"The Magnificent Seven" is a classic western movie which was released in 1960. As most people are aware, it was a remake of the 1954 Japanese movie, "The Seven Samurai". In that film, a village victimized by bandits hires Samurai to defend them. This was the archetype for movies which involve assembling a team of heroes to accomplish some purpose or fight a specific battle. Films which follow this model include ones as diverse as "The Guns of Navarone", "A Bug's Life", and "Avengers". And of course, "The Magnificent Seven", which is the closest in plot to "The Seven Samurai": seven gunmen are hired to protect a Mexican village from bandits. The team assembled in "The Magnificent Seven" consisted of quite a few actors whose names are well known today, but at the time, the only bona fide movie star was Yul Brynner. A lot of the others- Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, for example- were just starting out. Steve McQueen was known only as a television actor, the star of the western show "Dead or Alive". Actually, due to his commitments to the show, McQueen wasn't going to be able to accept a part in "T.M. 7", so he deliberately crashed his car and made the movie while he was "recuperating".
Brynner's character Chris Adams is the leader of the Seven, though at first glance, "magnificent" doesn't seem a particularly apt adjective to describe them. 'Motley' or 'sketchy' might be a better description of this particular group. None of them are likely to win any citizenship awards, but as Chris points out, they're not going to a church social. They have a violent- potentially deadly- job to do, and for it they need men capable of violence and deadly force.
We never learn very much about these seven men, as far as their personal lives and past histories are concerned. But that's sort of the point: when a man is a drifter, not putting down roots, having family or close friends, no one ever gets to know him well. The past is somewhere miles behind, the future somewhere beyond the horizon, so all you know of this person is what you see. This is best exemplified when one of the townsmen asks Chris where he's from, and he points behind him. Asked where he's going, he points ahead.
Naturally, over the course of the film, we do get to know a little of the men's characters and what motivates them- which is an important question, because on the face of it, there seems little to be gained by signing up to defend a small, one-horse town over the Mexican border. It's certainly not for the money, as it's clear that the Mexicans have little to offer... the only one who seems to believe that they may reap some monetary benefit is Harry Luck. Even this, I have a feeling, is willful self-deception, since it's painfully obvious that the townspeople are as poor as Job's turkey.
It's also not for glory or fame. No one is going to notice what occurs in a small unknown farming community, or be particularly interested in what happens to a two-bit bandit like Calvera. Calvera isn't some powerful crime lord; he's a small- time bandit leading a pack of petty thieves. The villages that they hit are so poor and so picked-over that the bandits are barely scraping by, and are in danger of starving. So if not for money or fame, what motivates the Seven?
There is the motive of justice for the people of the town... doing what's right because it is what's right, which certainly comes into play- especially for Chris. But while these men have a nodding acquaintance with law and order, it's an uneasy relationship at best. Most of them aren't so enamoured with fairness and justice that they'd risk their lives to bring it to this podunk town where they don't know anyone. Of course, they do become emotionally invested when they've interacted with the farmers and bonded with some of them- it does become more personal. But when they agree to go, the men don't have this connection.
I think they signed up for this mission - in part, anyway- as an escape. For some, like Robert Vaughn's character, Lee, this is an escape from something they've done, from what they've become because of it. For others, it is an escape from the mundane and humdrum existence to which they've been consigned. For men accustomed to action and adventure, addicted to the adrenaline rush, it can be a struggle to settle down to the grind of an everyday, ordinary life.
Of course, part of the draw, especially for Britt, is the challenge of facing down seemingly impossible odds. To a certain extent this also motivates Chico, though as a gunfighter wannabe, he's more interested in proving himself to the rest of the seven, whom he admires and wishes to emulate.
