Documentary Review: Embittered director wrestles with “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”

The casual film fan might not recognize this, but serious movie buffs can vouch for what a game-changing venture Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters were.

For half a century before Verbinski and Depp, Keira and Orlando set sail, pirate movies were career-killing box office poison. Robert Shaw died just as the flop “Swashbuckler” was coming out, “Pirates” and “The Pirate Movie” — hell, “Cutthroat Island” torpedoed Geena Davis’s marriage to director Renny Harlin, didn’t it? Didn’t do his career any favors either.

Peter Medak is a Hungarian filmmaker whose career was on the early 1970s rise — “The Ruling Class,” “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.” Then he let his friend Peter Sellers, “the greatest comic actor in the world,” talk him into directing a film of the novel “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.”

It would be shot in Cypress. They’d buy and refit a ship to film it on. It was 1973. And it was about pirates.

The fact that you’ve probably never heard of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” says it all. It was a debacle on every level, so bad Columbia Pictures refused to release it. It slipped out on home video a decade later, and nobody heralded it as “a lost masterpiece” when that happened.

To this day, Medak is haunted by the film, the trauma of making it and the price it cost his career. He went on to make “The Krays” and “Romeo is Bleeding” and oh, “Zorro: The Gay Blade.” But he could’ve been a contender, he figures.

“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is his 90 minute documentary therapy session, an attempt to revisit a fiasco and exorcise the demons it unleashed. Medak is 82 now, and was 80 when he filmed the doc. He breaks down in tears more than once in the film.

“My career was completely destroyed by this movie,” he whines to Norma Farnes, who was Peter Sellers’ agent at one point.

“You’ve got to let it GO,” she says, attempting to console him.

But this cinematic therapy session turns out to be one of the more fascinating dissections of a film that failed.

Here’s a chunk of the black and white prologue to “Ghost of the Noonday Sun” to give you an idea of what we’re talking about here.

The clips from the making of the movie and from the film itself, with Medak revisiting every location, from the London street where Sellers made him the pitch, to the villa they rented for Sellers on Cypress, reveal a movie that became a nonsensical big screen riff on “The Goon Show,” the precursor to Monty Python which Sellers and pal Spike Milligan had co-starred in.

Milligan script doctored the movie, but “Spike didn’t really understand film,” Medak confesses.

Trotting out production memos, company letters, daily shooting schedule and summary reports, and talking with producers, financiers, surviving cast members and those who were there reveals the train-leaving-the-station trap of movie-making. A movie without a coherent script, checks rolling in, a start date, sets and a ship built in Cypress — once this disaster started rolling, all the star tantrums and feuds with director and his co-stars, all the threatening letters from the London production office, all the director’s doubts could not stop it.

That train was leaving the station, had left the station and had damned well better arrive at its destination, twelve screenwriters, star “heart attack” and pirate ship sinking — on the DAY a drunken Greek captain crashed it on delivery in Cypress — be damned.

Stopping production was never an option. They stop, and NOBODY gets paid. Sellers fired producers and tried to fire Medak and tried to cajole him into quitting (with a bribe) so Sellers could get out of a movie he was instantly ready to abandon.

The actor turned up “catatonically depressed” after breaking up with his latest girlfriend, Liza Minnelli. Even Sellers’ “Goon Show” co-conspirator Milligan, on set for a supporting role and depended on for rewrites, couldn’t shake him out of it.

And Medak? “I signed that contract, I desperately needed the money, and I had a responsibility, I thought, to see this through.”

His most revealing line might be this one. “I want to KILL people, but they’re all DEAD.”

So he does the next best thing. “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” turns into a reexamination of a famously “difficult” film star’s behavior, Sellers’ troubled mental state “that was never looked after,” the portrait of a man Medak still says he loves and still calls “a f—–g GENIUS.”

Medak then sits down with Robert Wagner, who had to work with Sellers on “The Pink Panther.” He chats up Rita Franciosa, widow of actor Tony Franciosa, co-star of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” And as a coup de grace, Medak brings in Joe McGrath (“Casino Royale”) and Piers Haggard (“The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu”), directors who ALSO suffered from working with Sellers on movies that became epic failures.

All this piling on turns “Ghost of Peter Sellers” into a “pathography,” the nickname given biographies that torch the reputations of the dead. And frankly, it’s deserved.

As John Heyman, the late producer of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” and man who sent letters threatening to fire Medak during filming recalls, “Everybody knew Peter was nuts. Watch out.” They never guessed “HOW nuts.” But they figured it would be worth it.

Medak crosses into self-pity, here and there, invoking a traumatic WWII childhood (Jewish in Occupied Hungary), the loss of a sibling and his father while young, psychoanalyzing why he let this film get the best of him.

It was a movie several people, including Medak, say, “never should have been made.” But by the end of this documentary, you wonder if perhaps Medak’s closer to Heyman’s peace with making a misfire, “just a movie” after all. Not bloody likely, though.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Robert Wagner, Rita Franciosa, Norma Farnes, John Heyman, Joe Dunne, Joseph McGrath, Piers Haggard

Credits: Directed by Peter Medak. A 1091 release.

Running time: 1:33

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