The adventures of Sir Peter Ustinov

The actor, novelist, playwright and director talks about what it was like to follow in Mark Twain's footsteps -- literally.

Published August 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As I sit down to chat with actor, writer and director Sir Peter Ustinov, someone whispers that he's getting peeved because every interviewer on his current publicity junket -- from Regis and Kathy Lee to the BBC -- keeps asking the same two questions: What was it was like to be knighted? What was it like working with the late Stanley Kubrick on "Spartacus"?

To get on his good side I mention upfront that neither query is on the agenda. "Thank goodness," he replies. But I press my luck when I inquire if there's anything he'd like to discuss that no one's asked him about. "Look, bub, I'm not here to do all the work," he conveys with a stern expression. Then comes a devilish smile.

"The function of silence," he intones with a chuckle, before pursing his lips, easing back in his plush chair and closing his eyes. Interview over.

Pause, two, three, four. Gotcha.

Such mischievous geniality accounts in large measure for the appeal of "On the Trail of Mark Twain with Peter Ustinov," a four-hour documentary that airs on PBS beginning this week. Twain took a round-the-world trip in the late 1890s that he documented in his book "Following the Equator." Sir Peter retraces Twain's steps a century later and compares notes.

On its surface, "On the Trail," a co-production of WNET in New York and Granada Television, is a lighthearted travelogue. Sir Peter bathes at a Maori communal spa, speaks about Mercedes-Benzes with a young Tibetan Buddhist who's revered as the reincarnation of an 800-year-old deity and drops in on the personals department of a Bombay newspaper. Cumulatively, the episodes at once illustrate the lingering effects of colonialism and the tenacity of indigenous cultural conventions -- India's ancient caste system and marriage customs, for instance -- in the face of both imperial domination and modernity.

In "On the Trail," Ustinov, who for three decades has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), poses some larger philosophical and political questions about how we can best settle old squabbles and right past wrongs. He hints in "On the Trail" that the answer sometimes lies in accepting that the idealized precolonial past never existed -- or at least that it has been irretrievably lost. And bucking the standard liberal line a bit, Ustinov suggests that a country's attempt to "reclaim" its heritage as a way of casting off the psychological shackles of colonialism will in most cases be futile, if not also counterproductive.

Another Ustinov project in current U.S. release is "Stiff Upper Lips," a lame parody of period British films of the Merchant-Ivory variety. He doesn't have much to say about his featured turn as the libidinous owner of an Indian tea plantation. Fine with me, as he's done better work -- most notably in "Spartacus" and "Topkapi," for which he won best supporting actor Oscars, and in "Billy Budd," which he also directed and co-wrote.

Our chat at Manhattan's Regency Hotel feels at times more like a private performance than mere conversation. Sir Peter's never met an accent he didn't want to tackle, and as he recounts his global journey, the opportunities for doing so are limitless.

What made Twain a great travel writer?

He was a very good journalist. He had an individual way of looking at things and he noticed everything. I don't regard "Following the Equator" as a very good book -- it's meandering and it came out at a time when picturesque qualities were more important than the discussion of social issues. But he did say one remarkable thing, which is that there's no square inch of the world that hasn't been stolen. For the period, it seems to me to be the most extraordinary way of advancing a view of the world. It's absolutely true, of course.

Twain warns an ascendant America not to follow Britain's lead as an empire builder.

Yes, and with the U.S. the imperialism is more of an anomaly. The U.S. is by definition anticolonial, and it had every reason to be anticolonial given how it was established. But when you look at the way Hawaii was annexed or how Puerto Rico was acquired, there were so many tricks involved. And more recently with Grenada in the 1980s -- they were a wonderful, innocent country and they had their adolescence taken away from them. They had to become adult overnight and they grew up in a different fashion than what they were expecting. What's sad is that the American students [whose safety was the stated rationale for the invasion by U.S. troops] were in no possible danger.

What did you learn about the world making "On the Trail" that you didn't already know?

One interesting thing, which I never knew, was that Fiji was never occupied by the British, but gave itself voluntarily because it had a big American debt at that time. Fiji saw what was happening to Hawaii and didn't want to suffer the same thing. So, it gave itself to Queen Victoria, but on the condition that she pay the American debt. Years later, they wanted to remain a colony because they knew their own natural dignity didn't make them victims of a colonial power. The British had to send a delegation out there to say, "We're getting into trouble in the United Nations for not giving you your independence. For God's sake, take it!" Emotionally, Fiji's still a colony -- people wearing English wigs in court and all that. They're more royalist than the English could possibly ever be. It's bewildering.

The attitude is somewhat different in New Zealand, where you follow a discussion among native peoples about reparation payments for fishing rights lost during the colonial period. And you drop in on a Maori man having his face tattooed in a traditional way. Did his action test your limits regarding people's attempts to reclaim the past?

It was absolutely a nightmare watching it being done. I said to the man, "Does it hurt?" He says, "No, it's rather like having a piece of broken glass dragged across your face." (Laughs quizzically.) Horrifying. Then I asked him, "Why do you do this?" "It's a statement." "Yes, but a statement of what?" "Well, it proves that I am what I am, and in any case with this on my face I can't get any work." Huh? It was an eye-opener to me.

