Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel is the prototype of the all the swashbuckling heroes with dual identities, from Zorro to Superman. But instead of the Colonial Southwest or the bustling Metropolis, this one was planted firmly in the old world and commuted between the historical rivals, England and France. Just my style, and obviously I’m not the only one who thought so since quite a few film adaptations sprung to life. The following film is just such a dramatic endeavor.
Anthony Andrews stars as Sir Percy Blackney, English gentleman and seemingly incorrigible fop who most everyone views as a harmless and brainless party animal with a gourmet taste for clothing and travel. However, his sojourns in France reveal another side to his character: that of the Scarlet Pimpernel, daring rescuer of aristocrats condemned to the guillotine by the French Revolutionary government! With an array of disguises at his disposal and a handful of chosen companions at his side, his pursuers are unable to bring him in, and his successes across the channel make him the toast of the table back home in England.
During one of his missions in France, Percy rescues one Armand St. Just from a severe beating and falls in love with his glamorous sister, Marguerite St. Just, a French actress who is soon drawn to the passion she detects beneath Percy’s sleepy-eyed countenance. But there a slight problem: someone is already courting Marguerite, and it’s none other than Paul Chauvelin, the ruthless agent of the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety whose greatest aspiration is to capture The Scarlet Pimpernel! In spite of his realization of the danger, Percy persists in his wooing, and charms Marguerite into accepting his proposal of marriage.But just a few hours after their marriage in an elegant Catholic ceremony, Percy learns some shocking news that changes everything. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Marguerite betrayed a royalist family to the Republican government, and the entire family was guillotined as a result! The marriage swiftly turns cold, and Percy retreats into his make-believe shell of shallow snobbery, much to Marguerite’s confusion and disillusionment. Meanwhile, in his professional life, the Scarlet Pimpernel and his loyal band (now including Armand St. Just) hatch a plan to rescue King Louis XVI’s young son. But Chauvelin begins to suspect Sir Percy is more than he seems to be, and travels to England to find out for himself.
Meeting up with a disgruntled Marguerite, Chauvelin threatens to have her brother Armand arrested for secretly cooperating with The Scarlet Pimpernel unless she will help him hunt down his prey. She has no idea that her husband is the man, and is reluctantly pressured into spying for the French at an elaborate gala including the Prince of Wales among his guests. She passes on bits of information to Chauvelin, but then is overcome with remorse and tries to contact the Pimpernel to warn him. The result is a shocking discovery and climactic finale in a fortress on the rocky French coast.
There is something about The Scarlet Pimpernel that taps into our deepest yearnings for romance and adventure, heroism and even an element of hierarchical inequality (who can deny the magic of the monarchy, the mystical hereditary right to reign, even among Americans like us?). As C.S. Lewis once said, all these things are “the tap-root to Eden”, something integral to the human consciousness that set us apart from all living things as story-tellers and yarn-weavers. Also, while Sir Percy Blackney dedicated to an old-fashioned chivalric honor and enjoys gourmet living, he is willing to risk all the comforts of his life in France and act the part of the insipid fool in England. This lack of recognition is epitomized by the wayside English flower that he uses as his symbol, and stands out poignantly as a symbol for all unsung heroes.