As the movie progresses however, and we learn more about Chico, it becomes clear that he is not just looking for excitement. A Mexican from a farming background himself, he has personal experience with this sort of thing, and is angrily determined never to be a victim. This is why he is so scornful of the villagers when they arrive at the town, accusing them of being cowards and blaming them for not fighting back against Calvera and his men. But this is the hasty judgement of someone who has no one and nothing to lose. In this, Chico is much like the village boys who condemn their fathers as cowards for capitulating. As Bernardo O'Reilly points out, these men have families and farms to worry about, and opposing Calvera would very likely lead to the destruction of both. On the other hand, not fighting back will likely result in slow ruination and starvation as the bandits gradually take everything they own and have worked for, so it could be argued that they're merely prolonging the inevitable. Any way you look at it, the villagers are in what looks like a no-win situation, so it's easy to see why they lose their nerve. One may disagree with the choice they make, yet understand why they make it.
Speaking of Calvera, he's an interesting villain. Eli Wallach makes the most of his limited screen time and gives us a character who is more than just a one-note baddie. He is despicable, certainly, but not as bad as he could be. While he doesn't hesitate to use violence when he deems it useful, he doesn't go out of his way to brutalize the villagers unnecessarily. Also, he could have killed the seven after he and his men take them prisoner, but opts not to. Of course, as he says, he doesn't want trouble with the American army which might result from the killing of American citizens. But also, as I said previously, Calvera seems to use only as much violence as he calculates is necessary to get people to do what he wants. He figures that he has made the cost of defending the town more than Chris and the others are willing to pay- certainly more than he considers it's worth. This is why, when he's dying, Calvera's primary emotion is bewilderment- why on earth would they risk their lives for a miserable little Mexican village?
Why, indeed. Certainly, the reasons mentioned above play a part in the Seven's determination to defend the town at any cost, but for Chris and Vin, and to an extent, all of them, I think their motives are more complex. These are men who no longer quite fit into their environment. When the West was less settled and less civilized, men of their particular skill set were needed. However, as frontier towns become more organized and stable, law and order gradually take root and flourish. Which is, of course a good thing; peace and good governance are necessary for successful towns. But as civilization advances, it generally leaves behind those who employed the violence and vigilantism previously used to settle disputes and bring order. They become uncomfortable and unwelcome reminders of a dangerous and violent past. Chris and Vin and the others- excepting Chico- are "yesterday's men" and they know it. I think ultimately this is why they were so willing to take on this fight. It is a last-ditch effort to avoid becoming anachronisms, and to hold onto- for a little longer, anyway- a way of life which is quickly fading away. I think, in a perverse way, risking death in this manner makes them feel more alive. Of course, this feeling is short-lived; once the gunsmoke clears, it is obvious that Vin and Chris fit no more comfortably into this town than they do in any other. Their world has changed, and if they are unable to do so as well, they'll no doubt continue to drift... "like the wind".
"The Magnificent Seven" is a western from 1960, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, and several other well-known actors. It begins in a small Mexican village which is being victimized by a local bandit named Calvera and his men. They periodically ride into town and help themselves to whatever they want- food, money, and even the contents of the village church. The men of the town- mostly poor farmers- talk to the village elder, who tells them the only way to put a stop to this is through force. The problem is, the bandits all have guns, while the villagers have none, and wouldn't know how to use them even if they did. However, made desperate by the situation, they decide to scrape together as much money as they can and send a few men over the border into the States to buy guns.
They enter a border town where a drama is under way. A man has died, and his body is laid out for burial in the horse-drawn hearse. However, an argument is taking place between the undertaker and a man who is attempting to pay for the burial. The undertaker says that he can't bury the man in the graveyard because he was an Indian, and a few of the townsmen are threatening to shoot anyone who attempts to bury him there. Yul Brynner's character, Chris Adams, who has been watching this public argument along with a lot of other people, volunteers to drive the hearse to the grave site. As he climbs onto the seat, another man- Vin Tanner- tells Chris that he'll ride shotgun for him. As Chris calmly drives up the street to Boot Hill, a man shoots at them from a window but is taken out by Vin. When they reach the graveyard, they are met by a group of men, one of whom attempts to draw his gun, but is shot and wounded by Chris. The others lose their taste for the fight after this, and back down. After this, Chris and Vin go their separate ways.
