the Scarlet Pimpernel
“We seek him here, we seek him there. / Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. / Is he in Heaven?—Is he in Hell? / That demmed, elusive Pimpernel?” With these immortal absurdities, foppish Sir Percy Blakeney generates some buzz for his heroic alter ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel. From films and comic books to musical theater and classic cartoons, today, fortunately, the Pimpernel can be found everywhere.
In 1868, in the hills of Hungary, Baron Felix Orczy attempted to industrialize his landholdings. The decision enraged his peasant laborers, who revolted and burned his crops. Orczy, his wife and his three-year-old daughter, Emma, fled in fear for their lives. The displaced Orczys moved often, from Budapest to Brussels to Paris. By 1880 the family was in London, where Emma studied art and eventually worked as an illustrator and writer. In 1903 her play The Scarlet Pimpernel was performed for the first time. Drawing on her childhood of ousted privilege, she set the adventure-romance in 1792, during the French Revolution, when aristocrats were imprisoned by citizen tribunals and beheaded in the streets.
Orczy’s hero is wealthy English aristocrat Percy Blakeney, who, armed with a sword, natural cunning and a wardrobe of disguises, crosses the Channel to rescue embattled French nobles. Despite a disappointing premiere and negative reviews, the play became a popular success; in 1905 Orczy turned it into a novel with the same title. She describes Percy as “unusually good-looking,” and it’s easy to understand this witty, blue-eyed rescuer of besieged bluebloods as the fantasy of a baroness whose privileged position and estate were but distant memories.
The red carnation is a symbol of love; for Saint Patrick, the shamrock represented the Holy Trinity. Baroness Emma Orczy used both plants as heroic emblems in two of her first stories featuring prototypes of her famous character Sir Percy Blakeney. When Orczy refashioned her tales into a hit play, she settled on the scarlet pimpernel, a low-growing plant Europeans consider a weed. This unassuming annual is a good stand-in for Blakeney, who affects a superficial persona to conceal his truly brave, sturdy disposition. In the classic 1934 film adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel, English actor Leslie Howard perfectly captures Blakeney’s antics—he continually peers through a ridiculous monocle and frets over his fashionable clothes. Yet even as he maintains he isn’t smart enough to “rise above anything more than three syllables,” Blakeney slyly outplays his enemies, and after each adventure he leaves behind a cheeky note signed with the image of a scarlet pimpernel. The character became so popular that even this lowly creeper, with its weak stems and colorful petals, grew some formidable shoots: Scottish minister Donald Caskie, who helped nearly 2,000 people escape from Nazi-occupied France, titled his 1957 memoir The Tartan Pimpernel.
Two of the 20th century’s preeminent fictional heroes performed their daring feats on separate continents, but they share many particulars. Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel frees rich French aristocrats from the razor’s edge of the guillotine, while American pulp writer Johnston McCulley’s swashbuckling daredevil Zorro fights for the poor who suffer under Spanish colonial rule in early-19th-century California. When not battling injustice, both these men of privilege pretend to be fops—dandified, effete dunderheads. Zorro debuted in All-Story Weekly magazine’s serialized narrative The Curse of Capistrano (1919). His exploits have since been recounted in numerous books and on-screen in memorable movies. Played by Douglas Fairbanks (1920, 1925), Tyrone Power (1940) and Antonio Banderas (1998), among others, Zorro has had many handsome faces but always wears a black mask. The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t literally wear a mask, yet he presents many faces: One successful disguise is that of an old hag, which in one story he uses for a daring prison break. The Spanish word zorro means “fox,” and the nickname indicates this vigilante’s shrewdness. As it happens, the Scarlet Pimpernel’s nemesis, the villainous spy Chauvelin, is repeatedly described as foxlike.
At the end of the 18th century, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, ate well and topped off their lavish meals with fine wine while ruling France with all the competence of landlocked fish. Meanwhile, the poor were doomed to squalor and famine by the rising price of bread. It’s no wonder the people revolted and fought for freedom, equality and respect from their leaders. But the revolutionists’ lofty ideals soon degenerated into viciousness and recriminating anger, and when Louis XVI was decapitated, on January 21, 1793, his former subjects hustled forward to dab their handkerchiefs in his blood. Tens of thousands of “enemies of the revolution” were executed during the 10-month Reign of Terror that began in September 1793.
Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta follows an idealist known only as V, who is determined to overthrow the tyrannical government of a dystopian United Kingdom. He rallies crowds to rebel, and they successfully march on Parliament. At the end of the final volume, London is in shambles after the coup, leaving the reader to wonder, Will there be a peaceful transition of power or a bloodlust-driven witch hunt, as in newly republican France?
The Scarlet Pimpernel, whom Leslie Howard played on-screen with tremendous charm and intensity, is perhaps the actor’s most iconic role—surpassing even his turn as Scarlett O’Hara’s obsession Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. In fact, Howard resembled the Pimpernel in real life. Consider his World War II accomplishments: In 1941 he updated the character in the anti-Nazi propaganda film “Pimpernel” Smith (also called Mister V). He then used his prestige as an actor-director to travel around Europe building support for the Allied forces. Author José Rey-Ximena claimed recently that Howard was a British spy on a secret mission for Prime Minister Winston Churchill to keep Spain out of the war. Howard died when German fighter planes shot down his aircraft over the Bay of Biscay in 1943.
The Pimpernel character lives on in comic books—and not only those about him. Many famous superheroes bear traces of the wily protagonist. Also operating under secret identities are Clark Kent, a bumbling journalist who transforms into Superman, and Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy who patrols as Batman. In a more explicit nod, V, the revolutionist in V for Vendetta, marks his deeds with a fictional rose called the scarlet carson.
Any story that enjoys a modicum of success will eventually become a Broadway musical. This happened for The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1997, with music by Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde) and lyrics by poet Nan Knighton. In a New York Times review, critic Ben Brantley faulted the show for lacking the “pulse-racing suspense and derring-do” of the original story, noting that the “cardinal rule” for the cast seemed to be “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Despite this, the musical ran for three years.
One problem any new Pimpernel adaptation faces is how to compete with the 1934 movie by legendary producer Alexander Korda, who assembled the perfect cast: rising stars Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon (as the Pimpernel’s gorgeous, long-suffering wife, unsuspecting of his true identity) and Raymond Massey (as the menacing villain Chauvelin). On the first day of shooting, Korda fired the director, Rowland Brown, who was rumored to have underworld connections, and accused him of directing the period piece as if it were a gangster film. Korda replaced him with Harold Young, who carried on under the producer’s tight control. The result is a swashbuckling romance not even show tunes can improve.
In ancient Rome, persecuted Christians made line drawings of a fish, called an ichthys, to mark their meeting spots and rally their brethren—a successful stratagem demonstrating that even a simple sign graffitied onto a building can inspire the downtrodden. It has since become a common custom for fictional vigilantes to vandalize their enemies’ territories with self-identifying symbols. Take two well-known black-hatted avengers. Zorro slashes a Z where he thinks it will do the most good; in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, he even slices it into his archrival’s neck. V for Vendetta’s head revolutionary backtracks through the alphabet and scrawls a V onto a government propaganda sign; soon his devoted followers are spray-painting his signature everywhere. Yet the true embodiment of justice lies not in the letters Zorro and V leave behind but in their deeds. Concealed by masks, the heroes themselves become symbols. As V explains, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea…and ideas are bulletproof.” Of course, it helps that he wears body armor.
In the early 20th century, archetypal film swashbucklers, suave and undefeated, battled their way into the daydreams of adolescent boys and women of all ages. Errol Flynn dashed and dueled in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Tyrone Power fenced and fought in The Mark of Zorro (1940). Those well-used swords have since grown rusty, and such heroes have often become targets of parody. One of the first humiliations came with the brilliant 1950 Warner Bros. cartoon “The Scarlet Pumpernickel,” in which Daffy Duck imagines himself playing a hero like the debonair Scarlet Pimpernel. Yet (surprise!) Daffy remains a buffoon: Jumping from a window, he misses his horse and, with stars circling his head, lisps, “That never happens to Errol Flynn.” Likewise, in Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981), Zorro falls from a building and breaks his leg; while recovering, he is replaced by his gay twin, Bunny Wigglesworth, who swaps Zorro’s all-black costume for ones in orange, mauve and gold lamé.
“The Scarlet Pumpernickel” also symbolizes the demise of the classic swashbuckler. Daffy’s misadventures become so outrageous that he finally pulls out a gun and shoots himself, though on TV that scene is usually censored.