Film Review: The Ghost of Peter Sellers

STUDIO: Vegas Media/1091 | DIRECTOR: Peter Medak
RELEASE DATE: June 23, 2020
SPECS: NR | 93 min. | Documentary | 2.35:1 widescreen

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

“None of us should have made this picture,” says producer John Heyman to director Peter Medak toward the end of the making-of documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers, about the ill-fated Peter Sellers’ vehicle Ghost in the Noonday Sun, shot in 1973. A 17th-century pirate film shot in Cyprus, Ghost was doomed from the first and has remained a bête noire for Medak for nearly 50 years.

It becomes clear early on that this doc is a kind of filmed therapy for the director, who is cautioned by one of his interview subjects “You’ve got to let it go…” But he clearly couldn’t, and so he decided to make a film about just how bad the shoot really was. The result is a work that’s similar to Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014), in that we see that the film’s shooting was clearly more colorful and crazy than the film itself.

Medak has his friend, screenwriter Simon van der Borgh, interview him about the shoot, and the two visit a number of individuals who were involved in the shoot (or who intimately knew the protagonists). The many disasters that hit the set are quite amusingly described: the pirate ship to be used for the shoot sank as it approached Cyprus; the weather was wretched; and a group of extras were so outraged that they wouldn’t be fed by the production that they left the location still dressed in their costumes (which had to be bought back from local markets).

The main problem on the set however, was most definitely the star, Peter Sellers. Medak outlines how Sellers initiated the project and then quickly decided against it — but only after he’d reached the remote location. Sellers, who was “catatonically depressed” over a recent breakup with Liza Minnelli, set about sabotaging the film in several ways.

He staged a fake heart attack that got him shipped back to London for treatment (and then was photographed having a happy night out with Princess Margaret), tried to organize the crew to revolt against Medak, showed up late (when he showed up at all), and stoked a feud with costar Tony Franciosa that nearly blossomed into an actual brawl.

Medak offers a three-dimensional portrait of Sellers while also treating viewers to a sidebar portrait of Sellers’ old friend, the highly influential (and “divinely insane”) Goon Show creator Spike Milligan. Milligan collaborated on the original script for Ghost, then was summoned to Cyprus by Sellers out of the blue, to deliver a rewrite of the whole picture (which had already started shooting).

Medak explains how even Spike realized Sellers was tormenting the cast and crew and asked him to stop — thus making the two old friends into enemies for a short time (right after Milligan wrote new scenes and assumed a big supporting role in the film).

Medak emphasizes his position throughout the shoot – he had to deliver a finished film, or else his career would’ve ended overnight. What he shot was judged unreleasable by Columbia, the original distributor, and the film wasn’t shown publicly until 1984. He bounced back amiably from the whole affair by working on numerous U.K. and U.S. TV shows and then making three great crime films in the Nineties (The Krays, Let Him Have It, Romeo Is Bleeding).

The quite satisfying end of the film finds Medak detailing the chilly-then-amicable reunion he had with Sellers in 1978. The memory of his hearing about Sellers’ subsequent death makes Medak cry. It’s a testament to Seller’s incredible talent that even a filmmaker whom he annoyed and undermined for a few months can still shed tears over his premature death at age 54 in July 1980.

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”