As is often the case with stories set in France around the time of the French Revolution, the theme of Scaramouche is the brotherhood of man, metaphorically represented by brothers (and sisters) in a more literal sense. 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, almost as if they are brother and sister, 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 interrupted when Andre finds out that soldiers are looking for Philippe, having found out that he is the author of subversive pamphlets under the nom de guerre Marcus Brutus.
Andre goes to the lawyer Fabian (Curtis Cooksey), 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 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. He provokes Philippe into a duel and kills him. Andre swears that he will kill de Maynes with a sword, making him die the way Philippe did. 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), de Maynes, who is her lover, 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 de Maynes in a duel, but complications keep them apart. Finally, one night at the theater, Scaramouche spots de Maynes, removes his mask, and the long-awaited sword fight begins. When he finally has his sword at de Maynes’ breast, he finds that he cannot kill him. Later, he discovers the reason why. His real father was the previous Maquis 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 de Maynes because, unbeknownst to him, they are brothers sounds far-fetched, but this is to be understood metaphorically. In the motto of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” the idea of Fraternity is that all men are brothers and thus should treat one another as such, which means, in part, that they not kill each other. It is in this metaphorical sense that just before his duel with Philippe, de Maynes said, “A de Maynes is no man’s brother,” although he also thought he had no brother in the literal sense too. Of course, when we say, “All men are brothers,” we use the masculine gender to include both sexes. I suppose one could say, “All persons are siblings,” but that just does not quite stir the soul in the same way. 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.”
There are several differences between this movie and the novel on which it is based, but in many ways, the movie is better. My favorite difference, however, concerns the fencing skills of the main characters. It is almost 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 has to pretend to lose to his fencing instructor so as not to embarrass him, in order to keep his job as an assistant instructor.
At first, the movie seems to be setting up that kind of situation. While de Maynes and Philippe are fencing, Andre insists that the duel is nothing but murder, because de Maynes is the greatest swordsman in France. But later, Andre watches through a window and sees de Maynes practicing with his fencing instructor, who knocks the sword out of de Maynes’ hand. It is then Andre realizes that de Maynes 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 de Maynes. In other words, de Maynes 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, de Maynes and Andre are able to treat everyone to the greatest sword fight in all Hollywood.