I love Peter Sellers -- when I was a kid, one of my favorite movie series was the mad anarchy of the "Pink Panther" films. I've always been vaguely fascinated by Sellers, his remarkable chameleon acting skills, his chaotic personal life and his sadly early death at 54. Sellers made a gigantic body of work in a short life, appearing in more than 60 movies, many of them apparently kinda awful. I've been trying to catch up with many of the ones I've never seen or haven't seen in years. So let's start with "The Mouse That Roared," a cold-war comedy that's a bit like a dress rehearsal for the superior "Dr. Strangelove" a few years later.
The story: Tiny European nation Grand Fenwick is facing bankruptcy. Fenwick's prime minister hatches a sneaky plot for Fenwick to "invade" America and lose, thus opening itself up to millions in financial aid (think Iraq or Afghanistan today). But thanks to a fumbling army leader and a top-secret doomsday device nothing goes quite to plan, and Grand Fenwick ends up becoming the most powerful nation in the world.
Who's Sellers?: Sellers plays three characters here: the nation's dotty head of state, Grand Duchess Gloriana XII; the sinister Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy, and bumbling army leader Tully Bascombe. Awkward-but-courageous Tully, a kind of Woody Allen-lite, gets the most screen time, although I think my favorite Sellers here is the sneering Count, all mustache and cunning plans. Following in the footsteps of his idol Alec Guinness, Sellers makes each of the Fenwickians distinct characters, never making his multiple roles seem just like a gimmick like, say, Eddie Murphy does.
So how is it? "Mouse" is kind of a Mad magazine version of Cold War satire, with many similarities in plot to "Strangelove". The movie is hugely implausible (so everyone in New York City is hiding in bomb shelters and basements over some air raid drill when Fenwick invades?), but there's an amiable charm to it. It's never a very pointed satire, nowhere near as mad and inspired as "Strangelove," but the idea that a handful of bumblers from a flyspeck nation could somehow hold the balance of world power is still amusing. But the story has a lot of missed potential, settling instead for cliches. Bombshell Jean Seberg is horribly mismatched as a love interest for Sellers, although she's great to look at. It's also funny to see William Hartnell, aka The First Doctor Who, as Tully's stern aide. At 80 minutes "Mouse" doesn't wear out its welcome, and although it's a rather dated piece of satire now, there's enough gentle humour in it to make it bearable. And Sellers' capacity for playing multiple characters never stops being amazing.
Quote: "There isn't a more profitable undertaking for any country than to declare war on the United States and to be defeated."