Our narrator for this tale of Ancient Rome is the slave Pseudolus (Zero Mostel), who introduces the story. He is a slave in the household of Senex (Michael Hordern) and his dearest wish is to afford his freedom, so when he realises that the son of the house, Hero (Michael Crawford), has a secret love, he sees a way to get his heart's desire granted. The object of Hero's affection is Philia (Annette Andre), a virgin in the house of attractive young female slaves owned by Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers), so how will he be able to cultivate a romance with her? Pseudolus has an idea: he will tell Lycus that he has won his freedom and is looking for a life partner, then with Hero's money they will buy Philia. Simple, eh? But the best laid plans of mice and men...
On adapting Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove's hit musical for the screen, here screenwritten by Melvin Frank and Michael Pertwee, something went missing along the way. Director Richard Lester's never-pausing-for-breath pacing carried it all along nicely, but wasn't this supposed to be a musical? As it was, only about four Stephen Sondheim songs were used, almost as if the filmmakers were afraid that any break from the action, no matter how brief, would leave the audience wanting more jokes instead. But it's more likely that the audience would have noticed that what jokes there were could be very hit or miss.
Mostel plays his character predictably broadly, as do most of the cast, and he can be exhausting to watch with his arm waving and yelling, but his wily personality, desperately trying to get the better of everyone else puts you on his side. Silvers, of course, could have essayed the role just as well on the evidence of his previous work, but here he is sidelined for too much of the time and too often the victim of the scheming instead of the instigator. Buster Keaton as Erronius, third billed behind those two, gets even less to do - I know this is an ensemble cast but for his last film it would have been nice for him to be more involved with the plotting.
As the romantic leads, Crawford and Andre are more the butt of the humour; they sing a drippy duet which is reprised by Pseudolus and fellow slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford) when the latter has to dress as a woman to fool the warlike Roman captain who has returned from battle. Why does Hysterium have to dress as a woman? It's a long, complicated story deftly condensed into an hour and a half, but basically Philia was promised to Captain Gloriosus (Leon Greene) as his bride to be, and now the slaves have to pretend she has died so she may go off with Hero.
As all this is going on, the head of the household where all this is taking place, Senex, has escaped from having to visit his mother in law and returned home. Now that Lycus' female property are filling the villa to entertain the captain's soldiers, Senex thinks it's his lucky day, but this being nothing less than a farce, it's not. Throw in a host of familiar British comedy and acting talent and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has the look of a bigger budget Carry On, but it never reaches the hilarious heights of Carry On Cleo (although it is funnier than the suspiciously similar Up Pompeii! movie). Rome itself isn't the gleaming marble of Spartacus, but a more grimy, dusty setting, which at least suits the moral grubbiness of many of the characters, but all that wild-eyed running around it doesn't necessarily make for big laughs. Additional music by Ken Thorne.