To Be or Not to Be (1983 film)

Last updated

To Be or Not to Be
To be or not to be.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alan Johnson
Screenplay by Ronny Graham
Thomas Meehan
Story by Melchior Lengyel
Ernst Lubitsch
Based on
To Be or Not to Be
1942 film
Produced by Mel Brooks
Cinematography Gerald Hirschfeld
Edited byAlan Balsam
Music by John Morris
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 16, 1983 (1983-12-16)
Running time
107 minutes [1]
CountryUnited States
LanguagesEnglish, Polish
Budget$9 million [2]
Box office$13 million [3]

To Be or Not to Be is a 1983 American war comedy film directed by Alan Johnson, produced by Mel Brooks, and starring Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, and José Ferrer. The screenplay was written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, based on the original story by Melchior Lengyel, Ernst Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Mayer. The film is a remake of the 1942 film of the same name.



Fredrick Bronski runs a large ensemble show out of Warsaw. Despite the relative success the show receives, the majority of the cast are annoyed by the fact that Fredrick nitpicks who does what, in particular his wife Anna, whom he regularly tries to undermine despite her getting the lion's share of audience praise. This leads her to begin a flirtation with bomber pilot Andre Sobinski, who she invites to come to her dressing room when Fredrick's begins the "To be, or not to be" speech from Hamlet . Their fling is cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland, forcing Sobinski to return to his squadron.

As the Bronski Theater struggles to remain open in spite of Gestapo censorship, Sobinski and the rest of the Royal Air Force's Polish squadron commiserate with Polish radio broadcaster Dr. Siletski, who tells them he is returning to Poland and talks them into giving him messages to family members and members of the Polish Underground. However, when Siletski fails to recognize Anna Bronski's name, despite having claimed to have lived in Warsaw, Sobinski becomes suspicious. He consults with British intelligence, who realize that Siletski is a Nazi sympathizer who intends to deliver the names to the Gestapo. Sobinski air drops into Warsaw and meets up with Anna and Fredrick, who have been forced to move in with Anna's dresser Sasha after their home was turned into Gestapo Headquarters.

After arriving in Warsaw, Siletski has Anna brought to his room at the former Europa Hotel (which was turned into German Military Headquarters) to ask her about Sobinski's personal message. Convinced that it has no military significance, he invites Anna to return for dinner. Returning home, Anna explains the situation to Fredrick and Sobinski, and realizing that Siletski and Gestapo leader Colonel Erhardt have never met, they decide that Frederick will pose as Erhardt. Actors dressed as Gestapo members interrupt Anna's date with Siletski and take him to "headquarters," the Bronski Theater. Frederick successfully retrieves the list from Siletski but unwittingly blows his cover when he reacts to news of Anna's liaisons with Sobinski. Siletski tries to escape through the theater, but Sobinski shoots him down. This forces Fredrick to pose as Siletski to retrieve a copy of the list and get Anna out of the hotel. Gestapo Captain Schultz is also there to bring Siletski to Colonel Erhardt's office. Frederick is able to fool Erhardt by naming recently executed prisoners as the leaders of the Polish Underground.

Nazi soldiers invade the theater to arrest Sasha for being homosexual, and when Anna and the others try to protect him, the theater is closed. Anna is taken to Gestapo headquarters under Erhardt's orders, so Frederick again disguises as Siletski to try and retrieve her, unaware that the Germans have discovered Siletski's body. After Frederick arrives, Ehrhardt leaves him in a room with Siletsky's dead body. Frederick has an extra fake beard, shaves off Siletsky's beard and applies the fake. He then goads Ehrhardt into pulling it off, convincing Ehrhardt that he is the real Siletsky and securing Sasha's release. Unaware of Ehrhardt's successful scheme, several actors disguised as Hitler's safety squad arrive, yank off Frederick's fake beard and pretend to drag out Frederick and Sasha.

Knowing the ruse won't be able to hold for much longer, Sobinski and the Bronski Theater troupe plan to use a special performance for the visiting Hitler as a smokescreen to get themselves (and the Jewish refugees Fredrick has unwittingly sheltered) out of Occupied Poland. Despite hiccups in the performance everyone makes out of the theater. Anna does not show up at the stage door because Ehrhardt has cornered her in her dressing room, but when Frederick comes to get her disguised as Hitler, Ehrhardt panics and lets her go. At the airport German security spots the costumed troupe members and catch on to the deception, but Sobinski pilots the plane off the ground and over to England. In gratitude for their heroics, the English government allows the Bronskis to perform in London where, to Fredrick and Sobinski's horror, another young soldier stands and walks out on Fredrick's "To be or not to be" speech.


