The Mouse That Roared (1959)

The Academy gave its Best Actor Oscar for 1964 to Rex Harrison, for his portrayal of a misogynist who still gets the girl (Audrey Hepburn) at the end of My Fair Lady. That probably seems fine to everyone who loves My Fair Lady, but fans of Stanley Kubrick’s vastly more complex, topical, and hilarious Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb may be wondering where the love went. Harrison played one detestable snob who mistreats Hepburn, while Sellers played three uproarious roles (a bumbling president, a conscientious soldier, and a maniacal murderer) to the hilt, carrying the majority of the movie along with him into the history books. And what does he get for it? Nada.

Now fast forward a couple decades to Hal Ashby’s equally brilliant Being There (1979), which, barely a year before his death, nets Sellers some long overdue recognition from the Academy. A subtle yet prescient look at media, corporate, and political manipulation, Being There‘s greatest asset is Sellers’ Chance the Gardener, a TV-addicted Forrest Gump before his time who lucks his way into the higher echelons of power (much like the current U.S. President). It’s the role of a lifetime, but Sellers is once again snubbed in favor of the muggy Dustin Hoffman, whose role in Kramer vs. Kramer helps ignite a male zeitgeist that doesn’t peter out until Reagan is long gone from office.

Spot a pattern?

This is the unfortunate tale of Peter Sellers, a theatrical genius who didn’t get his due from the world until it was too late. Passing time grants perspective, though people don’t consider this when marketing blitzes are in full swing (Chicago, anyone?). Something that is exceedingly popular today is usually old hat by tomorrow. Were you to argue to a film student or self-styled cineaste today that My Fair Lady is a more important film than Dr. Strangelove, he might laugh you out of the multiplex.

Also a political satire, The Mouse That Roared underscores Kubrick’s potent critique of the world’s dangerous nuclear game. Although made five years earlier at the same Shepperton Studios in England, The Mouse That Roared has many ingredients identical to Strangelove‘s — Sellers in three corresponding roles (the bumbling queen, the conscientious soldier, the conniving politician), a nuclear threat, war, and political manipulation. But Jack Arnold’s film is also very different, in its unfailing light heart. While it encourages you to chew over the same ideas, the taste is distinctively sweeter.

Consider the gentle Tully Bascomb (Sellers), a soldier from Mouse‘s fictional European backwater burg, Grand Fenwick. Fenwick has one export, wine, whose value is significantly downgraded when a California winery puts out a copycat product. And so, Fenwick declares war on the United States. That design is the brainchild of the devious Count Mountjoy (Sellers again) and the Grand Duchess Gloriana (who else? Sellers), who figure that after a swift defeat, Grand Fenwick will begin to cash in the type of reconstruction that built Europe back up after WWII. Like Sellers’ Mandrake in Strangelove, Bascomb is the peacenik innocent who gets caught up in a ludicrous geopolitical nightmare.

But Bascomb is no dummy. Put in charge of a ragtag army of 30 or so to invade America by tugboat (on which he can’t keep from vomiting, being the seasick type), he seizes the initiative in a war doomed to fail. By the time the soldiers, armed with nothing but arrows, arrive in New York (rendered utterly silent by an air raid drill), Bascomb has become — like Mandrake, Gump, and Chance — the right guy in the right place at the right time. He lucks into finding the Einstein-like nuclear physicist, Professor Kokintz (David Kossof), whose construction of a fictional Q bomb (think Strangelove‘s Doomsday device) is the reason all of Gotham is huddled underground. He also falls in love at first sight with Kokintz’s daughter Helen (Jean Seberg), before spiriting both away, with Q bomb in hand, back to Grand Fenwick.

The fact that access to New York is exceedingly easy or that the most dangerous nuclear device in the world is merely sitting on a desk in its creator’s office is irrelevant to this relaxed film (though it’s still annoying for some viewers, this one included). What matters is that Bascomb serendipitously lands in the bomb’s neighborhood to salvage his Quixotic mission and restore glory to his nation. Even when the military spots Bascomb’s countrified regiment, they’re convinced (in a sure reference to pre-Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War hysteria) that the Fenwick band is from outer space. Within seconds, the rumors are flying and New Yorkers believe they’re under alien invasion.

On its surface, Mouse conflates alien takeovers, nuclear holocaust, political machinations, and hyped up military conflict as much as any other Red Menace film of the period. But unlike those films — and unlike Kubrick’s Strangelove, which sets off the Doomsday explosion at the end — Mouse is actually a comedy, not just a laughable exercise in paranoia. And so its parody, conspiracy, and madness only form the backdrop for a sweet love story, as well as another tour de force for Sellers’ comic gifts. (It’s Austin Powers without the bathroom humor.) The Q bomb is merely a means to bring Bascomb and Helen together, punish Mountjoy for his lunacy, and make the audience feel safe at home. Because of that, the film’s satirical thrust is dampened considerably.

But The Mouse That Roared is also evocative of a time when, even though the world was one itchy trigger finger away from annihilation, media resisted the kind of mean-spirited cynicism that serves as lifeblood for today’s reality TV. Which is not to say everything was hunky-dory; five years later, Kubrick’s version of the same consensual frenzy made clear that malice and ignorance were infinitely dangerous. Still, every review I’ve come across for this film mentions its “biting” satire. The Mouse That Roared may do many things, but it does not bite. In the end, Mouse is that rare nuclear holocaust flick you can watch with the kids. Chew on that.