The year is 1965, but the Academy is handing out its Best Actor Oscar for 1964, and the winner is Rex Harrison for his portrayal of a misogynist who still gets the girl (Audrey Hepburn) by the end of My Fair Lady. On the surface, that might seem fine to everyone who loved My Fair Lady, but fans of Stanley Kubrick‘s vastly more complex, topical, and hilarious Dr. Strangelove are wondering where the love went. Harrison played one detestable snob who treats Hepburn like a savage for an entire film, 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, right 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, which, barely a year before his death, nets Sellers some long-overdue recognition by 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 our current 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 really didn’t get his due from the world until it was far too late. Time has a curious sense of perspective, which is something people don’t think much about when the marketing blitzes are in full swing (Chicago, anyone?). That’s why the aphorism “Hindsight is 20/20” is in continual use. Something that is exceedingly popular today is usually old hat by tomorrow. Were you to argue to a film student or fan today that My Fair Lady is a more important film than Dr. Strangelove, they might laugh you out of the multiplex in a hail of popcorn.
And so they should, because, taking one look at the similarly themed political satire, The Mouse That Roared, one realizes how potent Kubrick’s critique of the world’s dangerous nuclear game actually was. Although made five years earlier at the same Shepperton Studios in England, The Mouse That Roared has Strangelove‘s identical ingredients — Sellers in three corresponding roles (the bumbling queen, the conscientious soldier, the conniving politician), a nuclear threat, war and political manipulation. But the main difference is its unfailing light heart; unlike Kubrick’s film, Jack Arnold’s romp is not meant to bite, just chew. And you might be chewing on the same ideas, but the taste is supposed to be distinctively sweeter.
Speaking of sweet, consider the gentle Tully Bascomb (Sellers), a humble 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, so Fenwick decides to get back by going to war against America. 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. And like Sellers’ Mandrake in Strangelove, Bascomb is the peacenik innocent who gets caught up in Mountjoy’s ludicrous geopolitical nightmare.
But Bascomb is no dummy; put in charge of a ragtag army of thirty or so to invade America by tugboat (which he can’t keep from vomiting on, being the seasick type), he seizes the initiative in a war doomed to fail. By the time the army armed with nothing but arrows gets to New York, which is utterly silent due to 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 City is huddled underground. He also falls in love at first sight with Kokintz’s daughter (Jean Seberg), before spiriting both away, with the Q bomb in hand, back to Grand Fenwick.
The fact that access to New York is exceedingly quick and easy or that the most dangerous nuclear device in the world is merely sitting on a desk in its creator’s NYC office is irrelevant (but still annoying) to this relaxed film. What matters is that things fall into place for Bascomb, that he serendipitously ends up in the bomb’s neighborhood to salvage his Quixotic mission and restore glory to his native country. Even when the military spots Bascomb’s countrified regiment, they’re convinced (in a sure shot of pre-Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War hysteria) that the Fenwick band is from outer space. Within seconds, the rumors are flying and all of New York believes that it’s under alien invasion.
On its surface, Mouse conflates alien takeovers, nuclear holocaust, political machinations and 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 film’s finale — Mouse is actually a comedy, not just a laughable exercise in paranoia. And so all this satire, conspiracy, and madness are just the backdrop for what remains a sweet love story, as well as another tour de force for Sellers’ comic gifts. It’s Austin Powers without the bathroom humor, except that it predates Mike Myers’ franchise by 40 years. The Q bomb is a dud, a mere plot device to bring Sellers and Seberg together, punish Mountjoy for his lunacy, and make the audience feel safe at home. Because of that, the satirical thrust of the film is dampened considerably.
But The Mouse That Roared is evocative of a time in cinema when, even though the world was one itchy trigger finger away from annihilation, the kind of mean-spirited cynicism that serves as lifeblood for almost every Reality TV show out there was far from ubiquitous. Which is not to say everything was hunky-dory; five years later, Kubrick’s version of the same consensual frenzy illustrated that well. But it is worthwhile to note, especially when every review I’ve come across for this film talks about its biting satire. The Mouse That Roared may do many things, but, like I said, it does not bite.
In the end, Mouse is that rare nuclear holocaust flick you can watch with the kids.
This article originally appeared here on Morphizm, as well as Bright Lights Film Journal and Popmatters.