Connections with the original

This remake is mostly faithful to the 1942 film on which it is based and, in many cases, dialogue is taken verbatim from the earlier film. The characters of Bronski and Joseph Tura are, however, combined into a single character (played by Brooks). The character of the treacherous Professor Siletsky (here spelled Siletski) is made into a more comic, even somewhat buffoonish, figure; in the original he was the only completely serious character. Instead of having the company preparing for Hamlet, Bronski performs his "world famous, in Poland" highlights from Hamlet, including the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy, from which the film's name is taken. Anna's dresser has been replaced with Sasha, allowing them to address the plight of gay people who were also persecuted under the Nazis.


Roger Ebert's three-star review stated that in the film, Mel Brooks "combines a backstage musical with a wartime romance and comes up with an eclectic comedy that races off into several directions, usually successfully." [4] Gene Siskel awarded two-and-half stars and wrote that the film "contains more genuine sentiment than big laughs. If you are looking for laughs, as I was the first time I saw it, you may be disappointed. More often than not the jokes just lay there, a beat late, easily anticipated. On a second viewing, however, the sentiment of the piece rings true, particularly the troupe's final theatrical confrontation with an all-Nazi audience." [5] (On their annual If We Picked the Winners Oscar special the next year, both Siskel & Ebert chose Charles Durning's Oscar nomination as the worst nomination of that year, believing that he took a slot that could've gone to any of the cast members of The Right Stuff or to Jeff Daniels for his performance in Terms of Endearment .)

Vincent Canby of The New York Times lauded the film as "smashingly funny. I'm not at all sure that it's a classic, but it's so good in its own right, in the way it preserves and revives the wonderfully farcical Edwin Justus Mayer screenplay, that you leave the theater having a brand-new high." [6] Variety called it "very funny stuff indeed," adding, "Durning is a standout as the buffoonish Gestapo topper and Bancroft's pseudo-seduction of him, and Ferrer, are among the pic's highlights." [7] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times thought that the film didn't work "on two formidable counts. First, Brooks and his associates could never be accused of having anything remotely resembling a Lubitsch touch: that celebrated, indefinable combination of wit, subtlety and sophistication that allowed the legendary Berlin-born director to get away with implying just about anything, although even he was accused of bad taste in making his 'To Be Or Not To Be.' Second, we know far more than was known in 1942 of the full extent of the Nazi evil, especially in regard to the fate of the Jews ... Somehow an entire movie that depicts the Nazis as the buffoons of fantasy, while we know full well that the peril of Brooks' largely Jewish acting company is all too real, isn't very funny but instead is merely crass." [8] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that "Brooks embarks on an unnecessary remake and then fails to tailor the material adequately to a 1980s perspective or his own performing strengths ... the result is a klunky, tacky-looking color reproduction of the original." [9] David Ansen of Newsweek stated, "To those who know and love the Jack Benny-Carole Lombard original, this may seem like sacrilege. But because the copy is so entertaining in its own right, it seems more a tribute than a rip-off ... Do not expect the usual Brooksian ka-ka jokes and mad non sequiturs: this is his warmest, most plotbound and traditional movie. It may be a twice-told tale, but it's nice to know that delight can strike twice in the same spot." [10]

It has a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 22 reviews, indicating "Rotten." [11]

However, the film was not a great commercial success, grossing only $13,030,214. [3]

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards [12] Best Supporting Actor Charles Durning Nominated
Golden Globe Awards [13] Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Anne Bancroft Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Charles DurningNominated
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Actor Mel Brooks Nominated
Best Foreign ActressAnne BancroftNominated
Writers Guild of America Awards [14] Best Comedy – Adapted from Another Medium Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham Nominated

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mel Brooks</span> American actor, comedian and filmmaker (born 1926)

Melvin James Brooks is an American actor, comedian, filmmaker, songwriter, and playwright. With a career spanning over seven decades, he is known as a writer and director of a variety of successful broad farces and parodies. A recipient of numerous accolades, he is one of 18 entertainers to win the EGOT, which includes an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, an Academy Award, and a Tony Award. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009, a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2010, the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2013, a British Film Institute Fellowship in 2015, a National Medal of Arts in 2016, a BAFTA Fellowship in 2017, and the Honorary Academy Award in 2023.

