role of Rudolf Rassendyll, English gentleman, and Rudolph V, the ne'er-do-well king (the name is spelled both ways in the film); and co-stars Madeleine Carroll, as the lovely and lively Princess Flavia, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as the wicked but engaging Count Rupert of Hentzau. Raymond Massey as the saturnine and ambitious Duke Michael, Mary Astor as his beautiful but hapless mistress Antoinette de Mauban, C. Aubrey Smith as the crusty, Macchiavellian Colonel Zapt [sic], and David Niven (in his first major role) as the faithful though feckless Fritz von Tarlenheim lend sterling support. The sweeping romantic score, supported by use of Wagnerian leitmotives is by Alfred Newman.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remade the film in 1952, directed by Richard Thorpe, with Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason in the Colman, Carroll, and Fairbanks roles. The film was more or less a Technicolor carbon copy of the 1937 film, reusing the same script, score, and even camera angles. It was not considered a great success, however. Peter Sellers remade the movie as a comedy (subverting and inverting many of the tropes associated with this film) in 1979, also less than successfully.


This work features examples of:

  • Acting for Two: Ronald Colman in the lead role. This was one of Ron's specialties; he'd been playing dual roles of one sort or another since his silent film days.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film is generally considered faithful to the spirit of the original novel, if not always to the letter. Much of the dialogue from the novel was retained.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Flavia is a redhead in the novel, but she is played by the "golden-haired goddess," Madeleine Carroll who is a classic pale-skinned beauty. Deborah Kerr, a redhead, played Flavia in the 1952 version, and Lynne Frederick (Peter Sellers' last wife) was given a literal dye job for the 1979 remake.
  • Affably Evil: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Anti-Villain: Michael
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: The coronation scene, including the use of a Händel anthem (See Public Domain Soundtrack, below''), was probably inspired by the coronation of George VI of England.
  • Becoming the Mask: Rassendyll becomes the role of king much more than the King does.
  • Bittersweet Ending "Heaven does not always make the right men kings." Subverted in the 1979 version, where Rudolf replaces Rudolph as king of Ruritania and marries Flavia, and Rudolph goes off to London to play in the casinos and restaurants with his mistress.
  • Blade Lock: Allows Rudolf and Rupert to exchange some choice taunts.
  • Deadpan Snarker. Rassendyll, Zapt, even Princess Flavia — but above all, Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Princess Flavia, though she knows she must marry the King, is not pleased about it — until she gets to know him better, after his coronation. Alas!
  • Did Not Get the Girl: As noted above in the Bittersweet Ending entry, subverted thoroughly in the 1979 version, where both Rudolf and Rudolph get their girls in the end.
  • The Dragon: Count Rupert fills this role with gusto... up to a point. His patience with Michael only goes so far.
  • Enigmatic Minion
  • The Evil Prince: Or, rather, the Evil Duke.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Boozing indolent bully versus politically competent but personally unpleasant usurper.
  • Fake King
  • Fanfare: Newman composed several for this film, notably one on representing the Ruritanian monarchy itself — which, in the minor, becomes associated with Black Michael.
  • Flynning: Very nicely done in this film — for the most part. (See Narm under YMMV.)
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Some highly entertaining verbal gymnastics were needed to convey the fact that a previous King of Ruritania had an affair with a married woman and got her pregnant in a manner acceptable to film censorship boards of the era.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress / Pimped-Out Dress: Rudolf's coronation and the grand-ball scene, in particular, are crammed with these in every film version.
  • Gratuitous French: At the ball, the master of ceremonies announces, « Avec la permission de Sa Majesté, le bal commence ! Valse générale ! » ("With the permission of His Majesty, the ball begins! General waltz!"¯) and later « La valse derničre ! » ("The last waltz!"¯). This is in accordance with the ceremonial of the royal courts of the 19th century.
  • Hero Antagonist: Michael is an excellent example ― one sometimes wonders whether Ruritania wouldn't be better off with him on the throne.
  • Heroic Bastard: Rassendyll, the hero, is illegitimately related to the royal family of Ruritania.
  • Honor Before Reason: Constant throughout. Lampshaded by Hentzau, of all people: "Ohoho, shoot with a lady present? In England, old boy, it simply isn't done."
