To Be or Not to Be (1983 film)

To Be or Not to Be is a 1983 American war comedy film directed by Alan Johnson, produced by Mel Brooks, and starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, and José Ferrer. The screenplay was written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, based on the original story by Melchior Lengyel, Ernst Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Mayer. The film is a remake of the 1942 film of the same name.

To Be or Not to Be
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlan Johnson
Produced byMel Brooks
Screenplay byRonny Graham
Thomas Meehan
Story byMelchior Lengyel
Ernst Lubitsch
Based onTo Be or Not to Be
by Edwin Justus Mayer
Music byJohn Morris
CinematographyGerald Hirschfeld
Edited byAlan Balsam
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 16, 1983 (1983-12-16)
Running time
107 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish, Polish
Budget$9 million[2]
Box office$13 million[3]


Connections with the original

This remake was mostly faithful to the 1942 film on which it was based and, in many cases, dialogue was taken verbatim from the earlier film. The characters of Bronski and Joseph Tura are, however, combined into a single character (played by Brooks). The character of the treacherous Professor Siletsky (here spelled Siletski) was made into a more comic, even somewhat buffoonish, figure; in the original he was the only completely serious character. Instead of having the company preparing for Hamlet, Bronski performs his "world famous, in Poland" highlights from Hamlet, including the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy, from which the film's name is taken. His dresser, Anna, has been replaced with Sasha, allowing them to address the plight of gay people under the Nazis, as well as the Jews.


Roger Ebert's three-star review stated that in the film, Mel Brooks "combines a backstage musical with a wartime romance and comes up with an eclectic comedy that races off into several directions, usually successfully."[4] Gene Siskel awarded two-and-half stars and wrote that the film "contains more genuine sentiment than big laughs. If you are looking for laughs, as I was the first time I saw it, you may be disappointed. More often than not the jokes just lay there, a beat late, easily anticipated. On a second viewing, however, the sentiment of the piece rings true, particularly the troupe's final theatrical confrontation with an all-Nazi audience."[5] Vincent Canby of The New York Times lauded the film as "smashingly funny. I'm not at all sure that it's a classic, but it's so good in its own right, in the way it preserves and revives the wonderfully farcical Edwin Justus Mayer screenplay, that you leave the theater having a brand-new high."[6] Variety called it "very funny stuff indeed," adding, "Durning is a standout as the buffoonish Gestapo topper and Bancroft's pseudo-seduction of him, and Ferrer, are among the pic's highlights."[7] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times thought that the film didn't work "on two formidable counts. First, Brooks and his associates could never be accused of having anything remotely resembling a Lubitsch touch: that celebrated, indefinable combination of wit, subtlety and sophistication that allowed the legendary Berlin-born director to get away with implying just about anything, although even he was accused of bad taste in making his 'To Be Or Not To Be.' Second, we know far more than was known in 1942 of the full extent of the Nazi evil, especially in regard to the fate of the Jews ... Somehow an entire movie that depicts the Nazis as the buffoons of fantasy, while we know full well that the peril of Brooks' largely Jewish acting company is all too real, isn't very funny but instead is merely crass."[8] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that "Brooks embarks on an unnecessary remake and then fails to tailor the material adequately to a 1980s perspective or his own performing strengths ... the result is a klunky, tacky-looking color reproduction of the original."[9] David Ansen of Newsweek stated, "To those who know and love the Jack Benny-Carole Lombard original, this may seem like sacrilege. But because the copy is so entertaining in its own right, it seems more a tribute than a rip-off ... Do not expect the usual Brooksian ka-ka jokes and mad non sequiturs: this is his warmest, most plotbound and traditional movie. It may be a twice-told tale, but it's nice to know that delight can strike twice in the same spot."[10]

It has a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews, indicating "Fresh."[11]

However, the film was not a great commercial success, grossing only $13,030,214.[3]


For his performance as Colonel Erhardt, Charles Durning was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. At the 41st Golden Globe Awards, Durning was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Anne Bancroft was nominated for Best Actress – Comedy or Musical.


  1. "TO BE OR NOT TO BE (PG)". 20th Century Fox. British Board of Film Classification. November 16, 1983. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  2. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p260
  3. To Be or Not to Be at Box Office Mojo
  4. Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun Times film review, December 16, 1983. Last accessed: January 30, 2011.
  5. Siskel, Gene (December 19, 1983). "In Brooks' 'To Be,' the laughs are not". Chicago Tribune. Section 5, p. 10.
  6. Canby, Vincent (December 16, 1983). "Screen: 'To Be or Not to Be,' With Mel Brooks". The New York Times. C10.
  7. "Film Reviews: To Be Or Not To Be". Variety. December 14, 1983. 16.
  8. Thomas, Kevin (December 16, 1983). "A 'To Be' That Should Not Have Been". Los Angeles Times. Part VI, p. 22.
  9. Arnold, Gary (December 16, 1983). "Nazis and Nonsense". The Washington Post. F1, F10.
  10. Ansen, David (December 19, 1983). "Upstaging the Third Reich". Newsweek. p. 66.
  11. To Be or Not to Be at Rotten Tomatoes
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