The Mouse That Roared (1959)
'Do you believe they'd really explode the bomb?' the President asked.
'Mr. President,' the secretary countered, 'would
you have believed they would invade the United States with twenty longbowmen,
Sadly Leonard Wibberley's hilarious satire, The Mouse that Roared seems to be making the slow sad transit from wildly popular bestseller and hit movie in the 50s and 60s to cult classic in the 70s and 80s to largely forgotten in the 90s and 00s. The book, which was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post from December 1954 to January 1955 as The Day New York Was Invaded, is no longer in print--despite the fact that the tattered copy I'm holding is something like the 30th printing. And the film does not seem to have been transferred to DVD, though I did find a copy of the equally funny sequel, The Mouse on the Moon. Our growing amnesia is unfortunate, both because this is just a funny story, and also because current events reveal it to still be timely.
The tale concerns the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a tiny European nation which "lies in a precipitous fold of the northern Alps." It was founded in 1370 by British soldier of fortune Roger Fenwick, under not altogether honorable circumstances. Practically the only thing that is produced there, and the only reason anyone has ever heard of it, is a fine wine called Pinot Grand Fenwick. Other than this one export, the nation remains happily isolated, a medieval remnant in the modern world, ruled over by Duchess Gloriana XII--"a pretty girl of twenty-two" in the book, a more matronly woman in the film, so that Peter Sellers can play her--and her prime minister, the Count of Mountjoy (also played by Peter Sellers).
As the story begins, crisis has descended upon the Grand Duchy in the form of revenue shortfalls. It is determined that the most effective way of raising money is to declare war on the United States, the pretext for which is the introduction of a San Rafael, California winery of a wine called Pinot Grand Enwick, a provocation that can not be allowed to stand. As Gloriana explains the aims of the war :
The fact is that there are few more profitable undertakings
for a country in need of money than to declare war on the United States
It is usually agreed, to be sure, that heavy industries
and other installations and activities which could be used in future wars
Again it is usually decided that the nation and people
which lose to the United States shall be made to suffer national and individual
Once more, it is always laid down that the defeated
armies must be disbanded and never again be allowed to reform. But,
a little later,
Americans, particularly American soldiers, do not
like to remain long outside their own country. And in a matter of
months, or at most
All in all, as I said before, there is no more profitable
and sound step for a nation without money or credit to take, than declare
It's easy to see why the fortunes of this story changed over the years; written just a few years after the Marshall Plan, it resonated in an America that had won WWII and rebuilt its enemies. But in the late 60s and early 70s, the Left determined that America was evil and that there was nothing honorable nor humorous about the Cold War, Vietnam, or any of the other seemingly benign extensions of American power. Wibberley's witty insight must have seemed the stuff of delusions or insidious propaganda to folks who had convinced themselves that we were really an imperialist nation. But now that the "blame America first" crowd has been routed, you can read that speech above, or watch the movie, and hear the eerie echoes coming from Afghanistan. What might Mr. Wibberley have made of the absurd notion that at the same we were bombing the Taliban and Al Qaeda we were bombing the rest of the Afghanis with food supplies? And the rest of the war has played out exactly as the Duchess Gloriana would have predicted--the Taliban had no sooner been routed than we started pouring in money and rebuilding that broken nation. You could read through thousands of pages of anti-American screeds by Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Barbara Kingsolver, and their ilk, without increasing your understanding of the world by one iota. But in that one speech, Leonard Wibberley basically explains the entire 20th (or American) Century.
At any rate, Tully Bascombe, chief forest ranger of the Duchy (again played by Sellers in the film), and twenty longbowmen charter a boat and invade Manhattan, intending to surrender as quickly as possible. But by happy coincidence, the whole city is underground for an air raid test, and when first Tully and his chain mail clad "army" are mistaken for aliens and then they capture a scientist, Dr. Kokintz, and his super-lethal quadium (or Q) bomb, Grand Fenwick ends up winning the war. Armed with the Q bomb, Fenwick forms a League of Little Nations and dictates its own peace terms and blackmails the U.S. and Russia into a general nuclear disarmament.
Tully, hero of Fenwick's great victory, of course gets the girl--Dr. Kokintz's daughter in the film; the Duchess herself in the novel. This gives Mr. Wibberley one last opportunity for a very amusing, though thoroughly politically incorrect, observation, as Mountjoy tries to convince the Duchess that she must take a husband :
'I hope,' said Gloriana warily, 'that you are not
going to suggest that I marry the American minister because I won't do
'Cruel to their wives?' echoed the count.
'Precisely. They treat them as equals.
They refuse to make any decisions without consulting them. They load
them up with
Of course, the ultimate truth of this sharp observation lies in the final line, Gloriana's certainty that theoretical "equality" is unnecessary for her to actually control a husband.
Both book and movie are a great deal of fun. They are well worth
seeking out. That their satire is once again applicable to the events
of the day should be reason enough for a revival.
-ESSAY : Leonard Wibberley in Hermosa Beach (The Aesthetic)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd