Friday Film Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)
Genre: Historical Romance/Adventure
Grade: well….it depends
I don’t think I’d be too far off in saying that this is the definitive version of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Note I didn’t say the perfect version as there are plot problems galore plus some truly awful acting from a few of the cast members. But for my money’s worth, this is the one I think of first and the one I’d watch first above all others.
France during the Reign of Terror – as the aristos are herded to Madame la Guillotine, a brave band of Englishmen lead by one known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel (Anthony Andrews) affect daring rescues of a handful of the French. Chauvelin (Ian McKellen) who is on the Committee of National Security is charged with discovering his identity and bringing him to French justice. Meanwhile Chauvelin’s almost fiancee Marguerite St. Just (Jane Seymour) meets and is courted by Sir Percy Blakeney after he saves her brother Armand (Malcolm Jamieson) from a beating delivered on the orders of the Marquis de St. Cyr.
Percy presses his suit and wins the hand of Marguerite, much to the dismay of Chauvelin. But the Frenchman has discovered something Marguerite knows and uses it to discredit her in her new husband’s eyes. Fearing he can never trust the woman he adores, Percy withdraws from Marguerite at the same time that Chauvelin finds out that Armand is now a member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Using this to blackmail Marguerite, Chauvelin orders her to spy on the English aristocracy and discover the identity of the Pimpernel. Events come to a head when Marguerite unwittingly betrays the man she loves. Can she reach Percy in France in time to undo her error? Or will Chauvelin triumph and see them both dead?
I first saw this TV adaptation over 20 years ago and was enthralled by it. Taping it off of a broadcast, I watched it over and over. It was one of the first VHS tapes I bought and I’ve since replaced that with a DVD. But in all honesty, it has its problems. Viewed critically, the plot holes are enormous, there are things which happen that make little sense, it’s obvious that the budget had its limitations, there are major deviations from the book and some of the actors are simply dreadful.
Let me elaborate on this. During the crowd scenes notice how few people there really are onscreen. How well dressed most of the Parisian peasants are. How the French guards are always the same. And why would Percy order Andrew to set up a network of couriers when they’d been doing this for months and ought to already have had one? Why would Chauvelin honor a request of the Prince of Wales to allow Marguerite to see Percy in jail much less let her loose afterwards to carry out Percy’s instructions? And what happened to Andrew between the time he and Marguerite sailed for France up til the final showdown? Then let’s talk about some of the secondary actors. Oh, dear. Malcolm Jamieson is so wooden you could make a suite of furniture from him while there’s a terrible scene of the de Tourney family hashing over the Revolution’s causes and effects with Percy after he first delivers his famous “They seek him here” poem.
And yet…in spite of all of this I still love this version. The budget might not have been endless but the costumes are wonderful. Even the secondary characters are dressed well while the primary ones wear delicious costumes. And oh, the hats! I love the hats. The music is soaring when it needs to be and heartbreaking when Percy and Marguerite are estranged. The dance sequences needed for an English historical are there (really, is there a late 18th/early 19th century piece that doesn’t have the obligatory dance sequences?). The sets are pretty good and cleverly used while the locations for shooting seem period.
Then there are the performances of Andrews and Seymour. The strength of a Pimpernel adaptation sinks or swims based on the actors playing Percy and Marguerite. As Percy and the Pimpernel, Andrews shines as both public fop and private man of action. I love his exclamations of “Sink me!” while he bemoans the sorry state of his cravat. When fighting is required, he more than adequately fences. Seymour isn’t quite as good yet she’s still much better than the next best Marguerite and manages to make me believe that Percy falls for her instantly and remains besotted with her. McKellan does a good turn as Chauvelin though I wish he had more of the chemistry with Seymour that she abundantly has with Andews.
I also like that the film takes the time to show several of the League’s rescues and the many clever disguises they used including the last ones which turn the table in the face of Chauvelin’s momentary triumph and lead to the final duel scene. The buddy relationship between the members of the League is nice to see as well. I can believe that these are men who’ve been friends since school days and who trust each other in the face of death.
While it’s far from perfect, for me the 1982 version still trumps all others. It’s lovely to watch and listen to and conveys the dash and verve needed. I think it captures the spirit of the characters created by Baroness Orczy. Perhaps someone will eventually redo it and fix some of these deficiences but for now, it’s the main one I watch and recommend.
~Jayne – and doesn’t Daffy Duck make a wonderful Scarlet Pumpernickel?
This is a lovely but flawed version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Not to say that I wouldn’t sit down on a wet Sunday afternoon & wallow for 90 minutes, but it really doesn’t hold a candle to Leslie Howard’s 1936/7 version. Anthony Andrews just doesn’t have the charisma to make a believable Sir Percy ( apart from the beautifully delivered “Sink me !”, as you so rightly say Jayne). For me he’s just too “muscular”, whereas the flawless Howard delivers the foppishly effete Blakeney who metamorphisizes into the undeniably Corinthian Pimpernel, with a skill that has never been bettered.
Jayne Seymour’s Marguerite is lovely & certainly outdoes Andrews in this version, but the closest to book Marguerite (for me) is Margaret Leighton, in The Elusive Pimpernel( a rare Powell & Pressberger howler !- Who knew David Niven would be miscast as the Scarlet Pimpernel !!!?)
What I must say though is,if you like this, try Pimpernel Smith, Howard’s 40’s propaganda retelling of the SP. Well worth seeing.( and for the trivia buffs, he gave his mistress the role of the perfumerie assistant who sell him the face powder !)
@cate: There are a lot of things I like about the Howard/Oberon version. Howard, as you say, is brilliant. Oberon manages to ruin her role with her usual overacting. But then that seemed to be what was wanted in that day and age.
I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of the Niven movie though I’ve heard it’s hysterical. The movie stills alone make me laugh. Maybe one day it will be on TV.
I do have a copy of Pimpernel Smith and this reminds me I need to give it a whirl.
I am a big fan of the Richard E Grant/Elizabeth McGovern version: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0182408/ The first series was excellent but the second series (without McGovern didn’t match up to it). Definitely worth looking out for on DVD.
The Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version is the one that I enjoy the most. I’m not a fan of the Richard E Grant version (I don’t particularly like Elizabeth McGovern as Marguerite) and I haven’t seen the Leslie Howard version in a long time.
@ShellBell: I must confess to having tried the first episode of the Grant/McGovern series and not being impressed. Well, actually I think I made it through about 15 minutes. It appears to engender strong love or intense dislike. I’ve read a few comments on it that seem to say, just go with it and enjoy it for what it is. Since I worship Richard E Grant, I should probably take another look at it if only for him.
I’m with Cate. The Leslie Howard version is the definitive one. Interesting also that it was made before lycra and stretch fabrics were introduced into fashion, so the breeches and other smallclothes were made the old way, so costume fans can really see how they fit.
This was a nice version, though, and I did enjoy the Richard E. Grant ones, especially the post Marguerite ones. Not that I don’t enjoy Elizabeth McGovern, just that I think that Marguerite is one of the most annoying heroines in literature, and unlike Sir Percy, I cheered when they killed her off.
Here’s a snippet from the film. Sorry about the noise, there are better copies than this available!
@Lynne Connolly: Oh, I do wish all that hissing and popping noise could be eliminated. That plus some, pardon the phrase, static scenes (such as when the de Tourneys arrive in London and they all stand around drinking a toast) drive me bonkers.
Loved, loved, loved the Andrews version. Saw it the first time as a preteen girl – history, romance, danger and heroism. What more could a girl ask for
I’m a big fan of the Blackadder version. Demme.
“It’s the Scarlet Pimpernel! Hurray! …And you killed him.”
@cecilia: OMG! I had completely forgotten about this. Hilarious.
I loved the 1982 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. For a time Anthony Andrews was my biggest crush showing up as Ivanhoe, Percy Blakeney (Baronet) and in an Agatha Christie TV movie within a year or so of each other. One thing I really loved about this version is Ian McKellen as Chauvelin. In so many versions he is just a cartoon villain. Here you really see his deep hurt and regret over Marguerite and it is definitely expressed how Marguerite was involved in the revolution until its ideals changed. It makes you understand how hurtful it must be for him to see her married to not only an aristocrat but a man he thinks is a “fool.” It really brings so much to the film.
Jane Seymour is a stunning Marguerite and manages to pull off the pretty accurate hairdos with aplomb. (Not an easy feat.)
I am also a fan of the Leslie Howard version who is superb as Percy. I don’t think anyone, including Andrews, does Percy’s patter better “and dare me he did, and sink me he won!”
Mmm, love this movie.
Do wish they’d make a film version of the musical, though. I got to see that, oh, years ago now, and it was lovely!
I have seen all of the film versions (except Nivens’) and read three of the books and the play on Broadway. Although I almost always prefer older versions, I have to say the Andrews’ version is absolutely my favorite. In fact, I’d call it my favorite romance movie ever.
I can even use it to entrap the I-only-watch-drugs-violence-sex-movies teens in my classroom. It’s usually a big hit, with the the kids running around intoning “Sink me!” for months afterward.
Also, no romance reader should be without the experience of reading the chapter “Richmond” in Orczy’s first book. It’s utterly devastating. (I think it’s chapter 20)
This was my first romance, read while sitting in our apple tree when I was 10. I still think it is the most romantic of stories. The trope of a married couple falling in love with each other is still one of my favourites.
Thank you Lyn for posting the Howard excerpt. I have always avoided watching films of the SP so I don’t spoil the movie running in my mind’s eye! However, the clips you posted are lovely, and I have discovered that I can watch the whole film at LoveFilm – so that is my afternoon taken care of!
Nivens’ is toe-curlingly awful. Only saw it once, and Niven stars in one of my all time top ten films, “A Matter of Life and Death,” aka “Stairway to Heaven,” so it made me sad. You’d think he’d be good, but it was done as anti-German propaganda on a budget and is simply awful.
But really, the Pimpernel, books or films, are definitely in the guilty pleasure category, and you should stick with the version that does the most for you. You can get much better auality versions of the Leslie Howard one than the one online. Only meant to do a link, but I managed to embed! Bet I can never do that again!
The Blackadder one! Hilarious! I’d completely forgotten that one.
I’m currently watching another guilty pleasure, “The Happiest Days of Your Life” but how can anything with Margaret Rutherford and Alastar Sim in it be anything but wonderful? (fingers crossed that doesn’t embed – don’t want to clutter up your stream!)
Are you planning to do the Richard Lester Musketeer films? Love those!
@Christine: Oh, yes I was a fan of his Ivanhoe too. Lots of other very good actors in that version. I think McKellan shows his feelings well but I just never saw the reverse from Seymour.
@Isabel C.: I’d love to see the musical as well. Has it not been released yet? Anywhere?
@K.A. Mitchell: What a delightful visual of your students! Thanks for that.
Is “Richmond” the chapter in which Percy and Marguerite argue and then, after she walks away up a set of steps, Percy kneels and kisses the ground her foot trod on?
@RachelT: It’s been ages since I read the first book but from what I remember, the Howard version is closest to it.
@Lynne Connolly: I was wondering how you had embeded your video and then when I just pasted the youtube link mine did the same. Jane must have done something that allows this. Anyway, I won’t seek out the Niven performance but should it happen to drop into my lap via free TV broadcast I might just have to check it out for laughs.
And yes, you know my tastes well. I do want to eventually do the Lester Musketeer films.
Also saw this version when it was first released, taped it, adored it. Definitely my fav. Andrews is fantastic, sigh-worthy when in love, Seymour is a strong heroine, and McKellan manages to make his character touching.
I did enjoy Howard in the role, but never could abide Oberon.
But I’ve never tired of watching this one.
@Lynne Connolly: Lynne, the Elusive Pimpernel was made in 1949 released in 1950 in the UK & not until 1953 in the US.
Did you mean Pimpernel Smith(’42), because that was a wartime propaganda film ?
