Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men ...

Tulley Bascombe (Peter Sellers): Men of Fenwick, where you hear the name of Grand Fenwick do your hearts swell with pride?

Men of Fenwick: Yes!

Tulley Bascombe: And if your country calls, will you rush to enlist?

Men of Fenwick: No!

Tulley Bascombe: Oh.

When I was in high school, the dramatically inclined students put together a production of "The Mouse That Roared." It was good, but it really wasn't even close to the movie by the same name that premiered 55 years ago today.

Of course, when you have seen Peter Sellers playing multiple roles — five years before "Dr. Strangelove" — anything less will seem second rate. Nothing against my former schoolmates. Sellers was just the best.

It is the ultimate underdog story — or should that be undermouse?

See, the story was about a teensy–weensy country (fictional, of course) that faced an economic crisis when a cheap American knockoff of its lone export — wine — hit the market.

The prime minister (Sellers) had a plan — declare war on the United States. The grand duchess (also played by Sellers) who believed the president of the United States was Calvin Coolidge didn't think the country could win such a war.

But winning would not be the objective, the prime minister said. The weak little country (whose soldiers resembled characters in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail") would surrender, after which American foreign aid would refill the country's coffers.

At first, the country's general (also played by Sellers) appeared to be too inept to lead any kind of army across the street, let alone into battle (however faux it might be).

It was hard enough for them to cross the Atlantic.

No one knew they were coming, and the seasick general apparently spent most of the trip bent over the ship's railing. At one point, the ship encountered the Queen Elizabeth on its way to England. Its officers tried to tell the smaller ship that the United States' east coast was conducting an air raid drill, and city streets were deserted.

They got a shower of arrows for their trouble, and the soldiers continued on their mission to land in New York and promptly surrender to someone in authority.

They were baffled when they arrived in New York. There was no one to be seen.

All they wanted to do was surrender. They were all pumped up to give up.

But then they happened to find a newspaper that explained everything — the air raid drill and the work on a new nuclear weapon that would make the ones used against Japan look like blowtorches.

Sellers and his soldiers stumbled on to the science professor who created this new weapon and his daughter (Jean Seberg). The two were captured and taken back to the teeny–tiny country.

And, suddenly, the teeny–tiny country had the upper hand in the confrontation with America. It wasn't so teeny–tiny in the eyes of the world anymore.

The satire was a little harsh at times, but it had its memorable moments, too, as all good Peter Sellers movies did.

And, as most good Sellers movies also did, it made some insightful observations — about international relations, military policy, economic policy.

It's really a matter of perspective. The nice thing about satire as opposed to black comedy is that satire is usually positive even though it pokes fun, and even if it does drift into harsh territory at times — whereas black comedy is almost always negative.

It's about the emphasis.