Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That demned elusive Pimpernel”
Honestly, it was the effeminate, foppish facade that he put on, as well as the the equally soft image of a red flower, with the unlikely and awkward name 'Pimpernel" that put me off. In Tyrone Powers' fantastic THE MARK OF ZORRO he also played the fop, babbling about perfumes and lace, but he also had some of the best sword fights in movie history to clear the palate of limp foppery. The Scarlet Pimpernel wields nothing more deadly than a monocle on a stick! Suffice to say, I needed a deeper understanding of what it means to be brave, and what bravery sometimes requires.
It helped immensely to have studied the French Revolution in the years since my first watching of this great adventure. Torture and beheadings, nobody was safe, whether aristocrat or peasant....it must have been terrifying to the nobility in England, who were but a small strip of water separated from the madness. It's this environment that has earned my newfound respect for the Scarlet Pimpernel; a very real killing ground, in spite of all the idealistic talk of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
It's pretty brilliant stuff, and quite my cup of tea.
The Pimpernel is played so very well by the (these days) much-ignored Leslie Howard (in spite of his role in the overblown epic GONE WITH THE WIND). Howard plays the yin-yang of his part with a smart and subtle sophistication; he slips between the two Sir Percy incarnations in such a way that there's no discernible line between the two, something that even Tyrone Power didn't quite pull off as Don Diego Vega. Although he's a willowy wisp of a chap, he really puts up a good show as a manly figure, deserving of the beauty of Sir Percy's French wife, glowingly realised by the lovely Merle Oberon. Raymond Massey is nicely brilliant as citizen Chauvelin, stern and irritable, with just a touch of humour. Add to the mix wonderfully filmed locations/sets, and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL is a mesmerising treat.
I've since read the original novel by the possessing Baroness Orczy, as well as six of the other Pimpernel novels (two of them prequels of sorts), and I'm trying to hunt down the other four. The writing is sharp and clever, and the tales really flesh out my understanding and appreciation of the movie. I've become a Scarlet pimpernel convert, and his ideals have rightly woven themselves into my personal worldview. I've even taken to using his expression "sink meh!" when something is surprising!
That said, I would have LOVED a sword fight!