#484: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Initial release: 1934
Director: Harold Young
Superheroes. We imagine them today as being, broadly, powerfully-strong defenders of Earth with superpowers, or masked crime fighters working in the dark against corruption and injustice. While the cultural roots of these archetypes can be found in the likes of the gods and heroes of the ancient world (a similarity that comics writer Grant Morrison has spent most of their career exploring) it’s worth exploring the origins of the modern superhero, with all its trappings — secret identities, disguises, strong moral fiber, arch-enemies, and so on. From The Shadow to Zorro, there were so many prototypical superheroes… and then there’s the Scarlet Pimpernel.
To his wife and friends, Sir Percy Blakeney is a wealthy English fop, notorious for his shallow, self-interested lifestyle. But to the noblemen of France, he is the Scarlet Pimpernel, a formidable swordsman and master of disguise who rescues French nobles from the ravages of the Reign of Terror. Desperate to track him down is Citizen Chauvelin, agent of the French Republic, who has been tasked with bringing the Pimpernel to the guillotine or face it himself.
The character originally appeared in a play written around 1903 by Baroness Orczy (the pen-name for Emma Orczy, a Hungarian-born British authoress and actual baroness, with an interesting story of her own.) While waiting for response from a dozen publishers on whether they would print the novelization, she managed to get the play produced, which proved popular enough to drive sales of the novel. It didn’t take long for film adaptations to start popping up, at least once there were films to actually go to.
Which brings us to the 1934 adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. While not the first film to bring the Pimpernel to life — that honor goes to 1919’s The Elusive Pimpernel, an adaptation of one of the later books in Orczy’s series — it’s the first adaptation of the original novel, and by all rights the definitive one. Sir Percy is brought to us by Leslie Howard, a heart-throb of 1930s British cinema, in what would be his defining role (if you don’t count Pimpernel Smith, a World War II-ified update on the concept that he also directed.) Howard wasn’t producer Alexander Korda’s first choice — he had actually wanted Charles Laughton after a successful collaboration in 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, but was shot down after intense fan outcry. Conversely, the choice of Merle Oberon as Percy’s wife Marguerite was not to Orczy’s taste. Rounding out the cast is Raymond Massey as Chauvelin, sinister and intense.
At its heart the film is a spy drama, with Percy and his 19 friends working in secret, passing notes and whispering among themselves as they struggle to rescue aristocrats from the National Razor while escaping the clutches of the Committee of Public Safety. But where the film really shines is Howard playing the role of a self-interested dandy — his whole mannerism changes, he is loud and extravagant, full of Rich People Slang and generally kind of a bumbling idiot. But as soon as everyone outside his little ring is out of earshot, the real Sir Percy emerges, a smooth, serious young man with a grim determination to save as many aristocrats as he can.
It’s this concept of a dual identity that helped inform the likes of Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, who would appear a scant five years later in the pages of Detective Comics, presenting himself as a wealthy socialite who dons a terrifying bat costume and fights crime in the night. Howard is incredible in the role, doing much to elevate the film from mere pulp schlock to a genuinely compelling early spy/superhero flick despite an uneven script (Percy is full of great lines but everything else, from plotting to characterization, is basically just going on vibes.)
The so-called “Reign of Terror” — that bloody phase of the French Revolution — had struck fear into the hearts of the upper crust for years, and The Scarlet Pimpernel — book and movie — is unquestionably reflective of that fear. Aside from not even bothering to get dates right — the story is set in 1792, but the first of the mass guillotinings wouldn’t begin for another year — Orczy’s background as a Hungarian noble whose family had fled the country in fear of revolution is plenty obvious in how she presents the Terror, treating it as a sort of industrialized mass killing, with aristocrats held prisoner before being called up and put in the guillotine, with sometimes up to 50 deaths per day, which is patently absurd. (It’s not lost on me that this feels like an early precursor to modern reactionaries co-opting the Holocaust — when they’re not denying it or outright condoning it — to express their own paranoid fears of being “replaced” or “persecuted.”) The first part of the film is marked by the repeated thump of the guillotine from off-screen and cheers from the populace in response. Even the term “Reign of Terror” was coined only after it concluded; the moniker was cooked up by frightened conservatives looking to distance themselves from the radicals who had perpetuated the bloody suppression of the counter-revolution.
In spite of the obvious classism of the overall premise, The Scarlet Pimpernel remains a great early example of spy fiction and would help lay some of the foundations for the modern superheroes we know, love and are a little sick of.