This fun Marlene Dietrich/Robert Donat melodrama has all hallmarks of a great movie about the Russian Revolution: action, romance, dancing Tartars and wacky hats. Robert Donat plays a British journalist who, after being threatened with deportation from Russia, decides to assume a false identity and spy on revolutionaries. His cover is so good that when he gets caught and sent to Siberia by the Czarist regime, no one ever finds out he's a Brit. He manages to switch sides at will in the conflict to suit his purposes, which mainly involve cozying up to an imprisoned countess (Dietrich). Charged with delivering her to her probable execution, he decides to help her escape instead. This makes for a pleasant cross-country romantic adventure story that's not dissimilar from The Thirty-Nine Steps when you get down to it.
Perhaps because it's an English film, it feels quite a bit racier than typical American fare of the period (1937). Dietrich has no less than two gratuitous bathing scenes and she and Donat spend their time unchaperoned and unconcerned with sleeping arrangements. In one scene Donat tells her "They'll call off the search now. In a few days we can leave the forest." Dietrich inquires in her smokiest, most suggestive baritone "Don't you like my forest?" to which Donat replies, "I adore it" and they kiss, while the scene fades out. When next we see Dietrich she is skinny dipping, a scene reminiscent of the pre-code Blonde Venus (1932).
Though it was filmed in England and lacks that David Lean sweep of landscape that would make Doctor Zhivago an immortal classic, Knight Without Armor still manages to capture some of the insanity of that period of history. In a tense sequence Donat and Dietrich wait for a train that isn't coming, even though the station master insists on mustering passengers to the platform despite the obvious non-presence of the train. The longer they wait the more danger they face from Donat's own underlings who've decided to kidnap the Countess for themselves. There is a creeping irrationality to the peasants who are all mostly out for themselves and the good time to be had. The film presents no heroes or villains on either side, only individuals who are either sympathetic to the cause of the lovers or they are not. I suppose you could argue that this focus on the individual over the collective whole would be a way of taking sides after all.
At one point they encounter a young officer (John Clements) of the revolution who is so taken by the Countess' beauty that he deliberately allows them to escape, creating a diversion by killing himself. This conveniently allows the leads to have to avoid that big sacrifice that I was expecting from them, this being a 1930s melodrama. It also makes for some interesting dynamics between Donat and Dietrich. Donat uses the cover story that he and the Countess are brother and sister, so he has to sit by and watch while this young officer flatters and makes love to his girl. Donat applies his usual mask of indifference, appearing to trust Dietrich to prevent the fellow from going too far. In a beautifully filmed night scene, Dietrich reaches her arm out to Donat in the train car and he kisses it passionately, silently, all while the young officer looks on jealously. Yet, the young man never confronts the couple, preferring to push his advantage as far as he can, until he realizes that she will never love him. All of this is accomplished with minimal dialog and great skill from every quarter.
Certainly Knight Without Armor isn't a great film. Though Belgian director Jacques Feyder's other films are well-respected, this one is largely forgotten and I think it's partly his fault. The flow of the movie is a bit choppy and even occasionally hard to follow. There are scenes obviously left out (Dietrich's marriage and the death of her husband) and it isn't simply a case of a director deciding the audience is smart enough to fill in the blanks. It really seems as if he's not quite in control of the material or the pacing. Despite this criticism, I like the way he treats Dietrich as an actress rather than an object. He still manages to get her "little butterfly" in view in a few close-ups, but spends more care in setting up the drama the lighting. Take this clip which shows the moment when the Countess realizes that she is on the losing side in the revolution. Notice the time and elaborate set-up involved in building the drama of this scene. When Dietrich realizes that her servants have joined the rabble who've over run the estate, she is framed in a classic glamour close-up. She steels herself, asks "what are you waiting for?" and marches forward to face them. The crowd of rabble advances and an elderly woman from the crowd shouts, "c'mon she's only a woman!" The wit here is subtle, with Dietrich's power as a film star and her potency as a femme fatale being pitted against an angry mob.
There's a nice story attached to the making of this film, that stuck with me as I was watching it. Apparently during production Donat became ill and the film's producers wanted to replace him. Dietrich refused, saying that no other actor could play the part so well. She got her way and production was stalled till Donat could return. Perhaps all this really says is that Alexander Korda was more of a push over than Dietrich's usual Hollywood bosses. But it is nice to think of a little bit of chivalry involved in Knight without Armor, even if it is on the part of the damsel in distress.
Author of three books about classic film stars published under the name "Jenny Curtis," Jenny is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as "Nipper." If you've ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember "Jerry the Nipper" on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun. If you haven't seen those movies quit reading this dang blog already and start watching some movies.
Deborah has graciously agreed to assist with copy editing at Cinema OCD. No longer will my readers have to suffer with incorrect use of the word "its." Deborah is a freelance writer and author of Other People's Children.