Among those watching are the Mexicans, who settle on Chris as someone who can help them. They approach him and explain their situation, and he tells them that they'd be better off hiring gunmen than buying guns. Although the money they can offer for the job is paltry, Chris, at loose ends, agrees to take up the challenge. As he sits with them in the saloon discussing what is to be done, Vin walks in. Chris buys him a drink, and Vin tells him with grim humour that he's been offered a job as a clerk in a grocery store. Chris asks him if he'd prefer to join his team of hired guns and Vin asks him how many men he has lined up. Chris holds up one finger. Given the choice between minding a store and getting shot at by bandits, Vin chooses the latter option, holding up two fingers.
The next portion of the movie details Chris and Vin assembling the rest of their team. This eventually includes an old friend of Chris', Harry Luck; Bernardo O'Reilly, an Irish-Mexican gunman; Britt, a knife and gun expert, and Lee, also an acquaintance of Chris. The seventh member of their team is Chico, a brash young Mexican would-be gunfighter. He desperately wants to join them, but they are reluctant to accept him because he is inexperienced and undisciplined. He persists in trailing after them, however, until they finally give in and let him come along.
When they reach the village,Chris and the others begin to train the men in the use of guns, and also instruct them on how to fortify their town's defenses. In spite of themselves, they find that they're forming a bond with the people of the village. Bernardo acquires a posse of admiring little boys, and Chico meets a girl who begins to turn his head.
When Calvera and his men inevitably show up, the seven face them down and violence erupts. They gun down a number of the bandits, who are forced to retreat, to the delight of the villagers. They assume that the bandits will conclude that their village is more trouble than it's worth. That night, however, Chico follows the bandits to their camp in the hills, and as a Mexican, is able to pass himself off as one of Calvera's men in order to learn his plans. It turns out that the bandits are getting desperate for food, and so cannot afford to just give up and go away. They are determined to take back the town.
Chico reports back to the seven and the men of the village. Some of the villagers, dismayed by the violence and the probability that the situation has actually been escalated rather than diffused, want to call the whole thing off. They urge Chris and his men to leave town before they make things even worse than they already are. Others urge them to stay. Chris decides that they will ride against Calvera in a surprise raid. Unfortunately, when they get to the bandits' camp, there is no one there. The bandits have staged a sneak raid on the village where, finding themselves badly outnumbered, the townspeople surrender without a struggle.
When the seven ride back into the village, they're captured and disarmed by the bandits. Calvera decides to spare their lives, mostly because he fears that if he had them killed, the U.S. army would get involved. He has his men escort them away from the town and give them back their guns, convinced that they've learned that dirt poor farmers aren't worth defending. The seven debate what they should do, and all of them except Harry decide to go back and take on the bandits. Harry says that they're all going to get themselves killed, then rides away.
The other six ride into town, guns a-blazin'. And soon Harry, thinking better of his decision, joins them. They fight fiercely, but are badly outnumbered. Seeing the gunmen losing ground, the villagers reach their breaking point. They rush at the bandits, using whatever they have for weapons, from machetes to chairs. The tide of the battle turns in their favour, and ends when Chris guns down Calvera. As he dies, Calvera says in bewilderment, "You came back, to a place like this... why? A man like you... why?"
As the dust settles, it becomes obvious that the bandits have been vanquished, but the cost has been high. Of the seven, only Chris, Vin, and Chico are still alive, and a number of the men of the town have also been killed. As they prepare to leave, Chico tells them that he's decided to stay with Petra, the girl he has fallen in love with. The village elder tells Chris and Vin that it is only the villagers who have won, and that they are like "the wind, blowing over the land and passing on..." As they ride out, the two pause to look back at the village and Chris says ruefully that the old man was right, that only the farmers won: "We lost. We always lose."
