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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)
The Scarlet Pimpernel directed by Harold Young (1934)
The Scarlet Pimpernel directed by Clive Donner (1982)
Today’s book/movie I am covering because it was requested! If anyone else out there has a request, you can comment here, or DM my Instagram @whythebookwins and I’ll cover it!
Todays topic is The Scarlet Pimpernel, and I have seen the 1982 version a number of times. My sisters and I loved it back in the day, it’s such a chick flick. I didn’t read the book thought till 2019, and then reread it for this podcast. I had actually forgot quite a bit of the book, though certain details came back to mind as I read.
The book and the movies are a bit different, but the basic storyline involves Marguerite who marries Sir Percy who, unknown to her, is the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the secret identity to the British man who, with his band of followers, goes to Paris to rescue innocent aristocrats who are being killed at the guillotine during the French revolution in 1792.
The antagonist is Chauvelin, a man who is one of those in charge of the revolution and is placed in charge of catching the Pimpernel. He and Marguerite (who is French by the way) know each other, and he tricks her into denouncing an aristocrat, the Marquis de St. Cyr, who is then killed. Percy learns of this the day they get married, and when she doesn’t defend herself, he puts up his façade to her as well as everyone else.
Chauvelin later goes to Marguerite once again and tells her to help him get info on the Pimpernel, and if she doesn’t, he will have her brother Armand killed because he has discovered that Armand is working with the Pimpernel. She ends up helping him because she doesn’t want her brother be killed. After Percy goes to Paris one morning, she realizes that he is the Pimpernel, and by helping Chauvelin, she has sent her own husband to his death.
She then goes to Paris to warn him, and long story short, the Pimpernel outsmarts Chauvelin, and Percy and Marguerites relationship is saved now that they have cleared the air about their misunderstanding.
I was wondering why there hasn’t been a more recent movie of The Scarlet Pimpernel, when I realized that superheroes have kind of taken his place. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne in particular are the equivalent-rich men who spend their time and money helping others under a disguise.
Thoughts on the book
The book is set up for sequels, and sequels there are! Orczy wrote a number of follow up novels, centered around the Pimpernel and his posterity. I could potentially see myself reading some of them, but they aren’t on the top of my “to read” list. I did enjoy the book though, I found it entertaining and well written for the most part. There are times when it’s a bit too long winded and just repeating what’s already been said. In most cases, this happens when Orczy is really trying to get through to us what high stakes are at risk, but it’s just a bit overkill. There’s one chapter where it says multiple times that Chauvelin is the Pimpernels deadly enemy. I get it! You don’t need to go on and on about it! Once a chapter she also feels the need to reiterate that Marguerite is known as being the cleverest woman in Europe. I get it! You’ve told us this ten times already!
That’s my biggest critique though. Aside from it also being a bit too romantically cheesy at times. Like when Percy and Marguerite are talking, and he loves her but can’t show it because he thinks she’s a traitor. When she leaves, he bends down and kisses the floor she had been walking on *major eye roll* When I was younger, I may have found that romantic, but now it just seems way too over the top.
History of the book
A little backstory on the book-Baroness Emmuska Orczy first wrote it as a play! Its first release wasn’t too well received, but a week later it opened in the West End of London and there it was a box office success even though some critics called it old fashioned. This was in 1903, and two years later Orczy wrote the book version which was an instant success.
The success of her play and novel, allowed Orczy and her husband to live the rest of their days in luxury. She was born into an aristocractic family, so wasn’t she rich anyway? I guess this book just really upped her income. Orczy was later quoted as saying it was her destiny to write The Scarlet Pimpernel.
It certainly made its mark on the world. There have been numerous adaptations, and references through the years. From BBC to Looney Tunes. The style of story is also very popular today, though as I said, it is in the form of “superheroes” now.
