Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (Omar Sharif) clashes with his father, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (James Mason), over implementing progressive policies for their country. Ava Gardner plays his mother Empress Elisabeth. Rudolf soon feels he is a man born at the wrong time in a country that does not realize the need for social reform. The Prince of Wales (James Robertson Justice), later to become Britain's King Edward VII, provides comic relief. Rudolf finds refuge from a loveless marriage with Princess Stéphanie (Andréa Parisy) by taking a mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera (Catherine Deneuve). Their untimely demise at Mayerling, the imperial family's hunting lodge, is cloaked in mystery, but the film's ending suggests the two lovers made a suicide pact when they decided they could not live in a world without love or prospects for peace.
The film establishes Rudolph is a rebellious "man of the people", at eternal odds with his despotic father, Emperor Franz Joseph. To keep him quiet and out of trouble, Rudolph is forced into an arranged marriage, and surrounded by Hapsburg informers and spies. In an effort to escape this oppressive atmosphere, a disguised Rudolph dashes off to a fair, where he meets the beauteous 17-year-old Marie. Thus begins an illicit romance, which the lovers try vainly to keep secret from the prying eyes of the Emperor's flunkeys.
Mayerling is the name of a notorious Austrian village linked to a romantic tragedy. At a royal hunting lodge there, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf--desperate over his father's command to put away his teenage mistress, the Baroness Marie Vetsera--shot her to death and killed himself. The misfortune may indeed have been a murder-suicide, but perhaps it was a political assassination, or even the result of a lunatic family vendetta: scholarship is still catching up with the facts.
On the morning of January 30, 1889, the Archduke Rodolphe de Habsbourg and his mistress Marie Vetsera were found dead. The remains of Rodolphe are discreetly repatriated to Hofburg, while that of Mary is hastily thrown into the depths of a tomb.
An Austrian prince's doomed love affair with a Czech countess sparks turmoil across Europe.
A 2011 Paul Vecchiali film, starring Edith Scob.