Monday, August 4, 2008

The Scarlet Pimpernel

"They seek him here. They seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Or is he in hell? That damned illusive Pimpernel!"

Those lines take me back to high school, not always a memorable venue for me, but there we are. In my senior year, our Honors English class sat back, popcorn bowls in our laps, to watch a made-for-TV movie based on Baroness Orkzy's Scarlet Pimpernel books. Relaxing a bit after taking our Advanced Placement exam earlier in the week, we were fairly sure that the film would be yet another literary bore. But for the last few weeks of classes before graduation, several of the young men were seen strutting around campus, quoting the above lines, toying with an invisible pince-nez, and exclaiming "Sink me!" in their best British accents.

We had just seen the 1982 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Anthony Andrews (whom I saw recently in a Rosemary & Thyme episode, as wonderful as ever), Jane Seymour, and Ian McKellen. It was beautifully, wonderfully done, so much so that reading the books afterward was rather a disappointment. We recorded it from our TV, somehow cutting off the last quoting of the above lines as Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney escape the clutches of Chauvelin and the French Revolutionaries on Percy's sailing ship. I finally ordered a copy on DVD this week; I simply can't live without it any longer.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, for those unfamiliar with the books or the films (or the Broadway production, but I'll get to that later), is an English "aristo" (aristocrat) who, during the darkest, bloodiest days of the French Revolution, daringly rescued French "aristos" from "Madame La Guillotine." His identity unknown, he left notes behind with his symbol, a small red flower (scarlet pimpernel), declaring himself to be behind a rescue. We find out early enough that Sir Percy Blakeney, a foppish member of the English aristocracy, can quickly drop his mask of stupidity and silliness and can be a master plotter against Robespierre and his minions, especially one Chauvelin, who had once been Marguerite's lover. Sir Percy meets Marguerite, a stage actress, and immediately falls in love with her. But on their wedding day, he finds that her name was on paperwork sending an entire family to their deaths at the guillotine, and he decides that he cannot trust her with his secret identity. He does not know that Chauvelin signed her name in revenge (in the 1982 version) OR in the newer film, that this family had murdered her parents while she and her brother were children. The walls between Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney build as neither can trust their hearts to the other, and the wall grows far thicker when Chauvelin, a deputy of Robespierre, comes to England in search of the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel. Chauvelin jails Marguerite's brother in France, so he can blackmail her into helping him discover the identity of the Pimpernel, and, afraid to ask Sir Percy for help, she is forced to do the Frenchman's bidding, unknowingly compromising her husband in the process. It's an exciting story set against a time of horror and bloodshed, yet is not without joy and romance.

While we wait for our copy of the 1982 film to arrive, E and I watched a library copy of a 1999 BBC version which was much closer to the original books but lacked the disguises and romance of the 1982 version. Elizabeth McGovern played a decent Marguerite, and Richard E. Grant was an acceptable Sir Percy, but they just didn't sparkle like Seymour and Andrews did. There was no tension between Grant and McGovern because the story started in medias res after the Blakeneys' marriage has gone awry, so we never see their love, Marguerite's unknowing betrayal, Sir Percy's many escapades, etc. We have to try to piece the story together and somehow believe that these two "aristos" truly loved each other in the past. Their relationship doesn't shine at all until they meet in the French prison near the end of the film and all is finally revealed. But this version was almost dull when compared to the earlier Andrews/Seymour version.

The Scarlet Pimpernel also played on Broadway in the late 1990's, how successfully, I don't know. The above image is from the Broadway production. I also have in my Netflix queue a 1934 version with Leslie Howard (Ashley in Gone with the Wind) in the title role, so we'll see how well he does. But I think that the 1982 TV version will always be MY Scarlet Pimpernel, sink me!

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