Saturday, 11 May 2013

Pulp Manifesto: Archaeology of the Masked Hero - The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Been doing some research into the early years of pulp heroes lately. And by ‘research’ I mean reading classic adventure stories and watching old movies. Why? Because if you trace back far enough, along the long line of recent superhero movies, past the martial arts stars of the 90s, beyond the gung ho gun-packing 80s action stars, all the way through the silver age of comics, past the early genre films and movie serials, back into the golden age of pulps and right to the early years of the storytelling medium… way back there in the formative years of modern hero storytelling there were older stories influencing what people wrote, why they wrote them and how. I’ve always wondered what lay at the bedrock of contemporary hero storytelling and it was about time I found out. What I found was a bloke called The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I imagine there aren’t too many my age who know much about the Scarlet Pimpernel. I certainly didn’t. I’d heard the name a few times and had an inkling that the character was ‘swashbuckling related’ but beyond that I didn’t know too much. What I did know was that if you went back far enough along the superhero genealogy tree you got to Batman. And Batman was influenced by a series of pulp ‘dark avenger vigilante’ heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Hornet and, as Batman fans will know, masked vigilantes like the Lone Ranger and Zorro. What I eventually discovered was that you go one step further to reach the hero known as The Scarlet Pimpernel.

This is an actual Scarlet Pimpernel, a common roadside flower.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was written in 1905 by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It was a tale about a mysterious hero who did his thing all the way back in 1792. This was during the ‘Reign of Terror’ following the French Revolution, a stretch of history where the tables were turned and the arrogant aristocracy suddenly became a hunted species. It is during this Time of Infamy (you have to say that in an old-timey radio serial voice) that, according to the story, the Scarlet Pimpernel became famous for sneaking into France to rescue aristocrats headed for ‘Madame Guillotine’. However, in order to maintain his feats of liberation the Scarlet Pimpernel had to lead a double life, one in which he pretends to be an aristocratic fop by day who is at the centre of London’s elite social life, but so bone lazy and shallow he is the last person anyone would suspect of being an infamous hero. Then, when no one is looking, he sneaks into Paris in disguise and makes fools of authorities by preventing the wholesale slaughter of the upper classes.

Yeah, if you’re looking for the origin of ‘fool by day, hero by night’, the Scarlet Pimpernel is where you stop your search.

The book (which started out as a play) was an immediate success and saw the Baroness churning out dozens of sequels for decades to come. It also inspired many a movie adaptation during the early years of cinema and successfully seeded the idea of the hero with a secret identity, a trope that still dominates a huge swathe of hero writing today. But for some reason the initial popularity of the Pimpernel has been unable to sustain itself up to the present. At least not the way The Three Musketeers or even the Pimpernel’s  initial clones, Zorro and the Lone Ranger, have been able to. For some strange reason you just don’t see that many Scarlet Pimpernel movie remakes these days. (The latest was a British tv series. I’ve seen it. It was okay. But far from awesome)

But, ignoring the untapped remake potential of the story, what can we learn about hero writing from The Scarlet Pimpernel? Especially, what can we learn about secret identity heroes? Just to keep things simple I’ll keep my list of things I’ve learnt to four.( I could talk a lot more about them all but then I’d end up with another 5 article essay ala my James Bond series):

1. Elitist Fantasies.

Some of the most fascinating elements of the story are related to the author herself. Orczy was a Baroness writing at the turn of the 20th century, a time in which the European aristocracy was perhaps enjoying its last great fling before two World Wars decimated their influence across Europe. This is significant when you consider the subject motivation of the hero – he’s an aristocrat rescuing aristocrats.

I find this fascinating when put in light of some of the criticisms put forward about Batman. People who delve into the politics of Batman often claim that the character is a form of right wing, elitist power fantasy in which a rich American capitalist, sick of the way the legal system is failing to do what he thinks it should be doing, goes out on the town every night to beat on poor(er) people who he blames for everything that is wrong.

I’m not really sold on that particular interpretation. Batman doesn’t exactly have any rich friends that cast ‘his people’ in a good light, and his ‘richness’ only exists as far as it does empowering him to do all his ‘Batman stuff’, not for him to actively participate in ‘his world’ or fight ‘them’ from the poor regions of Gotham. But it is an interesting idea in light of both the source of ‘hidden identity heroes’ – The Scarlet Pimpernel – and the halfway house between them, Zorro. All three characters are wealthy, heavily into the symbolism of heroism, and always end up doing audacious things in order to save the day. None of them decided to join the police force and fight crime the old fashioned way. But how does this ‘hero must be rich in order to be empowered to fight crime’ trope effect how heroes in general are portrayed? Is this a lazy trope, and are there alternatives that haven’t been explored? Was that a significant part of the success of the rise of science fiction based super-heroes, freeing them from the need to have large bank accounts because the power was within their bodies instead of their inheritance?