The book is obviously portrays the French citizens in a very poor light, but this isn’t surprising considering Orczy herself was an aristocrat. The French Revolution wasn’t all bad though! It started because the common folk made up 98% of the population, yet their voice didn’t matter and the wealthy called the shots. As well as taxing the poor, yet not using those taxes to improve the lives of the peasants. Bastille Day, the day the people barged the Bastille for gun powder and artillery, is a national holiday in France and is celebrated! I’m not saying that there wasn’t needless killing, as shown in this book. Things definitely got crazy, and the Reign of Terror sounds like a scary time. The fact people enjoyed watching beheadings I think shows that they weren’t in the right mindset. What kind of disturbed person would go watch a beheading for entertainment?? Anyway, that is just a very brief history lesson on the French Revolution. It’s really quite interesting though, and the revolution is what led to Napoleon being in power. But anyway, onto The Scarlet Pimpernel!
I started watching the ’34 version a few years back, but it isn’t the best quality, so I didn’t finish it. I watched it all the way through this time though! It was made through a British production company, and it hasn’t aged well. As you can see from the stills, it isn’t a very clear picture, and the audio has that white noise sound all throughout. I’m glad I watched it though, because I discovered that the ’82 movie takes a lot of its scenes from it!
Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy, those that have seen Gone with the Wind will recognize him as Ashley Wilkes. He is a fine actor, though I can’t say I was incredibly impressed with this. I hate to blame the film quality, but it really does negatively affect the movie all the way around. And I like old movies! This one was just especially bad quality.
Merle Oberon is the perfect choice for Marguerite St. Just. She is so beautiful and elegant! She went on to star in Withering Heights, which I have not yet read or watched! I added it to my list of topics for this podcast 😉
Raymond Massey gives a solid performance as the villain Chauvelin.
Anthony Andrews plays a very charming and dashing Sir Percy/Pimpernel. I swooned over him when I was younger, and I still find that he gives a wonderful, witty performance.
Jane Seymour is also wonderfully cast as Marguerite. When I was younger, I found Seymour to be the epitome of beauty, and she’s a great actress to boot!
Ian McKellen is the most well-known from this cast, here he plays Chauvelin. Our audience will of course recognize his as Gandolf from The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as playing Magneto in the earlier X-Men movies!
Malcolm Jamieson plays Armand, and I thought I would include him since the role of Armand was much bigger in this then in the book or previous movie.
The Pimpernel’s identity
A big difference both these movies have from the book, is that the audience knows Percy is the Pimpernel! The book, we don’t find out till Marguerite finds out. It is written mostly from her perspective which I like. Had I read this not knowing who the Pimpernel was, I think I would have guessed it was Percy anyway, but who knows.
The movies are about 50/50 between showing what’s going on with Percy and what’s going on with Marguerite. I do like this change, because it gives us an inside look into what he and his group were doing.
Both of them also have the same beginning, which shows the aristos in prison. As I said, the book is mostly Marguerite’s perspective, so we never see into the prisons. They both do have the first escape be the story of Percy dressing as the old hag, same as in the book. The timeline of the ’82 movie is switched up though. The book talks of various disguises the Pimpernel uses, and the ’82 movie does a great job showing this, but ’34 just has the hag costume.
Chauvelin and Marguerite
In the book as well as the ’34 version, Chauvelin and Marguerite are acquaintances, but the ’82 version has Chauvelin romantically interested in Marguerite. They also say that they were both pro the revolution, but as things got more violent and out of control, Marguerite started to back away because she hadn’t wanted it do go so far. Whereas Chauvelin was all for it. Despite her changing opinions, he still wants to marry her. In the book there was no romantic involvement between them.
In the book and ’34 version, Chauvelin gets the note that shows Armand is in league with the Pimpernel when his men sneak up on Sir Antony and Sir Andrew, steal their note and kidnap them. The note also says that the Pimpernel will be at Lord Grenville’s ball, so Chauvelin holds them hostage till the night of the ball so that they can’t get word to the Pimpernel till it’s too late and he’s already at the ball. He then uses the information on Armand to manipulate Marguerite to get information from Sir Antony and Sir Andrew while at the ball. In the ’82 version, Chauvelin intercepts a courier and that is how he learns of Armand.
