The Mouse That Roared Review
The Mouse That Roared
What a joy! I'm not really sure when I first watched this film, certainly after its sequel - The Mouse On The Moon, directed by Richard Lester - had been shown on television but I'm sure, given a lifelong interest in ridiculous quaint sci-fi, that it would only have been due to watching the later film that I would have noticed this. I am forever glad I did as I have enjoyed my old VHS copy of this film for years and now have a brand spanky new DVD of it. Now let me tell you just what makes it so good.
The film is a gentle political satire set in Grand Fenwick and the US. Grand Fenwick is a tiny duchy in mainland Europe, occupying some 15 ¾ square miles, somewhere near the French Alps, named after it's founder, the British baronet Sir Roger Fenwick who established it in 1430, finding that he quite fancied the neighbourhood and moved in. It is thanks to Sir Roger that Grand Fenwick is the only English-speaking region in mainland Europe.
The only export of which is Pinot Grand Fenwick, a wine sold internationally, mainly to the US. Grand Fenwick has not moved forward from the years in which it was founded - the army still dress in chain mail, with their only weaponry being longbows. Grand Fenwick is a monarchy, ruled by the Duchess (Peter Sellers), under who is a parliament, governed by the Prime Minister Count Mountjoy (Peter Sellers, again), head of the ruling party. Little of this is expanded upon - the parliament contains the ruling party and an opposition party (led by Leo McKern) and Duchess Gloriana is widowed to Archduke Leopold of Bosnia Herzegovina, still mourned in Grand Fenwick after disappearing on a tiger hunt 27 years previously.
The film opens with news reaching Grand Fenwick of a wine produced in California called Pinot Grand Enwick, close enough to fool the US market for Pinot Grand Fenwick. The result is that, with the value of exports dropping, the Parliament announces Grand Fenwick bankrupt, surviving only on petty cash. Grand Fenwick initially take a diplomatic route, lodging official complaints to the US, but as the former has never actually recognised the existence of the latter, these protests are lodged in Monte Carlo, never getting any further. The Prime Minister hatches a clever plan, however, to declare war on the US, knowing that no country is more generous after a war. In the words of the Prime Minister, Grand Fenwick will declare war on Monday, be defeated on Tuesday and, by Friday, be rehabilitated beyond their wildest dreams - so far, so good and so accurate.
A letter sent to the US government in Washington declares war but, with Grand Fenwick being well off the international radar, it is ignored. Grand Fenwick, therefore, sends its army on a boat hired from Marseille harbour to New York, led by Tully Bascombe (Peter Sellers, once again) and Will Buckley (William Hartnell). When the Grand Fenwick army arrive in New York, they find the city deserted, with everyone underground in the subway stations during an army drill. Bascombe and his army are free to stroll about New York with no idea why there are no other people. They bump into a few workers during the drill, steal a van and, completely by mistake, find themselves at the New York Institute of Advanced Physics where they capture Professor Kokintz (David Kossoff) and his daughter, Helen (Jean Seberg). Kokintz just happens to be the inventor of the Q-Bomb, the most powerful bomb in the world, which uses a fission device to set off a fusion explosion that primes the Quodium bomb, Quodium being, for those of you unfamiliar with made-up elements, 100 times more powerful than hydrogen.
With Kokintz, his daughter, the only working Q-Bomb and a general and four policemen they pick up on the way, Bascombe and his army return triumphantly, or so they think, to Grand Fenwick, but having sort of won the war, Mountjoy is furious and wants to return the Americans and the Q-Bomb immediately. It doesn't quite work out like that and the film rolls to a gentle and feel-good conclusion that fair warms the heart and it does all this in just less than 80mins - wonderful!
If this all sounds gentle, then it is and whilst it is a slight political satire, this is not at all comparable to Dr Strangelove to choose one similar film, also starring Peter Sellers. The Mouse That Roared takes a view on the international role of the US, a "Wouldn't it be nice if..." observation on international armaments and the humour in seeing a tiny state up against the US, and winning, and mixes them with a love story to produce a wonderfully brief film. There is simply no fat in this story - the film is trimmed to a minimum such that every scene exists to add to the story.
