Although I have affection for some of the genre’s classics, I’ve never been a big fan of the Action film. For my tastes, there are too many of these films that take themselves desperately seriously and offer little more than repeated bullet-riddlings and massive explosions that only really engage audiences on the level of fireworks displays. On November 5th, I am always the first to get cold and go inside. But as a lover of the vicarious thrill that cinema provides, I do have the same desires to be driven to the edge of my seat by fast-moving, suspenseful events now and again. It’s just that while other celluloid thrillseekers are thronging around the Action shelves, I can be found seeking that same cinematic excitement one shelf to the right, in the section marked Adventure.
Since falling completely and totally in love with Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, great Adventure films have been something of a Holy Grail to me. Like Action films, the best examples of the genre move at a considerable lick, are peppered with mesmerising set-pieces and culminate in a grand, suspenseful finale. But Adventure films also tend to be bright and colourful where Action films are dark and brooding, impishly fun-loving where Action films are macho and stony-faced, a strategically taut board game to offset the Action genre’s shit-kicking rugby scrum. They often offer more interesting characterisations of unlikely heroes who use more than just their guns (both metallic and muscular) to infiltrate enemy camps. It was my ongoing search for more swashbuckling adventures to add to my growing list of favourites that brought me to the two British films made in the 1930s that were based on Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel character.
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL
Director: Harold Young
Screenplay: Lajos Biro, S.N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, Arthur Wimperis
Based on the novel by: Baroness Orczy
Producers: Alexander Korda
Starring: Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 94 mins
Set in 1792 during the French Revolution, The Scarlet Pimpernel follows the adventures of the titular master of disguise as he leads a small band of English noblemen in their quest to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. Ambassador to Britain Chauvelin is tasked with uncovering the secret identity of the Pimpernel, who hides behind a comic pretence of foppishness in his everyday life as Percy Blakeney. Although he consistently presents himself as a preening wimp with a withering wit, Percy is secretly tortured by his strained marriage to the beautiful Margeurite, a woman he adores but no longer trusts or respects following her denunciation of the Marquis de St Cyr, which resulted in the execution of the Marquis and his family. Percy must contend with heartache and the threat of exposure while continuing his mission to free those condemned to execution.
The set-up for The Scarlet Pimpernel seems to promise a good deal of action but in 1934 the modest British film industry struggled to provide it. Although it begins with a daring mission, the film’s camera discretely turns its eye away from the details of the escape itself. Furthermore, having shown us a glimpse of how the Pimpernel operates, the film quickly settles down into a series of drawing room encounters which are more focused on Sir Percy’s facetious foppery than in the action happening in France. But while it may not deliver on swashbuckling derring-do, The Scarlet Pimpernel does provide an enjoyable mini-adventure as we watch Percy carefully and deliberately move the pieces around the board in preparation for the last act. The dialogue is often witty, with an amusing penchant for dramatic flourishes and even a hint of subversiveness, particularly in an early line spoken by Nigel Bruce’s buffoonish Prince of Wales, “Well, what can you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instincts? Gad, if it wasn’t for our fox-hunting and pheasant-shooting, I daresay we should be cruel too.”
Audiences unused to British films of this era may find it hard to adapt to such long, static scenes with no musical score other than the persistent hiss and crackle of timeworn film. But The Scarlet Pimpernel has a handful of trump cards to offset this distraction in the shape of its three leads. Leslie Howard, soon to become best-known for his miscast role as Ashlie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, is marvellous as Sir Percy, hamming it up in a range of disguises and striking just the right earnest tone when asked to deliver lines of such dramatic weight as “I shall love her until the day I die. That's the tragedy.” But it is as the mincing fopp he pretends to be that Howard is best, relishing every declaration of “sink me!” and fidgeting with a triangular lorgnette in a manner that gives his character a studied air of realism. In the role of his wife Marguerite, Merle Oberon is even better. Every bit as strikingly beautiful as the character needs to be, Oberon invests Marguerite with the emotional complexity required by the script’s tall demands. Her soured relationship with her husband provides the film’s most intriguing emotional strand, as well as a sense of duplicity derived from second-hand information which keeps the audience guessing. Finally, as the Pimpernel’s arch enemy Chauvelin, Raymond Massey is superbly reptilian, one step behind his target but always maintaining the sense that he could close that gap at any time.
With its great cast and strong script, The Scarlet Pimpernel makes up for its comparative lack of action by offering an experience so wittily engaging that the verbal clashes and costume changes seem like enough of an adventure alone. It isn’t among the higher echelons of the Adventure genre but, at a time when the British film industry was looked down upon as a trifling triviality, it does at least attest to its ability to provide solid entertainment with the minimal resources.
THE RETURN OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL
Director: Hanns Schwarz
Screenplay: Lajos Biro, Adrian Brunel
Based on the novel by: Baroness Orczy
Producers: Arnold Pressburger, Alexander Korda
Starring: Barry K. Barnes, Margaretta Scott, Francis Lister, James Mason
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 77 mins
Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, when the popularity of The Scarlet Pimpernel inevitably spawned a sequel, it was a case of diminishing returns. The major problem with this decent enough sequel is that the best elements of the original film have all been stripped away. The trio of terrific leads are all absent, with Barry K. Barnes struggling to compensate for the deeply missed presence of Leslie Howard. Francis Lister, though giving it his all, emerges as a hammy alternative to Raymond Massey, while Margaretta Scott completely lacks the spellbinding screen presence of Merle Oberon. Of course, the events of the previous film have erased some of the story’s most interesting elements. The Pimpernel’s identity is now well-known and, while he can still employ his range of disguises, there is no need for Sir Percy to pretend to be the foppish wimp any more. Due to audience expectations, Barnes does trot out his interpretation of this guise on one occasion but it seems forced into the story with no pretext, and Barnes’s performance is far broader than Howard’s impish take. Likewise, the tension between Percy and Marguerite, having been cleared up in the original film, is now replaced by a simpering, doe-eyed love which offers no drama and leaves Marguerite with little recourse but to get predictably captured.
Besides all these shortcomings, The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel has a constant whiff of rushed off product about it, from the reused footage from its predecessor to its truncated runtime. As a result, this sequel is rarely seen while The Scarlet Pimpernel enjoys regular airings on afternoon TV where it is still held in relatively high regard by British audiences. While The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t quite bad enough to let sink without a trace, it will be mainly of interest to fans of the first film who, unfortunately, are also in the best position to most readily see its flaws. The availability of these two early Adventure films is undoubtedly a good thing for fans of the genre such as myself, but I’ll only be placing one of them in my Adventure film canon.
The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel were both released on DVD by Network on 15 August 2016. Both releases include a gallery as their minimal concession to the expectation of extras.