What is a country to do if its economy suddenly takes a nosedive? What if the country’s sole source of income is a product that’s suddenly no more in demand? Are economic reforms in order? Or a smart political move?
No; I’m not talking a 1950s tale of courage and enterprise in the face of economic disaster (not in the way one would’ve expected, at any rate). Not when you know that the star of this film—in a triple role, too, one of which is a woman—is the inimitable Peter Sellers. And not when you know that it revolves around a fictitious country, supposedly the smallest in the world, which decides that what its economy needs for a turnaround is to declare war on the United States of America.
The Mouse That Roared begins with a brief and hilarious introduction to the Independent Duchy of Grand Fenwick, 15 ¾ square miles of nation tucked away in the French Alps, and founded in the late 14th century by an English knight named Fenwick, who happened to like this little stretch of land enough to settle down here. Grand Fenwick, we are told, is therefore the only English-speaking nation on mainland Europe, and it’s ruled by Her Highness, the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII (Peter Sellers), a sweet, vague and motherly lady still mourning wistfully for her long-dead husband.
… but now, in 1959, disaster has suddenly struck Pinot Grand Fenwick, and, consequently, Grand Fenwick itself. Some upstart Californian vineyard has started producing what it sells as Pinot Grand Enwick.
The demand for Pinot Grand Fenwick has plummeted, and Grand Duchess Gloriana and her advisers are in a flap. What are they to do? With wine exports down to zero, poor Grand Fenwick isn’t merely looking at bankruptcy: it is bankrupt. “As of today, we are living on petty cash,” says the Prime Minister, Sir Rupert of Mountjoy (‘Bobo’, as Lady Gloriana addresses him; also Peter Sellers).
Thankfully for Grand Fenwick, Bobo has a brilliant idea. Attack the US. Declare war on them. “There isn’t a more profitable undertaking for any country than to declare a war on the United States and to be defeated,” he says.
After all, look at America’s past record in matters of war: every time the US has defeated another country, the aftermath has been a shower of bounty for the country in question. The Americans, says Bobo, are a strange lot; where other nations would decimate the enemy, the Americans end up pumping millions of dollars into it. If Grand Fenwick does this the right way, they can be laughing all the way to the bank.
It must all be done according to the rules, of course. Which is to say, a declaration of war must first be sent to the US. This must then be followed by an invasion.
An invasion? Who’s to handle that?
Why, Tully Bascombe, of course. Tully (Peter Sellers again) is not just Grand Fenwick’s game warden, he also holds the hereditary post of Field Marshal and Grand Constable of Grand Fenwick’s twenty-man strong army. Bobo proposes that Tully lead Grand Fenwick’s army to New York City, where (naturally, Grand Fenwick and the US being at war) these intruders will immediately be arrested. This will officially mean that Grand Fenwick has been defeated, and then all the little country needs to do is prepare to greet the GIs who will come marching in to occupy Grand Fenwick and bring in truckloads of delicious dollars.
There are some hitches, though. A member of Grand Fenwick’s opposition party pooh-poohs the idea of Tully leading the army. He’s got “fallen arches, flat feet, sinus, migraine, claustrophobia and high blood pressure. Apart from being near-sighted and getting dizzy in high places”. We also discover, later on, that Tully gets seasick. Even in rowboats.
Not a very bright prospect, it seems, as commander of an invading army.
Bobo, however, squelches the opposition. Will Buckley (William Hartnell), who used to be a sergeant with the British army in the last war, will go along and be Tully’s second in command. They will pull this off.
So, a letter—declaring war—is mailed to the US. (Bobo and his lot are not to know that it gets consigned to the dustbin on arrival, because it seems so absolutely preposterous; it’s dismissed as a prank).
And Tully and his men (who’ve had to be ordered by Will Buckley to ‘volunteer’) set off, clad in their traditional uniforms (chain mail) and carrying their traditional weapons (bows and arrows). They are given a grand send-off by their fellow countrymen (and women), and stop only long enough behind a hedge to change into more everyday modern clothing before boarding a bus to Marseilles.
Little does this little bunch of Grand Fenwickians know that, on the day they’ll be arriving in NYC, the brilliant scientist, Dr Alfred Kokintz (David Kossoff) will be conducting some critical experiments on his invention, the Q-bomb. The Q-bomb, we discover, will make the H-bomb look like a firecracker, and has the potential to wipe out all of North America—and parts of South America, too—in one fell swoop.
While Dr Kokintz carries out his experiments at the New York Institute of Advanced Physics, for the safety of New Yorkers, the government has declared an air raid drill, a complete shutdown of the city. Everybody must be underground in the designated shelters until the all-clear.
