In 1934, actor Leslie Howard scored a hit playing the title role in the film The Scarlet Pimpernel. Seven years later, Howard would star once again in a bit of an update of the story. This film, however, would be set in Nazi Germany shortly before the start of World War II. Howard would not only star in the film, but also produced and directed. Released in 1941, it’s Pimpernel Smith.
Leslie Howard plays a somewhat eccentric British archaeologist named Horatio Smith. Unlike Indiana Jones, who has female student writing “Love You” on their eyelids, this guy actively does things to make his female students storm out of his classes. Like Jones, though, he does go out into the field. In fact, as the film opens he is recruiting young men from his class to join him on a dig in Germany. He is allowed in the country, because he claims to be looking for evidence of an ancient Aryan civilization.
Of course, that’s not really what he’s up to. Turns out, he is there to rescue prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. One such rescue involves him disguising himself as a scarecrow. His students don’t know any of this, at first. When they discover his secret, though, they join in his schemes. Meanwhile, a Gestapo General (Francis Sullivan) is obsessed with finding out who is responsible for the rash of escapes from prison camps. The general even enlists the help of Polish woman (Mary Morris), whose father is a prisoner of the Nazis. She tries to play both sides, leading on the general, while enlisting Smith to rescue her father.
Pimpernel Smith is an interesting piece of wartime propaganda wrapped up in the guise of a pretty effective thriller. Leslie Howard, who acted in many films but only directed a handful, proves to be quite skilled behind the camera. Not only does he pull solid performances from his cast, but he also shows a great eye for visual storytelling. The imagery presented in several shots is quite layered. I was especially struck by an image that comes early in the film, showing the quaint German cottage where Smith and his students are staying. Above the cottage we see majestic snow capped mountains, while in the foreground beneath it we see tangled strands of barbed wire. The sequence involving the scarecrow is also very creative, featuring a reveal that feels plucked out of Hitchcock’s playbook.
While Howard’s directing is solid, at the heart of everything is his very engaging performance. He makes Horatio Smith a complex character. He’s brilliant when it comes to academics and his ability to always stay a few steps ahead of the Nazis. Yet, he’s also a bit of a scatter brain when it comes to things as simple as remembering what day it is. Or, is that really all an act? It’s left as a bit of a mystery for the viewer, and I kind of appreciated that. His final scene, though, is masterful, as he stares directly into the camera and addresses the Nazi leadership. I’m not talking about the characters in the film, there. He, the actor, producer, and director of this piece, is addressing the people who, at the time, were tearing the world apart. It’s a powerful sequence.
If I have a gripe about the film it’s that the supporting cast is not as colorful. Smith’s collection of students (which includes future Disney stalwart David Tomlinson) get few chances to really stand out. The one American of the group (actually played by British golfer turned actor Hugh McDermott) is portrayed as so cartoonish, this yank was almost offended. The one exception in the supporting characters is our Nazi general played by Francis Sullivan. He gives us what we want in our movie Nazis. Both intimidating and oafish at times, Sullivan makes an impressive adversary for Howard.
Of course, one of the most intriguing things about Pimpernel Smith is simply seeing an artist’s reaction the spread of the war. Leslie Howard clearly felt very passionate about the subjects he was dealing with in this piece. He had things he needed to say, but he also managed to create a captivating thriller in the process.
Note: Pimpernel Smith was recently released on DVD and Blu Ray by Olive Films. Thanks to them for letting us give the film a look.