** Coming July 28: My Review of "The Magnificent Seven". **
Cynthia receives a letter from Mr. Henderson, in which he declares his love for her and asks her to marry him. He also says that he can't wait for her reply by post: he is travelling to Hollingford and will be there the next day. When she tells her mother, Hyacinth is beside herself with excitement. Mr. Henderson arrives the next day and he and Cynthia go out into the gardens to walk and talk. Molly, who is in the parlour, is dismayed when Roger is announced. He has come to talk to Cynthia and try to convince her to renew their engagement. Molly struggles to find the words to tell him about Henderson, but is spared the effort when Roger looks out the window and sees Cynthia walking with her suitor. He asks Molly who Cynthia is with, and she miserably breaks it to him that Cynthia has become engaged to Henderson. Pale and hoarse, Roger asks Molly to tell Cynthia that he has gone, and rapidly leaves. Soon after, Cynthia comes in, having been informed by a servant that Roger was there. She is relieved when Molly tells her that he has gone, and then alarmed as Molly, weak and distraught, faints. Later, after Molly revives and is resting, Cynthia asks her how Roger took the news. Molly tells her that he was in terrible pain, and Cynthia petulantly says that she doesn't like people with deep feelings, and that he shouldn't love her, because she isn't worth it. She says that she has warned Mr. Henderson that she isn't a constant person, but that he loves her the way she is- though she thinks he's a little worried, because he wants to marry her right away.
That evening Molly makes the acquaintance of Mr Henderson. Although he is handsome, well-spoken, and seems very nice, Molly secretly thinks he's a bit boring and wonders how Cynthia could prefer him to Roger. Afterwards, Dr Gibson and Molly discuss the situation, and though he makes some sarcastic comments, he is obviously relieved that Cynthia is getting married and will no longer be causing so much drama and upset. He also mentions that he met Roger on the street, and though he didn't say much about it, was obviously taking it very hard. Dr. Gibson also tells her that the Squire is taking it a good deal worse, angry that Cynthia would reject his son. Preparations for the marriage are rapidly undertaken, and it is decided that the wedding will take place at the Kirkpatrick's residence in London. Cynthia tells Molly that she must finish recuperating rapidly so that she will be well enough to travel to the city.
Lady Cumnor and Harriet drop by to congratulate Cynthia- and Hyacinth. While there, Lady Cumnor says that she knows that Dr. Gibson is a good friend to the Hamleys. She asks Hyacinth if the doctor would ask Roger to come to a house party the following month which Lord Hollingford is hosting for his friends in the scientific society. They are all eager to hear of Roger's discoveries and observations in Africa. A few days later, Lady Harriet comes by again with a wedding present for Cynthia and finds Molly very upset. She has caught a cold, and her father has decreed that she must not go to London and risk her fragile health. She must miss the wedding, but she is more upset because Dr Gibson is going to stay with her, and he had been really looking forward to meeting up with his friends and colleagues in the city. Lady Harriet suggests that Molly come to the Towers to stay, where she will be well looked after and will have a change of scene and air, which she is convinced is what Molly needs. Everyone agrees that this is a fine idea, so it is all arranged. When Molly leaves for the Towers, Cynthia attempts to thank her, and tells her that she loves her. She says Molly must be her first guest when she returns from her wedding trip and is settled in her new home. Fortunately, Dr. Gibson keeps things from getting too sentimental by remarking to Molly as he puts her in the carriage that he doesn't know which of her three lovers Cynthia will end up marrying, but that he is determined to be surprised at nothing and give her away to whoever shows up.
At the Tower, Lady Harriet puts Molly under the care of her old governess, Parkes, with instructions that she ensure Molly eats properly and gets enough rest. She also tells her cousin, Sir Charles Morton, that he is to exert himself to keep Molly amused and interested when she's about, as Harriet is sure this is what she really needs for her health to improve. Also, he is to keep an eye on her when the Tower fills up for the coming house party. Sir Charles does this, partially because he's in love with Harriet, but also because he's a kind person, quiet and sensible, whom Molly soon comes to rely on and regard as a friend. Harriet also takes Molly riding in her pony-carriage, and for the first time in a long time, Molly feels her spirits lift and her health improve.
