KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR
(director: Jacques Feyder; screenwriters: based on the novel by James Hilton/Frances Marion/Lajos Biro/Arthur Wimperis; cinematographer: Harry Stradling; editor: Francis Lyon; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: Marlene Dietrich (Countess Alexandra Vladinoff), Robert Donat (Ainsley J. Fothergill aka Peter Ouronov), Irene Vanbrugh (Duchess of Zorin), Herbert Lomas (General Gregor Vladinoff), Austin Trevor (Colonel Adraxine), John Clements (Poushkoff), Hay Petrie (Station Master), Miles Malleson (Drunken Red Commissar), Basil Gill (Axelstein), David Tree (Maronin), John Clements (Poushkoff); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alexander Korda; Criterion; 1937-UK)
“A big-budget sumptuous love-on-the-run adventure story, with the chaotic Russian revolution of 1917 in the background.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A big-budget sumptuous love-on-the-run adventure story, with the chaotic Russian revolution of 1917 in the background. It was produced by Alexander Korda and stylishly directed in a snappy fashion by the Belgian filmmaker Jacques Feyder (“The Kiss”/”Therese Raquin”/”Carmen”). Feyder shot it at Denham Studios in England, which was made to pass for the Russian countryside. It’s based on James Hilton’s 1934 novel Without Armour and is written by Frances Marion. At times gripping while at other times belabored, the uneven period tale is executed far better than it should have been considering how preposterous were the melodramatics.
Robert Donat plays A.J. Fothergill, a British journalist who is a translator of novels in St. Petersburg. He’s recruited by the British secret service in 1914 to be a spy after he’s asked to leave Russia for writing an article that criticized the czar. The intelligence boss arranges for him to remain in Russia, where he’s passed off as a native Russian and his name is changed to Peter Ouronov. He soon befriends a revolutionary bookseller named Axelstein (Basil Gill). The two are sent to Siberia for their revolutionary activity (they made a failed attempt to assassinate General Gregor Vladinoff (Herbert Lomas). After surviving Siberia for two years, when the revoution begins in 1917 they are freed. Axelstein becomes a commissar of a small town and appoints his cellmate Peter as his assistant. Peter is ordered to bring the beautiful Countess Alexandra Vladinoff (Marlene Dietrich), the daughter of General Gregor Vladinoff and the widow of Colonel Adraxine (Austin Trevor ), to St. Petersburg for trial, but instead falls in love with her and helps her to escape to the Cossacks.
With that begins a number of adventures for the Brit spy and the countess, as they part and reunite a number of times as they desperately try to escape from a bloody Russia on foot through the forest or by train or by taking flight on the River Volga. In the end, they safely escape together on a Red Cross train to Hungary.
Though finely directed, making splendid use of its big production values, having a few outstanding moments and showing a good screen chemistry between Dietrich and Donat, it never gave me pause to think I was seeing something special.
REVIEWED ON 4/20/2009 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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