By Philip Schweier
March 5, 2013 - 12:29
Who would you say is the first super-hero? Most people might
immediately suggest Superman (1938), but it is widely accepted that he inspired
by several predecessors, including Hugo Danner, the super-human star of the
1930 novel, Gladiator, by Philip Gordon Wylie.
Okay, let’s try again: Who is the first costumed crime-fighter? Well, the Phantom by Lee Falk first appeared in comic strip form in 1936, but before that, Zorro leaped from the pages of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel, The Curse of Capistrano.
Merle Oberon (left) and Leslie Howard (right) in the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel
But a better writer than I once said, “The play is the thing,” and that is where the Scarlet Pimpernel began – on the stage, in a play by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It opened in October, 1903 to less than stellar reviews at first, but a hasty rewrite won audiences over.
The novel was published shortly afterward and its success led to numerous sequels written over the next 35 years. Since then, the story has been adapted for virtually every form of media.
As with many defenders of justice, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a master of disguise, an imaginative tactician, a formidable swordsman and a daring escape artist. He taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower – a scarlet pimpernel. Like many later heroes, he hides his true identity behind that of a witless dandy.
Anthony Andrews as Sir Percival Blakeny
This leads to a strain in their marriage. Sir Percy estranges himself from his wife, developing a reputation in the eyes of the general public as a shallow fop.
Richard E. Grant and Elizabeth McGovern
Following one such rescue, Marguerite is approached by Chauvelin, the French envoy to England. Using her brother’s life as leverage, he coerces Lady Blakeny into divining the Pimpernel’s true identity. Forced to choose between a faceless legend and her brother, she reluctantly agrees.
When Lady Blakeny eventually informs her witless husband of the terrible bind she is in, Percy promises to intervene on her brother’s behalf. When Percy unexpectedly leaves for France, Lady Blakeny realizes he must be the Pimpernel. She follows Percy to France to warn him of Chauvelin’s plot to trap him. Nevertheless, through craft and guile, Sir Percy is able to outwit Chauvelin, rescue Marguerite’s brother and escape to England.
Ian McKellan as Chauvelin
I recently read the original novel, which is relatively short, yet challenging due to its out-dated writing style. It hasn’t the swashbuckling adventure one might expect, but is long on intrigue. Orczy applies a number of strategic elements which reminded me of Walter Gibson’s literary sleight-of-hand in The Shadow stories of the 1930s.