The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) A Silent Film Review

Rudolf (Lewis Stone) is an Englishman on holiday in the unstable European kingdom of Ruritania. It turns out that he is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be-crowned king (also Lewis Stone). This comes in handy when the king is kidnapped by his evil brother and Rudolf must take his place to save the kingdom. A young Ramon Novarro has a star-making turn as the theatrical (and homicidal) Rupert of Hentzau.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Up until now I have focused on books about silent films themselves and the men and women who made them. For a change, I am going to cover some books that inspired silent films. Let’s start with the quintessential swashbuckler, The Prisoner of Zenda.

My copy of the book is a Penguin Classics edition. However, since the novel was written in 1894, it is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. The edition I found has illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson. And there is a splendid free public domain audiobook courtesy of LibriVox. (Seriously, I’ve bought audiobooks that aren’t half as good.)

What is it?: A tale that has been told before and has been retold again but has never been told better: An Englishman named Rudolf visits a European kingdom and discovers (through an indiscretion on the part of his great great great great grandmother) that he is a dead ringer for the king. This comes in handy when the king is kidnapped by his evil brother and Rudolf must keep the conspirators at bay by occupying the throne.

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My favorite part: The rakish villain, Rupert of Hentzau. While he is not the main bad guy (that would be Duke Michael, the afore mentioned evil brother), he is by far the most memorable. The book describes him like this:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of the thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Rupert proved to be so popular that Anthony Hope’s sequel was named for him.

My least favorite part: The books has a bit of snobbish tone that gets trying very quickly. Also, Hope has the habit of introducing too many characters. Michael has six henchmen when only one or two would to the job just as well. Rudolf’s English friends and family are carefully introduced at the beginning only to disappear and never be heard from again in the book.

Influence: The book proved to be so popular that an entire sub-genre is named for it. Ruritanian adventure, named for the fictional nation, is defined as “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an imaginary place of high romance.”

To readers of Victorian literature, it wonderful to read actual names. What do I mean? Well, Victorian novels that purported to be about actual people and places would often do this:

“He was the Count d’A—— from the estate of G—— in the county R——– which is just to the north of S—-.”

“Really, Mr. T——–, must you speak in dashes? You sound like that common M—— from E——–.”

I know they were trying to defend themselves from a libel suit but give me a break! Either make up something entirely, as Hope did, or pick out an older name and use that, as Thomas Hardy did with his fictional Wessex county. We, the readers, promise to forgive you. What bugs me most, though, is when the writer makes up a name or city and then uses the dashes anyway! I think they were trying to give the illusion of breathless gossip. They merely succeed in making my eyes roll.

Yes, I realize I am upbraiding authors who have been dead for a century. I am sorry. One tires of dashes.

I take comfort in the fact that Thackery had a rather funny dash bit when he went off on a tangent in Vanity Fair.

Silent movie connection:

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The Prisoner of Zenda was a popular best-seller and was adapted three times for the silent screen. The 1913 version survives in archives. The survival status of the 1915 version is unknown. However, it is the 1922 version that is the most famous. Starring Lewis Stone and Alice Terry and directed by Rex Ingram, it is a lush adventure. The film also contained a star-making performance with a very, very young Ramon Novarro walking off with the picture as the theatrical villain Rupert of Hentzau.

It should be noted, though, that the definitive film version of this book is the 1937 Selznick production starring Ronald Colman as Rudolf/The King and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert.

And the worst version? That would have to be the 1979 Peter Sellers version, which attempts to turn the story into a knockabout comedy. In the end, the critics took glee in giving this film a knockabout in their reviews. Well, it is pretty vile.

How about another remake? Real, honest-to-goodness fencing has been missing from motion pictures for far too long. Enough of the CG-enhanced acrobatics! They look cheesy and there is no suspense. I want sabers and banter and shadows and the thwacking of candles and ropes! The Prisoner of Zenda has all this and more.

In the meantime, enjoy the novel.