Today, I’m looking a couple of adventure movies, courtesy of Filmstruck. Today’s films are:
Harold Young – The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Luis Buñuel – Robinson Crusoe (1954)
I haven’t seen either of these before, but I wanted to look at some old school adventure movies. You might be assuming these are straight action movies, and the action movie is probably an evolution of the old school adventure movie, things like The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Thief of Bagdad from the silent era. But without special effects, the adventure film had to rely on great actors, strong characterizations, and plot, mixed in with some tense swordfighting and leaping from balconies, or whatever makes sense for the setting.
I haven’t done the research to fully deconstruct the classic adventure movie, unfortunately, but if anyone knows a good history of the genre, I’d be fascinated.
But we’ll muddle through.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
The Scarlet Pimpernel is the story of an Englishman who works to save French aristocrats from the guillotine after the French Revolution. After the American Revolution, the French followed suit soon after, and deposed their king. As the people took over, they started executing the aristocracy using a new-fangled tool called the guillotine. In this film, however, those aristocrats have a champion, The Scarlet Pimpernel!
So I was expecting an action-adventure, maybe along the lines of Judex, where we have a valiant hero crashing through windows and climbing buildings and that sort of thing. What I ended up getting was a lot different.
The film starts by focusing on France. We see the crowds gathering for the guillotine, and the cart delivering the aristocrats to the beheading. We hear the crowds cheer as the blades come down, and the unsuccessful attempts by the aristocrats to sneak out of the city. We see the jailed aristocrats, dozens living in a single large cell, and we see the jailer come in to read the list of names of people on their way to the guillotine. We also see a priest come in and show a bible to some of the prisoners. When they open it, they see a small note that reads “Courage”, with an image of a small flower. They know what it means, The Scarlet Pimpernel is on the way!
They are pushed to a cart and rolled into town, but one man, LeTournay is separated from his family and taken to see Citizen Robespierre, the leader of the French government. As the cart works it’s way through town, a man on a roof shouts “Long live the king!” This is enough to draw a huge crowd and guards to chase him, making the cart vulnerable. In the next scene, a cart with an old woman is trying to leave the city. The guard stops her and she talks her way out of getting the cart searched by claiming her plague-ridding grandson is there. Our first encounter with the Scarlet Pimpernel!
The name Scarlet Pimpernel is one of those things that I’ve heard in pop culture all over the place, but never quite knew what it meant. It’s also one of those things that I imagine was quite effective in the 30s, but sounds totally ridiculous now. Knowing it’s a flower doesn’t help the name become more intimidating. Luckily, we have a great actor like Leslie Howard playing the part.
Leslie Howard was a major star of the 30s, in films like Gone with the Wind, Pygmalion, The Petrified Forest and today’s film. Unfortunately, he was killed in World War II when a plane he was on was shot down. He isn’t remembered the way other actors of his generation were, and I think the only thing that stopped him from being one of the great legends of acting was his untimely death.
In this film, he is essentially playing two characters, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and his alter ego Percy Blakely, the dandy fop who cares for nothing but clothing and parties. The secrecy is essential, as the French Ambassador Chauvelin has been tasked with finding The Scarlet Pimpernel or face the guillotine himself.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is commanding, sure of himself, a leader of men. Percy prances about, complaining about the cuff length of the Prince’s coat, and brags about writing a verse of poetry about the Scarlet Pimpernel:
“They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchie’s seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven, is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!”
Percy is utterly ridiculous, by design, and Howard plays it perfectly.
We also have some good performances from the rest of the cast, including Merle Oberon as Lady Blakely(Percy’s wife), and Raymond Massey as Chauvelin. The plot is set in motion by an encounter between the two former, as Chauvelin produces a document that will put Lady Blakely’s brother on the guillotine if she doesn’t help him find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is. She has no choice but to agree.
What we get is a pretty straightforward cat and mouse where Chauvelin tries to infiltrate the Scarlet Pimpernel’s inner circle while Percy toys with him. It’s clear that they aren’t really an equal match. But Percy doesn’t know that his wife is helping unmask him.
The film goes round and round until we get to the climax, with Chauvelin setting a trap that Percy walks directly into, and of course, secretly has his own way out.