Peter Sellers was not yet internationally famous - Lolita would not be made for another three years, Dr Strangelove and The Pink Panther would be another five - and does not really have much to do here as Bascombe is an big-hearted fool, Duchess Gloriana provides very little comedy and while Mountjoy is the best role here, it's still a little slight compared to what will follow this in Sellers' career. Jean Seberg would make A Bout de Souffle the next year, Kossoff would return in the sequel and the director, Jack Arnold, went from High School Confidential and this to a life directing TV episodes for US networks. Everyone in the film turns in a fine performance, maybe not outstanding, but the warmth at the heart of the story is what this should be remembered for, not as an acting masterclass.
There are few huge comedy set pieces in this film - it's not really like that - but there is humour in the situation, the state and population of Grand Fenwick, the political machinations of Mountjoy on finding he has defeated the US, the gentle satire and, finally, the unsurprising conclusion. If you were happy watching a rolling and relaxing little comedy, The Mouse That Roared would certainly be for you.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and when it would have been easy to issue this in 1.33:1, or actually not at all, Columbia Tristar have produced a fine version of the film. The picture is soft during the location filming, contrasting to the sharper picture in the interior scenes but it is generally good, much better than I have even seen it before when it has been presented on TV.
Grand Fenwick was filmed in the UK and it appears to have been filmed in autumn given the colours of the landscape in the latter part of the film, after the army of Grand Fenwick returns with the Q Bomb. The landscapes and natural colours of the English autumn countryside look wonderful. Grand Fenwick is beautifully filmed but clearly the budget limited what was possible - there is a good deal of obvious back-projection during the New York scenes and Central Park looks like my local playing field and playground but the later scenes more than make up for this.
It is worth noting that Grand Fenwick is supposed to be closer to the Mediterranean than Hertfordshire, and even set it autumn, it is clearly meant to be warmer than it actually was. When watching the film, note that Jean Seberg's breath is visible in the scene where she enters Grand Fenwick along with Sellers' and McKern's in all their external scenes - it looks great but it must have been desperately cold for the cast during filming.
The film is presented in its original Mono soundtrack, which is fine. A stereo remix would not have added much to the presentation of this DVD never mind a 5.1 or DTS. The soundtrack has always been clean with very little noise or hiss and has been very well transferred here. There are a number of occasions, however, where the picture and the dubbing are oh so slightly out of synchronisation but these do not fully detract from the experience.
The are three extras on the DVD, none of which are particularly exciting:
Trailer for The Mouse That Roared (2min22s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Mono): This is a fine trailer in a "Gee, these crazy Europeans are just so funny!" kind of way. It is incredibly grainy but is fairly entertaining in an "I'll watch it once" kind of way.
Trailer for Dr Strangelove (3min22s, 4:3, Mono): A film with a sharper satirical edge than The Mouse That Roared and its moody black and white contrasts with the bright colours elsewhere on the disc. This is not a bad trailer, though.
Trailer For Murder By Death (3min22s, 4:3, Mono): This is not a very good trailer, it would appear to be for a comedy, but those who edited this didn't include one single good line from the film.
Admittedly, there probably isn't much in the way of behind-the-scenes documentaries for films of this age, a great number of the cast are no longer alive and it is undeserving of a retrospective documentary so I don't mind that only trailers are included as extras. The reason I bought this disc was for the film, any extras would have been a bonus and although there are barely any, I'm not wholly disappointed.
This is a wonderful film, if you hadn't guess that I think so, but it is difficult to accurately describe why. It's possible that you could read the review above and come away nonplussed by the description, where others would want to watch it. I find this film close to Gregory's Girl, maybe just not as good but equally successful at creating an image of a place on earth that looks like a forgotten corner of heaven, slightly dusty, hasn't been visited in a while but nice things just happen there. It may have been Glasgow in Gregory's Girl - and how unlikely it is to think that Glasgow could look like heaven - and Grand Fenwick here, but as you watch the film conclude, everyone leaving happily and the main couple falling in love, you'll wonder if wherever Grand Fenwick is, it's got to be worth a visit, if only on DVD.