Skip to main content

To our glorious defeat.

The Mouse that Roared
(1959)

(SPOILERS) I’d quite forgotten Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in a movie satirising the nuclear option prior to Dr. Strangelove. Possibly because, while its premise is memorable, The Mouse that Roared isn’t, very. I was never that impressed, much preferring the sequel that landed (or took off) four years later – sans Sellers – and this revisit confirms that take. The movie appears to pride itself on faux-Passport to Pimlico Ealing eccentricity, but forgets to bring the requisite laughs with that, or the indelible characters. It isn’t objectionable, just faintly dull.

US Defence Secretary: Do you want it recorded in history that a nation of our size attacked the smallest country in the world?

The Mouse that Roared was adapted from a 1955 novel by prolific Irish novelist Leonard Wibberley (churning out as many as three books a year, once he started). The first of five lightly satirical Grand Fenwick novels, this one spoofed the arms race and, in particular, the nuclear one. The premise, however, derived from the aid Japan received following the US peace treaty. Wibberley initially had Ireland invading the US, but then invented the Duchy of Grand Fenwick as a bankrupt nation scheming to hit it big; they would be betting on a similar shedload of funds flooding in to rehabilitate their country, following a swift defeat by the vastly larger nation (Fenwick is “the smallest country on the face of the globe” at fifteen and three-quarter square miles).

Rupert Mountjoy: The Americans forgive everything. There isn’t a more profitable undertaking for a country than to declare war on the United States and be defeated.

Roger MacDougall (The Man in the White Suit) and Stanley Mann (later of A High Wind in Jamaica, Damien: Omen II and Conan the Destroyer) penned the screenplay, and Jack Arnold, best known for his science-fiction fare during that decade, was the curious choice for director. Perhaps he came at the behest of Columbia (whose logo is lightly mocked at the opening, with the statue stepping off her plinth), and it was felt an American eye leading the invasion of the US was appropriate. Certainly, he wasn’t known as a comedy guy, and I think that comes across.

Narrator: Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the end of our film. However, something very much like this could happen at any moment. We just thought we ought to prepare you and more or less put you in the mood.

Or maybe it was felt cautionary science-fiction lent itself to cautionary nuke satire. Wibereley, whose son Cormac became a screenwriter (The 6th Day), may have taken the threat of mutually assured destruction at face value, but he was surely aware of its potency as a tool for maximum fear porn. As were the makers of the movie, hence the narrator’s glib insertion of a mushroom cloud ten minutes from the end with the above warning. It was precisely such fanning of flames that would keep the Cold War alive and well for another three decades (fear porn is now induced by something equally invisible to the average person).

Rupert Mountjoy: My idea was sound. Only an idiot could have won this war, and he did.

Taking up the nuclear football – or Q Bomb – may not be Grand Fenwick’s intent, but it quickly becomes so. Rather than fulfilling his mission of taking a squad of twenty men to America and promptly surrendering, Tully (Sellers) the Hereditary Forest Ranger, Field Marshal and Grand Constable of the Armed Forces, succeeds in taking captive General Snippet (MacDonald Parke), four NYPD officers, Doctor Kokintz (David Kossoff), designer of the Q Bomb, and his daughter Helen (Jean Seberg). And the Q Bomb. It’s a disaster for Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy (Sellers) and Leader of the Opposition Benter (Leo McKern), counting on even a nincompoop like Tully pulling off his limited task.

It isn’t really his fault. They arrive during a nuclear attack simulation – you know, the kind of thing Bill Gates is fond of, but again, with something equally invisible – and despite coming equipped with their Passports and health certificates (ahead of the curve there), they discover “There doesn’t seem to be anyone to surrender to”. Only a Decontamination Squad van driving around and the explanation that “They want people to get used to long alerts” (you know, all the better for living in a state of perpetual fear). It doesn’t help any either that the Grand Fenwick war declaration has been dismissed as a joke.

