The Novel and the Adaptations
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.
In one sense, perhaps, this is not true. When introducing this movie on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne said that reading the novel was a great way to learn about the French Revolution. I’m willing to concede that point. At least, the novel accomplishes this goal better than did the 1952 movie, which does not so much teach anything about the French Revolution as it presupposes our familiarity with it. Instead, my preference for the movie over the novel is based, first of all, on its entertainment value, in which it excels; and second, for the way it realizes certain ideas, ideas perhaps nascent in the novel, but brought to fruition in the film.
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 the 1952 movie that it would be tedious just to enumerate them, let alone go into any detail. Just as the characters in the 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. The 1923 silent film is far more faithful to the novel, and to that extent, it suffers from the same defects.
The theme of the 1952 version is the brotherhood of man, the fraternité 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 the 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 interrupted when Andre finds out that soldiers are looking for Philippe, having discovered that he is the author of subversive pamphlets, entitled Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, under the nom de guerre “Marcus Brutus.”
Needing a little extra money to help Philippe go into hiding, 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. He was first made aware of them by Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch), who is his lover, after she reprimanded him for his excessive dueling. When we first see him at the beginning of the movie, he is engaged in three successive duels, killing one man, crippling another for life, the third being spared only because the Queen’s men stopped it. The reasons for the duels are frivolous. For example, the gravamen of the duel that crippled Noel’s opponent was that the man had the “effrontery to put himself at the right of the Cardinal at dinner.” She says he must quit killing other nobles for the sport of dueling at a time when they must all stick together, referring, of course, to the stirrings of the French Revolution. It is then that she shows him the pamphlet that someone had slipped under her pillow, another of which the King found on his breakfast tray. Noel promises to take care of “this Marcus Brutus” personally.
And so, rather than have Philippe arrested, Noel provokes him into a duel so he can have the pleasure killing him himself. After tormenting Philippe for a while with his sword, Noel runs him through. Andre picks up Philippe’s sword and tries to kill the Marquis. He has no sword-fighting ability, however, and is easily thwarted. Noel toys with Andre, which gives him the chance to pull a pistol from a holster attached to a horse. Pointing the gun at Noel, Andre says he is not going to kill him with that weapon, swearing 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 the Queen, Noel 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 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 not realistic, at least in its most literal sense. 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 in both the normative and metaphorical sense, 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 figurative 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 as well. In any event, all the uncertainty 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. An important one is emphatic by position, the opening line of the novel: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” To accept the idea that the world is mad, as Andre does, is to understand the futility in trying to do anything about it. There is something liberating about accepting the inevitable, allowing one to see the humor in a situation instead of fighting it. Philippe represents the contrary view. He believes something can be done to rid France of its aristocratic tyrants. As a result, he is serious about that struggle, and is exasperated with Andre in that nothing ever seems to matter to him.
The attitude of Andre Moreau, the one referred to in that opening line, is one that rises above this world by laughing at it. In order that this trait of Andre be admirable, however, it is essential that the primary object of humor for him is himself, which is why, in the 1952 version, he often plays the fool, even before he does so professionally as Scaramouche.
And so, it is important that the development of his character in this regard will exemplify what is said about him. This is not easily achieved in a novel. When Andre joins the troupe that performs in the 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. His relationship with Lenore is likewise humorous, even when they are fighting and she is bonking him over the head with a saucepan, their relationship offstage being much like that when they are performing. This sense of humor is not as evident in the novel. And in the 1923 movie, 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 a 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 he has a somber look on his face. Moreover, Philippe is soon after killed in a duel with the Marquis, which is even more depressing for Andre. In the 1952 remake, however, Andre’s gift of laughter is well-established during the first part of the movie, so much so that one might suppose one is watching a romantic comedy. When Philippe is killed, that sobers Andre up, sure enough, but only after we already know of Andre’s sense of humor. It is always better when a movie can show us a man’s character rather than tell us about it, especially when, as in the 1923 movie, what we see mostly contradicts what we have been told.
In the novel and the 1923 movie, Andre is a lawyer. In the 1952 remake, there is no indication 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. His life, if not his politics, is certainly one of liberté.
In the novel and the silent film, Andre goes from being a 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 politics, but because he hopes to encounter Noel there and challenge him to a duel, while at the same time enjoying the immunity from arrest that his membership in the Estates-General grants him. He is a reluctant hero, 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 la Tour d’Azyr (corresponding to the Marquis de Maynes in the 1952 version) turns out to be Andre’s father. This works against the brotherhood-of-man metaphor to such a degree that we may conclude that it was never intended to be the theme of the novel in the first place. Brothers may be equal, in accordance with égalité, but the relationship between father and son is anything but one of equals. 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 and silent film, 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 in the way it brings out the brotherhood-of-man theme.
Another difference worth noting 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. His skill is of such quality, however, 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. When the owner is killed during a riot, Andre inherits the school as the master fencing instructor.
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 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. 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.
In the novel, the most that happens between Andre and the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr when they cross swords is the latter is slightly wounded, ending the duel. There is no moment of realization on Andre’s part of just how wrong it is to kill another man, no mystical vision of the brotherhood of man as experienced by Andre in the 1952 movie as he holds his sword to the breast of Noel, now helpless before him.
Descending now from the sublime to the peculiar, as the two men prepare to fight that duel in the novel, they remove their shoes. If, as Robert Osborne said, the novel is authentic in describing how things were in France at that time, then I have learned something I never knew, that men took off their shoes before dueling with swords. I have never see that in a movie, not even in the 1923 version.
Anyway, when Andre later finds out the Marquis is his father toward the end of the novel, he gives him a travel permit, allowing him to go to Austria. This will presumably make it possible for the Marquis to be of service in that country’s efforts to support King Louis XVI of France. Ugh! In the 1923 version, the Marquis gets killed by the mob that is rioting in the streets, which is something of an improvement, I suppose.
In the 1952 version, although Andre does not kill Noel, he has humiliated him with the sword, much in the way that Noel did to Philippe. That psychological defeat is sufficient. And though Andre at first berates himself for not killing Noel as he vowed, yet he cannot help but see the joke that fate has played on him in his failure to avenge the death of his adoptive brother at the hands of his real brother.
Because I saw this movie several times before reading the novel, I assumed that Noel would eventually get his head chopped off along with the rest of the aristocracy. In that way, while Andre may have renounced his desire for revenge, and even came to laugh about it, I was able to imagine that Noel would get what’s coming to him physically as well. And given all the differences between the novel and this movie, it is easy to continue to imagine this outcome upon subsequent viewings, and not suppose that Noel ends up in the service of the Emperor of Austria.
After that, one can readily believe that Andre goes back to the stage and continues playing the role of Scaramouche, sidestepping the whole Reign of Terror. In fact, the next we see him, his having married Aline, Lenore pulls a final, farewell prank on him as she leaves the stage to become the mistress of Napoleon.