I think it’s an interesting facet of the billionaire hero trope that becomes clear once you know their heritage. And once you know the rules, you can break them J

2. Ladies kicking it in pulp.

One of the most surprising things for me reading the story for the first time was that the story is actually told from the perspective of the wife of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Marguerite. This gives the story a strong sense of romance as The Scarlet Pimpernel is an unknown hero she longs for well before she learns that he is in fact her husband, a man she has quite a few problems with. The mystery of the character – and the subsequent romance and rumour projected onto him – are significant parts of both the plot and Marguerite’s motivation. In a funny way it also pre-dates the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, skipping over Batman to inspire the ultimate masked hero dilemma – the two person love triangle.

It makes me wonder why more Superman stories aren’t written from the perspective of Lois Lane. It’s a proven formula. Not only was one of the first pulp hero authors female but she probably cracked the cross-gender hero story well before superhero comics made it such a problem. Learn from your history or you will be doomed to repeat it…

(Note: not that the story is straight up fair on female characters. Some of the writing, read from a contemporary perspective, could at best be considered ‘quaint’. Other times it’s downright ridiculous concerning female gender stereotypes, a fact not helped by the thick layer of swoony romance)

3. A Status Quo of Injustice.

Another thing I noted reading the Scarlet Pimpernel was the interesting way 18th Century France becomes the perfect setting for vigilante heroism. Mostly this is because it’s so different from your typical urban hero setting where it’s all about taking on crime. In the Scarlet Pimpernel the injustice is of a political nature, existing in another country that the hero has access to. France therefore becomes the ‘generator of injustice’ which in turn provokes so many different stories of vigilante adventure. Batman has Gotham, which is so full of character and meaning in its own right that great Batman stories pretty much write themselves. But other heroes suffer under a weak ‘vigilante concept’ because they don’t have that injustice status quo to draw on. So they all end up in Gotham anyway. Maybe what these characters need is a different form of injustice to fight, another location of injustice with a different form of injustice to differentiate them from their peers. The Scarlet Pimpernel had the French Revolution, Robin Hood had the taxation of the Sheriff of Nottingham, Doctor Syn had the taxation and press gangs of the Dover region, John Carter had the political complications of Barsoom, etc etc. Maybe the problem with some characters is that they need a similarly unique location and status quo of injustice to define them better. Maybe writers need to try harder to create them.

4. No swashbuckling!

The Scarlet Pimpernel has no sword fights! I know, right? Bizarre. Here I am reading one of the original swashbucklers and there’s nary a sword in sight. Plenty of deception and espionage, but no sword fights. Which goes to prove that swashbucklers, contrary to their name, aren’t about sword fighting. A buckler maketh not the genre. Having watched a lot of swashbuckler movies while reading The Scarlet Pimpernel it’s become clear to me that the swashbuckler genre doesn’t actually depend on sword fights to make it what it is, that’s just the inevitable result of the settings in which these stories are usually told. No, the actual foundation of the swashbuckler genre is… audacity.

That’s the common theme amongst swashbucklers films, or to be more precise, swashbuckler protagonists – they’re audacious. Cocky, verbose and daring, the cavaliers at the heart of these movies aren’t just fencing their way to victory but swinging around on ropes, climbing everything in sight (Fairbanks – that man was a climber), racing horses, disguising themselves in order to sneak past their enemies, and generally pulling off outrageous gambles in order to save the day. In the end it’s not so much what they’re doing that makes a swashbuckler movie, but how they do it. They do it with elan, guile and daring. They are audacious. That’s what makes a swashbuckler.
Blokes like this were the inspiration for the genre. But that doesn't mean writers can't go beyond them for more contemporary characters.
 From this I take it that you could readily make a contemporary swashbuckler story without the need to reinvent the sword. You just need an audacious hero who embodies the elan of those earlier heroes such as the Fairbanks, Flynns and Kellys of yesteryear. Give your protagonist a sense of honour to keep their actions ‘pure’, a sense of fun so they get into the spirit of what they’re doing, then unleash them on injustice in a modern setting. Voila! You’re tapping a past genre staple in a way that will probably be fresh and new to most contemporary readers.


Reading The Scarlet Pimpernel as a research project has been really fascinating. Not only do I have a firmer grasp on the primordial underpinnings of most contemporary heroes but I also have a stack of new character and story ideas I’d like to explore. The story isn’t perfect, and there’s plenty to roll your eyes at sometimes, but seeing the hero genre taking form there on the page has made it easier to grasp what came afterwards. If you’re serious about your swashbucklers then I recommend getting a hold of the story and taking some notes. It’s a classic and free on the internet for anyone who wants it so there’s no excuses. You just need the audacity to try :)

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