Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution, written by Rafael Sabatini, was published in 1921. It was made into a movie, simply titled Scaramouche, in 1923. It was then remade in 1952. That the remake is the better movie is not surprising: this is often the case when the original was a silent film.
Somewhat surprising, though, is the fact that the 1952 movie is so much better than the novel. There are different reasons for this, which I shall refer to as the occasion warrants, but only in a limited way. There are so many differences between the novel and this movie that it would be tedious just to enumerate them, let alone go into any detail. Just as the characters in commedia dell’arte, of whom Scaramouche is one, can be combined and rearranged to tell different stories, so too are the characters in the novel combined and rearranged to tell a somewhat different story in this movie as well, one that realizes more fully what the novel first suggested. The 1923 silent film is far more faithful to the novel, and to that extent, it suffers from the same defects. Therefore, the focus of this review will be on the 1952 remake.
As is often the case with stories set in France around the time of the French Revolution, the theme of Scaramouche (1952) is the brotherhood of man, the third part of the slogan, Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) is the bastard son of an unknown aristocrat who has supported him for years as a way of buying his silence. His lover is Lenore (Eleanor Parker), an actress with a traveling troupe that performs in commedia dell’arte. Though they plan to get married, yet one can see a certain playfulness between them, and thus we never take their relationship too seriously. Philippe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson), Andre’s adoptive brother, is to be their best man, but the marriage plans get temporarily interrupted when Andre finds out that soldiers are looking for Philippe, having discovered that he is the author of subversive pamphlets under the nom de guerre “Marcus Brutus.”
Needing a little extra money for his upcoming nuptials, Andre goes to the lawyer Fabian, who has mediated the allowance payments, in order to get an advance. When Andre finds out that the allowance has been cut off, he compels Fabian to tell him that his father is the Count de Gavrillac. With Philippe by his side, he journeys to the Gavrillac estate to insist that the allowance be continued. Along the way he meets and falls in love with Aline (Janet Leigh). Unlike his relationship with Lenore, this love is serious, the love of his life. But, alas, he soon discovers that she is the daughter of the Count de Gavrillac, and thus is his sister. Later, he also finds out that the Count de Gavrillac has died, thereby explaining why the allowance has been stopped. He does not tell Aline about her father’s shameful secret, and so she does not realize that they are brother and sister. But she knows that Andre is in love with her, and she does not understand why he starts pretending that he is not.
He and Philippe stop off at an inn, where they run into Noel, Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), who realizes that Philippe is Marcus Brutus, the author of the pamphlets. Rather than have him arrested, he provokes Philippe into a duel so he can have the pleasure killing him himself. After Noel runs Philippe through, Andre picks up Philippe’s sword and tries to kill the Marquis. He has no sword-fighting ability, however, and is easily thwarted. Nevertheless, Andre swears that he will kill Noel with a sword, making him die the way Philippe did. Having thus threatened Noel, he has to flee, with soldiers in pursuit. To avoid being imprisoned, Andre joins the troupe as Scaramouche, a stock character who wears a mask. This gives him time to take fencing lessons.
Meanwhile, at the behest of Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch), Noel, who is her lover, reluctantly agrees to marry Aline, so that his noble family can continue, but he soon falls in love with her. Eventually Andre is ready to meet Noel in a duel, but complications keep them apart, owing to the devices of Lenore and Aline, who conspire to prevent the duel, for they both love Andre and are afraid he will be killed. Finally, one night at the theater, Andre, as Scaramouche, spots Noel in the audience, removes his mask, and the long-awaited sword fight begins. And yet, when he finally has his sword at Noel’s breast, he finds that he cannot kill him. Later, he discovers the reason why from his adoptive father. It seems that Andre’s real father was not the Count de Gavrillac, but the previous Marquis de Maynes, and thus he and Noel are brothers. As his adoptive father tells him, he could not kill his brother. This also means that Andre and Aline are not really brother and sister, and thus are free to marry.
The idea that Andre cannot kill Noel because, unbeknownst to him, they are brothers is far-fetched. Not only are we being asked to believe that Andre, through some mysterious power of intuition, could sense that he and Noel were brothers, but we are also supposed to accept the notion that this would keep Andre from running him through, even though men have been killing their brothers since Cain killed Abel. But this is to be understood metaphorically, with “could not” standing for “should not.” That is, a man should not kill his brother, and so, given the brotherhood of man, no man should kill any other man. It is in this metaphorical sense that just before his duel with Philippe, Noel said, “A de Maynes is no man’s brother,” although he also thought he had no brother in the literal sense too. In any event, all the confusion as to who is the brother (or sister) of whom throughout this movie, leads us to the question, “Who is my brother?” for which the answer is “Everyone.”
As noted above, there are several differences between this movie and the novel on which it is based, but in many ways, this 1952 movie is better. Let me begin with a simple example. This is the opening line of the novel: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” The idea that the world is mad is one that sees the futility in trying to do much about it. At best, you can try to stay out of the way and try to keep this mad world from hurting you. What better setting could there be for such an attitude than the French revolution and its Reign of Terror?
Such resignation would seem to be depressing, and to some it might well be so. But once we have accepted the inevitable, the way is open to see humor in the situation. Not everyone will admire someone who takes this attitude toward the world. They may believe that evil must be fought against, even if it triumphs in the end. But the attitude of Andre Moreau, the one referred to in that opening line, is one that rises above this world by laughing at it.
