Monday, 1 January 2018

Pimpernel Smith

I happened to catch the second half of a new dramatization of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Radio 4 over Christmas.
It was a bit odd, to be honest. Marguerite and Chauvelin had Northern accents - I suppose to indicate that they were lower class French people - and Sir Percy sounded more French than either of them! But it did remind me of the original film Pimpernel, Leslie Howard, and his 1941 anti-Nazi propaganda film Pimpernel Smith, which I remembered with some fondness.
So I sent off for a DVD.
There is, of course, a scene of horrendous sexism at the beginning of the film, where Professor Smith insults the women archaeology students so that they leave the lecture hall, so that he can offer a trip to Germany for a summer dig only to the young men. This is a cover for the activities of the mysterious man who has been spiriting intellectuals out of Germany from under the noses of the Gestapo - the year is 1939. The mysterious man is, obviously, Professor Smith, who is not the typical absentminded professor of archaeology that he appears.
The film was obviously made on a very tight budget, but they disguise it well, especially in the scene at the party in the British Embassy in Berlin, with the wide, sweeping staircase.
In the original Scarlet Pimpernel story, Chauvelin is trying to discover the identity of the Pimpernel at a ball, and is blackmailing Marguerite to help him because her brother is imprisoned in France. In this case, it is General von Graum who is trying to discover the identity of the mysterious rescuer of intellectuals, with the help of Ludmilla, the daughter of a Polish newspaper editor who he has imprisoned.
She makes a very bad secret agent, though the young American archaeology student (I assume he was there to encourage the United States to join the war on the Allied side) pretty much gives the whole game away when he talks to her. Von Graum manipulates her quite easily, but he can't just arrest an Englishman - he has to have the proof that he's helping Germans to escape.
There's a fair bit of comedy as the Nazis try to work out what the tune is that the mysterious rescuer whistles, and a running joke about the identity of Shakespeare, as well as von Graum trying to get to grips with English humour: "'T'was brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe' - is that funny?" he demands.
Meanwhile, there's a romantic sub-plot as Professor Smith changes from a man besotted with the statue of Aphrodite he discovered twenty years before, who says that he deplores the presence of women students at the university, into someone who has romantic feelings for Ludmilla, who he goes back to rescue when the rest of the party crosses the frontier.
As in the original story, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Chauvelin talk at the end of the story, with Chauvelin anticipating the Pimpernel's death by firing squad very shortly, so Professor Smith and von Graum come face to face at a railway station on the frontier, where Professor Smith gives a fine speech opposing Nazism, before escaping with the words: "I'll be back.... We'll all be back."
Those speeches opposing Nazism are still relevant today - sadly.

So, though it's an old and somewhat creaky film, I think it's still worth rewatching.
And without Pimpernel Smith, there might not have been an Indiana Jones....

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