By the time Lord Hollingford's house party starts, Molly is feeling- and looking- much better. Several of the guests remark on how pretty she is, and Roger, who sees her from across the room, hardly recognizes her in her evening gown, with her hair expertly arranged. He loses track of the conversation he's involved in and soon excuses himself, making his way to Molly's side. To his annoyance, he only gets to speak briefly to her before Sir Charles comes to escort her in to dinner. For the rest of the evening, they are unable to speak, as they are kept apart either by people talking to him, or to her- one infatuated youth in particular. As Molly still tires easily, Lady Harriet eventually instructs Sir Charles to escort her from the party and deliver her to Parkes so that she can get some rest. Roger, watching, sees this and also overhears Harriet refer to Molly as being in Sir Charles' charge, and he wonders with annoyance who Sir Charles is, and why he has any responsibilities where Molly is concerned. The next day, Roger finds Molly sitting alone, resting after a walk. He means to just converse lightly, but ends up asking her about her connection to Sir Charles. Honest as ever, Molly explains that he's Lady Harriet's cousin, and that he's been detailed to see that she doesn't get overtired or overwhelmed by the company. Roger is relieved without quite knowing why, and begins to talk to Molly about his father. He says that the Squire has missed her terribly, and asks if she will come for a visit after she leaves the Towers. He says it would also be good for Aimee, as she still feels shy and unwelcome by the Squire. Roger says he thinks that Molly could help smooth things out between the two, which would be good for both of them, as he himself must soon return to Africa for six months to complete his assignment. Molly is glad to be talking to Roger again, as of old, though she feels constrained by the necessity to not speak of Cynthia. Roger realizes this, and so speaks of Cynthia and her marriage himself, attempting to sound casual and matter-of-fact. Relieved to have that topic out of the way, the two talk together until they are interrupted by some of the other guests.
Roger seeks Molly out again the next day, and the two of them talk for hours, walking about the lawns almost unaware the other guests. Lady Harriet and Lord Hollingford stand watching their two protegees, and Harriet asks her brother if he doesn't think that his young man and her favourite young woman are discovering each other's fine qualities. Hollingford thinks that she's letting her imagination run away with her. He says that Roger is destined for a great scientific career, and that, added to the fact that he has little fortune, makes it unlikely that he will marry. Lady Harriet doesn't agree with this assessment, and bets her brother that Roger and Molly will one day wed. The following morning, the house party over, Molly and Roger say good-bye as they both head to their respective homes. Roger obtains Molly's promise to visit Hamley Hall very soon. When she arrives home, both Dr. Gibson and Hyacinth are struck by how much healthier and happier she appears to be. Molly is looking forward to her visit at the Hall the following week, but unfortunately overhears a couple of the local gossips talking. They are saying how sly Hyacinth is- sending Molly to "visit" at Hamley Hall while Roger, an eligible bachelor, is in residence. Humiliated and embarrassed, Molly resolves to keep her distance from Roger while at the Hall.
Once at the Hall, she is greeted with great fondness by the Squire, and she and Aimee become good friends. Roger, however, notices at once that there is some constraint in her manner towards him. As days go by and Molly continues to keep him at a distance, Roger becomes increasingly frustrated and hurt. The only times they speak comfortably together is when they are conspiring to resolve the issues between the Squire and Aimee- the biggest one being that the Squire is over-indulging little Osborne, giving him everything he wants, while an exasperated Aimee tries to impose discipline. This continues for some time, and nearing the end of Molly's visit, the Squire seeks out Roger, and asks him to go out and observe the ground work with him. As they walk, Roger reminds his father that he will soon have to leave for Africa again. The Squire is reluctant to have him go, but says that it's probably best for Roger if he wants to forget his broken engagement. Roger flushes, but tells his father that while he was very hurt at the time, he has come to see that he got engaged too hastily, and that it has become clear that he and Cynthia were not at all well suited. The Squire says that it's strange that neither Osborne or Roger ever looked at little Molly Gibson. He also says that, while there was a time he would have been upset by such a match, now he loves Molly like a daughter. He asks Roger if he couldn't begin to care for Molly, if he tried. Roger replies shortly that it is too late.
