The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Case for Cinematic Authenticity

26 Aug

Somehow, I’d always managed to miss the opening scenes of Alexander Korda’s 1934 film, The Scarlet Pimpernel: “London 1792” which shows a British band on parade, and “Paris”, with “Madame Guillotine” dropping her blade on the necks of aristocrats whilst Madame Defarge and her cronies ne’er drop a stitch.

Turner Classic Movies recently televised this wonderful film, starring Merle Oberon, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey. This time I saw the very beginning, and was delighted that Korda had referenced perhaps the most famous print in the history of western art music, at least for percussionists; a British band on parade in the courtyard of St. James Palace, London, England, c.1790.  Korda had arranged his band precisely as it appears in that print. Leading the parade is a group of musicians playing conventional  band instruments of the period. Then, two young boys. One playing a small kettle drum, which became the Tenor drum of today, and the other, a Triangle. Behind them are Moors playing Cymbals, Bass drum, and Tambourine. In the 1700s, these instruments were new to western music, and known as Janissary instruments in Britain. Behind the Moors, a traditional British fife and drum Corps completes the ensemble. The film’s composer, Author Benjamin, wisely chosen Mozart’s “Turkish March” for this scene.

Then, we jump to Madame Defarge knitting and cackling with glee as each noble head falls into the wicker basket. Here again, Korda relied upon a contemporary print to depict the scene. The guillotine is the proper height, the background buildings are accurately portrayed, and the drum corps, with Drum Major, are properly placed to the right of the scaffold

Soon after, however, the film devolves into the author’s fanciful imaginings. None of its characters actually existed, at least not as author/playright Baroness Orckzy (1865-1947) portrays them. Leslie Howard plays Pimpernel, an utterly fictional British gentleman who organizes an English posse to rescue French aristocratic friends from the wrath of Les Sans Culottes. However, Raymond Massey’s villainous Citizen Chauvelin, actually lived to serve during Napoleon’s era.

Leslie Howard plays an irrepressible fop, whose wife, played by Merle Oberon, is completely unaware of his bravery until the end. Pimpernel’s doggerel poem has become a film classic:

We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in Heaven?-is he in Hell?

That damned elusive Pimpernel.


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