Villains You Gotta Love: Rupert of Hentzau

Prisoner of Zenda is a great example of a novel where the author loses interest in his hero, giving his villain more and more space on the page.

The villain of Prisoner of Zenda is not the traitorous Duke Michael, half-brother to the king. It is Michael's henchman, Rupert of Hentzau. He shows up soon after the book's hero Rudolf of Rassendyll is coronated as a temporary replacement to the king.

It is possible that Anthony Hope, the author, allowed Rupert to take over because he realized how completely silly the book's plot is--but I doubt it. Yes, all Michael and Rupert have to do is kill the king and then concurrently unmask and blame Rudolf, who after all is the guy pretending to be the king! So basically Rudolf plays right into their hands. (And why don't Fritz and Sapt bring the king with them to the capital in the first place? Seriously, how hard could it be? Stuff the guy in a trunk!)

And how on earth could a conspiracy to plant a false king in the place of a real one even exist, especially one carried out by three people? (Too many people, and someone spills the beans; however, royal personages are usually surrounded by dozens of people who are intimately acquainted with the royal body, so who exactly is being paid off here?)

In fairness, I doubt Hope was crafting a politically astute novel. I think he was writing a romance (in the old meaning of the term): kings! femme fatales! sword-fighting! midnight meetings! castles surrounded by moats! sarcastic villains!

In the book, the sarcastic, lively, handsome and frankly admired villain, Rupert, gains more and more page space. He is one of the few villains left living at the end of an adventure novel of this type (though I understand he dies in the sequel).

In the 1937 David O. Selnick movie, the part of Rupert is perfectly cast with Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks barely avoids taking over the film and only because Ronald Colman plays Rudolf.

In the 1952 version, both Stewart Granger as Rudolf and James Mason as Rupert fail. The latter failure surprised me--it's James Mason!--but Mason does far better as a sincere and brooding villain with depth than a lightweight, amused villain with verve.

Douglas Fairbanks as Rupert is excellent and Ronald Colman matches him with a twinkle in the eye. Colman has this delightful Robert Downey, Jr. ability (or Robert Downey, Jr. has a delightful Colman ability) to throw out single seemingly thoughtless lines in an incredibly funny way (in comparison, Stewart Granger is wooden). Colman and Fairbanks' scenes together become the best in the film--just think of Tony Stark facing down Hiddleston's Loki. Everything else comparatively pales.

Except a very young David Niven as Fritz--that was a surprise!

If you want to watch one of the inspirations for
Princess Bride's swordfighters-with-quips, check out
1937 Prisoner of Zenda.

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

The plot of Zenda, despite it's silliness, has been swiped a lot. George MacDonald Frasier's Royal Flash was a tribute and supposedly the real story behind the book. There was also Edgar Rice Burroughs The Mad King. The comic book Jon Sable, Freelance had an issue that homage it as well, however, there the main character looked like the villain and was set up as the fall guy for an assassination. The comic book does pay tribute to Rupert at the end Sable gets to jump out the window. Which he says something like "I always wanted to do this!"