When I was in elementary school, it was considered the height of sophistication to read—or at least own—a copy of Leonard Wibberley’s novel The Mouse That Roared. It doesn’t take a lot to seem sophisticated to a sixth-grader, which is to say that this was about the same age when we started to recognize the elements of satire in Alice in Wonderland. And as satire, The Mouse That Roared—both as a book and the 1959 film of it—is pretty much sixth-grade-level stuff. The premise was clever—the impoverished and tiny country of Grand Fenwick declares war on the U.S. so they can receive oodles of foreign aid when they lose. The hook—where the film was concerned—was to cast up-and-coming Peter Sellers in three roles: Duchess Gloriana XII, Count Rupert Mountjoy and Tully Bascombe. It’s not a bad formula, but the proportions are wrong. There’s way too much Tully Bascombe (a stock dumb-luck hero role) and too little of the dotty Duchess and the corrupt Count.
The budget doesn’t help (the NYC that Tully and his 20 or so foot soldiers invade is a mix of bad rear-projection and what appear to be blown-up still photos). The flat direction by Universal’s 1950s sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold makes it that much worse. But you do get some choice bits of Sellers along the way, an engaging basic idea, and an image of the U.S. that today is somewhere between quaint and hypocritical. The foreign-aid notion was hardly original (the Broadway show Call Me Madam got there in 1950; the film of it arrived in 1953), but the idea of a small country “attacking” the U.S. in order to lose a war was new. Ironically, the very preposterousness of a tiny nation doing that was part of the joke then, but seems much less far-fetched today.