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'Pimpernel' Smith (1940)

Main image of 'Pimpernel' Smith (1940)
35mm, 118 min, black & white
DirectorLeslie Howard
Production CompanyBritish National Films
ProducerLeslie Howard
Screenplay and ScenarioAnatole De Grunwald
PhotographyMutz Greenbaum
MusicJohn Greenwood

Cast: Leslie Howard (Professor Horatio Smith); Francis Sullivan (General Von Graum); Mary Morris (Ludmilla Koslowski); Hugh McDermott (David Maxwell); Raymond Huntley (Marx); Peter Gawthorne (Sidimir Koslowski)

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In the weeks prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, an English archaeologist is responsible for a series of daring rescues of important scientists and humanitarians from Nazi-occupied territories.

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Sticking with surprising fidelity to its source and effectively transplanting five characters and sundry plot details, this wartime update of The Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Harold Young, 1934) - which also starred Leslie Howard - is a highly efficient piece of propaganda.

The American among Smith's student allies, for instance, functions as a metaphor for his country, still officially neutral when the film was being made. Similarly, the jokes involving Von Graum's inability to understand British humour, and his claim that scholars have proven that Shakespeare was German, serve a deeper purpose than mere mockery of the enemy. The film implies that humour is one of the characteristics separating the humane from the machine-like and pitiless, and Von Graum's lack of it makes him a deadly figure, not a comic one. (The reverse goes for Smith's absent-mindedness, which, unlike the foppish banality of the original Pimpernel's alter-ego, is both genuine and intended for our approval.) In a final speech that predicts Hitler's inexorable march toward hubristic self-destruction with striking prescience, Smith explains that it is the fact that the fascist mentality mistakes these strengths for weaknesses that will be its undoing.

Perhaps more surprising than its efficiency as propaganda is the film's excellence as narrative cinema. Though it shares the first film's odd desire to look away from potentially exciting episodes - we never learn how the second escapee was hidden in the hostel, or exactly how Meyer's rescue was affected in the scarecrow sequence - this is a much more satisfying film than its model. Howard's direction combines interesting ideas (our first glimpse of Germany is a tourist sign reading 'Come To Romantic Germany', upon which the camera remains fixed as the sounds of a ranting Hitler, marching boots and machine-gun fire are heard) with superb film noir-like lighting effects. The latter is especially notable when Smith's identity is discovered on the train (a patch of light from an unknown source isolates his piercing eyes) and at the climax, in which Smith and Von Graum match wits at the German border.

This final scene achieves a near-supernatural quality, with Smith vanishing almost impossibly into the night, his whispering voice somehow remaining behind him. Coming to this extraordinary sequence today we cannot help but bring to it echoes of Howard's own death at the hands of just these enemies, making it not only every bit as stirring as Howard intended, but also genuinely poignant.

Matthew Coniam

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Video Clips
Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)
Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)
Tomlinson, David (1917-2000)