‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’: Film Review

Call me a heretic, but I’m someone who never gloried all that much in the comedic awesomeness of Peter Sellers. Well, okay, I did in “Dr. Strangelove” — who would deny the delectable punch of that virtuoso hat trick of performances? But the “Pink Panther” films were always a hit-or-miss mélange of the funny and the slapdash corny, and there’s an underlying zaniness to the Sellers mystique that to me, at least, doesn’t age that well. I make a point of this because there’s a kind of cult for the idea that Peter Sellers was a mad genius: the guy who had no self and only came into being when he played a character, the Swinging Sixties devil who stole movies right out from under their creators. That cult is at the center of “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” a documentary about the making of one of the worst movies of its time, and maybe all time.

In 1973, Sellers signed on to star in a pirate comedy called “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” in which he would play a lowly ship’s cook who winds up pretending to be the pirate captain. (It’s like the setup for one of Roberto Benigni’s nitwit-pest comedies, though in this case made without a shred of competence.) The film was shot in Cyprus over a period of 67 days, and what made the experience a torment — apart from the fact that it was marked by countless routine disasters — is that the movie had a “surreal” script that was barely there (it came down to: Let’s put Peter Sellers in a bad wig, give him control of a pirate ship, and have him do his crazy bug-eyed thing), and from the first day of shooting a kind of enervating chaos reigned. The director, the Hungarian-born Peter Medak, was coming off his acclaimed but over-the-top aristocratic satire “The Ruling Class,” and he knew he’d rushed into production without figuring out what his movie was, so he put all his faith in Peter Sellers.

That was a big mistake. Sellers figured out early on that no one knew what they were doing, and he reacted by attempting to sabotage the production. It’s certainly fair game to make a documentary about an infamous film disaster — a movie like “Heaven’s Gate,” or maybe “Doctor Dolittle” (the sections about that one in Mark Harris’ “Pictures at a Revolution” are a jaw-dropping farce of ineptitude), or Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie.” There’s a meaning to the failure of those films, to the way they reach for the stars and fall on their faces. But “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a jerry-built fiasco that barely had the benefit of ambition, which is why it wound up being shelved by Columbia. It’s a film to make the Terry Gilliam of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” go, “Nope! Too woozy and historically absentminded and indulgent,” the kind of lurching failure that might be rejected for not meeting the standards of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

So what is “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”? It’s a record of what it was like to shoot an empty shambolic piece of junk that drained the coffers of everyone involved. It’s a record of the kind of damage that a debonair misfit like Peter Sellers could cause when he put his mischievous (and maybe, in some ways, unstable) mind to it.

More than that, though, the documentary is a confession that’s also a piece of Hollywood therapy. It was directed by Peter Medak — yes, the director of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Still spry at 83, he interviews some of his producers and collaborators, talks at length about his own experience of making the film, and includes a great many on-location clips. “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is the anatomization of a cinematic shipwreck, but there’s also a kind of nostalgia at play. Medak, for one, is still in awe of Peter Sellers, and “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is his weirdly fond look back at the darkest moment of his own career.

For much of the film, Medak comes on like a Christopher Guest character. No matter how wretched the movie sounds, no matter how badly the mishaps pile up, no matter how many decades he has had to reflect on this financial and aesthetic calamity, he sits there, in his cluelessly calm and unflappable Hungarian-art-history-professor way, saying things like, “It brings tears to my eyes.” Forty-five years later, he’s still desperate to know: What caused the debacle? Why did Peter Sellers go rogue on me? Who was responsible?

The answer keeps hitting us in the face: He was responsible.

“Ghost in the Noonday Sun” is a godawful picture because Peter Medak didn’t do the job of figuring out what the hell the movie was, so he and the crew were basically making up this POS as they went along. Medak, from what we can see, doesn’t appear to have a funny bone in his body, so what was he doing staging a wackaholic comedy in the first place? (I know, I know: He made “The Ruling Class.” Ugh.) I think he thought on some level that it was a serious movie, like some Jodorowsky piece of trippy slapstick.

Parts of the documentary have a rubbernecking amusement, in a whatever-can-go-wrong-did-go-wrong sort of way. On the first day, the pirate ship that had been built out of an old schooner sailed into the rocks and began to sink. Just before he arrived, Sellers, who was in the middle of his third crashing-and-burning marriage, was dumped by his girlfriend, Liza Minnelli, leaving the actor, according to Medak, “catatonically depressed.” The boat kept breaking down, people kept getting seasick, and as Sellers himself put it, “This is absolutely fucking crazy. It’s impossible to make a comedy like this.” Sellers’ old “Goon Show” cohort Spike Milligan, who’d co-written the script, was brought in to rewrite it, and once he’d finished the film made even less sense. Sellers, after a falling out with his costar (and former pal) Tony Franciosa, refused to appear in the same frame with him.

And in a story that’s 100 times funnier than anything in the movie itself, Sellers, who had a serious heart condition (he would die, at 54, of a heart attack), was so desperate to get away that he actually faked a heart attack. Two days later, when everyone thought he was at the local hospital, they saw a tabloid photograph of him having dinner at Harrods in London with Princess Margaret. He then returned to the set with a note from his doctor saying that he was too sick to work.

Sellers was then at the apex of his stardom, but not at his creative peak. In “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” playing a character named Dick Scratcher (yes, you read that correctly), he’s like a ’70s-bearded Al Pacino channeling Mel Brooks, with black teeth and a vague rummy accent. His performance looks every bit as tiresome as the rest of the movie, and if you want to check it out for yourself, you can see “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” on VHS or DVD (after sitting in the vault for a decade, it was released by Columbia in 1983).

At the end, Medak is still asking, “What happened?” He weeps, he hugs his associate producer, he’s still honestly scratching his head in torment. One answer is provided by the film’s financial backer, the London production leviathan John Heyman, who says of his lead actor, “It’s not as if we didn’t know Peter was nuts. The truth of the matter is, none of us knew how nuts.” That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Peter Sellers was the most sane person on the picture — the only one who could see it for what it was.