TBT: The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)


Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Sabrina, a historical costume enthusiast who enjoys sewing historical costumes from various eras. She is currently working on her PhD in English literature.


The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) is a swashbuckling adventure, filled with romance, swash, and (you guessed it!) buckling. It’s an adaptation of the popular 1894 novel of the same name by Anthony Hope that gave rise to the genre of the Ruritanian romance, usually an adventure in which the setting is a fictional European country.

It’s also a remake of an earlier film version from 1937 and the novel was adapted into film many times before this in silent versions. TCM explains that the 1952 version is shot almost identically to the 1937 version, except that the fight scenes were improved (more swashbuckling!) and it’s in glorious Technicolor. The costumes are by Walter Plunkett, who is most famous for costuming Gone with the Wind (1939) but also had a long career in Hollywood designing costumes for a number of frock flicks.

With regard to the cast, Stewart Granger is a swashbuckler par excellence as both Rudolf Rassendyll and the king that Rudolf so greatly resembles, Deborah Kerr makes a lovely and elegant Princess Flavia, James Mason is a cunning and charming Rupert of Hentzau (although a bit old for the role of the young Rupert), and Jane Greer is beautiful (and very Technicolor) as the passionate Antoinette de Mauban.

While The Prisoner of Zenda is obviously a product of its time in its costuming, hair, and makeup, it’s still a pretty glorious visual spectacle. There’s lots of glamour because it all takes place at the royal court of Ruritania during a coronation and the Technicolor doesn’t hurt. Also, there is absolutely no hairpin/bobby pin shortage here.

Although the novel was published in 1894 and the setting seems to be even earlier since the book is recalling events in the past, the movie is set in 1897 (as a ball invitation helpfully tells us). So, for reference, here’s an illustration by Charles Dana Gibson from 1898 of a scene from the novel:

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

The guys are all in uniforms throughout pretty much the whole movie, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s lots of fun fancy braid and there are epaulets and medals and sashes. (And when they’re not in uniform, they’re swashbuckling in open V-neck shirts. Classic cheesy romance!)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

But the ladies are where all the fun is happening. The overall silhouette is good for the period, with a nice amount of width at the shoulders, a bit smaller and higher than the puffed sleeves of the previous years, and defined A-line skirts. The women also look to be wearing corsets and a good number of petticoats to get this nice silhouette.

However, a lot of the fabric choices just scream 1950s Technicolor, like the gold lamé number that Princess Flavia wears to the coronation and all the intense reds and purples worn by Antoinette de Mauban.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

It makes sense that if you are finally in colour and making a film spectacle to go bright with the clothing. It’s certainly eye-catching, if a little much for the eyes at times. (Especially Antoinette de Mauban’s super shiny lavender gown, which she wears for a secret meeting with Rudolf. I couldn’t find a picture of it, but check out the movie trailer here for a glimpse at 2:39.)

My personal favourite of all the gowns is this lace number that Princess Flavia wears. The silver and white really set off Deborah Kerr’s red hair.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

There’s also lots of sparkling jewelry, and we get the fun of a ball scene, so lots of ladies dressed up all fancy with lots of frothy tulle. Unlike Anne of Green Gables, Princess Flavia has no problem with mixing pink dresses with red hair. (Fun fact: L.M. Montgomery loved Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

Daywear is only slightly less flashy. There are lots of deeply colored dresses with appropriately high necks, even if they’re also made out of some questionable fabric choices like the pink sheer yoke on Princess Flavia.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

And we get to see some great suits with really severe lines that are also intense, like Antoinette de Mauban’s stunning red suit.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

Catalog image of the red suit. Many of the men’s costumes were also offered for sale.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

Overall, while it might not be a great piece of cinema, it’s still a fun watch and the costumes are historically passable eye candy. I’ll leave you with this picture of the movie poster and if its over-the-top melodrama doesn’t convince you to watch it, nothing will!

