Seeing this film for the first time, 25 years on from its original release, two things really hit home. Firstly it's very good - the acting and direction are excellent, it's funny, it's a clever story, and it makes you think. All pretty good credentials for any film. Secondly - and here's where its true brilliance lies - its underlying message hasn't dated at all and, if anything, is more relevant and effective than it was when it was made.
And the message itself? Superficially, it's an exploration of how, in a world dominated by the fleeting demands of mass media, someone with absolutely no knowledge at all can become a megastar and, once established as such, can demand respect and gain power far beyond their capabilities. And, beneath that... well, that's where the fun starts. Is it an exploration of the shallowness of western society? Is it a study of people's weaknesses & needs? Is it a religious allegory? Is it, in terms of most of the characters, a huge tragedy? Is it all or none of these?
The ending, which generates much debate about its "meaning" - is he walking on water in a messianic way or is he simply so stupid that he doesn't realise he's walking, by accident, on a submerged jetty? - is quite brilliant as are the final "over the titles" cuts of Sellers being unable to deliver his deadpan lines without laughing at them, leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that the "joke" might be on you in trying to read too much into what's on offer here. In the end, of course, it's what you want it to be and that's the whole point of the story - we make people, situations and films themselves into what we want them to be not what they necessarily are. Subtle, enigmatic and, above all, highly entertaining.