Pimpernel Smith (1941)

In 1905, a Hungarian-born, British novelist named Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orci, usually shortened to Emma Orczy, invented the “superhero.” Half a century before Batman, Sir Percy Blakeney, by day a wealthy English fop, assumed the “secret identity” of the Scarlett Pimpernel, a dashing swordsman and master of disguise who rescued French aristocrats from the guillotine. Emma Orczy made no secret of her reactionary politics. She hated democracy, and was a firm believer in British imperialism. During the First World War, she formed a society of upper-class British women dedicated to shame young Englishmen into dying in the trenches. She was also a rabid anticommunist and antisemite.

It made perfect sense, therefore, for Emma Orczy to cast Robespierre and the Jacobins as the villains of her novel, the Scarlet Pimpernel. “Scientific” racism, radical antisemitism, and fascism all have their source, ultimately, in the right-wing reaction against the French Revolution. With the idea of a feudal hierarchy no longer viable, it was replaced by the idea of a racial hierarchy. Instead of lords and ladies ruling over ignorant peasants, we now had the British and French ruling over people Rudyard Kipling called “new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child.” Instead of Louis XIV or Charles I ruling as “Gods anointed” we had blond, blue-eyed Aryans taking up the “white man’s burden” as history’s anointed.

It also makes sense that in the Hollywood of the 2010s the superhero replaced the gangster and the cowboy. John Wayne may have represented the American empire at its height and Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano the American empire in its post-Vietnam decline, but cowboys and gangsters are working-class figures, ordinary men capable of extraordinary violence out of moral necessity or moral depravity. The superhero, on the other hand, is an aristocrat. Whether a superhuman alien like Superman or a supercharged mutant like Spider-Man, he rises as far above his fellow Americans as Kipling’s Anglo Saxon elite rose above the dark, sullen masses of Egypt and India. Batman, the most reactionary, openly fascist super-hero, is just some dude with more money, the perfect symbol of an America that had replaced any pretense of democracy with the rule of an oligarchy chosen by Wall Street.

In the 1930s, after the United States elected an elegant Harvard graduate as its first social democratic President, and then reelected him three times, and France came close to democratic socialism under Léon Blum’s Popular Front, French and American cinema began to feature a type of leading man who reflected the ideals of the New Deal, a sensitive, romantic hero from an upper-class background ready to fight for the people. Ronald Coleman, who played Sidney Carton in Jack Conway’s classic 1935 dramatization of Tale of Two Cities, Pierre Fresnay, who starred in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion as a French aristocrat who was not only willing to admit democracy was inevitable, but to die in order to help a Jewish and a working class comrade escape a German prisoner of war camp, and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, were all decisive men of action, but they had no love of violence for the sake of violence. They were gentlemen with the emphasis on “gentle,” heroes who did what they had to do to save their loved ones from the bad guys, but who would have much rather been engaging in witty repartee with some eligible lady in a Jane Austen novel.

Leslie Howard, who was so disappointing as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, largely because he had nothing to do, was the ideal romantic hero, and, therefore, the ideal Scarlett Pimpernel. Blond, blue-eyed, slim, graceful, and with a voice that almost seemed designed by God to read Keats and Shakespeare out loud, he was exactly the kind of Englishman American girls dreamed about whenever the boy next door seemed just a little too coarse and ordinary.

If Harold Young’s 1934 production of The Scarlett Pimpernel still holds up today, it suffers from the way the screenplay had to work around Baroness Orczy’s reactionary politics and not so subtle antisemitism. You could make an entertaining film by portraying Robespierre and the Jacobins as proto-Nazis and the court of King George III as an enlightened, liberal refuge from the chaos of the French Revolution, but there were just too many historical inaccuracies and dramatic contradictions for the film to rise above mildly entertaining escapism. In 1792, would one of the richest men in England really have married a former French actress and prostitute? Jane Austen forbid. He would have simply kept her as his mistress. Would the French ambassador in England have risked his diplomatic status in order to lure more aristocrats, who are all portrayed as wonderful, sympathetic people, back to Paris to have their heads chopped off? That’s not the way it worked. The red terror of 1792 and 1793 did at times get out of hand, but it was hardly an international conspiracy dedicated to wiping every lady and gentleman in London who knew how to chose a good bottle of wine and a finely tailored suit out of existence. As much as the English and American cultural elite would like us to believe, the French Revolutionary Terror was not fascism. The Jacobins were not Nazis and Robespierre was not Hitler.