On Molly's final day at the Hall, Aimee comes running downstairs in a panic. Osborne had been taken ill during the night and is now running a fever. Molly says that she will leave for home right away and get her father to come to the Hall. When she comes back downstairs with her things she finds only Roger, as the Squire have rushed to little Osborne's bedside. He has a bouquet of flowers to give her, and as she takes it, Roger asks her if he has done something to vex her. For the first time in days, Molly looks directly at him and answers truthfully that he has never vexed her. Roger then asks if she will give him one of her flowers as a pledge of what she has said, and she gives him a rose. At this inauspicious moment, the Squire bustles back in, saying that the boy is very ill. He hurries Molly to the carriage, leaving Roger to ask himself if it's truly too late, or if Molly can ever forgive him for his foolish infatuation with Cynthia. Molly, though worried about Osborne, feels a little glow of happiness that she and Roger are friends again.
After Molly leaves, Roger spends some time deep in thought. He realizes that he loves Molly, with a depth of feeling that far surpasses anything he felt for Cynthia. But he wonders if Molly will ever believe that, and how he can tell her as the situation so closely mirrors his previous courtship; the idea of going to the Gibson's house right before he leaves for Africa and proposing to Molly in the same parlor he proposed to Cynthia in makes him cringe. He resolves to go to Africa without telling her of his feelings, spend his requisite six months, and then come home and spend every effort trying to win Molly's love. Molly, torn between her worry and thoughts of Roger, finds Hyacinth's complaints and trivial conversation even harder to take than usual. When her father returns from the Hall, he tells them that it is serious: Osborne has scarlet fever. He tells Molly that she can have no contact with anyone at the Hall because she has never had it. As the days and then weeks go by, Osborne eventually rallies and is out of danger, though the Hall is still under quarantine. Molly realizes that she will probably not see Roger again before he leaves, and berates herself for wasting time avoiding him during her visit. The only good news- other than Osborne's recovery- is that the Squire and Aimee have been drawn together by their concern for the boy, all resentments forgotten. The doctor and Roger have also come up with a solution to keep the relationship friendly. Once Osborne is completely well, he and his mother will move to a small house on the estate, where Aimee can raise him without interference, and the Squire can still see him every day.
Dr. Gibson tells Molly about all of this, but neglects to tell her of the rest of his conversation with Roger. Roger mentioned to him that he would be leaving within the week, and asked if he could break the quarantine and visit the Gibsons before he goes. The doctor says no; with Molly just recovered from her previous illness, he doesn't want to take any risks. Roger's disappointment at not being able to see Molly is so great that the doctor realizes what's going on. Roger fears that Gibson will disapprove, but the doctor, who has always been fond of Roger, says that if he has to lose his daughter, he would rather it be to Roger than anyone else. Roger also asks him if he thinks Molly could love him, after he had been so foolish as to think he loved Cynthia. Dr Gibson says he doesn't know, but that if it's any comfort, women are rarely rational about such matters and are just as likely as not to throw their affections away on someone who's unworthy of them. He also agrees to tell Molly good-bye for Roger, and tell her how sorry he is that he can't see her. Molly takes this news quietly, but is obviously upset at the thought of not seeing Roger again for so long.
On the day of Roger's departure, Molly tries to distract herself by working on a gift for Cynthia, who has written that she and her husband, almost at the end of their wedding trip, will be coming to stay for a few days. It is pouring rain, and Hyacinth, who has been looking out of a window, calls Molly over, saying there is a man in a cloak standing under their trees, looking at the house. When Molly looks out, she realizes that it's Roger, and he waves to her, as he is allowed to come no closer to the house. Molly waves back, and they gaze at each other until it is necessary for Roger to leave to catch his train. Molly waves until he is out of sight, then goes back to work, glowing with happiness despite the fact that Hyacinth is talking nonstop.
