Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937)

Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937)

“History is born out of a bottle of wine.”

An Englishman (Ronald Colman) vacationing in Ruritania is instantly spotted as a doppelganger for Rudolf V (Ronald Colman), who is due to become king the next day. When Rudolf V is drugged and kidnapped by his power-hungry brother (Raymond Massey) at a drinking party, Rudolf’s loyal assistants (C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven) enlist the help of British Colman to pose as the king and engage in a marriage ceremony with Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll). Complications ensue when British Colman and Carroll fall genuinely in love with one another; meanwhile, Massey’s long-time love (Mary Astor) will do whatever it takes to prevent Massey from achieving his ambitions, and Massey’s villainous side-kick (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is ready for lethal action.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • David Niven Films
  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Films
  • John Cromwell Films
  • Madeleine Carroll Films
  • Mary Astor Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Raymond Massey Films
  • Ronald Colman Films
  • Royalty and Nobility

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “it’s a bit dated”, this remains “the best of the five film versions of Anthony Hope’s novel,” representing “the type of story that Hollywood was meant to tell.” He points out that it “has fine acting, exciting action sequences (including a swordfight between Colman and Fairbanks), romance between the appealing Carroll and Colman, lavish sets, striking sepia-toned cinematography, stylish direction by John Cromwell”, and a “top-rate cast”, specifically calling out Ronald Colman for his “dashing yet elegant performance as an Englishman who impersonates his kidnapped Cousin, the King of Ruritania.” I agree with Peary that this adventure tale is well mounted and contains all the ingredients necessary for a rousing thriller — including mistaken identities, complicated love affairs, loyal assistants (of both good and evil), and much excitement. I’m especially fond of Astor as a woman inexplicably devoted to Massey’s turgid would-be monarch; she’s proof that love really knows no reason.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • Fittingly regal sets
  • The exciting sword duel

Must See?
Yes, as a “good show”.


  • Good Show


One thought on “Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937)

  1. Not must-see – though I agree with the points stated and the film is a fine classic example of ‘pure entertainment’.

    ~ but I still can’t help but view it as a ‘popcorn flick’ of its day. What mainly prevents me from calling it ‘must-see’ is that, almost from the beginning, the audience can probably figure out the entire film: a deception is put into place – so we know that, at some point, the deception will be discovered. The complication will be the process of undoing the deception… there will be some expected scuffling… yet all will turn out fine in the end – or, at least, more or less as anticipated.

    Knowing the narrative drive early on – then simply watching it play out – sort of takes the wind out of the sails. Still, it’s well-directed by Cromwell, nicely acted and interesting visually.

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