I’m off to watch another Simm delight – Green for Danger – What an actor !
Anyone else interested in Leslie Howard, check him out in The Petrified Forest,with Bette Davis & Humph.Bogart. OR see him in Pygmalion, which knocks My Fair Lady right on its technicolour backside !
I show this version of the movie to my students every eyar. I adore it and they do too. I’m slowly converting the youth of America to the religion of loving excellent costume dramas one classroom at at time.
Andrews is excellent and delicously handsome as the Scarlet Pimpernel. With Seymour, they sizzle on the screen. I’ve seen (and own) the two other versions mentioned here but neither of them hold a candle to this version.
It should be noted that the Howard version and this one are based on the play (which was the first adaptation of the book) around the turn of the century. The Grant/McGovern version was a new adaptation taken directly from the book.
I’m a huge Leslie Howard fan but this is by far my favorite version (Merle Oberon drove me nuts). Andrews, Seymour, and McKellen really make the film for me. Yes there are plot holes galore but I don’t care. I’ve read 3-4 of the books, I think. Like you, I watched it over and over in the 1980s/1990s.
I agree the Richard Grant version is love/hate. McGovern didn’t work for me at all, and Richard Grant, well, I’ve come to appreciate him, but I need to love or at least lust after Percy and that’s just not possible with Grant.
@Jayne: The acting style then was still largely influenced by what had worked during the silent era. As the quality of sound and picture increased, performances did become much more subtle because audiences could finally pick up on it, it wasn’t lost in murky black and white and scratchy pre-stereophonic soundtracks. (Though certainly there were many actors who clung to the old methods till their last gasp.)
I do much prefer the 1934 version myself. I can hear Leslie saying “they seek him here, they seek him there” inside my head right now,`
Never seen the movie or read the book….think I will grab a copy of the book since it is digitized. Thanks!
I was able to catch the Wildhorn musical adaptation in live theater in Houston a few years back. I still recall the horror of watching them “behead” the Pimpernel on stage, and only to have Percy reappear at the back of the audience. For the life of me, I wish I knew how they did it. I totally agree, the musical needs to be on film!
Pimpernel Smith is available for streaming at Netflix right now, http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Pimpernel_Smith/70153765?trkid=2361637
but sadly the Andrews version is only on disc.
When I imagine this movie, I hear Leslie Howard’s voice – but I agree that Anthony Andrews was wonderful.
I can’t watch the Andrews version. I’ve tried several times but only lasted a few minutes. The Leslie Howard version is my gold standard for SP and I rather liked the Richard Grant version. Grant plays Blakeney as as extreme sports guy rather than a hero. Adrenaline was his drug of choice.
I would have cheerfully killed Marguerite off myself although I didn’t mind McGovern as much as some actresses who have played her– mainly because McGovern looked older and bit a worn– or maybe that was just my DVD player.
@Bren: What other costume dramas do you show your students?
@DS: Interesting you say that about McGovern as Marguerite since I’ve seen it mentioned as a criticism of her performance. There’s one still of her that I just can’t get past – she’s standing with Grant and some other actor and her shoulders are all hunched over as she tries to – look coy? – I don’t know but it makes her appear a simpering schoolgirl idiot.
@Keishon: Just be prepared for an older style of prose.
I loved Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour in this. Funny how different people have different tastes. I can’t stand Leslie Howard.
Blackadder is fantastic. I think it is great that Hugh Laurie plays such an idiot in that series, I could never get into House because I would always picture him in his Blackadder roles.
The Scarlet Pimpernel hasn’t been on television in ages. I enjoyed both the Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews’ versions. It’s been so long since I viewed the Anthony Andrews movie, however, that I barely remember it.
I agree with many of the others that I didn’t like Elizabeth McGovern as Marguerite. We’re to believe that she’s so beautiful and charismatic that Percy immediately falls in love with her. McGovern just didn’t have the charm or seductiveness to carry the role off.
This is by far my favorite version of the story. I remember watching/taping it on TV when we lived in England and then reading the books. I still have the tv tie-in edition of the paperback with Andrews and Seymour on the cover.