* * *
Unfortunately, "Wives and Daughters" ends here, because Elizabeth Gaskell died before completing the novel. After her death, however, her editor Frederick Greenwood spoke to Gaskell's daughters, who told him how she had intended to end the novel, and he wrote a brief conclusion to be included when the book was published... Roger returns to Africa and completes his research, and all the time his thoughts dwell on Molly- missing her, worrying that someone else may try to court her, wishing he could talk over his discoveries with her. By the time his assignment is over, he is more sure than ever that Molly is the only woman for him. He returns to Hollingford determined to ask her to marry him, but once there is unsure of what to say to her. He ends up presenting her with the rose she had given him so long before, which he had carefully preserved and carried with him throughout his travels. The two of them marry, and are supremely happy. There is no further worry about Roger's ability to support them, because he is offered a professorship at a prestigious university, and becomes a renowned scientist. The only person who has any regrets is Dr. Gibson who, with Molly gone, is stuck with only Hyacinth for company. However, he takes on a partner in his medical practice so that he can travel to London frequently, meet with his colleagues in the medical field, visit with Molly and Roger, and give himself a break from Hyacinth.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel" from 1934 is a movie that I've known and loved ever since I was a child. It stars the always watchable Leslie Howard as the title character, along with Merle Oberon as well as some great character actors which include Raymond Massey. The film is, of course, set in the 1790's, during the French Revolution, with the action switching back and forth over the Channel between England and France. The French Revolution is well underway, with all it's fanaticism and bloody excesses. Eventually, the madness will grow to be so great that the citizens of the new republic will not be content with executing the hated aristocrats; "moderate" revolutionaries like Danton are the next to be condemned and sent to the guillotine. Even Robespierre himself will end up under the blade of "the national razor", a victim of the same ghastly fate to which he had condemned so many others. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" naturally takes a dim view of this behaviour, its sympathies clearly lying with the beleaguered aristocrats. Which is not to suggest that the aristocracy in France was blameless... their treatment of the lower classes was indefensible. The Bastille at the time it was overthrown, contained many prisoners who had committed no crime other than irritating or inconveniencing those in positions of power. De Tournay addresses this to a degree, saying that he and his fellow blue bloods have been too detached from the real world- blind to their own folly- which has caused the Revolution. This is a little too kind, I feel; in many cases, the aristocrats were perpetrating the injustices upon those beneath them, which certainly goes beyond detachment. Now, I'm not unsympathetic with the aims of the French Revolution... many of them, anyway. I'm all for people getting rid of an unjust, corrupt government- ideally, at the ballot box. But if you are denied that, more radical means become necessary. Unfortunately, the French chose the wrong methods with which to wage their revolution.
Whatever their ideals were when they started out, the revolutionaries soon devolved into a bloodthirsty throng, bent on revenge rather than justice. And, as is so often the case, the violent, inhumane behaviour they encouraged towards the aristocrats spiraled out of their control. The fanatical zealots of the Revolution soon were not satisfied with merely getting rid of the monarchy and killing the ruling class; religion must be abolished, the clergy persecuted and driven from the country. Also, before long, those who were not enthusiastic enough about the Revolution or its methods, were declared to be enemies of the Republic and sent to the guillotine as well. This included many of the former leaders of the revolution, like Danton and Robespierre, as previously mentioned. All of this was, of course, a strategic failure as well as a moral one... many in other countries who would have been sympathetic to their cause were disgusted by their methods, resulting in a lack of much needed outside support for the revolution. The terrible irony of the French Revolution is that it produced none of the liberty, equality, or fraternity that they were purportedly fighting for... if you have a revolution to get rid of your king and then end up with a dictator, you're doing it wrong.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel" is not a dark movie, despite its sometimes grim setting. There are, though, some affecting scenes, such as one near the start of the film, of the aristocrats incarcerated in prison. They strive for a sense of normalcy, talking or reading together, some playing chess, children running about playing games. And then a guard comes in and reads the list of those to be executed that day, and the camera rests on each one as they hear their names, noting their reactions. Some weep or embrace their families, others accept the news stoically... and those whose names were not called look on, knowing that theirs is only a temporary reprieve, and that it is only a matter of time before they make the acquaintance of Mme. Guillotine themselves. And although it is humorous to see Percy in the costume of an old crone, that doesn't change the fact that he has to sit watching people- some of whom he knows personally- go to horrible deaths and pretend to be happy about it.