So for an adventure movie, there’s really not much adventure. No swordfighting, hardly any chases, and I don’t think anyone jumped off a balcony even once. We do have talking. Lots and lots of talking. But I can’t complain about a hero that doesn’t fight. Doctor Who doesn’t fight, he wins his battles by talking, and doing everything he can to avoid conflict, and Doctor Who is amazing.
But to do that well, you really need to earn it, and this film just doesn’t manage it. As great as Leslie Howard is, this movie just ends up being boring. Chauvelin doesn’t live up to his end as the antagonist, and I never totally appreciated the plight of the French aristocrats. Sure, they were being brutally executed, but the film doesn’t do anything to tell us that they’re wrongly accused or being unjustly imprisoned. The movie seems to want us to assume they’re worth saving because The Scarlet Pimpernel thinks they’re worth saving. But that just isn’t satisfying.
There is one great line that really made me think in this film. At a large ball that occurs in the film, the Prince of England discusses the plight of the French aristocrats saying:
“If a country goes mad, it has the right to commit every horror within it’s own walls.”
Yeah, a lot of that going on in the world right now.
Robinson Crusoe (1954)
Robinson Crusoe is the story of a man stranded on a remote island who must learn to survive on his own, slowly learning to control his environment. It is based on the classic novel by Daniel Defoe, from 1719. This particular version is special because it’s the first English film of surrealist director Luis Buñuel, famous for Un Chien Andalou, The Exterminating Angel, and The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
I’ve never read the book, so I can’t speak to how closely it follows the original story, but the film makes heavy use of narration from the main character. It’s almost essential in a story where the main character is along for 75% of the film. Crusoe is shipwrecked on the island, and is able to salvage some things, including a cat that was on board. This gives him a good head start with tools, weapons, ammunition and some food. He also discovers that his dog Rex has survived and finds him on the island.
The film makes it clear that before being shipwrecked he was a wealthy man, not used to working, but he slowly learns how to use the tools he has. He builds a palisade to keep himself safe, and digs out a cave. He is able to improve his situation slightly each day, learning to hunt, finding goats to tame, and eventually finding wild wheat growing that he can begin to harvest.
Crusoe is played by Dan O’Herlihy, who had an extraordinary longevity in film and television, working for 50 years. He also received his first and only Oscar nomination for this film. He was in good company that year, up against Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, who eventually won. Brando’s performance was legendary of course, but I think O’Herlihy was a deserving candidate. He has exactly one co-star, who doesn’t appear until the last third of the film, and then a final few scenes with some new castaways before the film ends, otherwise, he’s playing against a cat, a dog, or in one memorable scene, himself.
In a dream sequence that’s very reminiscent of Buñuel’s style, Crusoe sees his father while suffering from a fever. The father scolds Crusoe for ever leaving in the first place, while Crusoe begs for water. Eventually, he gets out of bed, grabs an axe, and tries to attack, but passes out. He eventually survives.
In this sequence we see the old surrealist Buñuel peek out. This is what he is known for, but this is his first all English film (he normally made films in Spanish), and I imagine this was a film he needed to be successful in order to make the transition to American films. So it’s no wonder the film is fairly straightforward. Eventually he’d start exploring more unique setups, but this is the only evidence we have of the experimental Buñuel.
Throughout the film, he laments his loneliness, and wishes to find a way to escape. The film jumps forward to Crusoe’s 18th year on the island. As he walks down the beach, he sees a footstep that he didn’t make. He immediately panics, dousing his fire, scattering his goats to hide his presence, and arming himself. He sees the intruders, a tribe of cannibals! He watches them carefully and sees one of their prisoners try to escape. He intervenes, saving the man, and killing two men pursuing him. He takes the prisoner with him, mainly to keep him from alerting the others, and allows him to stay.
This starts a series of scenes that to a modern audience are pretty gross. Crusoe decides he needs to ‘civilize’ the man, naming him Friday, since that is the day of the week. He treats Friday like a slave, having him call him ‘master’. He makes him sleep on the ground, he refuses to let him touch a weapon, and uses his gun to intimidate him, firing off shots near him and killing game. He is incredibly paranoid, and assumes the worst about Friday at all times. He secures his room with a door and sleeps with a gun next to his bed.
