Novelist and Academy Award winning screenwriter James Hilton is best remembered for his touching, often romantic, epic-feeling stories that to some are slightly melodramatic. Many of these novels were made into successful films, with some of the day’s top directors at the helm, such as “Lost Horizon” (1938) by Frank Capra, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1939) by Sam Wood, and “Random Harvest” (1942) by Mervyn LeRoy. (All three of which earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture.) Hilton also penned another lesser known (at least today) novel in 1933, that was then transferred to the screen by legendary filmmaker Alexander Korda, and directed by Jacques Feyder, titled “Knight Without Armour” (1937). Although wildly unpopular in its time, today “Knight Without Armour” stands out for its courage to improve the art of filmmaking, the innovative style that embodies the production, the larger-than-life realism of a war-torn country, and marvelously touching and emotional performances from the films stars: Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich.
Set in Russia in 1913, an Englishman (Robert Donat) in love with the country of Russia is being forced to leave, until the British Secret Service offers him a job going undercover as Russian Peter Ouranoff in a revolutionary group, in order to report upon the group’s movements. He succeeded in passing himself off as a revolutionary, but a failed assassination attempt on a high-ranking officer and his daughter, Alexandra (Marlene Dietrich), goes wrong, and the would be assassin leads his pursuers directly to Ouranoff’s home. As punishment for his involuntary involvement, Ouranoff is sent to Siberia, just before the beginning of World War I.
He sits in Siberia, in almost constant darkness, throughout the duration of the War with another of “his” revolutionaries, Axelstein (Basil Gill). But after the war ends and the Bolsheviks have come into power, Axelstein becomes Commissar and makes Ouranoff his right-hand man. Alexandra, meanwhile, is now a widow, living the life of luxury as an aristocrat. However, when the Bolsheviks take over her estate, Alexandra is taken captive and Commissar Axelstein commands Ouranoff to deliver her to Petrograd to stand trial.
That is when the heart of the film finally makes its way to the surface, as Ouranoff and Alexandra share a love-at-first-sight experience, and Ouranoff puts himself (and her, for that matter) in tremendous peril as he attempts to deliver her to safety through the war-torn country.
“Knight Without Armour” is brilliant and innovative in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. Jacques Feyder is not a director that is mentioned often these days, but not because of a lack of talent. It was more that he had trouble finding a comfortable place to call home, and the eclectic group of directorial efforts that he left behind are a lasting example of how far across the spectrum his films traveled. “Knight Without Armour” benefits from his strengths as a foreign director, as he (along with the film’s producer, Alexander Korda) seems to bring a European feel to things, that an American director may have lacked. Miklos Rozsa contributes as well, with a Russian inspired score that is intoxicating- perhaps even on the verge of unsettling (much in the way so many of his later scores would be).
Cinematographer Harry Stradling, using a flowing camera that appears to be embarking on the love affair with the actors, only improves things more. He has photographed Dietrich much in a way that reminds one of her von Sternberg films, but without losing sight of the heart of the picture. It’s not just a Marlene movie after all, and too much focus on her would have ruined the romance of the picture. In addition to Dietrich’s strong, more than capable performance, Donat is at his very best here. (In fact he is significantly superior to his award-winning role in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” .) In a turn that is perhaps somewhat surprising, the stars’ chemistry is extremely believable, as the passion between them is executed extremely well as it builds throughout the entire film.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s the “spy thriller” emerged in a new way as the impending war drew nearer. “Knight Without Armour” fits nicely into the spy genre, along with more notable pictures like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” (1935), “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), or “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), as well as Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich” (1940). There is plenty of suspense and international intrigue, and the characters are all well-developed and interesting. The sole problem with the overall splendor of this film is that is doesn’t dig deep enough to fully satisfy. There is already an undeniable “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) feeling here, and to be completely honest, “Knight Without Armour” could have been an unbelievable film with another 30 to 40 minutes of story scattered throughout (especially during the last reel). My own personal love affair with “Doctor Zhivago” illustrates my longing desire to have drawn-out epic romances, and perhaps that is part of the allure here, but I don’t see how more of any aspect of this film could possibly be a considered a negative.