September 25, 2020  (Web Review)

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

(2018) 94 min. DVD: $24.95 ($229 w/PPR from edu.passionriver.com). Passion River (avail. from most distributors).

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Remember the 1973 Peter Sellers comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun? Probably not; the film was a cinematic fiasco that distributor Sony chose not to release. The director, Peter Medak (The Ruling Class), has a scab to pick forty-some years later, and pick it he does in his semi-angry but ultimately moving making-of documentary that revisits this nightmare. “I want to kill people, but they’re all already dead,” says Medak, who along with screenwriter/friend/sounding board Simon van der Burgh, head out for the scene of the crime: the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, which was the setting for the ill-fated 17th-century pirate comedy starring Sellers and costarring scriptwriter Spike Milligan (Sellers’ partner on the beloved British radio program The Goon Show). Unfortunately, the stars (celestial and thespian) were not much in alignment: Milligan’s adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s titular novel was—to put it politely—incoherent; Sellers had literally just broken up with girlfriend Liza Minnelli; and the refurbished “pirate” ship ran aground on the rocks on day one. Filming at sea proved problematic as the ocean defiantly continued to follow the laws of physics rather than the desires of the filmmaker (the ship also had faulty engines, so it needed to be towed back to port each day). To add personal injury to nature’s insult, Sellers increasingly became a foil to the project, showing up late or not at all for filming and even faking a heart attack in order to escape to England. Medak combines archival footage from the unreleased film together with contemporary interviews from Sellers’ and Milligan’s agents, Sellers’ daughter, film producer/financier John Heyman (who died in 2017), and others. Heyman, who also clashed with Medak during the original filming, counsels the director to now put it in perspective: “it’s a tiny nail in the coffin…forget it.” A compelling tale of one man with a (mostly justified) grievance who finds some measure of long-overdue catharsis, The Ghost of Peter Sellers is recommended, especially for film buffs. Aud: C, P. (R. Pitman)