I agree it has its flaws, but I don’t care. I love the look on Anthony Andrew’s face in the library when he realizes Marguerite is telling the truth, and he can’t do anything about it at that moment.
I watched part of, but didn’t enjoy the Grant/McGovern version. I wanted to, but killing off Marguerite was too much for me.
This is, hands down, my favorite version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Anthony Andrews is sublime. In fact, I had the biggest crush on him when I was kid (as a result of the movie). A few years ago, I got to see him play Professor Higgins in a Covent Garden version of “My Fair Lady.” I about swooned–even at 21!
I can also credit this movie for getting my working class stepfather interested in the classics. I recently purchased the novel for him–he was disappointed that it wasn’t like the movie! Although he did revive the expression “Sink me!” while reading it. :-)
@Jayne: Yeah, I don’t think it’s been made into a movie at all. Which is sad!
I saw it as a community theatre production, and the soundtrack’s available–and was at the kareoke place I went to last week, surprisingly enough–but I’d love to be able to watch it whenever I wanted.
@Jayne: Oh, I love that scene. *sighs*
@Jayne, one reason the plot for the Andrews version was holey is because the writers were mashing two SP books together–the original SP and ‘Eldorado’.
@Bren–I think the play came first and then the book. And then about another dozen or so books and short stories over the next 30 years or so.
And, for you lovers of the story, IMDB lists several versions that I would be interested in seeing–
From 1960, as an episode of the Dupont Show of the Month: Michael Rennie as Percy/SP, Maureen O’Hara(!!) as Marguerite and Reginald Denny as Chauvelin.
Or maybe the 1956 TV series:starring Marius Goring as Percy, Stanley Van Beers as Chauvelin and no mention of a Marguerite at all!! 10 episodes.
And from 1937 we have Return of the SP. I haven’t heard of the leads(Barry K Barnes as Percy, Sophie Stewart as Marguerite and Francis Lister as Chauvelin) but James Mason and Margaretta Scott have small roles.
For a non-Pimpernel story by Baroness Orczy that was made into a decent movie, try The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937) starring William Powell.
FYI, you can put me in the loves Leslie howard, dislikes Richard Grant columns, with the Andrews falling in the middle.
Now to see if there’s any copy available of the Maureen O’Hara one!
@Michelle: Then you can at least enjoy Jeeves & Wooster, with him and Stephen Fry. Another loveable idiot ^^
I love this movie! Time for a rewatch to look for plot holes. I have a thing for Richard Grant (don’t even remember where it came from) so I really wanted to like that version but I was disappointed with it. The main thing I remember is that he didn’t use disguises. How can he be the Pimpernel if he doesn’t do disguises? Hmph.
I haven’t seen the Leslie Howard version.
@Estara: @Michelle: Have you seen Laurie in 101 Dalmations? He also has a bit part in The Borrowers. His acting range is incredible.
@Jayne: Jayne, I’ve shown them Les Miserables (the Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush version), A Tale of Two Cities, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo (there’s a great version starring Richard Chamberlain that was made in conjunction with Scarlet Pimpernel), The 3 Musketeers, umm Cyrano de Begerac (the Depardieu version), along with others. This is over 3 years (and I’m sure you can guess what subject I teach) so I also teach a little on the side, lol.
*Sigh* This is what happens when you spend all day traveling. You’re the last one to chime in and say Cate and all the others are correct: The Leslie Howard version is the definitive Scarlet Pimpernel. The acting is top shelf. The look on Raymond Massey’s face when he hears the volley of the firing squad that he thinks has killed the Pimpernel…well, it’s positively orgasmic.
At the end of the day, there can be only one. And that one is the late, great, Leslie Howard.