The oblivious Dr Kokintz, because you always need a bigger threat (or “deterrent” as the linguistic subterfuge would have it), is developing a “new bomb, infinitely more powerful than the H Bomb and capable of devastating an area of two million miles”. The Q Bomb (as opposed to drop) is composed of Quodium, a substance a hundred times more powerful than hydrogen. Once the Q Bomb has been “safely” escorted to Grand Fenwick, the concern announced by Duchess Gloriana XII (Sellers) is that another country will develop their own “X, Y, Z bombs and then, someday, one of them will go off”. Thus, disarmament presided over by neutral nations is essential. All very commendable. Except that, in the final scene, the Q Bomb, the greatest threat to humanity since… well the nuclear one, or maybe the neutron one… is revealed as nothing very special: “All the time it was a dud. Remarkable”. On top of which, “Only we know”. That’s the way to maintain fear of an invisible threat. It doesn’t even need to be real. Just position the idea in people’s minds.

USSR Ambassador: The peace-loving workers of the USSR would do everything to prevent the Fenwick bomb from falling into the greedy, bloodstained hands of the imperialist warmongering hyenas.

Since the ideas are so good, it’s a shame that most of The Mouse That Roared’s delivery is fairly anodyne. There’s much play made of the comedy value of the Q Bomb going off (leading to passing the “football” in a literal routine that ends with Tully crossing a goal line with it). There’s some admittedly decent material presented by Colin Gordon’s BBC announcer (that and the narration are probably the wittiest parts of the picture), with the Soviets attesting they also have a Q Bomb – again, see the nuclear “threat” – and volunteering their services to Grand Fenwick.

An eventual agreement takes place with Grand Fenwick (they may have to settle for a billion dollars, as a million is too low). This is accompanied by Tully (one of the dullest characters Sellers has played) and Helen (Seberg at her most nondescript) announcing their nuptials. Bobo (Rupert Mountjoy, the now ex-PM) and Benter are put to work crushing grapes (Pinot Grand Fenwick, “a small but sturdy wine with a virile bouquet”, was the principle export and source of income for the country, but unfortunately a cheap imitation called Grand Enwick flooded the US market, sending them to the edge of bankruptcy. Which is where the movie came in). There’s no discussion of how foreign funds traditionally result in the usurping of all sovereign rights, so engineering a puppet regime. Perhaps Wibberley saved that for one of the sequels.

Sellers is the star attraction, of course, and it’s said this put him on the map in the US, where The Mouse That Road was a success, despite its relative failure in Britain (the notion that the latter was down to one scene where Fenwick can’t wangle twenty volunteers for the army seems a bit of a stretch, particularly given the huge success of the very cynical Private’s Progress a few years earlier). It likely also explains that he became a difficult bugger to work with almost immediately (see Two-Way Stretch). The Grand Duchess is by some distance the best creation here, variously claimed to be modelled on Sellers’ grandmother and Queen Victoria, but she’s also fairly slight compared the gusto Alastair Sim brought to his drag act in the St Trinian’s series. Likewise Bobo, allegedly based on Alec Guinness’ Disraeli in The Mudlark but coming across as a low-rent Terry-Thomas impersonation. Yes, there’s a superficial similarity to Guinness’ undertaking in Kind Hearts and Coronets, but the comparison is entirely unflattering to The Mouse That Roared.

General Snippet: I warn you madam, I know the Geneva Convention by heart.
Grand Duchess: Oh, how nice. You must recite it to me some evening. I play the harpsichord.

William Hartnell is engaging pulling straight-man duties, much as he did in Private’s Progress, while McKern is rather kept in check by Sellers. Parke’s blistering buffoon general actually wins the most laughs, owing to his obsession with the Geneva Convention and insistence that his meals be served on a tin plate (meanwhile, the New York cops are waited on hand and foot by pretty Fenwick femmes). And again, it’s the narration that hits the most bullseyes, relating at the outset how the Duchess is still mourning her Consort Count Leopold of Bosnia-Herzegovina “who disappeared in a tiger hunt 27 years ago”. And that, if many Fenwickians resemble each other, that would be down to their Founder “who was in every possible way the father of his country”.

Tully: Don’t stumble, don’t fall. Because if you fall, all of America falls with you.

Pauline Kael held that The Mouse That Roaredabandons its small, amusing idea and goes off on a wearying tangent” in respect of the Q Bomb. She also surmised “it was hugely and inexplicably popular”. I can’t disagree with either view. A thumbs up for the animated opening and closing titles, though, featuring the titular mouse courtesy of future Bond supremo Maurice Binder.




Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas