Taking the story from a popular book by Anthony Hope, published in 1894, Selznick International Pictures made a fine film version of “The Prisoner of Zenda” in 1937. The film stars Ronald Colman as Major Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman who goes to the fictional country of Ruritania for a fishing trip. While in Ruritania, two of the king’s attendants notice his amazing resemblance the country’s monarch in waiting, Prince Rudolf, also played by Ronald Colman. Rudolf meets Rassendyll and invites him to a party at his hunting lodge.
A night of drinking and eating leaves everyone asleep except for Prince Rudolf, who drinks a drugged bottle of wine. Morning arrives and the attendants, played by David Niven as Fritz and C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Zapt, cannot rouse Prince Rudolf. They beg Rassendyll to stand in for him at the coronation, or else Rudolf’s evil brother Black Michael, played by Raymond Massey, will take the throne. At the coronation, Rassendyll fools Michael and becomes smitten with Rupert’s comely cousin, Princess Flavia (Madeline Carroll). Under Ruritanian tradition, the Princess must marry the new monarch and become the queen.
This splendid costume drama unfolds with an even more dangerous villain than Michael, Rupert of Hentzau, a clever rogue played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Rupert feigns allegiance to Michael but openly plots to secure power for himself. Rupert kidnaps the drugged Rudolf and takes him to his fortress in Zenda, adding to a politically murky situation in the kingdom. If Rudolf dies, Michael takes the throne. Rassendyll, Colonel Zapt and Fritz must storm Zenda and rescue the king.
As in movies with similar plots, such as the 1993 film “Dave,” wherein Kevin Kline takes over for the lookalike president, the impostor’s qualities outshine the real ruler’s abilities. Rassendyll is a natural leader with lots of good ideas, and he relishes the idea of taking down Michael, while the weak and bored Rudolf doesn’t seem to understand the threats to his kingdom. Princess Flavia, of course, is delighted with Rassendyll, even though she thinks he’s Rudolf.
Michael may be arrogant and smug, but Rupert is downright dangerous. Rassendyll recognizes this early, creating an interplay of witty dialogue between Colman and Fairbanks. When they have their standoff at the castle of Zenda, the swords come out and the exciting climax arrives. The groggy king promises to accept his duties with renewed dedication while Rassendyll must give up Princess Flavia. In fictional kingdoms, things always return to normal.