The Mouse That Roared (1959)

There’s something illuminating about getting a movie from our neighbors across the pond that offers a winking look at American society. The movie takes its title quite literally, scaring off the Columbia lady with a critter who subsequently carries away the animated title sequence. Because the U.S. might be the prototypical lion, but Grand Fenwick is the mouse that roared.

The minuscule duchy of Fenwick — a measly nation if there ever was one — remains stagnated in the medieval ages, economically and otherwise. Their major exports are wine, particularly popular on the West coast, though competition in the form of copycat businesses proves steep competition.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the Fenwick leaders resolve to declare war on America. It’s really all part of their contingency plan expecting that their quick and inevitable defeat will lead to American rehabilitation and, thus, newfound prosperity for their little principality. They no doubt are well aware of the Marshall Plan and the U.S.’s undying interest in any floundering nation, they can look to capitalize on. Better us swoop in than have the Soviets socialize them, right?

Regardless, all this poppycock and tomfoolery is made even more palatable thanks to the talents of Peter Sellers. He hasn’t reached Clousseau status nor the apex of his stardom in the 1960s, but he would be an international icon soon enough. For now, we get to sit back and witness him in dialogue with himself. First as the Machiavellian prime minister Mountjoy, then the Queen Victoria knockoff, Duchess Gloriana, and finally, the ultimate Sellers hero, Tully Bascomb.

Because it is this meek and unassuming game warden, who is called upon to lead the charge across the sea onto enemy territory. Armed with their bows & arrows, chainmail, and Fenwickian pluck, their force, 20 men strong, sets off. I mention Bascomb as the prototypical Sellers hero because he’s such a small character, and yet since he is lacking in much, it works impeccably well with the utter outrageousness of the comedy blowing up around him.

Before Monty Python and even before Dr. Strangelove, there was The Mouse That Roared, and not simply due to the trio of roles carried by Sellers. Like its future scion, it takes no umbrage about trampling over Medieval iconography in all its antiquity and finding wells of humor therein. It’s also an atomic bomb-conscious comedy. Surely, you could say almost all comedies of the 50s and 60s were informed by this reality — this pervasive fear — but Mouse takes these themes to heart.

For what generally feels like a humble picture, the moving parts are rather extraordinary. Beyond Sellers, we have director Jack Arnold remembered mostly for his Sci-Fi and monster movies of the 1950s. The marriage sounds less outrageous than it is (or maybe it’s just outrageous enough) because this is meant to be a farce. There are no creatures from the black lagoon or incredible shrinking men, but there is some extraterrestrial hysteria.

It plays with all the alarmist tendencies of the age when the Fenwick contingent prey on a passing truck and punctures its tires, leaving the victims thinking the nation’s being invaded by men from outer space. This streak of nuclear age anxiety with a distinct message is more than enough to wedge it into the rest of Arnold’s canon.

But we have yet to mention Jean Seberg. She’s no doubt at her most childish — she’s only 20 or 21 years old, after all — playing the peeved daughter of a famed scientist. It hardly accentuates her talents nor her playful mystique like Breathless or even Monsieur Tristesse, but it is something different. Because it’s her father’s Q Bomb, which could eat an H Bomb for breakfast, that is currently being tested and is accidentally discovered by the Fenwickians.

In a serendipitous act of lunacy, they instantly become the aggressors ready to take advantage of the situation and bring America to its knees by kidnapping some of its most fundamental assets. It’s the kind of goofy, lightweight stuff taking the edge off. Although there’s an agenda, no matter what implications it might have in the nuclear age, The Mouse That Roared is the perfectly tame goofball comedy we expect to see when we visit sitcoms of the 50s and 60s.

The fish out of water commentary about America dries up when the prisoners are carted back across the pond. Tully and his men make a triumphant return only to be met with some chagrin from the hoodwinked cabinet. They’ve mucked things up. Not only have they not surrendered, they’ve gone and taken hostages and ran off with the most dangerous superweapon in the world!

By this stage, the heart of the comedy has mostly dried up too, though there are a few passing gags relating to the hot potato bomb that wheezes and sizzles to the touch just waiting to annihilate mankind. Likewise, Tully finds himself smitten with feisty young Helen in a love affair that could be telegraphed from miles away. Ultimately, it plays the best when its intentions are made clear with the goofball inanity of it all before didacticism and treacly romance are allowed to give their final stamp of approval on the story. For what it’s worth, I’m one Yank who enjoys being invaded in such a manner as this.

