The Elusive Pimpernel Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

They seek him here, they seek him there.
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Or is he in... well,
That damn elusive Pimpernel!

The French Revolution (1789-1799) has been often lauded as the great step in France's evolution to a more egalitarian society, which saw the impoverished peasants overcome the tyranny of the ruling classes. However, such a view is incomplete. Despite the intention towards liberty, the French Revolution actually brought about a fascist state after a prolonged period of anarchy.

Despite France of the Eighteenth century possessing an abundance of natural resources and human capital and its dominance of European culture, its economic philosophy of mercantilism, which restricted trade with other countries, created a stagnant economy and created a giant rift between the well-off upper classes and the impoverished peasants. Fifteen years prior to the start of the Revolution, a new movement, the Physiocrats, gained influence in the court of King Louis XVI. The Physiocrat movement, which encouraged Adam Smith to write the Wealth of Nations ("laissez-faire"), advocated a reduction in the role of government in the economy, with reduced taxes, regulations, tarrifs, and government-sponsored monopolies. However, resistance to such sweeping changes from the Court and the aristocracy prevented the formation of a freer market-based economy, and the Physiocrats, led by Controller General of Finance Robert Turgot, were removed from office two years later. The economic philosophy of France then reverted back to that of mercantilism and the French economy continued to suffer.

On July 14 1789, the Revolution began when a dissatisfied Parisian mob searching for weapons attacked the former political prison known as the Bastille, slaughtered the guards, and marched through the streets with their dismembered body parts on pikes, proclaiming a victory by the citizens over the forces of tyranny. Three months later, the new Assembly drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, proclaiming a freer society. However, within a month, the subsequent actions of the Assembly threw this objective into doubt. The government seized the property of the Church, which then paved the way for further confiscation of property from anyone deemed an enemy of the Revolution. Other edicts which reared their heads in the following twenty-five years included the introduction of an income tax, fixed prices on grain (and death to those who refused to sell at the stated prices), individual identity cards for every citizen (Certificates of Good Citizenship), the setting up of 'neighborhood watch' committees to ferret out traitors against the State, restricted travel within France, and the debut of Napoleonic Law (where the accused were considered guilty, and the trial was required to prove their innocence). Of course, this up-ending of France resulted in thousands of deaths, economic chaos, a mass exodus of wealth and human capital, and the eventual rise of the Napoleonic dictatorship.

Fool! Numbskull! Idiot! Your head will roll for this!
But... but the old hag! Who was she?
The Scarlet Pimpernel!

It during this "Reign of Terror", that "The Elusive Pimpernel", a 1950s British production, takes place. A re-make of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", itself based on the novel by Baroness Orczy, it was originally intended as a musical. However, the director decided to revert back to a more standard narrative, though the choppiness and light-hearted approach of the film betrays the excised musical numbers.

Open up your sleeve, man! Let your ruffles take to the air. Let them ripple, let them flow! So that when His Highness takes snuff, it will be a swallow's flight!
That's it! Come Bristow! Help me to undress! And while I'm in the steam room, you can do something about my ruffles! Dammit Percy, you may be brainless, spineless, and useless, but you do know clothes!

Sir Percival Blakeney (David Niven) is a flamboyant English fop who has a secret identity-- The Scarlet Pimpernel. Using a bevy of disguises and elaborate capers, he travels between England and France with his associates to help French aristocrats bound for the guillotine escape the angry mobs that are running rampant through the country.

Months after we were married we were still happy. Then came this... which heaven knows is none of my making.
Can you honestly say that?
Can you honestly deny that you've changed. So changed that I hardly know you? You... you're never with me now. I watch you and the Prince go gambling and drinking all night. To talk of nothing but of dogs, and carts, and horses. Can't you see the world is changing?
Is it?
In France, there's a revolution and in England, there's this Scarlet Pimpernel.
Oh now now, my dear. There's no one more preoccupied with this Pimpernel fellow than I am.
Yes, I'm working on... on a poem about him.
Good night, Percy.
Don't you want to hear it? It's good.

He is a married man, though his relationship with his wife, Marguerite (Margaret Leighton), a former French noblewoman, has been strained since he learned of her involvement in the denouncement of an entire family, resulting in their executions ("I watched that execution. The Marquis, his wife, his son. And it was my wife that put them there."). Marguerite is unaware of her husband's covert activities, and is repulsed by his playboy lifestyle.

Oh but Percy, through me, a good, a generous man my lose his life. Oh Percy, what can I do? How can I warn him?
Warn him? Against what?
Against the danger if he goes back to France.
Well, if he's the kind of lunatic I take him to be, your warning's not going to stop him.
But he might be going to his death.
That's all the fellow lives for. Besides, he doesn't know you're in love with him.
I'm not in love with him! I admire his head of wisdom, but I'm not in love with him.
Oh, but you are. It's a dangerous game, my dear. Falling in love with a phantom. For all you know, he might be a married man who is deeply in love with his wife.
Why not?
Would any man in love with his wife leave her to continually face death who knew?

Blakeney's activities raise the ire of Chauvelin (Cyril Cusack), who is obsessed with capturing the elusive Pimpernel, travels to England as the new French ambassador, in a plot to expose his nemesis. Convinced that a confidant of Blakeney's, Lord Anthony Dewhurst (David Hutcheon) is somehow involved with the Pimpernel, Chauvelin pays some bandits to rob him. Chauvelin then finds a note on Dewhurst's person that confirms his suspicions. He then approaches Marguerite and elicits her support for exposing the Pimpernel, in exchange for freeing her imprisoned brother, Armand. And so the trap is set for Blakeney, on his way back to France to rescue some more aristocrats.

"The Elusive Pimpernel" is from the Fifties, and so all the cinematic fixtures of that time period are found here: the overly melodramatic orchestrations, lethargic pacing, dull editing, continuity errors, the very short closing credits and 'petroleum jelly on the camera lens' shots. But despite these aspects, "The Elusive Pimpernel" is entertaining, especially as the intrigue between Chauvelin, Marguerite, and Percival intensifies-- unfortunately, this does not happen until halfway through. The humor, typical of the films of the day, is restrained, but will still bring a smile to your face. The locations used are breathtaking, though the cramped confines of the television screen do not do the panoramic scope of the scenery justice.

This film is difficult to find on video, and so you will most likely find it playing on television late at night. If you are a student of French history, you may find this film of interest. For the MTV-generation, "The Elusive Pimpernel" would be best described as "Mission: Impossible" set in the Eighteenth century.

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