Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: They Seek Him Here…

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: They Seek Him Here…

The Scarlet Pimpernel (UK, 1999)

With his double identity, outlaw status, and penchant for disguise, the Scarlet Pimpernel may have been the clear template for Zorro, but in the novels, he was more secret agent than swordsman, and most screen adaptations have been light on the action side. The BBC’s 1999-2000 series of TV movies, in direct competition with ITV’s swashbuckling Hornblower shows, sought to rectify that imbalance.

Richard Carpenter’s new version of the dapper outlaw of the French Revolution was given a hidden array of gadgets reminiscent of ‘60s spy heroes, and in most episodes found occasion to put a sword in his hand. And since Carpenter made the Pimpernel a good swordsman but not great, and constantly menaced him with guns and explosives, it added a level of urgent threat to the stories not previously seen. If Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy and the Pimpernel was less light-hearted than the Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews incarnations, he had good reason.

Scarlet Pimpernel 1: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Rating: ***
Origin: UK, 1999
Director: Patrick Lau
Source: Stax Entertainment DVD

In the ‘90s, the British ITV Network had done well with the historical adventure series Sharpe, adapted from the novels by Bernard Cornwell, followed by C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, both set during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Their rival, the BBC, wanted a piece of that action and made a bet on a revival of The Scarlet Pimpernel, perhaps encouraged by its successful Broadway musical adaptation in 1997. To bring the novels of Baroness Orczy to the screen, the BBC brought on board top TV screenwriter and show-runner Richard Carpenter, whom we know best at Cinema of Swords for his 1980s Robin of Sherwood series. Carpenter’s main contribution to the Pimpernel saga was to add more swashbuckling action to the stories and to give a more prominent role to Sir Percy’s wife, Lady Marguerite Blakeney (Elizabeth McGovern), making her almost a partner in the Pimpernel’s adventures.

The Scarlet Pimpernel may need no introduction, but we’ll give him a brief one anyway: the original outlaw hero with a secret identity, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a wealthy English noble whose real name is Sir Percy Blakeney. In the period of the French Revolution known as the Terror, the Pimpernel rescues French nobles condemned to death on the guillotine, spiriting them away from Paris to safety in England. Sir Percy conceals his adventurous side under the guise of a witty and feckless fop, a worthless ornament of the royal court of the Prince of Wales.

It’s a great role, as stars such as Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews had discovered in earlier versions, rediscovered this time around by Richard E. Grant. And he does all right with it, peering through a quizzing glass as Sir Percy and making witty bon mots, though he doesn’t have as much fun with it as Howard or Andrews. Oh, he’s got Percy’s sardonic smirk down pat, but Grant really seems more comfortable playing the action hero, and Carpenter’s script gives him plenty of opportunity.

Carpenter has a harder time working Lady Blakeney into the Pimpernel’s Paris adventures, though McGovern is certainly game for it. The lead-off film in the series is loosely adapted from Orczy’s 1905 first novel, initially sticking to the plot of the book: Sir Percy had fallen in love with French actress Marguerite St. Juste, but shortly after marrying her learned that she’d betrayed the noble St. Cyr family to arrest and execution. After that, Percy had grown cold to Marguerite and never let her in on the secret of his activities as the Pimpernel.

The Pimpernel’s nemesis in the French Revolutionary government is Citizen Chauvelin (Martin Shaw, well cast), who is determined to discover the outlaw’s identity and lead him personally to the guillotine. As in the 1982 adaptation, Chauvelin and Marguerite are given a backstory as former lovers, creating a sort of twisted love triangle with Percy, and providing the motivation for Marguerite to follow the Pimpernel to Paris once she realizes she’s inadvertently revealed some of his secrets to Chauvelin.

Chauvelin has imprisoned Marguerite’s brother Armand as bait for Marguerite and the Pimpernel, and though the story gets a bit muddled in the second half it also gets more active, with breakneck pursuits and narrow escapes, and the revelation that Sir Percy’s modish attire conceals the Pimpernel’s arsenal of weapons and tools such as lockpicks. (The path of influence connecting the Pimpernel to Zorro and from there to Batman is easy to trace.)

All the pieces are in place here, but somehow, they don’t quite come together to form a convincing whole. Grant comes up a bit short in the joie de vivre department, his aides in the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, both English and French, are shallow and uninteresting, and there’s something lacking in the chemistry and rivalry between Percy, Marguerite, and Chauvelin. However, the costumes are dynamite, the streets of Prague stand in well for old Paris, and there will be better entries in the series to follow.

Scarlet Pimpernel 2: Valentin Gautier

Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1999
Director: Patrick Lau
Source: Stax Entertainment DVD

In which screenwriter Richard Carpenter undertakes to do what originator Baroness Orczy did not, and give the Pimpernel’s nemesis Citizen Chauvelin a humanizing backstory. For this adventure, Carpenter also takes the Pimpernel’s adventures out of Paris and into the provinces, specifically the western seaboard region of the Vendée, where for three years, during the Terror and after, a guerilla force of Catholic royalists fought off the Revolutionary army, giving as good as they got.

