British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.” Due to the quite different political philosophies of the former Soviet Union and of Western Europe and the United States, movies made about Russians by Western film studios often focused on the evils of communism and Russians trying to escape it’s grasp. This blog today is part of Movies, Silently‘s tribute to Russia in Classic Films. Be sure to visit that fabulous site to read more entries about films from Russia and about Russia.
In 1933, novelist James Hilton wrote Knight Without Armor, telling such a tale: In 1917, a Russian countess is trying to escape the country as the communists and the anti-communists are battling each other with much bloodshed. To her aid arrives a British man, a spy who has infiltrated a radical Russian political group. He is the Knight, without a suit of armor, and he will do his chivalrous best to aid this lady in her efforts to escape.
British film producer Alexander Korda, head of London Films, bought the rights to Hilton’s novel in 1936. Hollywood must have at one time thought of making a movie version of the novel because one of the best female screenwriters who had ever worked in Hollywood, Francis Marion, had written an adapted screenplay a few years prior to Korda’s interest in the film and he hired Lajos Biro to write a new screenplay, using Marion’s as source material. Jacques Feyder was brought on to direct and Miklos Rozsa created the music for the film. This was the first film Rozsa ever scored music for; some of the music was his own creation and the rest he borrowed from Tchaikovsky.
British actor Robert Donat plays Ainsley J. Fothergill(what a name!) He is an expert in the Russian language, an ex-pat reporter who is now working as an Russian to English book translator. Due to an earlier critical article he wrote about Russia and its politics, he is kicked out of the country by the Tsar’s government. Back in England and feeling depressed, Fothergill is asked to aid his government: become a spy with Secret Service, take on a Russian name and become a member of a radical political group, report back to Britain periodically about this group. Fothergill accepts immediately and becomes Peter Ouranoff.
German actress (and future American Citizen) Marlene Dietrich plays the beautiful heroine, Countess Alexandra Vladinoff. She visits England in 1913 to attend the Ascot horse races, returns to Russia and happily marries Count Adraxine. Life is fine for her and then WWI arrives. Her husband is made a colonel in the Russian Army and is killed in a battle. WWI, for Russia, also unleashes a civil war: the Tsar’s supporters-The White Army vs the newly-created Communist Party, The Red Army. Poor Countess Alexandra is caught in the middle of this civil war. Her estate is overrun by the Red Army supporters and she is arrested for being an aristocrat. Fortunately for her, our hero, Peter(aka loyal Britain Fothergill) is assigned to be her personal guard and take her to Petrograd(St. Petersburg) to stand trial. Once on the train, however, Peter(Fothergill) falls in love with Countess Alexandra, and she falls in love with him. The decision for both of them to escape the country is easily made.
The suspense in this film is the myriad of obstacles that keep popping up to hamper this noble couple’s efforts to escape. Will these two lovebirds avoid the evil clutches of two warring political factions? If they are caught, it could mean the death penalty for both of them. Peter(Fothergill) is supposedly a Red supporter and if he’s taken captive by the Whites, it spells his doom. The Countess is supposedly a White supporter and if she’s taken captive by the Reds, it spells her doom! This Russian political stuff is tricky stuff!
To see this interesting, suspenseful, romance film, Turner Classic Movies will be airing it next week, on March 18th, at noon/Eastern time, 11:00 am Central. I searched Amazon to see if this movie is available for purchase and I could only discover that the dvds of the movie are from Italy, and I am not sure if they’ve been translated into English. Fortunately, for those of you who don’t have access to Turner Classic Movies cable channel, a very kind soul has put Knight Without Armor on Youtube!
The other actors and actresses in this film were unfamiliar to me and I haven’t listed them because the main focus of the film is Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich, and that’s as it should be! Donat is charming and debonair as the British spy/hero. Two years earlier he helmed Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage thriller The 39 Steps. Marlene Dietrich is sublime as the Countess. She is gorgeous, her costumes are gorgeous, and she takes on the role with care and skill.
Seek this film out for a look at Russia, it’s political infightings, but mostly for the love story.