Sir Peter Ustinov enjoyed a long career. His first movie, Mein Kampf, was released in 1940. He played Marinus van der Lubbe, the man — probably a mental defective — who started the Reichstag fire in 1933. The fire enabled Hitler to gain dictatorial power in Germany under emergency laws. There was never another free election in Nazi Germany. Indeed, that event is what made Germany Nazi Germany.
Last year, he had a supporting role in Luther, in which he played Frederick the Elector, Luther’s patron. He pretty much stole the movie in the scene where he meets Luther. It is a shame that the two never actually met.
I remember my first Ustinov movie: Quo Vadis (1951), in which he played Nero. I have seen few other big screen performances to match it. The movie still holds up well, mainly because of Ustinov, and secondarily because of the scene in the Colosseum where Buddy Baer barehandedly (sorry) battles a bull to the death. (I still cannot understand how they got Baer to do that scene. I offer it as the greatest stunt scene in movie history. If you doubt me, watch it and think to yourself, “How much money would they have to pay me to get me to star in that scene?” If your reply is, “it was a fairly small bull,” you are in need of professional therapy. If there was trick photography, it still escapes me.)
I do not think he ever had a role that matched his version of Nero. Hardly anyone ever has. He was young, only eleven years into a long career. I wonder if he ever looked back at that film, wondering if he would ever get another role as powerful. This is the question that Jack Palance must have asked himself about his performance as Wilson, the gunfighter, in Shane. The answer in both cases has been “no.” The answer is now definitive in Ustinov’s case.
The best dramatic TV performance I ever saw was a one-man show that Ustinov did of King George III. He spoke to the camera for the entire show. It was just incredible. Within two minutes, I imagined that I was the companion of George III. The scene when he first begins to go mad was memorable. He gets out of a carriage and walks over to a tree, which he hugs, talking to it as an old friend. This was long before the ecology movement got labeled “tree-huggers.” This performance was not the spoof that he and Eric Sevareid did, or if it was, then he so overwhelmed Sevareid that I have forgotten Sevareid’s presence. I never recall having seen anyone overcome Sevareid on-camera. It was said of Sevareid in the industry, “He reminds you of how God must be, except for his ties.” So, if Ustinov really did overwhelm Sevareid, I rest my case.
Ustinov was a master raconteur. Johnny Carson had possibly half a dozen movie stars whom he would occasionally interview for all 90 minutes of “The Tonight Show.” Ustinov was one of them. (The others that my fading memory still recalls were Buddy Hackett, Groucho Marx, Orson Welles, and Burt Reynolds. There may have been a sixth man.) Ustinov could hold that huge audience.
I’ll never forget the story he told Carson about some Italian entrepreneurs. When the Americans drove the Germans out of Italy, these Italians began stealing German tanks and heavy equipment. They hid this equipment in caves. Did they plan to start a post-war guerilla movement? Hardly. They knew that American film crews would come to Italy after the war to make war movies. They planned to rent the stuff to the studios. Ustinov could fill an entire evening with these stories, sending Carson into gales of laughter. He always made Carson’s work easy for him.
He quit school as a teenager. He refused to conform to the rules. He went on to learn six languages fluently. He was such a master of French that when he did his famous detective Poirot role in Death on the Nile, he spoke English with a Belgian accent. Poirot was Belgian.
He was a director, a playwright, and a novelist. It is always amazing to see gifted artists of his caliber. He had the great good fortune of being a movie actor in movies good enough to survive. His work on-screen will live on to charm and delight audiences yet unborn. What more could an artist ask for?
On the day he died, unknown to me, I watched the movie version of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ustinov did the voice of the original Communist pig, Major. His mastery of the anti-human rhetoric, coupled with the special effects of the pig’s mouth, helped make it a classic film suitable for children of all ages. And, unlike Orwell’s book, it has a happy ending. So far, so has the real world.
I shall miss Sir Peter.
March 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com