Broadway purists have always looked upon Richard Lester’s 1966 adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical with indifference bordering on contempt – the film version rewrote much of the original text to accommodate zany slapstick sequences, including a freewheeling chariot chase finale, while cutting half of the score (reportedly infuriating Sondheim, even though Ken Thorne’s score adaptation won the Academy Award).
But Lester’s changes actually improved the material considerably, giving the bawdy material a refreshing charge of kinetic energy. This farcical tale of mistaken identities and taboo love in ancient Rome gained further fury with inventive camerawork, rapid-fire editing and sight gags that mixed the sublime with the wonderfully silly.
Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford reprised their Broadway roles as the scheming slave Pseudolus and his jittery sidekick Hysterium (and re-established their screen careers after years of being blacklisted), while Phil Silvers (for whom the role of Pseudolus was originally conceived) added to the mayhem as the wily courtesan procurer Marcus Lycus. Also in the mix was Buster Keaton as the befuddled Erronius, whose search for his long-lost children runs parallel to the plot’s many twists. At 70 and despite being ill with cancer, Keaton stole the show with astonishing stunt work and the droll ability to handle burlesque-style routines with fast-talkers Mostel and Gilford.
This new Blu-ray release offers no special features, but the visual quality of Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography has never been sharper.