Friday 24 April 2009

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Director: Jacques Feyder
Stars: Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat

Jacques Feyder certainly got around. After making Carnival in Flanders in both French and German, he headed over to England to make Knight Without Armour for London Films, with Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat. It's based on a novel by James Hilton, who also wrote Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr Chips, which is undoubtedly Donat's brightest hour. He doesn't get the opportunities here that he did in that film, but that's hardly surprising given that it won him a deserved Oscar for Best Actor in Hollywood's greatest year, 1939. It begins as a decent part for him but it doesn't develop well, and the film falls prey to the old failing that nobody in the cast even attempts an appropriate accent, which makes it difficult to follow the nationalities we watch.

Donat is Ainsley J Fothergill but not for long. He's an Englishman but he's known Russia for years, working there as a journalist and now as a translator of English novels into Russian. However not long after getting back into Russia after a pretty pointless initial scene at Ascot, he gets kicked out again for publishing apparently inflammatory material. As he's told, it would have meant Siberia for him had he been Russian. But before being kicked out, he gets recruited as a spy, working undercover as Peter Ouronov in the revolutionary movement, a burgeoning thing, this being the Russia of 1913, with revolution round the corner.

Unfortunately for him, he gets carted off to Siberia anyway, because an idiot revolutionary throws a bomb at General Vladinoff's carriage and after being shot trying to get away, promptly dies in Ouronov's house. It takes four years before the revolution actually happens so he misses out entirely on the Great War but returns in lucky style: he chanced to be exiled with a major name in the movement, a man named Axelstein. On their return from exile he becomes his assistant commissar. This work takes him quickly to the Vladinoff Estate near Khalinsk and the responsibility of transporting the Countess Alexandra to Petrograd.

Needless to say the Countess is played by Marlene Dietrich, who smoulders wonderfully as the Countess but is blessed with immaculate hair and makeup whatever situation she happens to find herself in, up to and including swimming in the river. I'm sure you'd be utterly stunned to find that they fall for each other, even though the Countess married Col Adraxine of the Russian army at the beginning of the film, a particularly nasty fellow who is overjoyed when the war starts. 'At last,' he says, right after their wedding, and runs off to fight.

It takes a while for this love to be properly acknowledged because everywhere we go is under the same changes that are sweeping the rest of the country and whoever is in control isn't likely to be for long, meaning that they keep getting separated. We alternate frantically between the Reds shooting the aristocrats and the Cossacks shooting the Reds. The Countess bounces between the two sides like a tennis ball, with Ouronov alternately escaping and rescuing her. And the more this goes on, the more they fall in love.

This isn't a bad film but it just doesn't seem to go anywhere. Even when we reach the end, it doesn't feel like an ending, merely another step along the road. It could have played as a serial, with each episode finding the pair of lovebirds separated again, only to be reunited at the beginning of the next. Donat would have been far better had he attempted an accent, because in this film an Englishman posing as a Russian sounds precisely the same as an Englishman, so half the acting opportunity vanishes. Donat is OK and Dietrich a little better, but they both end up just wrapped inside the plot as it hurtles onward. It's definitely a missed opportunity for all concerned.


Anonymous said...

This movie consists of a series of short scenes, with just enough dialogue to give a flavor of what is happening in Russia and the characters' lives. The time between scenes is often long -- months or years. The result is that the action is swift and engaging, unlike most older movies that now seem to move painfully slow. The sets and costumes are wonderful. The epic sweep over the years of the Russian Revolution, with the love interests coming together and parting, coming together and parting, made me think this was an earlier Dr. Zhivago. Yes, Dietrich is always beautiful even after days fleeing in the forest, but it IS Hollywood. I found the lack of accents refreshing. In the lives of the characters, they would not hear accents -- they would hear their native tongue. I thought it made it easier to be there with the characters, rather than being distanced with "foreign" accents. Based on the reviews I've found so far, I don't think this movie is given enough credit.

Anonymous said...

Oops. Not Hollywood. IIt's British. But you not what I mean.