(Spoiler Warning: I discuss the film Scaramouche in the this post and give away key plot points, including the ending. Read at you own risk.)
Sometimes you discover interesting things when doing your homework.
I recently took a stage combat class in small sword, the dueling sword of the 18th century. One week, our homework was to watch the movie Scaramouche, a 1952 swashbuckler with 7 different small sword fights in it, including one that is regarded as the longest sword fight ever filmed. I enjoyed this homework. Scaramouche is a fun film, beautifully shot, well acted, with a decent script and yes, good sword fights. And yet…
I never fully committed to the movie, never fully immersed myself in the story. The movie felt so much an artifact of its era that I started wishing for a remake.
And I don’t even like remakes. Most of the time, remakes feel pointless. The movies that get remade are usually the good ones, the movies that transcend their making and still speak to us even across the years. The original version of The Magnificent Seven still works, so why bother with another?
Scaramouche is not one of those movies.
I probably should pause to give a summary of the movie, since I suspect most readers have not seen it. (It rents for $3.00 on Amazon Prime – an indication that it is not in big demand.) The story is set in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Stewart Granger star as Andre Moreau, a personable ne’r-do-well, who discovers that his best friend Philippe is secretly the author of revolutionary pamphlets attacking the government. When his friend’s identity is uncovered, Moreau helps him to flee from the authorities. Unfortunately, they are caught. The Marquis de Maynes, played by Mel Ferrer, kills Philippe in a duel, and Moreau vows revenge. Unfortunately, he does not know how to handle a sword. He just barely escapes with his life, and then hides out with a traveling theater company, taking on the role of Scaramouche, a stock character in the commedia dell’arte, hiding behind the character’s traditional mask. As Moreau discovers a talent for playing the roguish Scaramouche, he secretly takes fencing lessons from the same master who teaches the Marquis. Along the way there is romance, of course, first Lenora, another member of the troupe, then Aline, the ward of a local aristocrat. Finally, a fully trained Moreau faces his foe in a spectacular duel that ranges through the finest theater in France. In the end, Moreau triumphs, humiliating his foe, and discovering that he is the heir of a noble family, which definitely helps in getting the girl, that is, Aline, the noble one.
There is so much in this story that I wanted to connect with, that could have added depth and layers to the story, but those opportunities were never pursued.
Take the set-up of the film, on the eve of the French Revolution, with the author of radical, revolutionary literature on the run for his life. Yet we get little sense of the brewing revolution. Paris is pretty, everyone is well fed, no one is grumbling against the king. Philippe never discusses social ills with his friend, somewhat surprising for the noted author of revolutionary pamphlets. He could easily be the author of children’s picture books for all we can tell. The Revolution provides the reason for the start of the plot, then completely disappears thereafter. By the end of the movie, absolutely everyone seems to have forgotten that the French Revolution is part of this movie, to the extent that Moreau taking his as a member of the nobility is presented as a delightfully happy ending, over-looking the fact that in just a couple of years, he will be fleeing for his life or even awaiting the guillotine. Yet forgetting the French Revolution makes sense for a 1952 Hollywood movie. America was not really interested in revolution in the 1950s, nor worrying over much about repression or poverty. Light hearted adventure better suited the optimism and confidence of that cultural moment.
Similar with romance. The beautiful and demur Aline better suits the era’s ideal match for the hero than the more assertive and active Lenore. Plus an heiress is a better bet for a happy ever after ending. Lenore is too assertive and independent – and a little too quick to challenge the hero. Their relationship even carries a definite Kate and Petrucchio (from “The Taming of the Shrew”) vibe, which borders on abusive to the modern eye.
Even the look of the movie reflects an earlier sensibility. Filmed in Techni-Color, every seen is bright and colorful. Every set is beautifully designed, with obvious attention to even small detail. But the beauty of it all is the problem. Every scene feels like a movie set, feels artificial to a modern viewer accustomed to location shooting, to seeing some of the messiness of the real world.
In the end, that’s what’s missing. The real world. The messiness and darkness of a world edging towards upheaval and revolution, the danger that brings. The passion.
And so I kept wishing for a modern Scaramouche, a version that would show us some of the poverty and oppression that Philippe rails against in his pamphlets, shows us the dangers of opposing an authoritarian government the dangers that force Moreau into hiding out in the first place. A version that would up the stakes in the story beyond light-hearted adventure. I also wanted a less problematic romance, wanted Moreau to consider going with the more interesting, less conventional woman, but without the borderline abuse.
And as I redesigned the movie in my head, I realized that sometimes we need remakes. Not of the time-less classics, but of other, time-bound stories so that they can live again.
But keeping all the great sword fights, of course.