Which means, of course, that when Tully Bascombe, Will Buckley and their entourage sail into the harbour, it’s to find New York completely deserted. There isn’t a soul to be seen.
Our conquering heroes wander around, trying to figure out what’s wrong. Has all of New York gone into hiding?
Fortunately, a newspaper which they find lying around provides the answer. So it’s an air raid drill, and because of this scary bomb. All right. But whom will they surrender to? They’ve been given instructions, by Bobo, that they’re to surrender to the American forces—but there aren’t any Americans to be seen here.
One of Tully’s men offers their invasion map (a guide book to New York), and they quickly check the address of the arsenal. They’ll go there and surrender. Easy-peasy. This way, through Central Park…
En route, they find an abandoned vehicle—a decontamination squad’s van—and are busy examining it when the two-man squad (which had gone off for a loo break) returns. The decontamination squad are dressed in their protective gear, and Tully and Co. are dressed in their medieval chain mail, as a result of which both parties mistake the other for men from Mars. A small skirmish breaks out, and Tully’s men succeed in dispatching several arrows at the ‘aliens’ before Will Buckley stops them.
The decontamination squad men, thanking their stars for a lucky escape, make a frantic phone call, announcing the arrival of the men from Mars, and soon it’s on the radio news. All of New York, down in the bomb shelters, begins to buzz with the news.
Meanwhile, Tully being what he is, manages to get his army lost: they turn up at the New York Institute of Advanced Physics instead of at the arsenal.
This may be fortuitous, though. Tully remembers the newspaper: wasn’t this where Dr Kokintz is building the Q-bomb? So, before anybody can come along to stop them, Tully enters and finds Dr Kokintz’s lab, where Dr Kokintz and his daughter Helen (Jean Seberg) are at work.
And before Dr Kokintz and Helen quite know what’s happening, Tully—in a spirited and unexpected show of initiative—has taken them, and the ominously ticking bomb (which looks rather like a football) hostage. Another few minutes, and they’ve been bundled into the decontamination squad van (which the Grand Fenwickians had commandeered). The little army heads for the docks, ready to go back home triumphantly to Grand Fenwick.
On the way, there’s another happy surprise waiting for our men. A high-ranking American army officer, General Snippet (MacDonald Parke) has been deputed to get to the bottom of this ‘men from Mars’ rumour, and is out in a jeep with four NYPD cops, looking for evidence, when they run into Tully and Co. There’s a short, sharp, one-sided battle, with General Snippet and the four policemen being taken prisoner within moments.
They’ve done it, says Tully, well pleased. They’ve got the bomb, Dr Kokintz, Helen, the general and the cops. Nobody’s stopped them. So they hoist the national flag of Grand Fenwick on the customs house shed, and take the boat home.
…where Bobo, his colleagues, and all of Grand Fenwick are busy preparing for the arrival of the GIs, and drawing up lists of things they need (malted milk machines for one, hot dogs for another). Little do they know that Tully Bascombe has, in effect, won Grand Fenwick’s war with the US and Grand Fenwick has bitten off far more than it can hope to chew.
Or has it? This hilarious farce still has many twists and turns to come.
Written by the Irish-American writer, Leonard Wibberley, The Mouse That Roared was a Cold War satirical novel released in 1955. This film, directed by Jack Arnold, was the first media adaptation of the novel, though it’s since been also adapted for television, radio, and the stage.
What I liked about this film:
The superb satire of it. On the surface, The Mouse That Roared is an often-ridiculous (Peter Sellers as Gloriana XII?!), often plain old loony tale about a nutty adventure that takes an unexpected turn. It’s hilarious, true, but there’s a wry comment on international politics and diplomacy here. Not just in Bobo’s very canny remark about the US’s ways of dealings with defeated enemies (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall!, anyone?), but in the way the story later plays out. The film becomes an interesting—even if in a farcical way—comment on how nations struggle for power, and the different forms power can take.
The Mouse That Roared was written at a time when the Cold War loomed over the world and nuclear proliferation seemed (was?) uncontrolled. These form the actual warp and weft of the story: what if one country held the power to destroy much of the rest of the world? How would it change world politics? How would it effect diplomacy? Are the two sides of the Iron Curtain really that much different? What really matters in life—personal and political, individual and national?
All, of course, in an utterly loony tale that had me chuckling through much of it. The dialogues are often hilarious; the situations are funny, and Peter Sellers, in particular, is brilliant. In all three roles.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, really. There is the occasional episode that’s stretched a bit thin (the ‘men from Mars’ rumour that sweeps over New York is one example), but other than that, this is a delightful film, a must-watch for anybody who likes a good laugh.