I love this movie!! I’ve tried from time to time to buy it on dvd but with no success. Off to try again! :)
@Jayne Yes, it’s the kissing-the-ground chapter. And I think my ED classified kids really love the way Percy gets away with defying authority and rubbing noses in it. Sir Ian is an international treasure. The musical has high and really low notes (much of the lyrics) The Robber Bridegroom is a musical adaptation of a classic romance trope I love. Like Cupud and Psyche.,
@Jayne Yes, it’s the kissing-the-ground chapter. And I think my ED classified kids really love the way Percy gets away with defying authority and rubbing noses in it. Sir Ian is an international treasure. The musical has high and really low notes (much of the lyrics) The Robber Bridegroom is a musical adaptation of a classic romance trope I love. Like Cupud and Psyche.
@Jayne Yes, it’s the kissing-the-ground chapter. And I think my ED classified kids really love the way Percy gets away with defying authority and rubbing noses in it. Sir Ian is an international treasure.
The musical has high and really low notes (much of the lyrics) The Robber Bridegroom is a musical adaptation of a classic romance trope I love. Like Cupud and Psyche.
I love this version!
I love his exclamations of “Sink me!”…
LOL! Just said it out loud, which sent me into fits of laughter!
And I never realized Sir Ian McKellan was in it. Definitely a reason to watch it, not that I need a reason :)
I love the Howard/Oberon version, which was my introduction to the story, and there are a lot of things I like about the Howard/McGovern adaptations, except that they all seem too short and truncated. But the Andrews/Seymour version has a special place in my heart. When it first aired, I had a rehearsal and my family didn’t have a VCR yet. My mom tape recorded it for me, and I played it over and over. I knew the dialogue by heart before I saw it, a few years later (I left a family dinner party early to catch a rebroadcast). I now own a video I watch repeatedly and I really should try to find a DVD. I love so many things about it, including the more complicated plot (which combines the original novel with “Eldorado” one of the sequels). I think the idea for my Malcolm & Suzanne/Charles & Mélanie series was born (years before I wrote the first book) when watched the wedding scene where Percy first suspect Marguerite is betraying him and thought, “what if she really was betraying him…”
@Ros: That scene and the one at the very end of the book where he carries her along the beach to protect her feet are swoon worthy.
@Darlene Marshall: LOL, I wondered where you were Darlene since you’re usually front and center in the comments. Massey is great but McKellan also does a wonderful “just kill him, damn it!!” face in this version.
With all the love flowing for the Howard version, I might have to pull it out and dust it off.
@Bren: Oh, cool. Can I just say I wish my teacher had shown us stuff like this in class?
@Barb in Maryland: When I was looking into this, I noticed that there is a “work in progress” 2013 entry for The Scarlet Pimpernel. Inquiring minds wonder who will be in it and how it will turn out.
Can’t help but smile when I watch this film. So much fun!
Cate – you’re absolutely right. Pimpernel Smith!!
Jayne, if you want more – look for “The Man In Grey” with Stewart Granger as ‘the gay adventurer’ and James Mason doing his turn as a wicked brooding man.
The Red Shoes
A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)
The Seventh Veil
Oh so many and I haven’t even started on the Bette Davies films yet! (Dark Victory, anyone?)
@Lynne Connolly: OOOOH The Man In Gray….Bouncing up & down, reaching for the Thornton’s chocolates & phoning my best mate for an afternoon of sheer indulgence….. I swear half the regency books I’ve read are based on that film !!!!!
BTW …I see your Rutherford Conelly,& raise you a Grenfell !
Jayne – have you done Kind Hearts & Coronets ?… best twisted romance ever !! Pretty please review if not ..
Count me in as a Leslie Howard fan. For me he is not only the definitive Percy Blakeney but also the definitive Henry Higgins. And did you know that the disastrous David Niven version was originally supposed to be a musical? It’s possibly the worst Powell & Pressburger movie (only rivaled by Oh, Rosalinda! – a horrible version of Die Fledermaus).
Just an aside, the Andrews version (which is my absolute favorite) is based on two books, not the play. It’s main plot –the rescue of the Dauphin– is taken from a sequel called ‘El Dorado’. Which is a brilliant book, the equal if not better than the first one. I’ve read the entire series, and I have to say I think Anthony Andrews is perfect. Percy is supposed to be muscled, Orczy refers more than one to his “splendid physique”.
Favorite series ever.