They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell,
That demmed, elusive pimpernel?
It’s 1792, and France is in the middle of the Reign of Terror. Everyone, from ci-devant nobles to those who are simply suspected of being suspicious, shares the risk of being arrested by Robespierre’s oppressive government. The de Tournays, a family of ci-devant nobles, are about to be called to the guillotine when the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel saves them from the thirsty blade of Madame Guillotine. The League safely conducts the de Tournays to England, where they intend to live as refugees. In London, they come across an old friend of theirs, Lady Marguerite Blakeney (Merle Oberon), an actress who is married to the darling of the town, Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard).
Though the Blakeneys were once very much in love, their marriage has soured. Percy, who puts on the faÃ§ade of being a shallow fop to dodge any suspicions that he might be the Scarlet Pimpernel, no longer trusts his wife. While living in France, Marguerite denounced the Marquis St. Cyr in front of a revolutionary tribunal, which culminated in the execution of not only the nobleman, but his family as well. Marguerite herself is dismayed at the sudden change in her husband’s demeanor; before, he was a very thoughtful, romantic husband, but now he is cold and distant toward her. She is determined to mend things between them, but is unsure of how to do so.
Things are going to get much more complicated for Marguerite, though, as Robespierre’s agent, Citoyen Chauvelin, has come to England in search of information on the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Marguerite is the perfect person to get it for him. Marguerite’s brother, Armand St. Just, has just been outed as an agent of the League and has been arrested. If Marguerite can identify the Scarlet Pimpernel for Chauvelin, she can save her brother. Marguerite does what she can to assist Chauvelin, but their efforts are fouled by the quick thinking of Sir Percy and his friends. Desperate, Marguerite finally reveals to her husband why she denounced the St. Cyrs: she had been involved in an affair with the marquis’s son, and the marquis, determined that it end, had her imprisoned. After the Revolution, she regained her freedom and told her friend Chauvelin what happened. It was too late when she realized how horrible of a mistake she had made. Sir Percy journeys to France to do what he can for Armand. It is after he leaves that Marguerite sees the pimpernel emblem in a portrait of a Blakeney ancestor and makes the connection: her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel. When she discovers that Chauvelin knows who the Scarlet Pimpernel is and is on his way back to France, she travels across the Channel as well in hopes of finding Percy and stopping Chauvelin.
I’ll admit that I’m biased because I am obsessed with the French Revolution and regard Sir Percy as the ultimate romantic hero, but this is my favorite version of Orczy’s book. The acting is superb and the costumes are exquisite. The main feature of the film, though, is the Blakeneys’ marriage. The biggest reasons they are having so many problems are because of a lack of communication and an uncertainty of where to go from where they are. Slowly, you get to see them open up the lines of communication again and begin to rebuild what they once thought was lost. The saddest part about the secrets they each kept was that they were doing so to protect one another. They weren’t secrets kept out of spite, but out of love. Neither one has to shoulder his or her burden alone any longer, and together they can fight the good fight. Which is a very reassuring thing, isn’t it?