3.5/5 Stars

No Name on The Bullet (1959): America’s Hero Becomes a Villain

Nonameonthebullet.jpg“We might be the only two honest men in town.” – Audie Murphy as John Gant

Audie Murphy had the added reputation of being a hero in real life, and so it hardly hurt him in his efforts to portray valorous protagonists on the big screen. However, despite being a fairly humble effort, No Name on The Bullet deserves some acknowledgment for giving Murphy the chance to be on the other side of the spectrum.

He’s introduced in the picture with foreboding music. It’s the only character cue we need to go with his dark clothes. He’s no good guy. Soon he’s taken a room at the local hotel and his very presence has gotten the whole town buzzing apprehensively.

Initially, it feels like a somewhat corny setup hinging on melodrama. Although Murphy’s by no means over-the-hill, and though I’ve only seen him in a couple films, he was never really a compelling lead.

Early on, his youthfulness aided him as did the mystique of his extraordinary war record. If anything, he is a living testament to courage not being solely predicated on imposing physical prowess. Whereas the westerns of old certainly were, and he does not meet one’s typical impression of a gunslinger. His part as John Gant, though menacing and curt, hardly can be considered intriguing at first glance. He feels like a walking trope.

But as he settles in, everything gets more and more engrossing. In fact, the movie’s increasingly deceptive because his part gets better and better the more involved the townsfolk become.

The implications are that his very name strikes fear in every man because he is a notorious assassin who has killed upwards of 20 or 30 men in the past. However, he’s never met a conviction of any kind because he always goads his targets into fighting back. The question remains: Who is he after? The subsequent punchline seems obvious. Someone is going to be dead by the time he leaves town.

The local Sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is a decent man who nevertheless feels helpless. If Gant doesn’t do anything, there’s no law against sticking around town. All he and his deputy can do is keep an eye on the fort.

It’s this unsettling, restless stalemate of the narrative conceit that proves to be the movie’s bedrock. There is also an innate reminder No Name on The Bullet functions very much as a morality play. In terms of story, Gant is the stimulus in the town causing the dark predilections to come to the surface or, more comically, the scurrying rats who want to confess their shading dealings.

Because his mere presence sends shock waves through the community. The tension comes with not knowing who he is actually after. I even momentarily thought (like The Gunfighter) maybe he’s simply looking for a respite. Not so…

Despite the antagonism, Gant does find one benevolent soul (Charles Drake) who doesn’t hold his reputation or vocation against him, at least not initially. It’s easy since a certain amount of ignorance proves blissful.

Their mutual respect within the picture is informed by the real-life relationship between Murphy and Drake. Murphy considered the other man his best friend and used his pull to get Drake in many of his movies so they could work together. It’s not altogether magical, but there’s no denying it helps their rapport.

Luke Canfield (Drake) is son of the blacksmith while simultaneously filling in as the local doctor. He is pledged to be married to the perky daughter (Joan Evans) of one of his ailing patients. There is little doubt he has a stake in keeping the peace. Even as they come to understand each other, there’s a sense that he and Gant remain diametrically opposed. Still, the gunman suggests they aren’t actually all that different.

They commence a literal chess match that becomes a pretense for the town’s many issues. They trade personal philosophies, with everything that happens around them informing their views of humanity. In the wake of their meeting, the real games begin.

With the sheriff’s powers in question, the invalid judge proposes two alternatives: either vigilante justice — the western standard of mob rule — or let Gant kill his man. Then, everything would be settled.

Though hesitant, Canfield finally resolves to get at the head of the mob to try and ensure no further bloodshed will take place. As town physician, this is his main prerogative. As a trained killer with a job to do, Gant has other ideas, even if he’s not looking to take the other man down with him. They appear to be two immovable forces at a kind of impasse.

The final twist is a lovely bit of, shall we say, poetic justice. The story is served best by an open ending because this is not a distillation of reality; it is a western parable of good vs evil, human corruption, and ultimately, some form of instinctual integrity.

Thinking about it in retrospect, it really is a fine stroke of inspiration to turn America’s greatest WII hero into a villain. It sends a distinct message to your audience: We must look inside ourselves and consider our own character.

Do we stand up to scrutiny? Are the heroes we prop up all that different than our villains or do we often choose to see what we want to? For that matter, are we very far removed from those that we conveniently categorize as villains?

Now 14 years after the end of WWII, you might say America was in a place to start coming to terms with its specters. The 50s were still an age of innocence, but we were on the cusp of something far bleaker. No Name on The Bullet is a portent for a future generation of westerns. Those bearing the mark of a far muddier morality.

3.5/5 Stars