In September 1973 Sellers embarked on the production of a 17th Century pirate comedy in Cyprus for Columbia Pictures; ‘Ghost in the Noonday Sun’. Sellers lost confidence with the film as soon as production began and desperately tried to sabotage it; firing the Producers in the first week and then setting his sights on his friend, the Director, Peter Medak (who had previously had 3 back-to-back successes; most notably ‘The Ruling Class’ in 1972 with Peter O’Toole). The film would change his career forever.
The parallels here to 2002’s Lost in La Mancha (which detailed the doomed production of Terry Gillam’s ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’) are clear; however there are a few notable differences. Most importantly this documentary is a retrospective look back from now rather than something filmed at the time; however we do get see glimpses of the film, what it could have been and how it actually turned out and even some behind the scenes footage that has probably never been seen till now. The second thing to note is that this documentary is directed by Ghost’s director himself, Peter Medak. Unlike ‘Don Quixote’, a finished cut of the film Was assembled; however Columbia refused to accept it, stating that key scenes were missing; if not for a limited home media release many years later the film may never have the the light of day. Ghosts’ was shot mostly on the Mediterranean sea on real ships which nobody at the time had attempted before. Even before shooting began, the Greek Captain delivering the ship was so drunk that he crashed the ship into the Quay. The production descended further after Sellers lost confidence in the film and fired the Producers and then the Director of Photography.
“Structured around Medak and his journey back to the island 42 years later, The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a timeline of events supported by eye-opening and heart-felt interviews with remaining cast members, production staff, Cypriot locals and others from the world of filmmaking. From Los Angeles to New York, from London to Cyprus, Peter recaptures what it was like to work with the genius talents of Sellers and Milligan whilst explaining the saga of the Pirate film and how such a brilliant and funny idea could go so terribly wrong and become a total disaster.”
All credit has to be given to Medak here for boldly and courageously putting himself on camera in such a raw, truthful and personal way. Stories have been told about this film over the years but perhaps not properly explored till now; and all living participants get to have their say; whilst Sellers and Milligan are represented through the recollections of friends and colleagues. A highlight of the film is a reunion/reconciliation between Medak and legendary film producer & financier John Heyman (who sadly passed away in 2017); who green-lit the film. What hasn’t been told till now is the toll the film took on Medak personally and his psyche, it is clear that he has carried the guilt of this failure on his shoulders for 42 years with a detrimental affect on his life, career and those around him. With the general consensus being that the film shouldn’t have ever been made and Medak was not fundamentally responsible for it’s failure, perhaps this will bring him some much needed closure.
The film sees Medak revisit many of the picturesque locations of the film which he shows with many elaborate camera angles and beautifully done landscape shots which you would not normally expect to see in a documentary of this type which combined with a subtle yet grand scoring gives a grandiose, singular feel to this film that shows that Medak is truly a master of his craft. This could easily be a one-sided and self-aggrandising work; however Medak somehow avoids that trap with all sides of the story being shown as best as can be expected, and despite his resentment for Sellers he somehow reconciles this and the film is in itself a tribute to the creative minds of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. There is even some ‘fourth-wall’ moments of the documentary showing us behind the curtain of how it was made which further highlights Medak’s fragility and humanity as a film-maker and human being.
5/5 – An incredibly personal and moving account of a failed film; as told by it’s creator. A must see for all cinephiles!
The films opens at Quad Cinema in New York March 27th and Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles April 3rd.
Find out more in the film’s website: