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A rousing WWII take on The Scarlet Pimpernel, with Leslie Howard,
This review is from: Pimpernel Smith ( Mister V ) ( The Fighting Pimpernel ) [DVD] (DVD)Note that many elements of the plot are discussed.
It's summer, 1939, in Germany. On a Nazi work farm, elderly prisoners are using primitive hoes and shovels to dig up a field. Strutting around them is a guard carrying a rifle and a whip. Nearby a scarecrow with a burlap face and straw sticking out of its gloves is tied to a post. "Stop talking," the guard snarls. He raises his rifle and points it at one of the prisoners, a man who had been a famous pianist. The prisoners cower and the guard laughs as he slowly aims the rifle at different prisoners. Finally he turns, aims the rifle at the scarecrow and fires. The prisoners begin digging again as the guard turns away. We see a thin line of blood begin to drip from the scarecrow's hand to the ground.
The next day on a train leaving a German city, a small group of English college students are reading a newspaper. The students are led by their archeology professor, Horatio Smith, a forgetful, eccentric, life-long bachelor who abhors violence and finds Nazis impossible to take seriously. The students read that a political prisoner, a famous pianist, had been taken from a work camp. The Gestapo believe he was aided by a man disguised as a scarecrow who was wounded. One of the students turns to Professor Smith, who is quietly reading, and starts to ask the Professor what he thinks...but he stops in mid-question. He motions to the others to look at Professor Smith's wrist. Barely visible is a bloodied bandage.
Pimpernel Smith is one of the great British WWII films designed to strengthen the morale of the British people, and while doing so, to ridicule the Nazis and emphasize their ruthlessness. Thanks to a timeless story and the skills of Leslie Howard as an actor and director, Pimpernel Smith also is a great romantic adventure.
Professor Smith (Howard) was responsible for a number of abductions. He believes the Nazis stand for all which is primitive and bestial. He became determined to save as many as he could of those who stood for the best of civilization. After his students discover what he has been doing while disappearing at times from their archeological dig, he plans to send them home. They insist on staying and helping him. They rescue several more prisoners, including a Polish newspaper publisher whose daughter, Ludmilla Koslowski (Mary Morris), has been tricked by Gestapo General von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan) into helping him capture this phantom. And Professor Smith, the bachelor whose ideal of woman is an ancient Greek statue, begins to realize Miss Koslowski is a treasure he never thought he'd meet.
While his students escort two Gestapo victims to freedom across the border, Professor Smith returns to Berlin alone to rescue Miss Koslowski. The climax of the movie is a deadly cat and mouse game between Smith and von Graum, who has become obsessed with this Englishman. He captures Smith right after Smith has seen to Ludmilla's safety at a border crossing. It's late at night and he has Smith stand under an outdoor light in front of the border gate. He holds a pistol in his hand. He intends to shoot Smith while Smith is "escaping." But a small disturbance, a wisp of smoke, a trace of fog and Smith is gone. All von Graum can hear is a whisper in the night from Smith that he will be back, sooner or later he will be back, and there will be tens of thousands with him.
This movie has clever action, smart dialogue and an understated romance. The themes of patriotism, steadfastness and valor are all there, but so is an expertly made adventure story. The movie works because Leslie Howard, in translating the Scarlet Pimpernel story in which he starred in 1935 to 1939, has created a believable character who at first seems eccentric and ineffectual, and then shows himself to be brave, witty, resourceful and even romantic. Howard does a grand job of it.
The version I have and treasure is an old VHS tape with a below average quality transfer. I don't know the quality of this DVD transfer. I wouldn't take a blind chance on this DVD, as good as the movie is, unless the price (as of May 15, 2010) were cut at least in half.