And so, it is important that the development of this character will exemplify what is said about him. This is not easily achieved in a novel. When Andre joins the troupe that performs commedia dell’arte, taking the role of Scaramouche, we have to imagine that the performances are funny. In the 1923 movie, there is the opportunity to render the performances of the troupe as being funny, since now we can see them, but the movie fails to realize this possibility. In the 1952 remake, however, the performances are hilarious. It is pure slapstick, which can often fall flat, but no matter how many times I have seen this movie, I find myself laughing all over again at the antics on the stage.
But even before Andre trod the boards in the 1952 version, he is portrayed as having a great sense of humor, even being something of a trickster. He refuses to take anything seriously, making jokes when his friend Philippe shows him the pamphlet he has written inveighing against the tyranny of the aristocrats in the days leading up to the French Revolution. This sense of humor is not as evident in the novel. And in the 1923 movie, it is completely absent. Andre comes across as mirthless. In fact, in the opening scene of that silent film, a poacher has been killed on orders from the Marquis, and has been returned to his home by the gamekeeper, who warns others in the village that this is what will happen to them if they do any poaching themselves. Philippe is horrified. Andre looks down upon the corpse, and in the intertitle, we are told who he is, along with the opening line of the novel. I suppose that looking at the dead man might cause one to think that the world is mad, but this is the wrong moment to tell us that Andre has a gift of laughter, especially when Philippe is soon after killed in a duel with the Marquis. In the 1952 remake, however, Andre’s gift of laughter has been well-established by the time Philippe is killed. That sobers Andre up, sure enough, but only after we know of Andre’s sense of humor.
In the novel and the 1923 movie, Andre is a lawyer. In the 1952 remake, there is no sense that Andre has a profession at all. We know he’s been educated. When Philippe shows him the pamphlet he has written, the one he has put his heart into, railing against injustice, Andre flippantly comments on all the grammatical mistakes in it, as a way of showing his indifference to its content. Despite his education, however, Andre does not have a job, his allowance being sufficient to permit him to enjoy the good life. It is easy to imagine such a man, a bachelor of independent means and no responsibilities, joking about the madness of the world from which he can easily remain aloof.
In the novel and the silent film, Andre goes from being lawyer, to making his living acting the part of Scaramouche, and then to becoming a fencing instructor. In the 1952 version, the only job he ever has is that of Scaramouche, in which he remains through the rest of the movie. This places greater emphasis on his gift of laughter.
In the novel and silent film, he starts out as a cynic and becomes idealistic. In the remake, he retains his cynicism right to the end. This too is more fitting. Idealists tend to be a serious lot; cynics, on the other hand, will more readily see the humor in a situation. In the 1952 movie, Andre joins the Estates-General of 1789, not because he cares one whit about the cause of the revolution, but because he hopes to encounter Noel and challenge him to a duel. He is a reluctant hero, a favorite type in American movies, one who acts only for personal reasons, in this case, to avenge the death of Philippe, but which just happens to promote the public good as well.
In the novel and the 1923 version, the Marquis de Maynes turns out to be Andre’s father. This works against the whole brotherhood-of-man theme. Brothers may be equal, in accordance with égalité, but the relationship between father and son is anything but one of equals. Their relationship in the novel undermines the whole metaphor. Making the Marquis be Andre’s brother in the 1952 version is such an improvement that it is a wonder that Sabatini failed to take advantage of this plot point in writing his novel.
In the novel, Andre and Aline regard each other as cousins, but not by blood, since Andre does not know who his parents were. Therefore, Andre does not mistakenly believe that she is his sister, as in the 1952 version. Once again, this remake is better than the novel or the silent version of 1923 in the way it brings out the brotherhood-of-man theme.
My favorite difference, however, concerns the fencing skills of the main characters. It is a cliché in stories like this that the villain is thought to be the greatest swordsman in all France, only the hero turns out to be even better. And so it is that in the book, when Andre takes fencing lessons, he becomes so good that he is hired as a fencing instructor. But his skill is of such quality, that he has to pretend to lose to the owner of the fencing academy when they practice together. Otherwise, Andre would embarrass the owner, who is a proud man, and Andre would lose his job as an assistant instructor as a result.
At first, the 1952 movie seems to be setting up that kind of situation. While Noel and Philippe are fencing, Andre insists that the duel is nothing but murder, because Noel is the greatest swordsman in France. But later, Andre watches through a window and sees Noel practicing with his fencing instructor, who easily knocks the sword out of Noel’s hand. It is then Andre realizes that Noel can be beaten. And when Andre takes lessons himself, he is never as good as his instructors. In one scene, as the master fencing instructor watches Andre fence with one of the assistants, he tells Andre that the assistant could have run him through a dozen times. And yet, this scene takes place just before Andre’s duel with Noel. In other words, Noel and Andre are gifted amateurs, but neither is as good as the professionals who teach them, which is definitely more realistic.
When the climactic sword fight occurs in the theater, almost everyone of significance seems to be there, especially Lenore (as Columbine), Aline, and Andre’s adoptive parents. Noticeably absent, however, are the fencing instructors. That is for the best. Otherwise, they would have been looking on, shaking their heads, saying, “He left himself wide open that time,” and, “I’ve told him and I’ve told him not to thrust before the second parry of that sequence.” But as the instructors are not there spoiling the mood, Noel and Andre are able to treat everyone to the greatest sword fight in all Hollywood.