In London, Sir Percy Blakeney (David Niven) is an effete loudmouth and fool, but in France he is the heroic Scarlet Pimpernel, who frees the innocent from the worst excesses of the French Revolution. His adversary is Chauvelin (Cyril Cusack), who will stop at nothing to attain the Pimpernel’s head or torch him or shoot him, or generally kill him. But the Pimpernel and his loyal gang are too clever. Blakeney’s one problem is his French wife (Margaret Leighton). He lovers her deeply, but she aided in the deaths of an aristocratic family, and he cannot forgive her.
For one of the foundational stories of cinematic swashbuckling, the tale of the Scarlet Pimpernel only swashed and buckled in the silent version. In its various talkie incarnations, it has the witty banter in abundance, but it’s more slow costume drama than adventure. Zorro, a clear descendant of The Pimpernel, leaps about with sword in hand for large percentages of his films, but Sir Percy avoids most confrontations. In this version, he has one mild fight and a coach race. Well, it could still be good—the 1934 version starring Leslie Howard is quite good.
But this one is not.
It is at times incoherent and when it makes sense it is dull. It flops about as a comedy without humor set in a tragic world without weight. The pacing is off and every action seems trivial. Not a single character feels human, nor a symbol; they just exist, more or less. It looks like the work of pining amateurs over their heads.
How does it go so very, very wrong? It’s all in the production history. It was a British/American co-production, or was supposed to be, between Samuel Goldwyn and Alexander Korda. Korda had produced the 1934 version and planned for this to be much the same, but in color. Basically some easy money. Goldwyn saw it the same way, and agreed to supply half the budget in return for US distribution. But if what you want is an amusing but artistically void duplicate, why would you bring in The Archers—the writing/directing/producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? They were artists of the first order with an actual written manifesto. Powell was at first excited for the project; he realized that it was long past the time when a film should have as its theme that aristocrats are intrinsically better than commoners, so he wanted to take the story in a more democratic direction, lighten it up, and make a musical. Korda wasn’t pleased and Goldwyn was livid. Goldwyn had also been busy, forcing a very reluctant and newly married David Niven out of his home in California and over to England to star. Niven refused, was put on suspension, and sadly agreed. But he decided to get back at Goldwyn anyway he could, finding a legal loophole that allowed him to stall production. Goldwyn also insisted on casting Margaret Leighton, though Powell thought she was wrong for the role. After more fights, everyone was unhappy. Powell was angry, Pressburger was depressed, Niven was unruly, Korda was fearful, and Goldwyn was nasty. Well, Goldwyn was usually nasty. The songs were cut (before filming), and Goldwyn kept his hand in, twisting everything. The Archers didn’t know how to cope. The result was clearly terrible and they all knew it, so they went back for expensive reshoots, having to drag Niven across the Atlantic again. Did that help? I don’t know how bad the original cut was, but the final is a disorganized amalgamation. It seems to have been edited by a deranged monkey.
It’s not surprising that Powell and Pressburger never found a proper tone for the picture. Nor is it a shock that Niven, who seems like he could have done this sort of part in his sleep, puts in a horrendous performance. He fails in the heroic role, but is even worse as the fop. Well, it’s not as if he was trying, and all of the acting is bad. No one seems authentic, nor charismatic, nor humorous. I doubt any of them knew what they were trying to achieve.
The sets are nice, and, as one would expect from The Archers, the Technicolor is gorgeous. But neither help the story. Yes, it’s pretty, but to what end? What emotions is the unusual pallet supposed to stir?
Goldwyn hated what he saw and refused to pay. Korda sued, and the film wasn’t released for several years in the US, and when it was, under the name The Fighting Pimpernel, it was in B&W. Niven got out of his contract with Goldwyn and they didn’t speak for years. And The Archers, who were the golden boys of British film, had their reputation tarnished, and they never fully recovered.