Has there ever been a positive portrayal of the French Revolution in the English speaking world? I can’t think of one. Mark Twain says a few nice things about the guillotine in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but I can’t thin of a singe Hollywood movie that portrays the heroic French working class of 1789 as the progressive revolutionary force they were. Conway’s 1935 Tale of Two Cities does at times come close but in the end, the only people we see go to the guillotine are sympathetic, wonderful people who would have been all for democracy, if only it hadn’t gone so crazy and if only it hadn’t had so many scary working class feminists like Madame DeFarge.

In 1940 at the darkest moment of the Second World War, Leslie Howard starred in and directed Pimpernel Smith, an anti-fascist reboot of the Scarlett Pimpernel set in 1939 on the eve of the German invasion of Poland. Howard, the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was putting his life in danger. With its scathing depiction of a fat, boorish Gestapo General obviously meant to be fictionalized Herman Goering, and a hilariously stupid minister of propaganda, just as obviously intended to mock Joseph Goebbels, a successful German invasion of England or a coup by a pro-Nazi faction of the British ruling class surely would have shipped Howard right off to a concentration camp. To be honest, Howard is such a fervent English patriot, I don’t think he would have admitted the possibility. A fascist England? Never.

The amazing thing about Pimpernel Smith is that while it jettisons Emma Orczy’s antisemitism, and while it gets at the heart of what makes fascism fascism as well as any movie I’ve ever seen, Howard retains the Scarlet Pimpernel’s elitism and sympathy for aristocratic rule. Pimpernel Smith is a great anti-fascist movie, but it is not a leftist, democratic, or even a liberal movie. For Lesie Howard, who plays Horatio Smith, an absent minded professor of archeology in England, and an anti-Nazi superhero in Germany, the real cause of fascism isn’t political or economic. It’s spiritual. Germany has fallen under the rule of thugs who don’t deserve to govern, violent coarse, humorless men who love violence for the sake of violence, power for the sake of power.

Indeed, while nobody in 1941 quite knew just how bad the Nazi concentration camps were — the American and Soviet armies only discovered the death camps in 1945 — there is a terrific scene early in the film set in one of Hitler’s camps for liberal and leftist political prisoners. As the prisoners, cultivated, intellectuals and artists, talk about their chances of ever seeing the outside, one of the guards, a brutal thug with a coarse, working-class accent, picks up a rifle and points it in their direction. You can see the evil gleam in his eyes as he realizes how much power he has over the men under his control, the almost sexual joy of an inferior man when he realizes he can terrify his betters.

As Leslie Howard quite prophetically depicted, however, low-class thugs like this are “doomed,” not only because they have no hope of understanding British culture, Shakespeare, P.G. Wodehouse, Louis Carroll and Rupert Brooke, but because they have no sense of humor. Humorless, joyless men who live only for a sense of power and domination are addicts who will never get enough. If Howard fails to predict that it would ultimately be the Russian working class who would beat Hitler he really doesn’t have to. He knew deep in his bones that that Nazis would eventually do something as stupid as hoping for a quick victory over Stalin or declaring war on the United States the day after Pearl Harbor. The beefy Gestapo agent dumb enough to fall for the willowy Englishman trolling him with conspiracy theories about the Earl of Oxford writing Shakespeare’s plays may have state power, guns, the ability to kill without consequences, but in the end he’s basically just a heroin addict looking for his next fix, easily manipulated by a superior intellect.

Pimpernel Smith in fact holds up so well that it’s tempting to apply Leslie Howard’s lessons to the American ruling class today. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton are addicted to money, not violence for its own sake, but they are addicted nonetheless. Are they doomed? The American ruling class in the 1930s was smart enough to allow themselves to be led by Franklin Roosevelt, to kick back some of their wealth to a working class suffering under the Great Depression. Today’s ruling class, on the other hand doesn’t seemed inclined to give an inch. Bernie Sanders, like Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, is giving them the way out, a chance to save capitalism. They can easily buy us off with Medicare for All, free college, and a few minor reforms, but they seem determined, not only to hold the line against social democratic reforms, but to extract even more money from the miserable, opiate addicted, unemployed proletariat. They want it all.

Perhaps they are doomed.

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