A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum Review

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Roman slave Pseudolus hopes to secure his freedom from Senex by helping his son, Hero, keep brothel keeper Lycus's virginal acquisition, Philia, away from preening gladiator Milos Gloriosus.


Richard Lester had always been a devoted disciple of Buster Keaton and he gave the silent maestro his final feature role in this adaptation of Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's Broadway success. Although he's primarily seen in what is literally a running gag (as Erronius traipses seven times round the Seven Hills of Rome in the hope of recovering the children kidnapped by pirates), Keaton's spirit is evident in every scene, as not only does Lester pay homage to his knockabout style, but he also fills the frame with throwaway pieces of comic business that only emerge on repeated viewing.

However, Lester's energetic editing (which owed much to the  nouvelle vague) occasionally works against the practised playing of Zero Mostel, Jack Gifford and Phil Silvers by visually disrupting the verbal flow of scenes that owed as much to vaudeville patter as the trilogy of comedies penned by 3rd-century BC playwright, Plautus.  

Yet Lester had been personally selected by Mostel, over the likes of Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles and Mike Nichols, for the comic skills he had honed in collaboration with The Goons and the knack for musicals number he had developed with The Beatles. Indeed, Lester seems more assured staging such Stephen Sondheim gems as `Comedy Tonight', `Everybody Ought to Have a Maid' and `I'm Lucky' than he was banter that required time not speed. Yet, while Lester was guilty of allowing Silvers to mug shamelessly in another variation on Sgt Bilko, he shrewdly allowed the likes of Michael Hordern and Patricia Jessel to steal scenes with their deft underplaying.  

 Packing the action with antiquarian clichés and caricatures, Lester anticipated Frankie Howerd's cult sitcom, Up Pompeii. But the scattershot approach to the often anachronistic comedy also had its influence on Mel Brooks's movie pastiches and the more cerebral lunacy of Monty Python's Life of Brian.

This stalwart Bank Holiday historical comedy may be cheesy and dated but for nostalgia's sake alone it's worth watching.