What are your philosophical reservations about the scheme whereby the government will provide land to people who can prove they're at least 50 percent native Hawaiian?

That's Bosnia. That's Kosovo. "Is your mother Chinese?" "My mother was pure Chinese." "Well it shows here she's got Laotian blood." It's such an absurd way of doing things. Why should land be allocated in relation to the purity of your blood? This seems to me to be no different at all from ethnic cleansing.

You seem more mellow about this on camera.

One's polite. The alarming thing is that, as usual, the quota system was a decision of Congress [in the 1920s].

What impressed you about South Africa's establishment of
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an alternative to
conducting criminal trials of people who'd committed
atrocities during apartheid?

One feels in the courtroom how very different the proceeding
is when it's done under the chairmanship of an archbishop
[Desmond Tutu] compared to what it would be under the
chairmanship of a judge. Tutu said, "Without the truth we
can't make a fresh start." And by doing it the way they did,
they probably got better mileage out of these idiots. That's
why I put South Africa at the conclusion on the show. I
really believe that if the millennium is going to work, it's
going to be due to the ratio between how much we are allowed
to forget and how much we are incited to remember. The whole
of Northern Ireland, Kosovo, the Middle East -- all that is
based on incitement to remember.

Archbishop Tutu talks about it being pragmatic not to
seek retribution, but the approach was also a Christian one
-- turn the other cheek, though in this case also seek some
accountability. Did you find it ironic how both sides
applied Christianity to such different ends?

When I met with Tutu I said, "I'm a little surprised that
both you and the Afrikaners took Christianity to be their
guiding light and yet your interpretation of it seems rather
different. Theirs seems to be a bit more pharisaical than
yours is in that they seem to be saying, 'Thank you, God,
for making us different from them. But if there's any way we
can help them, you only have to send us a signal.' [Laughs.] Yet your form of worship is much more choreographic and symphonic."

And he said, "You mustn't be too hard on the Afrikaners.
They are in the position of a minority people surrounded by
a stronger majority. And because they have selfish needs,
they regard themselves as the chosen people. And after all,
it's not the first time that this has happened," he said
with the faintest grin. It was interesting comment because
it was taking a kind of risk and at the same time being very
perspicacious -- and very generous.

Certainly more generous than Twain, who called their
forebears "profoundly ignorant, dull, obstinate,

Indeed. Tutu's a delightful character. He told me, "I never
saw a light. I never thought of the church as a vocation. I
went in because I thought it was the one place where a black
boy could be on equal terms with a white one. And it was
only once I was inside that I began to believe."

Did your meeting with the 97-year-old widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, feel as peculiar in person as it looked on camera?

I must say our visit to old Mrs. Verwoerd proved what Tutu
was saying. She came out of her house, and I put out my arm
and she searched for the arm and then the eagle had landed.
Ah, I was in such pain as these bony fingers dug into my
skin. Then she sits down. "No blacks, only whites."

This is in Orania, the segregated area some Afrikaners are trying to develop
into a separate state?


By contrast, Robben Island, once a notorious prison, has been so transformed that you see it as a positive metaphor for the new South Africa.
What fascinated you so much about the place?

One had doubts about the way things are going in the new
South Africa. Robben Island is a pretty island off the coast
with a wonderful view. It's made for luxury, yet it had a
fearful penitentiary. But it's no longer a prison; it's a
place of pilgrimage. People go to cell No. 5, which
was Mandela's, and they meditate and talk.

The extraordinary thing is that among the guides are people
that have settled on Robben Island for good -- ex-political
prisoners, ex-criminals and ex-warders. This was a place
where savagery was encouraged. One of the punishments for
prisoners was to cover them up with sand until only their
heads were showing and then pee on them. But then political
prisoners like Mandela began cultivating little gardens and
beautifying the place. Suddenly everybody joined in,
mystified by this. Now, these disparate people are also
joining in together. Robben Island is growing into a
community based on this terrible place which by their
presence is somehow exorcised. There's an example of
forgiving and forgetting.

Where has your work for UNICEF taken you?

The most recent mission was to Cambodia, which may be the
saddest place I've ever been. Cambodia, I think, is the
fault of the West, because Cambodia had more bombs dropped
on it than Vietnam. You feel like you're flying over a
plucked chicken because the deforestation has been so
thorough. And when you get killing on that sort of scale it
brings on a habit of killing, so that in a way Pol Pot was
almost a logical follow-on to that.

The problems for children are enormous, and what makes you
furious is that you can live with acts of God, earthquakes
or natural disasters that seem inevitable. But that people
do terrible things, deliberately not foreseeing the
consequences, putting children at the age of 10 into
uniform when they enjoy playing soldiers and perverting
their natural tendencies, that's unpardonable.

So, what makes you optimistic about the future?

I don't think there's any alternative to optimism. One
skeptical German journalist said to me, "Isn't all you try
and do for UNICEF like just like a drop of water on a hot
stove?" That's a German expression. I said I honestly think
it's a little better than that: "It's a drop of water in the
ocean: It doesn't get lost."

By Daniel Mangin

Daniel Mangin is a writer and editor living in New York.

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