Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

In 1974, Medak was a relative newcomer to directing films, with four credits to his name, including “The Ruling Class” that is described on the Turner Classic Movies website as a commercial failure that became a cult classic. The words commercial failure do not begin to do justice to “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that never made it into theaters. Columbia shit-canned it after seeing the director’s cut. It was stillborn but should have been aborted after the first week of filming.

The screenplay was written by Spike Milligan, who was Peter Sellers’s partner in a long-running BBC radio show called “The Goon Show” that I used to listen to on WBAI centuries ago when it was still a great radio station. The show incorporated ludicrous plots with surreal humor and bizarre sound effects. It was the inspiration for future comedy shows like Monty Python and Firesign Theater.

The documentary includes many excerpts from “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that strike me as an early attempt at making something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” but with far less success. As the pirate captain, Sellers in a fright wig comes across as if he were performing in one of the more stupid SNL sketches. With Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers having much more leverage on the production than Medak, the whole thing struck me as a vanity project gone very, very wrong. Like the Pequod in “Moby Dick”, the ship featured in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was doomed from the start.

The portrait of Peter Sellers as an actor and a human being is what makes this film so compelling. As the greatest comic actor of our generation who had the fame and power of Charlie Chaplin in an earlier era, he comes across as a total asshole. When Medak and Sellers first get together in a Mediterranean villa to discuss how they would approach the film, Sellers spots a Who’s Who book on a nearby shelf. He then picks it up and finds entries for the film’s producers who he then orders to be fired. Given his superstar power, he got his way just as he got his way through the entire production, making one bad decision after another.

If his domineering style wasn’t bad enough in itself, it was made worse by his indifference to the film’s outcome. He routinely came late to meetings, antagonized the crew and generally acted more as a saboteur than a team player. In one stunning episode, he feigned a heart attack during a scene so that he could return to England ostensibly for treatment. Medak was shocked to see Sellers on the front page of a British tabloid coming out of a restaurant with Princess Margaret.

Hobbled by a sloppily conceived script, the film encountered insurmountable technical problems based on the misguided attempt to film at sea in an ancient boat that had been retrofitted to look like a 17th century pirate ship. Out on the sea filming the entire day, the crew and the cast were beset by seasickness. Made long before digital cameras were available, the boat had to tow a smaller boat equipped with a generator to power the cameras.

Medak is the star of his own film, using it as a kind of psychotherapy to purge what amounts to a major trauma. With the wisdom of his advanced age and that of the other men and women who worked on the film, he offers an object lesson in the art of filmmaking. While it is easy to understand why you might watch Kurosawa or Godard in film school, this documentary should be must-viewing in film schools across the world. Medak and the production team made this film in order to get paid. Unlike writing a novel or a poem, filmmaking is part business and part art. It was obvious that all the participants were anxious to make this film because Sellers was so bankable. It turned out that he was as bankable as Lehman Brothers in 2008, at least when it came to a misbegotten project like “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”.

The film opened today on Amazon Prime. It will likely be one of my nominations for best documentary of 2020.

3 Comments »

  1. […] via The Ghost of Peter Sellers — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by The Ghost of Peter Sellers — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist | Documentary Short Film Festival — June 23, 2020 @ 6:13 pm

  2. Brilliant review for a really interesting film. I really enjoyed it too….

    Comment by Billy — June 23, 2020 @ 7:28 pm

  3. […] via The Ghost of Peter Sellers — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by The Ghost of Peter Sellers — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist | Under 5 minute & Smartphone festival — June 23, 2020 @ 8:34 pm


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