The William Hartnell Screening Room, Part 2

An occasional series reviewing the screen appearances of William Hartnell, best known as the First Doctor in the long-running BBC series Doctor Who.

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

This may be the most famous movie in which William Hartnell ever appeared.  Considered to be Peter Sellars’ breakout movie, where he plays three different roles (including one as a woman), the story is based on a play that is supposed to be somewhat anti-imperialist political commentary but doesn’t hew too closely to that theme for long.  The smallest country in Europe (not counting Monaco or the Vatican) is going bankrupt, and they decide the best way to get an infusion of foreign aid is to attack the United States and then surrender, thereby becoming recipients of their very own Marshall Plan.

The country is so small that it is implied there was a certain amount of inbreeding, which gives a perfect reason for Sellars to play three different characters. Presumably the original play couldn’t carry this off. One of his roles is that of the hapless Tully, who is chosen to lead the ragtag army on their voyage across the sea to invade Manhattan.  Hartnell is in most of this movie right alongside Sellars, first as the chief butler to the Grand Duchess who then is made Tully’s second in command.  Unfortunately, while he has plenty of lines, Hartnell doesn’t get to do much, and his dialog is mostly of the sidekick variety and fairly uninspiring.  Someone watching this without knowing who Hartnell was would soon forget he was even in the movie, which is a shame considering the size of the role. There’s nothing particularly comedic about what he is asked to do, and unfortunately he ends up mostly back in his usual typecast role as an army sergeant, shouting at the troops to fall in and pay attention.

Even for a comedy, the movie takes a surprisingly cavalier attitude towards a bomb that is supposed to be powerful enough to destroy an entire continent yet gets passed around like a football (and in fact kind of looks like a football).  And while the captured US military people bumble about a little they’re not really being parodied, so in the end it’s a bit of a muddle to determine what the movie is trying to say, beyond the premise that the easiest way to get foreign aid from the US is to attack them.  The Marshall Plan may have seemed to the other Allies like a big handout to the bad guys, but the U.S. was uniquely in a position to do it and probably saved Europe from a lot of further conflict.  The movie doesn’t seem that upset about it, it’s just a jumping off point and the result is perfectly watchable and not too long, it’s only a shame that Hartnell wasn’t given more to work with.

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