In this tale, the Marquis de Rochambeau (Peter Jeffrey), a Vendéan noble, is driven from his home by a revolutionary mob, and while the marquis escapes to England, his daughter Hélène (Julie Cox) feigns illness and stays in France in a convent. Sir Percy Blakeney (Richard E. Grant) hears of this from Rochambeau and decides his alter ego the Scarlet Pimpernel must get Hélène to safety — and his wife Marguerite (Elizabeth McGovern) decides she’s going along, because how is a man going to get into a convent? Meanwhile, in Paris, Citizen Robespierre (Ronan Vibert) decides he also wants Hélène as leverage over her father, so Chauvelin (Martin Shaw) is rehabilitated from his former disgrace and sent to get her — especially since Robespierre knows he has connections in the Vendée.

The wild card in the deck is a fanatical Vendéan Revolutionary leader named Gabrielle Damiens (Denise Black), who is also after Hélène, but to publicly execute her. Carpenter pulled Damiens out of Orczy’s last Scarlet Pimpernel novel, Mam’zelle Guillotine (1940), keeping only her name and her uncompromising ferocity. Pitted against Damiens is Captain Henri (James Callis) of the Catholic guerillas, who are nearly as bloody-handed as Damiens and serve to show that barbarity is not all on the side of the Revolutionaries.

The story this time is plot-heavy, with a lot of well-directed action and reversals of fortune to drive it onward. Damiens, who doesn’t hesitate to murder nuns if it suits her, has Percy, Marguerite, and Chauvelin all on the ropes at various points, but when revelations about Chauvelin’s early life drive him and the Pimpernel to reluctantly combine forces against her, Mam’zelle Guillotine is outmatched. A very satisfying entry in the series.

Scarlet Pimpernel 3: A King’s Ransom

Rating: ***
Origin: UK, 1999
Director: Edward Bennett
Source: Stax Entertainment DVD

Though this entry borrows its main idea from Orczy’s 1913 novel Eldorado, screenwriter Richard Carpenter takes the story off in a different direction, in the process introducing the best villain in the entire BBC series. After King Louis XVI of France was executed in 1793 his son, nine-year-old Dauphin Louis-Charles, was separated from his family and imprisoned — but in this version, he’s kept under close watch in an orphanage where he is treated as a commoner. From that orphanage, the dauphin is kidnapped by a daring, red-masked swashbuckler, a disaster Citizen Robespierre (Ronan Vibert) hastens to cover up, ordering Chauvelin (Martin Shaw) to find and recover the royal child.

Shortly thereafter, in England, Sir Percy Blakeney (Richard E. Grant) and his wife Marguerite (Elizabeth McGovern), a former French actress, have a very public falling out, and Marguerite leaves Percy to return to France. The Scarlet Pimpernel follows her to Paris, because the seeming estrangement is part of a plot to discover who kidnapped the dauphin, and rescue the boy if possible. However, I’m sorry to report that the ensuing story of Marguerite and Percy’s investigations into the kidnapping is muddled and far-fetched, and the plot turns on a coincidence that’s impossible to believe.

So, as a mystery, A King’s Ransom is a flop, but as an adventure it has definite points in its favor, as the unlikely plot events are in service of setting up the villain, La Touraine, played by Suzanne Bertish with biting ferocity. The queen of Parisian theater since Marguerite’s departure, La Touraine welcomes her back with poisonous malice, and it gradually becomes clear that she has something to do with the disappearance of the dauphin.

I won’t reveal the twist here, except to say that there’s another character, the Chevalier d’Orlier, who seems based in part on the historical Chevalier d’Éon. And the whole farrago ends in a wonderful smallsword duel between Percy and the kidnapper (choreographed by Terry Walsh, swordmaster for Robin of Sherwood), in which the Pimpernel meets his match — and more! It’s a cracking good climax that tempts one to forgive the confused mess that precedes it.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

The Barbarian Boom, Part 7
Avenging Women
Mondo Mifune
Near Misses in the Near East
Zatoichi at Large
Invitation to a Keelhauling
Sequel Debacle
Deuces Wild
Beware of Greeks
Peak ‘90s Wuxia
Ashes of Time
Consider the Rapier

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is busily promoting the Cinema of Swords compilation from Applause Books that was born right here at Black Gate! The volume out now covers swordplay movies up through the ‘80s, but Ellsworth is continuing with new material for a Volume Two and is now working his way up through the 2000s. These later reviews are being published weekly on his new Cinema of Swords Substack blog, at cinemaofswords.substack.com.

Meanwhile, Ellsworth soldiers on at his mega-project of editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the seventh volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the eighth, Shadow of the Bastille, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

(Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, and is Principal Narrative Designer for the Dungeons & Dragons videogame Baldur’s Gate 3.)

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K. Jespersen

People coo over Fitzwilliam Darcy as the ultimate rich guy who uses his wealth for good things, but that’s just because they’re not sufficiently familiar with that demmed elusive Pimpernel.

Most of this iteration sounds good, but I might give #2 a skip. Don’t need a humanizing backstory on Chauvelin, he’s too delightfully despicable.

John E. Boyle

I remember seeing Grant as the Pimpernel but for some reason I thought that it was a standalone film, not part of a series. Thanks, Mr. Ellsworth, for pointing me at the other two films in this series which sound like they’re worth looking into.

Charles Dooley

I looked up this Pimpernel and watched it today. Your review was spot-on as always. Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords is a fantastic resource that has led me to so many great movies and TV shows. Keep up the good work.

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