The 1937 Ronald Colman classic The Prisoner of Zenda is often considered the definitive film adaptation of Anthony Hope's novel of the same name and you won't hear any statement to the contrary from us, however the 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remake packs quite a punch on its own and since it is highly underrated we have decided to spotlight this swashbuckler instead.
Hope's 1894 novel tells the story of a commoner, Rudolf Rassendyll, who is thrust into the royal household when he is called upon to impersonate his look-a-like, King Rudolf of Ruritania, who was drugged by the king's half-brother, Michael, the night before his coronation. At first he is unwilling to cooperate, especially since his visit to the Balkan country was purely for recreation, but after he meets the lovely Princess Flavia, the King's bride to be, he decides to comply, feigning the role of the king during the coronation and aiding the king's supporters in preventing Michael's conspiracy from taking over the country.
Stewart Granger was quickly becoming one of Metro's most popular leading actors when producer Pandro S. Berman decided to cast him in the duel role of the Rudolfs for The Prisoner of Zenda. Granger had made his American film debut two years prior in King Solomon's Mines, which became a box-office hit.
After the highly successful swashbuckler Scaramouche was released in the summer of 1952, MGM thrust their new leading man into this sword-clashing costume drama and wasted no time in its production either. The Prisoner of Zenda took a mere thirty days to film and was released in November, 1952. Considering the scale of the production this is an amazing feat in itself.
Stewart Granger was just the kind of star MGM was hoping for....he had a noble appearance, an affable nature, and the charisma and agility of the famous swashbucklers of past generations ( Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn ) making him ideally suited to historical adventure films. After Zenda, he would go on to make Salome, Young Bess, All the Brothers Were Valiant, and Beau Brummel for the studio.
The lovely English rose, Deborah Kerr, was cast as Granger's leading lady, Princess Flavia. Kerr and Granger had met during a European stage tour of Gaslight during the mid-1940s and this was their third US film together. Rudolf and Princess Flavia share many a tender moment together.
Robert Douglas is featured as the King's nemesis Michael, but it is James Mason who captures the crown of villainy as Rupert of Hentzau, one of Michael's Nazi-like henchmen. Louis Calhern, Robert Coote, and Jane Greer also have strong supporting roles and the great character actor Lewis Stone makes an appearance as his eminence, the Cardinal. Stone had portrayed the leading role in the silent version of The Prisoner of Zenda so it was a nice touch to have him return to Ruritania thirty years later. Unfortunately, the political situation in the country hadn't changed any since he left.
The film is often underrated because of this lack of originality but in truth The Prisoner of Zenda is distinctive on its own merit. It possesses all of the elements of an iconic swashbuckler - a dashing hero, a beautiful damsel in distress ( Princess Flavia was trapped into what she thought would be a loveless marriage ), a nefarious power-seeker who happens to be an expert swordsman, an exotic Balkan setting, and resplendent costumes ( by Walter Plunkett ) and marvelous split-screen special effects. One of the highlights of the movie is the swordfight scene during the finale. Fencing master Jean Heremans ( The Three Musketeers, Scaramouche ) was called in to train Granger and Mason for this fight scene, and the actors clearly take passion in attempting to destroy each other utilizing every object in the room as weapons. Granger even underwent stitches after receiving a wound near his mouth. This sterling bit of swordplay becomes the epee apex of the picture.
'Tis true, if one were to compare the two filmings of The Prisoner of Zenda, Colman's version will emerge the victor, but these films were not meant to be seen back to back. This was a telling of the story for a different generation and MGM captured the thrills and passion of the original with an entirely new cast - and the bonus attraction of Technicolor. Now honestly, if you take off your comparison-glasses and sit back and make yourself comfortable, you have a darn good swashbuckler to enjoy.
Head on over to the silent headquarters, Movies Silently, to check out all the great posts on more swashy films from the golden age of cinema. To get more of Zenda, check out Now Voyaging's review of the 1937 classic and Scribblings line-up of the Ruperts of Hentzaus throughout the ages.