In one of the lighter moments of this otherwise dark series of scenes, Friday tries to take a pipe. Crusoe grabs it from him and says completely unironically:
“Someday if you’re good, I’ll teach you to smoke.”
Eventually, Crusoe gets so paranoid, he puts Friday in leg irons, which of course makes him angry. There’s a turning point here though. As Crusoe awakens the next morning, he tries to send Friday away, but Friday prefers death to leaving. He tells him that if they go to the island together, Friday will be able to vouch for him, keeping them both safe. Crusoe doesn’t believe him, but decides that Friday is trustworthy, he takes off the leg irons, and begins to trust him more.
We see the relationship become more equal, and Crusoe comments on how having a second person to help with work is preferable to working alone. Buñuel also sets up a great misdirect here. We see Friday giving Crusoe a haircut, and we have the sense that he is still treated like a servant. However, once he is done, Crusoe stands up, and Friday sits down in the chair to get his hair cut. They are a team. This is such a great scene. Buñuel shows us how much Crusoe has changed in his time on the island. He began his journey traveling across the ocean to sell slaves, but now someone he previously would have thought of as inferior is his equal.
The film jumps forward to Crusoe’s 28th year on the island, when a group of mutineers lands on the island to dump their captain. Crusoe manages to capture the mutineers and make a deal with the captain to get passage home. The mutineers choose to stay on the island, and Crusoe gives them his written instructions on how to survive there.
I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this movie after the first twenty minutes or so, but Buñuel was able to really keep things moving and the film was incredibly engaging. I assumed watching Crusoe slowly improve his stake in life would get boring over the 90 minute runtime, but O’Herlihy manages to keep us rooting for him through the entire film.
In some ways, it reminds me of a modern video game genre, started by Minecraft, and continued by games like RimWorld and others. In these games the players start with little to nothing, and then have to slowly build up their resources and tools and learn how to survive. I have no idea if the creators of those games took inspiration from the story of Robinson Crusoe, but the feel is the same, and they definitely gave me a hankering to load up Minecraft again.
The film is gorgeous, and likely paved the way for Buñuel to transition into his later American films, so let’s all be thankful for that. But even without that little historical importance, it’s still a very strong film. Maybe not an all-time great film, but something we can and should look back on and appreciate on it’s own merits.
The Double Feature
Robinson Crusoe saved this pairing, for sure. The Scarlet Pimpernel has some good moments, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of dull, mainly interesting for Leslie Howard’s performance and not much else. Robinson Crusoe is colorful and engaging, with great acting and a timeless story. So they didn’t go great together as adventure films. But as strong acting performances, they go together quite well.
Also, while Robinson Crusoe is certainly more well known than the Pimpernel, but there have been quite a few film adaptations of both, and I imagine for some people, they’re about equally famous and beloved.
But I did get to watch two films I hadn’t seen before, and found things to enjoy in both. I was able to engage my sense of discovery, which is one of the major things I want to explore in this blog.
My allergies have been insanely bad the past few days, and it’s been tough to get out and do simple things that I’ve normally been able to do. That’s frustrating, but I know I’m getting better, and I started allergy shots today, so that’s hopefully the start of me getting better on that front.
I also went by the IU Cinema the other day and said hi to the director, Jon Vickers. I hadn’t been by the Cinema in a long time, and it was good to wander in. The IU Cinema used to be one of the most important things in my life, and I’ve had to mostly give it up since I started grad school. Writing this blog has really made me understand how much I enjoy film and how important that part of my life has been in the past. So it’s nice for me to get back to.
So, my next post is my 10th. I wanted to do something a little more fun, but still intellectually stimulating. So I’m going to bend a couple of rules and do the following two films:
George Lucas – Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
James Gunn – Guardians Of the Galaxy (2014)
So, Guardians of the Galaxy is fairly new, which I was trying to avoid, and both films I know very well, so that’s another rule I’m bending. But I think every 10 posts or so I’ll allow myself to do something like this, where we look at films that aren’t obscure, either to the public or to me, and see what kinds of comparisons and observations we can make.
In this case, I want to look at these films because they’re space operas from different eras. One modernized the space opera, bringing respectability to the science fiction genre, and the other was able to refresh the superhero genre. I think both are great films, and I’m looking forward to examining both of them.
See you then.