The French term “poète maudit” means “cursed poet.” There’s a movie equivalent, “film maudit.” It includes movies like Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind,” which didn’t get finished (the list is long); like “Apocalypse Now,” which almost didn’t (that list is longer); and like “Heaven’s Gate,” which shouldn’t have (that list is really long).
The subject is endlessly interesting, as anything involving disaster tends to be. There’s even a documentary subgenre devoted to films maudit. Some of the better known are Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams,” about Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”; “Lost in La Mancha,” about Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”; and “Hearts of Darkness,” about “Apocalypse Now.” That list goes on, too.
Add to it Peter Medak’s “The Ghost of Peter Sellers.” It’s about Medak’s own film (very) maudit, “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” a pirate-movie comedy starring Sellers that was shot in 1973 and never released theatrically. Everyone in the documentary agrees that the undertaking was truly terrible and misconceived. The extensive footage here does nothing to contradict such a view.
Starting May 22, “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is available for streaming at the virtual screening rooms of the Brattle and Somerville theaters: www.brattlefilm.org/virtual-programs and somervilletheatre.com/movie/virtual-cinema.
Medak was coming off what remains his best-known film, the Peter O’Toole tour de force “The Ruling Class.” As for Sellers, he’d had a dazzling stretch in the first half of the ‘60s, with “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and the first two Pink Panther movies. In the meantime Sellers had had a string of increasingly lackluster movies. (A third Pink Panther movie, in 1974, would return him to popularity.) He was also considered hell to work with. “Peter was a genius, but very difficult,” the film’s producer, John Heyman, says in the documentary. “I mean very, very, very difficult.”
Even so, it was because Sellers agreed to do it that the movie got backing. Sellers agreed because Spike Milligan, his friend and former co-conspirator on “The Goon Show,” had a hand in the script. That didn’t mean Sellers actually read the script. It was downhill from there. Production started on Cyprus, and the pirate ship ran aground on the first day of filming. Sellers later faked a heart attack to get out of a few days of work. When his costar, Anthony Franciosa, called him out on his behavior, Sellers refused to appear in any further scenes with him. This presented Medak with a real challenge when it came time to film their sword fight.
The documentary has two stars, both named Peter: the one in the title and the filmmaker. This “Ghost” is much more about Medak than Sellers. Fair enough: It’s his movie, and he’s the one who’s still around. But that does limit the interest, or at least it does until the very end, when Medak displays a degree of emotional candor that’s quite affecting.
It’s easy to see why he wanted to make the documentary. Clearly, the whole “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” experience devastated him. The “Ghost of Peter Sellers” seems to have worked well as therapy. Fifteen or 20 minutes shorter, it would have worked equally well as documentary filmmaking.
THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS
Directed by Peter Medak. Available for streaming via virtual screenings rooms of the Brattle and Somerville theaters, www.brattlefilm.org/virtual-programs and somervilletheatre.com/movie/virtual-cinema. 93 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: the occasional f-bomb).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.