In all three, Marguerite uses the same tactics to read the note Sir Andrew has which says the Pimpernel will be heading to Paris the following morning and that he will be in the library midnight that night. In the ’82 version though, she tells Chauvelin a half hour later and goes to meet the Pimpernel in the library to warn him. She talks to him without seeing who he is, and, in this conversation, Percy learns the truth about St. Cyr and that he had wrongfully judged her.
In the ’34 version and in the book, she does not warn the Pimpernel like this, though in all three Chauvelin finds Percy sleeping in the library and thinks it is a coincidence.
Marguerite and Percy
In all three Marguerite learns about the Marquis de St. Cyr and in the book and ’34 version she mentions what she knows, and Chauvelin uses this information to have the St. Cyr family killed. Marguerite didn’t know that would happen and feels horribly about it. In the book, the reason she had spoken ill of him in the first place was because Armand had been interested in the daughter, and St. Cyr, thinking Armand is below his daughter, has him beat “within an inch of his life.” The ’34 movie has the same events take place, however the reason she doesn’t like the St. Cyr is because his son wanted to marry Marguerite. She declined, and so the St. Cyr dad had her put into a prison. Once the revolution happened, she was released.
The ’82 movie had the St. Cyr beat Armand, but Percy is actually there when it happens, and he rescues Armand. It is after saving him that he meets Marguerite for the first time and starts courting her. In the book, he wasn’t aware that Armand was beaten, and it sounds like he met Marguerite because of she was an actress and that’s how he knew of her and made a point to meet her.
After they are married, someone tells Percy what she did to the Marquis, and he asks her about it. She doesn’t deny it, and wants him to prove his love to her, by assuming the best of her. He, however, does not assume the best. He puts up his fop façade and, in the book, she falls for it and assumes he really is as dim witted as people say. She also believes he must hate her, because of what she inadvertently did the St. Cyr and thinks it’s too late to try and explain things. Whereas the ’82 movie shows her wondering more what happened to him and not falling for his act. But here too, she doesn’t explain herself, she feels as her husband, Percy should be on her side and she shouldn’t have to explain herself in regards to the St. Cyr family.
In the book, after Grenville’s ball, they have a conversation outside where she is vulnerable with him and tries to get close to him. She also confides in him that Armand is in danger and that she is worried about him. Percy says he will see what he can do, then they go to bed. Before she has gone to sleep, she hears horses being brought out. She has the urge to see Percy once more and goes out to see him where he tells her he is going to go find a way to help Armand.
In both movies, they don’t have this conversation really, but Percy does tell her he is going away in the morning to get new boots. After he has left, she is in his office and notices the painting of his mother, on which is a scarlet pimpernel flower. That, combined with the fact that she read in the note that the Pimpernel was going to Paris that morning and Percy just left, she realizes that he is the Pimpernel.
In the book, after seeing Percy off, later that day she sees his study is open and goes in. She sees the painting on the wall, but it doesn’t mention a flower. As she walks out though, she comes across his ring on the ground which has the flower stamp and that is how she knows.
In all three, she goes to Sir Andrew to help her go to Paris where she can warn Percy. The book goes more into the details of their journey, but in the movies, they skip to her being in Paris.
In the ’34 version, she goes to the inn that Andrew told her Percy will be going to. They have the innkeeper a member of the group and his inn in basically the Pimpernel’s hide out and all his disguises are there. In the book, the innkeeper was just a random guy who wasn’t involved.
In the book, Marguerite arrives and ends up going to an upstairs room which gives her a peep hole kind of thing, so she can watch what’s happening. Chauvelin comes in dressed as a priest and waits for Percy. When he arrives, they talk, but kind of beat around the bush. When Chauvelin isn’t looking, he dumps his snuff and replaces it with pepper. He offers it to Chauvelin who then has a sneezing fit and Percy runs out. Chauvelin comes to and has his guard get info on where Percy went. They find a Jewish guy who has a horse and cart who tells them Percy went with another guy and that he can take them in the direction they left.
