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Film / The Prisoner of Zenda

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Toward the close of the last century, when History still wore a Rose, and Politics had not yet outgrown the waltz...

There have been many film adaptations of the Anthony Hope novel The Prisoner of Zenda. There were silent versions in 1913 and 1915; another silent version in 1922, starring Lewis Stone as Rudolf/Rudolph and Ramon Novarro as Rupert; a 1952 version with Stewart Granger, James Mason, and Deborah Kerr; a 1979 version starring Peter Sellers in one of his last roles; and a TV movie version in 1984.

The most famous, however, is the 1937 David O. Selznick production directed by John Cromwell. 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.

Tropes found in the 1937 film:

  • 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. Lynne Frederick (Peter Sellers' last wife) was given a literal dye job for the 1979 remake.
  • Adaptational Heroism: A very mild example. Rupert is still a villain, but unlike in the book he never goes as far as Attempted Rape.
  • 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. Spoofed in the 1979 movie, where the doddering old bishop makes a number of errors, ending up dropping the orb of state which rolls away to knock down a group of candles ninepin-style.)
  • 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: Rassendyl, in a gambit which boxes in Black Michael since he can hardly admit he kidnapped the real 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.)
  • 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 dernière ! » ("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.
  • High-Class 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.
  • 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!").
  • 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.
  • 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... "
  • 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.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Count Rupert, though he's not sadistic so much as completely unfettered, like a twelve year old boy with an endless supply of bullfrogs and firecrackers.
  • 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").
  • Royal Blood
  • Royally Screwed Up
  • Ruritania: Actually never mentioned by name in the entire 1937 film. It is mentioned in the 1922 and 1952 films, however.
  • Shout-Out: Rupert makes a Shout-Out to Sir Walter Scott, by quoting his Marmion:
    "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: Rudolph is in line to the throne but his younger and probably more competent brother Michael lusts for power.
  • 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.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: A double dose as the legitimate ruler, Rudolf, is a drunken boor who is unpopular with the people and The Usurper, Black Michael, while competent, isn't the most charming or popular guy either. The impostor, Rudolf Rassendyl, puts them both to shame and would make a better king then either of them, prompting young von Tarlenheim's "heaven doesn't always make the right men kings" quote.
  • The X of Y
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Rassendyll and Hentzau have a classic exchange of repartee, both verbal and metallic, in the final Sword Fight.

Tropes found in the 1922 film:

  • Death by Adaptation: Rupert survives in the book, but here he dies by going over a waterfall.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Ramon Novarro, in one of his first starring roles, playing a bad guy (Rupert). Novarro would soon become one of the more prominent leading men of the silent era.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Rupert sports both an evil pointy Van Dyke and a pencil mustache.
  • Imagine Spot: Michael imagines himself as King, with crown and scepter and all that stuff, until Rudolf arrives impersonating Rudolph and ruins it.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: How Michael dies.
  • Inevitable Waterfall: Unlike in the book, the moat around Zenda leads to a waterfall.
  • Kissing Cousins: Flavia is betrothed to Rudolph, her first cousin.
  • Little People Are Surreal: A creepy dwarf assassin is sent to kill Rassendyl but is interrupted Just in Time.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: This version actually makes Rudolf Rassendyl an English baron, thus making it marginally more likely that his family, now minor nobility, might have a little bit of a German royal family mixed in.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Ramon Novarro's Rupert has some of the same droll humor that Fairbanks brought to the 1937 version. In this one he gives a little sarcastic clap after Antoinette slaps him.

Tropes found in the 1952 film:

  • 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.
  • Remake Cameo: Lewis Stone, who starred as Rudolf/Rudolph in the 1922 silent version, appears as the cardinal.
  • 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.