Most stories of tortured film productions turn on the tragedy of missed opportunities: We’ll never know if Alejandro Jodoworsky’s “Dune” or the original version of Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” would have delivered on their directors’ audacious visions. “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” is a different situation. The 1974 pirate comedy, which starred Peter Sellers as a 17th century troublemaker named Dick Scratcher (har, har), actually got made — and it sucked. In fact, everyone involved felt that the movie was a mistake. Sellers, at the height of his commercial and creative powers, clashed with director Peter Medak on a nightmarish shoot riddled with practical challenges and indecision; Columbia shelved the project, dumping it on home video a decade later, Medak’s career was forever tarnished, and Sellers died by the end of the decade.
In the grand tradition of “Jodoworsky’s Dune” and “Lost in La Mancha,” the lighthearted behind-the-scenes documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” recounts a tortuous production and the fascinating ways in which it went awry from every possible direction. Unlike those accounts, however, “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” comes with a more personal angle, since Medak himself directed it. More than 40 years later, the Hungarian-born director best known for “The Ruling Class” and “The Changeling” is still reeling from the trauma of his showdown with Sellers, and that personal angle gives this scattershot overview a wistful, elegiac tone, as Medak revisits the sun-soaked Mediterranean scenery where everything went wrong.
Coming off a decade that included everything from “The Pink Panther” to “Dr. Strangelove,” Sellers was an untouchable diva who relished in his difficult reputation. As Medak recounts the genesis of his project, he cuts to archival interviews with the actor talking about his desire to cherry-pick his collaborators, and by 1972, Medak fell into that category of venerable talent: Fresh from directing Peter O’Toole in “The Ruling Class,” the filmmaker appealed to Sellers’ ambitious desires, even as the actor still preferred to run the show himself. That dynamic was ill-suited for a Cyprus-set shoot that involved hot weather, limited time, and a complex tone pitched somewhere between high-seas adventure and self-aware satire.
In retrospect, Medak realizes in a series of conversations with old collaborators and friends, the colorful and costly production was doomed from the start. “I vanted to make this film vork,” he says through his endearing accent, “but I realized I was kind of fucked.”
Which is not to say that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” lacked potential. The ebullient narrative, co-starring and co-written by British comic and playwright Spike Milligan, anticipated the blend of slapstick and genuine swashbuckling fun found in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” decades later and gave Sellers the opportunity to unleash a kooky, campy performance unlike anything he had done before. But nobody could rein him in, and there’s a black comic thrill to listening to Medak recount that downward spiral each step of the way as the rest of the project evaporates around them.
By the time the boat sinks on the first day of production, Medak was already grappling with an unreliable performer who broke up with Liza Minelli the day before the production. Within a matter of weeks, Sellers had suffered a heart attack, faked a doctor’s note, and refused to take direction every step of the way. Medak can’t talk through those speed bumps with Sellers himself, but he does track down producer John Heyman (who died in 2018) to squash their beef over what went wrong with the project. Or, at least, they try: Heyman refers to the experience as “another piece of inventory” that he had to put out to pasture, even as Medak continues to struggle with the outcome, and his reaction to that dismissive conclusion in their contemporary conversation is heartbreaking.
As the movie’s title suggests, Sellers becomes a kind of mythical figure throughout the ordeal, much as he saw himself at the time. Medak, however, provides the human center to this touching personal drama. The man who survived a Nazi invasion in his youth, his father’s death as a teen, and the suicide of his first wife still can’t figure out why the one challenge he couldn’t overcome was a silly studio project.
At the same time, Medak’s gentle approach to revisiting the scene of the crime helps complete his own arc: He was no longer an A-lister after “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” but he kept churning out work over the years. Sure, he settled into work-for-hire gigs on misbegotten projects like “Species II,” but he also delivered memorable installments of “The Wire” and “Hannibal,” while many of his contemporaries dropped out of the game. To that end, this modest recollection is a quiet act of defiance and course correction. “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” may not be worth anyone’s time, but “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is another story — and a much better one.
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is now available on VOD.