The cart moves slowly, and Marguerite follows behind on foot. (It’s midnight, so she isn’t seen). They never come upon Percy and the cart but arrive at the hut where Armand and others are hiding out. Marguerite is eventually found by Chauvelin and they lie in wait for Percy. Long story short, Armand and the others escaped out the hut without being arrested because the guards were told not to do anything till Percy arrived. Chauvelin and the guards go off in a different direction based on a note they find in the hut. Marguerite is exhausted and left alone with the Jewish guy who had been horribly beaten by Chauvelin’s guards. When it is just the two of them, he reveals himself to be Percy! They have a sweet reunion, before being rescued by Sir Andrew who takes them to Percy’s ship where they sail off happily together. Oh, and the note Chauvelin found that led them in a different direction, was meant to throw Chauvelin off the trail and it of course worked.
The ’34 version, has everything take place at the inn. Chauvelin finds Marguerite upstairs hiding and holds her hostage. He goes downstairs and when Percy walks in they get straight to the chase-telling him he knows who he is and Percy not denying it. One of Percy’s men comes up behind Chauvelin though and it seems he is now in the clear. That is when Chauvelin tells him that he has Marguerite upstairs, and unless Percy gives up, she will be killed. Percy surrenders and goes outside to be killed the firing squad. Chauvelin stays inside and hears the shots fired. Right after, Percy walks back in and reveals his men had been in disguise and Chauvelin’s guards and Percy and Marguerite get away and sail back to England together.
The ’82 version has a bit more going on, including having Percy in prison for a bit where he has Marguerite help him out by instructing people what to do. The end is similar to the ’34 version though, where Percy goes to be shot, shots are fired, then Percy walks back in and does the reveal. He and Marguerite then sail off into the sunset.
In the book and ’34 movie, the last rescue is to save a Count. In the ’82 movie though, he is saving a young Prince Louie. I think they did this to make the French revolutionist even bigger villains. Having someone mistreat a child makes them far more dislikable than someone who mistreats an adult. There is more to the scheme how they got the young prince out of prison, but if you want to see how he pulls it off you can watch the movie!
The book starts out at an Inn in England, where the captives are brought, followed by Sir and Lady Blakenley. While there, Marguerite is snubbed by the aristo for having denounced the St. Cyr. Even though she is hurt, she brushes it off with witty comments. (Don’t forget, she is the cleverest woman in Europe).
In both movies, she is snubbed instead at Lord Grenville’s ball. The ’34 version has a brief scene in the Inn, but not as much takes place there as in the book. The ’82 version doesn’t have the inn at all.
Armand is a small role in the book. He is in the beginning, before he goes off to Paris on errand for the Pimpernel (but Marguerite thinks he is enlisting in the military to fight for the revolution). Then he isn’t shown again, only talked of at times in reference to how close he and Marguerite are and of the time he was beaten. The ’34 version follows suit. The ’82 version he has a bigger role, and even works for Chauvelin at first. But he feels guilty about sending innocent people to the guillotine and confides in Percy that he is going to warn a specific family. Percy then opens up to him that he is the Pimpernel and that is how they start working together.
It is also Armand’s fault that Percy is put in prison at one point in the movie. None of that happens in the book though.
One thing all three have is the clever limerick Percy performs about the Pimpernel, much to everyone’s amusement.
Book or Movie?
Let’s just get the 1934 version out of the way-if you like old movies, then sure give it a go. As I said, I like old movies, but this one was a bit sleepy even for me. Oh, and a side note about it that I noticed. There wasn’t much of a soundtrack. Especially when compared to the newer movie. Throughout the new movie, there is the dramatic soundtrack, whereas as the old one basically has no music. It was pretty interesting. Pivotal moments where you are used to hearing the dramatic music to emphasize the moment, here there was nothing. I actually kind of liked that though. But ultimately, between the two movies, I recommend the 1982 version.
Between the ’82 version and the book…drum roll please…I would go with the book. Largely in part because of the end. I liked that we are waiting for Sir Percy, when suddenly we realize he had been right there all along! The fake firing squad is entertaining, but the reveal in the book was much better in my opinion.