<i>The Producers</i> (1967 film) Film by Mel Brooks

The Producers is a 1967 American satirical black comedy film written and directed by Mel Brooks and starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and Kenneth Mars. The film is about a theater producer and his accountant who scheme to get rich by fraudulently overselling interests in a stage musical purposely designed to fail. They find a script celebrating Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and bring it to the stage. Because of this theme, The Producers was controversial from the start and received mixed reviews. It became a cult film and found a more positive critical reception later.

<i>To Be or Not to Be</i> (1942 film) 1942 film by Ernst Lubitsch

To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 American comedy film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, and featuring Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges and Sig Ruman. The plot concerns a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use their abilities at disguise and acting to fool the occupying troops. It was adapted by Lubitsch (uncredited) and Edwin Justus Mayer from the story by Melchior Lengyel. The film was released one month after actress Carole Lombard was killed in an airplane crash. In 1996, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

<i>My Favorite Year</i> 1982 film directed by Richard Benjamin

My Favorite Year is a 1982 American comedy film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Richard Benjamin and written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo from a story written by Palumbo. The film tells the story of a young comedy writer and stars Peter O'Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper, and Joseph Bologna. O'Toole was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film was adapted into an unsuccessful 1992 Broadway musical of the same name.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anne Bancroft</span> American actress (1931–2005)

Anne Bancroft was an American actress. Respected for her acting prowess and versatility, Bancroft received an Academy Award, three BAFTA Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Tony Awards, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Cannes Film Festival Award. She is one of only 24 thespians to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting.

<i>Star 80</i> 1983 film by Bob Fosse

Star 80 is a 1983 American biographical drama film written and directed by Bob Fosse. It was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice article "Death of a Playmate" by Teresa Carpenter and is based on Canadian Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her husband Paul Snider in 1980. The film’s title is taken from one of Snider's vanity license plates. The film was Fosse's final film before his death in 1987.

<i>Silent Movie</i> 1976 American satirical comedy film by Mel Brooks

Silent Movie is a 1976 American satirical comedy film co-written, directed by and starring Mel Brooks, released by 20th Century Fox in the summer of 1976. The ensemble cast includes Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Bernadette Peters, and Sid Caesar, with cameos by Anne Bancroft, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Marcel Marceau, and Paul Newman as themselves. The film is produced in the manner of a 20th-century silent film with intertitles instead of spoken dialogue ; the soundtrack consists almost entirely of accompanying music and sound effects. It is an affectionate parody of slapstick comedies, including those of Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and Buster Keaton. The film satirizes the film industry, presenting the story of a film producer trying to obtain studio support to make a silent film in the then-present 1970s.

<i>Young Frankenstein</i> 1974 film by Mel Brooks

Young Frankenstein is a 1974 American comedy horror film directed by Mel Brooks. The screenplay was co-written by Brooks and Gene Wilder. Wilder also starred in the lead role as the title character, a descendant of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Peter Boyle portrayed the monster. The film co-stars Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Richard Haydn, and Gene Hackman.

<i>History of the World, Part I</i> 1981 film by Mel Brooks

History of the World, Part I is a 1981 American comedy film written, produced, and directed by Mel Brooks. Brooks also stars in the film, playing five roles: Moses, Comicus the stand-up philosopher, Tomás de Torquemada, King Louis XVI, and Jacques, le garçon de pisse. The large ensemble cast also features Sid Caesar, Shecky Greene, Gregory Hines, Charlie Callas; and Brooks regulars Ron Carey, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Andreas Voutsinas, and Spike Milligan.

<i>The Money Pit</i> 1986 film by Richard Benjamin

The Money Pit is a 1986 American comedy film directed by Richard Benjamin and starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a couple who attempt to renovate a recently purchased house. The film is a remake of the 1948 Cary Grant comedy film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and was filmed in New York City and Lattingtown, New York, and was co-executive produced by Steven Spielberg. A remake, Drömkåken, directed by Peter Dalle, was released to cinemas in Sweden on 28 October 1993.

<i>Night Train to Munich</i> 1940 film

Night Train to Munich is a 1940 British thriller film directed by Carol Reed and starring Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison. Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on the 1939 short story Report on a Fugitive by Gordon Wellesley, the film is about an inventor and his daughter who are kidnapped by the Gestapo after the Nazis march into Prague in the prelude to the Second World War. A British secret service agent follows them, disguised as a senior German army officer pretending to woo the daughter over to the Nazi cause.

<i>Camp</i> (2003 film) 2003 American musical comedy-drama film by Todd Graff

Camp is a 2003 American musical comedy drama film written and directed by Todd Graff about an upstate New York performing arts summer camp. The film is based on Graff's own experiences at a similar camp called Stagedoor Manor, where many scenes of the film were filmed.

