By Cynthia McLeod
The Scarlet Pimpernel comes across as a good action and romance movie. Set in 1793 in Paris, France during the Reign of Terror, Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour present two delightful performances as The Scarlet Pimpernel (Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet) and his wife, Marguerite St. Just Blakeney. Mr. Andrews cuts a dashing figure in the fashion of the times for aristocratic men: slim fitting slacks, high boots and elaborate, lacy shirts underneath brocade jackets. Ms. Seymour wears beautiful, lavish low-cut dresses made of rustling, many petticoated layers of beautiful materials. One inaccuracy for the times is that she, and all the female characters, wear full make-up with lots of mascara. The movie's basic plot is that the Pimpernel and his men rescue many condemned people from the Bastille during France's Reign of Terror. It is an enjoyable movie that has one wondering how the Pimpernel will escape each time he gets into a situation with the Republic's men. France had been proclaimed a republic in September 1792, one month after the king and queen were imprisoned. And, the ending-well, you will just have to see for yourself.
Simply put, the plot is about the lower class and peasant citizens of France, who call themselves "the Republic," who have had it up to their necks with the lavish extravagance and wasteful excess of the aristocracy and the royalty. The peasants want to run France because they are done with paying excessive taxes to support the wealthy, while they, the working class, go hungry and barefoot. So, to rid themselves of the problem of the aristocracy and royalty, La Madame Guillotine does her job many times daily. The guillotine, ironically, was named after a French physician, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who proposed its use in 1789, no doubt to eliminate lingering deaths that cruder weapons might have caused, like the ax or the time-consuming process of burning people at the stake. Devices similar to the guillotine had been in use before this time in history. Monsieur Guillotin apparently did not have to take the Hippocratic Oath to practice medicine in France in the late 1700s!
Now, imagine yourself in the town square in Paris, with the sun streaming down and your children playing nearby, as hundreds of spectators spend the day watching and cheering as each "aristo" head flops off the assembly line of death. As each "undesirable aristocrat" is led up the steps of the guillotine platform, uniformed men sound their drum roll and the crowds go crazy with cheering, clearly enjoying the entertainment. Food vendors even stroll through the carnival atmosphere crowd and peddle their wares. During the "Reign of Terror," April, 1793 to July, 1794, about 40,000 French men and women were executed or died in prison. More human souls, numbering around 300,000, filled the crowded prisons during this time. People wondered if the monarchy had been replaced by a bloody dictatorship.
Meanwhile, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette of Austria, are already in prison along with their eight year old son, the heir to the French throne. The King is executed in January, 1793, in the central square of Paris, now known as the Place de la Concorde. The Queen is executed in October, 1793, and all this time their son languishes in The Temple Prison. The Republicans want the young heir for their own purposes later on. But, the young heir only lives to the age of ten years old when he was believed to die of tuberculosis while still a prisoner, but some believe he escaped prison. At the beginning of the king's reign, when Louis ascended the throne in 1774, France was already heavily burdened with debts and the people had been heavily taxed for some time. The pot was heating up and boiling towards a revolution. If history could be rewritten, whoever the king and queen were at the time would probably have received the same death sentence, as the absurdly lavish royal excesses had been in vogue for decades.
Now, back to 1793: The Scarlet Pimpernel and his league of men consider it their mission to help as many people as possible keep their heads attached, spiriting them away right from under the Republic's nose and out of the Bastille. The Pimpernel and his men are adept masters of disguise. The Bastille is where the innocent aristocrats await their execution and that is exactly where Percy and his men rescue them from. The Bastille is a former prison fortress that was built about 1370 to fortify the east wall of the city of Paris. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bastille was used primarily for housing political prisoners. At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the Bastille was attacked and captured by a mob assisted by royal troops.
