The hero who pretends to be a rich, useless fop by day, transforming himself into a vigilante fighting for justice by night is an important character template in modern popular storytelling. Batman and Zorro are perhaps the best known examples, but years before they were conceived, The Scarlet Pimpernel was perhaps the first popular hero to hide behind a secret identity.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is the alter ego of the English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney in a play and novel from the early 20th century. Blakeney is secretly critical of the events in France, where many of his friends are being executed without proper trials and for no other reason than being nobles. As The Scarlet Pimpernel, he therefore leads a band of resistance fighters who try to rescue the victims of the cruel tyrant Robespierre.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was popular almost from the start, and many film adaptations have been made. One of the most popular (and the first with sound) was the 1934 British The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard in the title role.
I have seen none of the other film versions of this character, but I am guessing that most are considerably more focused on the action. In the 1934 version, the drama is set first, and much is made of Howard’s excellent ability to switch between his character’s real self and the dandy he plays in order to avoid suspicion. The character’s wit and intelligence are also prominent.
This film is best enjoyed for Leslie Howard’s performance. Though it is a well-made costume piece, the historical aspects are by themselves not enough to raise the film above average. Howard’s acting, along with the exciting and amusing story, elevates this into a classic masterpiece.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Harold Young
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (863 M)