<i>A Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy</i> 1982 film by Woody Allen

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is a 1982 American sex comedy film written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Allen and Mia Farrow.

<i>The Twelve Chairs</i> (1970 film) 1970 American comedy film by Mel Brooks

The Twelve Chairs is a 1970 American comedy film directed and written by Mel Brooks, and starring Frank Langella, Ron Moody and Dom DeLuise. The film is one of at least eighteen film adaptations of the Russian 1928 novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov.

<i>Sophies Choice</i> (film) 1982 drama film

Sophie's Choice is a 1982 American psychological drama film directed and written by Alan J. Pakula, adapted from William Styron's 1979 novel Sophie's Choice. The film stars Meryl Streep as Zofia "Sophie" Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant to America with a dark secret from her past who shares a boarding house in Brooklyn with her tempestuous lover Nathan, and young writer Stingo. It also features Rita Karin, Stephen D. Newman and Josh Mostel.

<i>Garbo Talks</i> 1984 American comedy-drama film directed by Sidney Lumet

Garbo Talks is a 1984 American comedy-drama film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver, and Carrie Fisher, with an uncredited appearance by Betty Comden as Greta Garbo.

<i>The Tin Drum</i> (film) 1979 film by Volker Schlöndorff

The Tin Drum is a 1979 film adaptation of Günter Grass' novel of the same title, directed by Volker Schlöndorff from a screenplay co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz. It stars Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach, Charles Aznavour, and David Bennent in the lead role of Oskar Matzerath, a young boy who willfully arrests his own physical development and remains in the body of a child even as he enters adulthood.

<i>The Iceman Cometh</i> (1973 film) 1973 film by John Frankenheimer

The Iceman Cometh is a 1973 American drama film directed by John Frankenheimer. The screenplay, written by Thomas Quinn Curtiss, is based on Eugene O'Neill's 1946 play of the same name. The film was produced by Ely Landau for the American Film Theatre, which from 1973 to 1975 presented thirteen film adaptations of noted plays.

<i>84 Charing Cross Road</i> (film) 1987 film by David Hugh Jones

84 Charing Cross Road is a 1987 British-American drama film directed by David Jones, and starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, Mercedes Ruehl, and Jean De Baer. It is produced by Bancroft's husband, Mel Brooks. The screenplay by Hugh Whitemore is based on a play by James Roose-Evans, which itself is an adaptation of the 1970 epistolary memoir of the same name by Helene Hanff — a compilation of letters between Hanff and Frank Doel dating from 1949 to 1968. Several characters who are not in the play were added for the film, including Hanff's Manhattan friends and Doel's wife Nora.

<i>Lili Marleen</i> (film) 1980 film

Lili Marleen is a 1981 West German drama film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder that stars Hanna Schygulla, Giancarlo Giannini, and Mel Ferrer. Set in the time of the Third Reich, the film recounts the love affair between a German singer who becomes the darling of the nation, based on Lale Andersen, and a Swiss conductor, based on Rolf Liebermann, who is active in saving his fellow Jews. Though the screenplay uses the autobiographical novel Der Himmel hat viele Farben by Lale Andersen, her last husband, Arthur Beul, said the film bears little relation to her real life.


  1. "TO BE OR NOT TO BE (PG)". 20th Century Fox . British Board of Film Classification. November 16, 1983. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  2. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p260
  3. 1 2 To Be or Not to Be at Box Office Mojo
  4. Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun Times film review, December 16, 1983. Last accessed: January 30, 2011.
  5. Siskel, Gene (December 19, 1983). "In Brooks' 'To Be,' the laughs are not". Chicago Tribune . Section 5, p. 10.
  6. Canby, Vincent (December 16, 1983). "Screen: 'To Be or Not to Be,' With Mel Brooks". The New York Times . C10.
  7. "Film Reviews: To Be Or Not To Be". Variety . December 14, 1983. 16.
  8. Thomas, Kevin (December 16, 1983). "A 'To Be' That Should Not Have Been". Los Angeles Times . Part VI, p. 22.
  9. Arnold, Gary (December 16, 1983). "Nazis and Nonsense". The Washington Post . F1, F10.
  10. Ansen, David (December 19, 1983). "Upstaging the Third Reich". Newsweek . p. 66.
  11. To Be or Not to Be at Rotten Tomatoes
  12. "The 56th Academy Awards (1984) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on November 2, 2017. Retrieved October 9, 2011.
  13. "To Be or Not to Be – Golden Globes". HFPA . Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  14. "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2010.