The Prisoner of Zenda (1979 film)

The Prisoner of Zenda is a 1979 American comedy film directed by Richard Quine and adapted from the adventure novel by Anthony Hope, first published in 1894.[3] The novel tells the story of a man who has to impersonate a king, whom he happens to closely resemble, when the king is abducted by enemies on the eve of his coronation. An earlier adaptation of the story was made into a film in 1952 starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, and directed by Richard Thorpe.[4]

The Prisoner of Zenda
original film poster
Directed byRichard Quine
Produced byWalter Mirisch
Written byDick Clement
Ian La Frenais
StarringPeter Sellers
Lynne Frederick
Lionel Jeffries
Elke Sommer
Music byHenry Mancini
CinematographyArthur Ibbetson
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • May 25, 1979 (1979-05-25) (USA)
Running time
108 minutes
Budget$10 million[1]
Box office$3.69 million (US/Canada rentals)[2]

The comedy was loosely adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. It starred Peter Sellers, Lynne Frederick, Lionel Jeffries, Elke Sommer, Gregory Sierra, Jeremy Kemp and Catherine Schell. It has echoes of not only Hope's book but also several other well-known novels, especially Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask. Sellers plays three roles: that of the Ruthenian King Rudolph V and the London cab driver Sydney Frewin who is brought in to portray the missing King with whom he shares an uncanny resemblance. Sellers also portrayed the aged King Rudoph IV at the start of the film, before he is killed in a hot air balloon accident.

The score by Henry Mancini was a highlight of the film and gained some critical acclaim. It was also Quine's final film as director before dying in 1989.[5]


King Rudolf IV (Sellers) dies in a balloon accident upon the celebration of his seventieth birthday. In order to secure the throne, General Sapt and his nephew Fritz travel to London, where the King's son, Rudolf V (Sellers), resides and lives through the day in London's pleasure establishments; but the King's demented half-brother Michael (Kemp), thinking that he is the better claimant, sends an assassin after them. Hansom cab driver Sydney (or Sidney) Frewin (Sellers), the new King's half-brother from an affair with a British actress, rescues Rudolf from an assassination attempt. Once his resemblance to the King is noticed, Frewin is hired by the general ostensibly as the King's coachman, but actually to play the role of decoy. The ruse is quickly uncovered, however, when during an attack by Michael's men the royal guardsmen address Frewin as their new king, and the two look-alikes get acquainted.

In an unattended moment, Rudolf is captured and brought to Michael's castle of Zenda. Out of necessity, Frewin has to keep masquerading as the King for the coronation ceremony. Princess Flavia, Rudolf's fiancée (Frederick), is perceptive enough to see through the ruse, and after Frewin and the general have confided in her, she quickly becomes Frewin's trusted ally and love interest. Complicating the scheme on Frewin's side is the jealous Count Montparnasse whose wife (Sommer) has become infatuated with Rudolf, and on Michael's side by his mistress, Antoinette, who is wildly jealous about the prospect of Michael marrying Flavia and in turn is the love interest of the slightly unbalanced Rupert von Henzau, Michael's second-in-command.

After several assassination attempts, Michael attempts to lure Frewin into a trap. While the trap fails, Frewin, acting as Henzau's coach driver, is recognized and captured upon arrival in Zenda. Frewin and Rudolf escape with Antoinette's help, and when Sapt and his men arrive at the castle, Henzau switches sides and aids Frewin and Rudolf against Michael, opens the castle gates and rides away, telling Sapt that he will report for duty next week. Michael and his men attempt to capture Rudolf and Frewin, but they jump off the battlements into the moat, and Sapt has Michael arrested for his treachery. Assuming Frewin's identity, Rudolf pursues his interests in the countess and the London gambling tables, while Frewin marries Princess Flavia and becomes king of Ruritania.