  • Karma Houdini: Rupert, who kills several people over the course of the film, escapes.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Particularly associated with Rupert, who says of the main feature of the plot: "Not your type of fiction, I see, Your Highness — too improbable. Still, these things do happen. I knew twin sisters once—"¯ He also lampshades Rassendyll's Honor Before Reason philosophy several times (See previous entry), as well as the unnecessary convolution of the Duke's plot to drug the King ("If only he'd drunk what I wanted to put in the bottle!").
  • Lost in Imitation: The director of the 1952 version watched this film frame by frame and copied all the set-ups exactly. The score was also recycled. It didn't work.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Rupert lusts after Black Michael's mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, and ends up killing Michael because of it.
  • Men of Sherwood: Zapt's troops, whom he has waiting in reserve for the big final assault.
  • Notable Original Music: Alfred Newman's lush romantic score, which was mined for use in other films and repeated entire for the 1952 remake. Notable for its use of Leitmotif.
  • Opera Gloves: Logically enough, seeing that the films are set in Edwardian Era Europe and include coronation and fancy-ball scenes with lots of Gorgeous Period Dress / Pimped-Out Dress in evidence, the major actresses in the theatrical film versions - Madeleine Carroll and Mary Astor (1937), Deborah Kerr and Jane Greer (1952), and Lynne Frederick, Elke Sommer and Catherine Schell (1979) - all wear long gloves in key scenes.
  • Our Lawyers Advised This Trope: "Any resemblance in 'The Prisoner of Zenda' to Heroes, Villains, or Heroines, living or dead, is a coincidence not intended... "
  • Playing Against Type: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as a villain? That's playing against two generations of type.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: This is generally considered the best of the cinematic versions, though it changes some details, as in introducing Hentzau near the beginning and making Flavia a blonde.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: In the midst of the original score by Alfred Newman, the coronation scene is accompanied by an anthem to the tune of "See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes" from Händel's Judas Maccabaeus. This was probably inspired by the use of Händel anthems, such as ''Zadok the Priest" at British coronations.
    • Also, at the ball, the orchestra plays the „Künstlerleben" ("Artists' Life") Waltz by Johann Strauss the Younger. Later on in the film, Kraftstein whistles a few bars of Strauss's waltz, „An der schönen blauen Donau" ("The Blue Danube").
  • Red-Headed Hero: Played straight in the book but averted (probably, though it's hard to tell in black and white) here as the hero/king are both played by the brown-haired Ronald Colman.
  • Reliable Traitor
  • Remake Cameo: Lewis Stone, who starred as Rudolf/Rudolph in the 1922 silent version, appears as the cardinal in the 1952 version.
  • Royal Blood
  • Royally Screwed Up
  • Ruritania: Actually never mentioned by name in the entire 1937 film. It is mentioned in the 1952 film, however.
  • Shot for Shot Remake: The 1952 version. The director, Richard Thorpe, actually sat watching the earlier film in an 8mm viewer, and copying from that.
  • Shout-Out: A number of subsequent (usually comic) versions of the story enjoy parodying specific moments or aspects of this film. One of the funniest was the Prince Hapnick sequence of The Great Race — particularly Baron von Stuppe (Ross Martin)'s take on Rupert's High Dive Escape.
    "Oh! Woman in our Hours of Ease
    Uncertain, coy, and hard to please—
    When pain and anguish wring the brow,
    A ministering Angel, thou!"
  • The Starscream: Rupert
  • Succession Crisis
  • Swashbuckler: One of the most highly regarded in the genre.
  • Sword Fight: Several, of which the final duel is one of the best ever filmed.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Given, oddly enough, by Colonel Zapt to the King, when he is trying to get the feckless idiot to stop drinking and to prepare for his coronation. It earns him a slap across the face.
  • Villain Exit Stage Left: Hentzau's High Dive Escape into the moat at the end of the climactic sword duel may just be the most famous exit in the history of cinema
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Rassendyll and Hentzau have a classic exchange of repartee, both verbal and metallic, in the final Sword Fight.

IvanhoeFilms of the 1950sThe Quiet Man
The Princess DiariesTropeNamers/FilmThe Producers
Nothing SacredFilms of the 1930sSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs
King KongUsefulNotes/National Film RegistryThe Magnificent Ambersons

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