“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
-- Jesus Christ
“But is love the only thing? If love were all, I could follow you in rags to the ends of the world. But in that world, you’d have left the king to die in his cell. Honor binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honor lies in keeping faith with my country and my house. I don’t know why God has let me love you. But I know that I must stay.”
-- Princess Flavia
The Prisoner of Zenda has excited and delighted the imaginations of both young and old for many years. The Adventure novel first published in 1894 by Anthony Hope follows in the tradition of the British adventure story of the time. At the height of the British Empire, the taste for stories of adventurer in these unknown places gave birth to many well-known adventures. Hope placed a new twist, though still involving a member of the British military who had been to those far off lands. The Prisoner of Zenda is set in a European country, though not any better known. The country though matters little. Adventure is the key.
I have read the book, and I did find I very enjoyable. More recently viewed the acclaimed film adaptation, and I thought I would share some thoughts on it since it is fresh in my mind.
The 1937 film adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda may even surpass the original in publicity if not in substance. The plot follows the conventions of the ordinary man placed in a situation that quickly becomes far more than he bargained for. The unassuming and modest Rudolf Rassendyll has recently retired from military service and is looking forward to a vacation in Easter Europe. As soon as he arrives, he finds that he is a sight to the locals, who all gawk at his very presence. Rudolf finds out that he is the very image of the crown prince, soon to be crowned King Rudolf V. Upon this meeting, the two Rudolfs become quick friends.
The unprepared Rassendyll is pressed into service when the prince’s scheming brother tries to prevent the coronation in order to place himself on the throne. Rassendyll finds himself needed to imitate the king for the coronation and even to woo the king’s promised bride. Here, of course, things are less than smooth. Rassendyll must forego his own comfort to set everything back in order among the scheming plans of both Michael, and his henchman, Rupert of Hentzau.
The real question of the story though is that of duty. How can one man make a difference by putting his duty and honor before his own comfort? King Rudolf refuses to do so and places both himself and the whole realm for which he is responsible in grave danger. The ruthless Michael can surely not be trusted on the throne.
Rassendyll must choose the duty that providence has brought to him to ensure the safe passage of the kingdom to Rudolf. He does so without much reluctance, until he meets the beautiful Princess Flavia. Here love must be aligned with duty, or it can be the ruin of all. Colonel Zapt has the clear idea of this theme, which pervades the whole script: love must align with duty. His love for his king and country drive every action and choice he makes. He must not choose between them, rather he makes them align. When that means allowing Rassendyll to take the throne, Zapt encourages it to restore the proper order, which Michael has broken.
Like many, Rassendyll teaches this lesson better than he learns it. Rassendyll must learn this lesson as well, and he receives it at the mouth of Flavia. When duty and love align, order is restored, even if this means sacrifice. Those who put love in the place of duty, or disregard duty altogether are apt to be most unfulfilled. Rather those who see that they align find fulfillment in the duty.
Christ summarizes the whole duty of man with the command to love. Love is our very purpose and in love we fulfill that purpose. Love does not drive us away from our duty because love truly is that very responsibility. Duty directs our love away from our own selfish desires to others, allowing us to fulfill our purpose, to love truly. This alignment creates the proper structure for a meaningful existence. The question is not one off Love or Duty but of the Duty of Love.
The Prisoner of Zenda explores this topic in its central theme, and I find encouragement in the conclusions it is able to present. Watch it for yourself sometime, and I expect you to will be provoked to explore this topic further. The ability of the film to provide such clear perspectives and strong conclusion on these questions makes the adventure itself more exhilarating.
The whole movie is well played by its leading actors though the direction and cinematography leave something to be desired. Ronald Coleman does a wonderful job as both Rudolfs. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays the rascally Rupert to perfection, and in doing so he makes up for the weakness of Michael’s character.
It is a wonderful adventure story that spawned the political decoy plot element in adventure fiction. Take 100 minutes of your time and experience the adventure. The one on the surface and the one beneath.