Walter Mirisch pitched the film to Sellers while the latter was making Murder by Death. Sellers liked the idea but not the script and requested a new one be written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.[6]

The film was announced in December 1976.[7]

The film was shot in Austria.[1] Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna represented the "Ruritania" royal palace; other filming locations included Burg Kreuzenstein, St. Martin's Church in Klosterneuburg and Salzburg Cathedral.[1]

Lynne Frederick was married to Sellers.[8]

When Sellers saw a preview of the movie he objected strenuously claiming Mirisch had arranged for new footage to be shot without him or Quine turning it into "a Pink Panther movie".[9]

Critical reception

Time Out called it "A limp and shoddy farce in which neither Sellers' lifeless double-role mugging, nor a dire fish-out-of-water script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, encourage anything more than a deepening nostalgia for the straightfaced swashbuckling of previous adaptations";[10] whereas in The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Sellers is onscreen with himself surprisingly often, and the effect never looks trumped-up. He performs a perfect balancing act, orchestrated so well that the funny character makes the serious one even more effective, and vice versa. 'The Prisoner of Zenda' doesn't have the kind of finesse that Blake Edwards's direction has given the 'Pink Panther' series. But the slack moments are painless enough, and they come as a fair exchange for the pleasure of Mr. Seller's [sic] artfully schhizoid company."[11] Todd McCarthy of Variety called the film "a tame comic vehicle for another exercise in multiple role-playing by Peter Sellers ... More than anything, pic resembles some of Danny Kaye's comic romps of decades past, such as 'The Court Jester,' but with a lot fewer laughs."[12] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2 stars out of 4 and wrote, "Everything about the Peter Sellers comedy 'Prisoner of Zenda' seems tired. Its jokes are tired, its story situations are tired, its pacing is tired, and Sellers' dual performance seems doubly lackluster."[13] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called the film an "unhappy spectacle of a capable cast, bedecked with turn-of-the-century finery and placed amid settings of historic Austrian splendor, straining and straining to get laughs out of solid lead (Even Henry Mancini's score seems desperately jaunty.) The ultimate effect of the film is one of a feeling of embarrassment for all involved in its perpetration."[14] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "Offhand, I can't recall another comedy with an energy level as disastrously low as the one retarding 'The Prisoner of Zenda.' Although the finale generates a little slapstick turbulence, the movie looks and feels inert for the longest time. It's difficult to decide where to place the blame."[15] Brendan Gill of The New Yorker declared, "There are occasions when Mr. Sellers is among the funniest men in the world, but this is not one of them."[16] David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, "Though the budget supposedly reached $10 million, the film has the slapdash, impersonal feeling of those old studio features that were thrown together as star vehicles and rushed out against a strict deadline. But Sellers needs strong collaborators and a sturdy context. He may be our greatest comic actor but, unlike comedians who carry a film on the force of their immediately recognizable personality, Sellers's strong suit is his chameleonlike virtuosity, and chameleons are meaningless without a backdrop."[17] Paul Taylor of The Monthly Film Bulletin called it a "flatly directed, leadenly unfunny farce."[18]


  1. "The Prisoner of Zenda - History". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  2. "Big Rental Films of 1979". Variety. January 9, 1980. 70.
  3. "Prisoner of Zenda, The (1979) - Misc Notes -". Turner Classic Movies.
  4. "The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) - Overview -". Turner Classic Movies.
  5. "One Hundred Unreleased Scores".
  6. Peter Sellers--hiding behind a mask of mimicry: Mimicry provides a mask for the Sellers insecurities Roberts, Glenys. Chicago Tribune 17 June 1979: g31.
  7. At the Movies Flatley, Guy. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]10 Dec 1976: 62.
  8. CALENDAR: MOVIES PETER SELLERS: HE'S NOT READY TO PACK IT IN YET Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times 28 Jan 1979: k36.
  9. Sellers: No Way to Treat 'Prisoner' Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times 10 Apr 1979: b21.
  10. "The Prisoner of Zenda".
  11. Maslin, Janet (May 25, 1979). "Screen: Sellers in New 'Zenda'". The New York Times. C4.
  12. McCarthy, Todd (May 23, 1979). "Film Reviews: The Prisoner of Zenda". Variety. 22.
  13. Siskel, Gene (May 31, 1979). "'Prisoner of Zenda' not exactly a Sellers' market". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 10.
  14. Thomas, Kevin (May 25, 1979). "Sellers Stars in a Silly 'Zenda'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 24.
  15. Arnold, Gary (May 25, 1979). "New 'Prisoner of Zenda': Afflicted by an Enemy Crisis With Peter Sellers". The Washington Post. E6.
  16. Gill, Brendan (June 4, 1979). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 155.
  17. Ansen, David (June 11, 1979). "Peter Sellers in Wuwitania". Newsweek. 97.
  18. Taylor, Paul (November 1979). "The Prisoner of Zenda". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 46 (550): 232.
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