Then, of course, there is the Blakeney's troubled marriage. Marguerite fell in love with Percy, convinced that he was a real man that she could depend on and respect. Then, to her shock, his character changes to one of indolence and foppish idiocy. What is not clear to her is if his character has indeed changed so radically, or if she had severely misjudged it. Disillusioned and frustrated, she is also bitterly aware that the husband whom she can no longer respect has the utmost contempt for her. She also knows why: her supposed denunciation of the Marquis de St. Cyr. Marguerite could clear this up, but is too stubborn and proud to do so. Also, she has a sense of guilt- she is partly to blame for what happened, having been indiscreet due to her understandable resentment of St. Cyr, and injudicious in her trust of Chauvelin. In any case, given her current dissatisfaction with her marriage, Marguerite makes little effort to bridge the estrangement between herself and her husband until it is very nearly too late.
As for Percy, he is desperately in love with Marguerite, but believes that she has done something heinous which horrifies him to the depths of his soul. His actions as the Scarlet Pimpernel are undertaken in part as an attempt to atone for what he believes his wife has done. He retreats behind a mask of indifference and dull-wittedness, his attitude towards Marguerite one of excessive politeness and lazy good humour. This is just as much a deception as the one he practices as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and it serves the same purpose: self-preservation.
Speaking of this protective camouflage, it is so successful because it is so audacious. Percy successfully hides in plain sight by not doing what might be expected of a man living a double life. You would expect him to try to keep his head down, stay out of the limelight as much as possible, and avoid any association by word or deed with the Scarlet Pimpernel. Instead Percy does the exact opposite, opting to draw attention to himself whenever possible. For example, when rescuing the de Tournays, one might expect him to act under the cover of darkness, quietly trying to sneak them out of France. Instead, he makes a spectacle of himself, ensuring that the revolutionary guards focus their attention on him- or her- which is not what they expect. He does the same thing while playing Sir Percy-the-twit. Instead of avoiding the subject or feigning disinterest, he talks about the Scarlet Pimpernel, composes comic poetry about him, and even babbles inanely to Chauvelin about him.
I saw the film version of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" before I read the book, and I love them both. The plot of the novel is, of course, more complex and the characters more finely drawn. As well, Percy's method of escape from Chauvelin in the final part of the book differs significantly from that in the movie. This, however, detracts nothing from the film, which is excellent. Leslie Howard was a great choice to play the Scarlet Pimpernel, able to play his dual nature convincingly. He has good chemistry with Merle Oberon as Marguerite, and equally good chemistry with his nemesis, Chauvelin. The scenes between those two are always great, the nimble-witted Sir Percy scoring off the ambassador time and again from behind his jester's mask. Their interactions provide a good deal of the humour which the movie affords. So, if you enjoy an adventure movie which has drama and humour, great characters and witty dialogue, track down "that elusive Pimpernel".You won't regret it.
* The original play of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" opened in 1905, and it was released as a novel three years later. * In 1941, Leslie Howard starred in a movie called "Pimpernel Smith" about a man who rescues people from German concentration camps. * The poem which Percy quotes to Chauvelin near the end of the movie is from Shakespeare's play "King Richard II" :
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,-- This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?... If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" - J.R.R. Tolkien