In 1935 Leslie Howard made one of his finest films in the historic romance, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. He played the hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, who was a society leader but also a society twit, who spent time staring through an eyeglass criticizing the way a man's cravat was tied, or a sleeve was cut, or how Romney was painting his wife. But when alone with his intimates he was "The Scarlet Pimpernel" who planned the rescue of French aristocrats from the guillotine. He and his gang are fighting a war to the death against Citizen Chauvin (Raymond Massey), the Jacobin agent/minister to Britain, who is seeking to end the rescues. In between is his beloved, but seemingly tarnished wife (Merle Oberon) who is trying to save her captured brother, and unknowingly reveals her husband's secret to Chauvin. The conclusion of this adventure film was very exciting and surprising.
But there was and is a problem with THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. Despite Baroness Orczy's marvelous writing ability (try her detective tales of THE OLD MAN IN THE CORNER as a good follow-up), she was deeply impressed with the old order of aristocracy. Only once, in the film, did a sense of balance come through - and oddly enough out of the mouth of the villain. Merle Oberon had testified for the French Revolutionary Court against some aristocrats, dooming them (by her testimony) to death. She has never forgiven herself (and it has blackened her reputation). In bemoaning this Massey gets disgusted and spits out, "Why is it that everyone is always condemning what happened to the poor aristocrats and never think of what they did to us?!" It's a good point, but because we dislike Massey and his boss (Robespierre, of course) we never stop to consider it for long.
Howard was able to repeat and improve on the original film in 1942 with PIMPERNEL SMITH, where as Professor Horatio Smith he uses his archaeological digs in Germany (for proof of an Aryan civilization before Greece or Rome) to rescue intellectuals and victims of the Nazi Reich. Here his opponent is General Von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan) who is like Chauvin in his sharpness and pomposity. He is an obvious knock at Hermann Goering (who was obese like Sullivan) and has Goering's sham bonhomie and his total vicious streak. The writer of the screenplay must have had some discussion with German refugees in the know (notice the bits about Von Graum throwing a tantrum and then turning about and offering German chocolate to someone who has come through for him).
The film also uses Howard to brilliant advantage in one sequence, disguised as a bureaucrat, who he himself states was the most disagreeable person he ever thought up. The ultimately efficient German bureaucrat is totally inhuman - a talking machine of bossy efficiency. Percy Blakeney was disguised several times, as an old crone and a soldier, but never someone so disagreeable.
And that is the difference. THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL deals with the 1790s and the Reign of Terror. It was a century and a half in the past, and really could not annoy the French too much (though one wonders what it's box office was like in France). Britain and Germany were at war in 1942, and the film couldn't present even one moment where Von Graum could make a comment like Chauvin's outburst. As a matter of historic record, Chauvin had some point about the sins of the Ancien Regime as opposed to the Revolutionaries. Knowing what we know now about Von Graum's buddies, he would not have been able to say much.
The closing of the movie was a memorable speech by Howard, about how Germany's entrance into war was not the start of it's road to glory but to it's destruction. True enough in 1945 - 1950 or so. And when he manages to take advantage of Von Graum's brief distraction to vanish into the night, the Nazi fires his gun into the empty space. "I'll be back," we hear Howard repeat twice. It is haunting, because of his real fate of being shot down in the war by a Nazi plane. Howard physically did not return, but spiritually he did with the men at D-Day all the way to V.E.Day.