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.