When it’s on: Saturday, 26 January (7.05 am)
One of my favourites as a child, perhaps because of its warm depiction of a tiny, insignificant European backwater where nothing really bad happened and everyone knew each other (these things seemed to matter back then), I continue to have good vibes towards The Mouse that Roared. It’s completely inoffensive, opting for gentle whimsy over biting satire. Anyone after the latter is strongly advised to head straight for Dr Strangelove instead. Whilst this entry does indeed poke fun at Cold War politics, in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick’s critical darling did to such devastating effect, The Mouse that Roared is an altogether easier and ultimately more optimistic affair. That it shares its star with Strangelove – Peter Sellers – and that said star similarly takes multiple roles in this, is a coincidental and significant footnote. Also worth mentioning is its now delightfully naive summation on American foreign policy, which lends a further ironic twist to the fun.
Despite being directed by an American, monster movie king Jack Arnold, The Mouse that Roared is a very British film in both its casting and attitude. Arnold brought to the table a sensibility of pace, never letting the film’s sentiments and ironic message take over and instead moving things along, hurling slapstick moments at the screen whenever things threatened to slow down. It focuses on a minuscule, proto-Liechtensteinian principality, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which has relied for years on plentiful revenue thanks to its export of good red wine, Pinot Grand Fenwick. Disaster strikes, however, when a Californian merchant floods the market with a cheap copy (dropping the ‘F’ from the title) and threatens the realm’s quiet prosperity. Reeling from the possibility of financial meltdown, Grand Fenwick’s Prime Minister, Count Rupert (Peter Sellers) hits upon the idea of taking advantage of American military dogma. When the USA won World War Two, he argues, it celebrated victory by showering billions of dollars’ worth of aid on its defeated foes, so that’s what his country should do – declare war on the Yanks, surrender and enjoy the windfall. It’s a plan agreed upon by the country’s monarch, Grand Duchess Gloriana XII (Sellers again), who duly arranges for a full scale army (of twenty men, dressed in chain mail and wielding bows and arrows) to invade the States, led by bumbling Field Marshall, Tully Bascombe (Sellers once more).
Whilst Grand Fenwick’s declaration of war is discarded by the Washington Post as a joke, Tully makes his way across the Atlantic by barge, aided by his able deputy, Will (William Hartnell), which is lucky as he spends the voyage suffering from seasickness. The ‘army’ hits New York on the day of a nuclear drill. This clears the streets, a fortunate coincidence as it means Tully can walk straight into the Institute of Physics and take Professor Kokintz (David Kossof) hostage, along with his invention, the dreaded atomic Q Bomb. Along for the ride comes Kokintz’s daughter, Helen (Jean Seberg), an instant attraction for Tully. Returning to Grand Fenwick with their prisoners and the bomb, the army finds that it’s somehow won the war, bringing the powers of the world to its borders as a bidding war over control of the world’s deadliest weapon erupts and the globe’s smallest planet is suddenly its most important.
Prior to The Mouse that Roared, Sellers was best known for his comedic work on radio and the television and the occasional supporting part in films, most notably The Ladykillers. This was his big break and an assured one it turned out to be as he filled his three roles effortlessly, indeed it’s in the clothes of his main character, Tully, that he appears least comfortable. Hartnell provides good support as the capable power behind Tully’s hereditary command, and MacDonald Parke is in fine fettle as the blowhard American General in Grand Fenwick, all Patton bluster until he nearly comes a cropper when he has possession of the Q Bomb.
If there’s a dissenting voice, it’s in the soft heart that’s at the core of the film. All ends well. A global disaster is averted easily enough, Tully gets the girl and Grand Fenwick fades happily back into obscurity. Even the Prime Minister, architect of the plan that kicked off the story, is punished by being demoted to trampling on the grapes that will produce the nation’s fine Pinot, hardly a disastrous end. But then it comes down to a simple choice – join in with the harmless fun, or take umbrage at its refusal to turn satire into anything more than gentle rib tickles. Certainly, it’s outlook is optimistic, essentially believing that everything will turn out okay because, at heart, everyone wants peace. And there’s a lovely final twist in the film’s last frame that underscores all its previous events; the joke in the end is on us, the audience. It’s a neat closing point for a film that opens with the ‘Colombia Lady’ being frightened from her plinth by a mouse, a terrific gag within a picture that’s rarely short on smiles.
The Mouse that Roared: ***