For the romantic interest, woven in with numerous rescue attempts is the story of the Pimpernel and the woman he eventually marries. Marguerite knows nothing of her husband's alias, and for most of the movie never even entertains the idea that he could be "man enough" to be the Pimpernel. Towards the end, important events cause her to learn his identity, and this knowledge can mean the difference between life and death for her beloved Percy. As Marguerite accidentally discovers, the alias of the Scarlet Pimpernel comes from a flower on Percy Blakeney's family crest. During the movie, Percy is seen sealing his "underground" correspondence with his ring bearing the red wax pimpernel seal. The film's attention to detail is evident throughout many scenes, and a number of those social and cultural events are explained in this review. To complete the film's romantic plot, Percy and Marguerite are married by a Roman Catholic priest. At the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, Percy gives his new bride a gold ring, a tradition that had been popular since the 16th century. During the wedding reception, Percy and Marguerite perform the minuet, a popular dance of the 1790s. The French seem to do quite a bit of dancing, (maybe their form of exercise at the time). The minuet is a 3/4 meter dance that was introduced during the 17th century at the court of Louis XIV of France, and achieved its greatest popularity during the 18th century. During the 1790s, the musical instrument of choice is the harpsichord (French, clavecin), that produces a beautifully unusual sound. It was developed in Europe in the 14th or 15th century and was widely used from the 16th to the early 19th century, when it was superseded by the piano. series. The film also pays attention to detail during an outdoor party, where there is a male Asian peacock, known by his beautiful tail feather display.
The film illustrates with some accuracy the eighteenth century enjoyment of snuff, the function of signet rings, and the use of maps and weapon. Percy uses his signet ring pressed into hot wax to place a seal on his underground correspondence. Seals were used in Mesopotamia as early as 3200 BC, where people used clay to imprint their design with a stone or bone seal. After the fall of Rome the use of seals also fell, but they were revived in the 12th century, and used by church and state officials. Then, since rescuing people is Percy's main concern, Percy and his men utilize a detailed map of France when locating rendezvous points in their rescue campaigns. The first maps to show compass variation were produced in the first half of the 17th century, and the first charts to show ocean currents were made about 1665. By the 18th century, the scientific principles of mapmaking were well established and inaccuracies in maps usually involved unexplored parts of the world. One thing we notice Percy doing throughout the movie is sniffing something he has tapped from a small container onto his hand. This container is a small, trinket-like box for storing snuff , a finely pulverized tobacco. Snuff, or tobacco, was brought to Spain from Santo Domingo in 1556 and was introduced to France the same year by the French diplomat Jean Nicot, from whom the plant derived its generic name, nicotine. To conclude these comments on the movie's attention to detail, the Pimpernel defends himself by fighting with a sword at the end of the movie. For this and a few other reasons, the sword fight is certainly worth waiting for. Percy's weapon is a sword, a weapon that has a history dating to the Egyptians as early as 2000 BC, when they made swords of bronze. The sword is a personal weapon and is effective only in one-on-one fighting.
The author of this story is Emma Orczy, Baroness, born in Hungary in 1865; she was educated in Brussels, Paris and London, and died in 1947. She was quite a prolific writer, also writing several other stories about the Pimpernel, which are considered to be in the romance and historical tradition. The Scarlet Pimpernel was originally written for the stage, and the Baroness later re-wrote it into the novel we know today.
The Scarlet Pimpernel helped many potential victims of the Reign of Terror to retain their heads. A helpful reference book on this subject would be The Oxford History of the French Revolution, a 480 page book authored by William Doyle and published by Oxford University Press in July, 1989. A monarchy and a republic can both be ruled fairly or unfairly. This was evidenced by the monarchy that was overthrown by the majority. Then, the Reign of Terror made a republic look worse than the monarchy had been. The years leading up to the overthrow of King Louis XVI and his lavishly extravagant Marie Antoinette make for interesting reading. For a first-hand account by an English poet and novelist, one can read Eye-Witness Account of the French Revolution by Helen Maria Williams: Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France, edited by Jack Fruchtman, Jr., and published by Lang, Peter Publishing, Incorporated, in March 1997. Ms. Williams lived from 1761-1827 and had friends and acquaintances who were friends and enemies of France. Then, there is the Queen, Marie Antoinette, on whom much is blamed. A book drawing on a wealth of family letters and other documents includes other key figures in history such as Mozart and Jefferson. Was Marie Antoinette responsible for the French Revolution or was she just a pawn? Read Marie Antoinette: The Journey, authored by Antonia Fraser, published by Doubleday & Company, Incorporated, September 2001, to find out.