Director: Harold Young
By Roderick Heath
The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch.
This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made.
Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.
Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.” Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would.
It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama.
The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything. The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch.
A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken Robespierre.
But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries.
Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St.
Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.
The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton.
Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too. When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.” Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities.
True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies.
The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences.
The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.
Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular.
It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.
One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t.
Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.
The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends.
Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.
The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943.
His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.
Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.” Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm.
Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her.
Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.