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 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. The Committee on Political Correctness, however, has ruled that the expression “brotherhood of man” is sexist and needs to be updated. It recommends that we now say, “The siblinghood of person.” Of course, I’m fairly certain it was intended that women be included from the beginning, the masculine gender being used to refer to men and women of both sexes. And I think that just about includes everybody. In any event, the idea of the brotherhood of man is metaphorically represented in this movie 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, 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. Not only are we being asked to believe that Andre, through some mysterious power of intuition, could sense that he and de Maynes were brothers, but we are also supposed to accept the notion that this would keep Andre from running him through, when men have been killing their brothers since Cain killed Able. 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, de Maynes 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 would seem to be one of futility and despair. People do all sort of crazy things, many of them cruel and monstrous, and there is nothing you can do about it. At best, you can try to stay out of the way and try to keep it from hurting you.
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. One rises above this world by laughing at it.
Not everyone will admire someone who takes this attitude toward the world. They may believe that evil must be fought against, however unlikely it may be that they will prevail. And maybe they are right. Martyrs for some great cause will be especially revolted by the attitude expressed in the opening line of this novel.
But the attitude of Andre Moreau, the one referred to in that opening line, is one with which many people see a kindred spirit. 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, especially this one. When Moreau 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 do so. 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 Moreau trod the boards in the 1952, he is portrayed as having a great sense of humor. He refuses to take anything seriously, making jokes when his friend Philippe de Valmorin 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. Moreau comes across as mirthless. In fact, in the opening scene, 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 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 allow 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 he can easily remain aloof from.
In the novel and the silent film, Andre goes from being lawyer, to making his living acting the part of Scaramouche, and the to becoming a fencing instructor. In the movie, his first job is that of Scaramouche, which he remains in 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. He joins the Estates-General of 1789, not because he cares one whit about the cause of the revolution, but because he hopes to encounter the Marquis de Maynes and challenge him to a duel. He is the 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, the Marquis turns out to be Andre’s father instead of his brother, as in the remake. 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.
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.