The Scarlet Pimpernel
Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet and silly fop, is actually the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel, who has devoted himself to rescuing the aristocracy from the horrors of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Perhaps you saw the original, classic 1934 version with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon. (Or maybe Chuck Jones’ “The Scarlet Pumpernickel, starring Daffy Duck.) This is a lush, well-mounted production, but Anthony Andrews is no Leslie Howard. (Jane Seymour, however, outclasses Miss Oberon in every way, IMHO. All she really has to do is look pretty, and Seymour can’t do anything wrong in that department.) It’s a great, rip-roarin’ adventure, and this version is well done.
But no matter how you tell it, the story itself has a fatal flaw for me, and it can be summed up thus: Who cares? Now, I’m not going to justify the crimes of Danton, Marat, and Robespierre. I think it’s neat that all but Marat (assassinated in his bathtub) got to taste the edge of the blade they so enthusiastically endorsed when they were on top. However, this story and all movie versions of it I’ve seen are incredibly dishonest. The Pimpernel is horrified that the children of the aristos are being killed along with their parents. His ultimate coup is to rescue a useless little shitbag known as the Dauphin, heir to the French throne. This makes it a real sob story, but did anyone ask themselves how many children died in the gutters of Paris during the long, long reign of terror of these incredibly decadent, corrupt, amoral, and totally uncaring degenerates who styled themselves the “aristocracy?” It nauseated me to see Sir Percy, one of the richest men in England, surrounded by people whose sole function was to hold his coat for him or fold his handkerchiefs, in his 300-room family rockpile, mooning over “innocent” grandees across the channel. This was class war, folks, and long overdue, and though they horribly mismanaged it, I’m all for the common citizens and fuck the aristos. And no, I do not approve of guillotining children, but if you want to see where the real horror lay, if you want to see the wanton, thoughtless murder of millions of children, if you want to see how most people lived in France at that time, take a look at Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, or some of the newer versions of Les Miserables. (Twenty years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed your hungry family? Sounds about right. Come here, boy, and powder my wig.) That’s what the aristocracy was all about, and whether a particular grandee condoned it or not—and the huge majority never even thought about it, ever—they were guilty as a class. I spit on their powdered wigs.