They seek him here
In the grand tradition of classic heroes, The Scarlet Pimpernel stands tall among many favourites in his perfectly tailored suits. He combines many of the most fun and admirable heroic traits: the daredevil antics of the Dread Pirate Roberts; the unselfish deeds of Robin Hood; the secret life of Zorro and even the guile and cunning of Batman.
If you’re in search of stories of tense adventures full of daring exploits, surprise twists and intimidating villains. If you’re interested in passionate, enduring romance, you must make yourself familiar with novelist Baroness Orczy’s irrepressible hero.
The novel is a fantastic story, and fans are lucky enough to have some excellent adaptations out there. The 1982 TV movie version is excellent, but the 1934 adaptation starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon is also wonderfully done.
About The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
With some variations, it follows the basic story from the book. France is mired in the blood of aristocrats as the much-abused humbler citizens of the country have risen up to overthrow their oppressors. Aristocratic men, women and children alike are carted off to the guillotine and executed as the people howl in delight. Attempts to escape are usually futile. But the leaders of the French government find themselves hampered by a thorn in their side. A mysterious group of men, led by a cunning leader, rescue some of the doomed aristocrats with daring plots and tricks. The English people and the grateful aristocrats he rescues adore him. He is hated and feared, however, among the French citizens.
French agents are on the prowl for the daring leader. They know only that he is an Englishman, probably a member of the elite, but his true identity is an enigma. The government dispatches the cold and ruthless Citizen Chauvelin to England to find out what he can.
They seek him there.
Chauvelin is determined that no one should attempt to thwart the destruction of the aristocrats. He will stop at nothing not even at threatening an old friend, French woman Marguerite Blakeney. Marguerite has recently married Percy Blakeney, an English nobleman, well known for his impeccable, fashionable style of dress and for being the most obtuse, indolent, clueless man in England.
Meanwhile, Marguerite and Percy have their own problems. They are estranged. Events make Marguerite believe that her husband no longer loves her. Her husband seems happily focused on spending time with his friends, folding his cravats and remaining politely distant from his wife. The only person she feels close to is her brother Armand, and then Chauvelin comes to destroy her peace even more.
He has a deadly proposition. Marguerite is popular and goes everyone among fashionable people. Chauvelin tells her that she must act as his spy among her rich friends to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero of the English. If she doesn’t, Chauvelin will arrange for Armand to be imprisoned and probably executed. Marguerite does not know the identity of the Pimpernel. She balks at turning in such a heroic man, yet she cannot leave her beloved brother to such a terrible fate, but she has no one else to turn to. Thus a tale of intrigue, suspense, treachery, and daring unfolds as Marguerite struggles with her fearsome enemy. At the same time, the Scarlet Pimpernel must try to keep one step ahead of Chauvelin and his traps.
A Minor Critique
Like the book, The Scarlet Pimpernel plot is fascinating as you watch this adventure unfold. My only critique is that the book ends with a lengthy, suspenseful scene while this movie wraps up the story a bit differently and earlier on. Perhaps this is partly in the interests of time, but I would happily have watched another half hour or so of this excellent film unfold. The ending is indeed compelling and satisfying but knowing that there could be more lessened the impact a bit.
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
The characters are of course key to the quality of the movie as well and the actors in this tale more than do it justice. Raymond Massey is sly and deadly as Chauvelin. He delivers his threats with charm and a cunning smile which leaves you fearful of what he will come up with next. Who knows when he will strike? A scene with him smiling and talking to an oblivious Sir Percy is full of tension. You wonder if Chauvelin will drop his outwardly pleasant manner and lash out.
As Marguerite Blakeney, Merle Oberon is excellent. She delivers the witty and clever lines of Marguerite effortlessly and is every inch a regal and noble woman in every scene. We fully understand why she is the centre of London fashion and popular with the upper-class society. She is also wonderfully convincing as a strong woman who feels as if she is being assailed from all sides and fast losing all of her options. She tries desperately to defy Chauvelin, deeply concerned about putting the Scarlet Pimpernel in danger. Yet understandably she is devastated at the thought of losing her beloved brother.
She contrasts with her husband with her cleverness. Despite the idle life she leads, she is not as frivolous as he. She is also more inclined to thoughtfulness. For instance, she talks eagerly of the mystery of the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, showing how much the mysterious man has captured her imagination. “I’ll tell you what about the Pimpernel that tantalizes me so,” she tells her friends. “It’s his insufferable modesty. No excuse for it. It’s maddening to think that somewhere there’s a man as marvelous as that, and we never see him.” Her troubles push her to spend more time contemplating relationships and heroism. “Would any man who is in love with his wife leave her to continually face death?” she mentions to her husband when they are discussing the mysterious hero.
Is he in heaven, is he in hell?
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Leslie Howard plays his own part masterfully. As Sir Percy, he wanders around cheerfully focused on nothing except his clothes and sports while annoying and amusing everyone around him with his inane comments. At one point he prompts Marguerite to exclaim simply, “Percy what are you talking about?”
Several gems from Sir Percy include his poem about the Scarlet Pimpernel of which he is immensely proud. (“They seek him here. They seek him there…). His fashion advice to Chauvelin – ( “If you really want to know how to tie a cravat I’ll tell you, but it isn’t easy mind you, it takes all my brains.” “I’m sure it would,” replies Chauvelin.). And his casual criticism to a servant – (“The man who would put starch in my jabot is equally capable of putting poison in my coffee”).
At first sight, it is easy to think that Sir Percy has nothing much going on in his mind as he looks good-naturedly out at the world through his eye glass. However, he is just the opposite.
Under the surface, he is a torrent of strong emotion and deliberation. The difference between his moments of foolishness and his seriousness are fascinating to watch. Often when he is on the sidelines and unobserved, we notice his thoughtful expressions. He smoothly becomes the clueless dandy when it’s time to take centre stage. However intriguingly sometimes even in front of the other characters, you can see the inner life he keeps carefully hidden. He is not as indifferent to Marguerite as she thinks for instance. He is determined that she cannot know how he feels. This leads to scenes full of layers and meaning. It’s possible to understand why Marguerite misses certain clues. At the same time, you feel like trying to call her attention to the looks of longing which she has missed.
That demmed elusive Pimpernel!
Even if you’re not familiar with The Scarlet Pimpernel novel, you can enjoy this movie to the fullest. If you’re looking for a story overflowing with adventure, romance, and intrigue, you’ve found the perfect source in this captivating movie. Afterward, you’ll probably want to see other adaptations and read the book as well. You will very likely be wanting more of the adventures of Sir Percy and Marguerite.
Where to Watch: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) is available for sale or to watch on Amazon. It can also be seen on YouTube.
Content Note: There is implied violence as people are executed, but these happen off-screen
Are you familiar with the stories and movies of the Scarlet Pimpernel? Which is your favorite movie and actor for the role? Comment below and let me know!
Photo Credit: United Artists
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