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)


Are you a fan of the swashbuckling technicolor Prisoner of Zenda?


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Three historical costumers who decided the world needed a podcast and blog dedicated to historical costume movies and everything right and wrong with them.

17 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    As always, my big complaint is the shoulder pads in the men’s clothing, but in the 50’s it’s less than in the 40’s. BTW: the buckler is a small shield. During the Italian Renaissance, bands of young bravos would walk down the streets raking their swords across their bucklers as a challenge to other young men, hence “swashing their bucklers.”

  2. Kate D

    I love the 1937 version of this movie. It’s just delightful. I’ll have to check out the 1952 one! Thanks for the review!

    • Laura Newman Hubbard

      Love both versions. Can’t pick a preference.

    • Poetryqn

      NOBODY, even the glorious James Mason, can match Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert of Hentzau. I saw the 1937 version as a kid and my mother kept trying to convince me that Rupert was the bad guy. I couldn’t believe her. I still don’t.

  3. Fogbraider

    One of my favourite films – thank you for covering it. On the whole it’s true to the novel, and keeps much of the novel’s snappy dialogue. Unfortunately it compresses the ending and deprives us of a very touching scene where Flavia discovers that her lover is not the king. There are some odd intonations in Stewart Granger’s delivery which he must have picked up from Ronald Colman’s performance in the earlier film – this film follows the earlier one almost line for line and gesture for gesture, and Colman has a habit of orating. Granger is much better than Colman, who looks tentative and worried throughout. On the other hand, Colman is very good in The Masquerader, a film with a similar ‘substitute’ theme, where the nice substitute actually gets the girl and the position when the bounder conveniently overdoses on drugs. The tentative, worried style works fine there. Sorry to go on and on, and nothing to do with costume. Good ballroom crowd scenes.

  4. picasso Manu

    Sadly, I have a personal problem with Stewart Granger since the man “mistook” hotal evening service with something else. But I love those old Hollywood films, the (very much imagined) past is so colorful and sparkly!

  5. ljones1966

    The costumes are a mixed bag for me. As much as I liked the 1937 version, a part of me wishes that the 1952 version wasn’t a shot-by-shot remake of the earlier film. I have a few issues regarding the plot overall.

  6. Donna

    The 1937 version is perfect. Ronald Coleman, C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, David Niven, Mary Astor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. … marvelous.

  7. Al Don

    Having read the original novel and then watched the movies, I enjoyed the 1937 version. I watched the 1952 version for the sake of completion but found it pointless. If you’re remaking it anyway, why not do a fresh interpretation of the novel?

    I found Royal Flash (1975) to oddly be the most vivacious interpretation of Hope’s work (though the concept appears in several movies). Owing to its director, Richard Lester, the action scenes were more inventive. Also one thing it did that I felt the other adaptations missed is showing some of the actual world and geography of the fictional Germanic nation. The ’37 and ’52 versions look like they take place in a void in terms of exteriors. Royal Flash has actual… towns.

    I prefer the book but appreciated most of the film versions.

  8. Omphale Gac

    I love K J Charles recent novel The Henchmen of Zenda, which is a modern m/m retelling. Highly recommended!

  9. MoHub

    Have you seen the Doctor Who episode “The Androids of Tara”? It’s part of the Key to Time arc and is a terrific and hilarious take on The Prisoner of Zenda.

    • Roxana

      Everybody has doubles, or even triples! It’s totally mad!

  10. M.E. Lawrence

    I had no idea Kerr or Greer, especially the latter, had played such roles (apart from Deborah Kerr’s “King and I”). And any movie with James Mason is worth watching.

    • MoHub

      I was surprised to find that there’s no WCW for Deborah Kerr. I just saw a bio of her on TV and realized most of her roles were in period costume. Let’s get that WCW working for Kerr!

  11. Jamie

    Peter Sellers did a version of prisoner as well. It was quite funny back then, not sure if it’s held up though!