Knight Without Armour (1937)- Jacques Feyder

 ★★★★★

 

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 Knight Without Armour (1937)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 Knight Without Armour (1937)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. Knight Without Armour (1937)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 buildsKnight Without Armour (1937) 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.

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0 thoughts on “Knight Without Armour (1937)- Jacques Feyder

  1. John says:

    I am a big Donat fan but haven’t seen this one. I look forward to it. You know if it’s on DVD? I would like to recommend Donat in The Adventures Of Tartu, I think it’s a public domain film so it can be found cheaply.

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    • Paul says:

      I believe that it is available right now. I caught it on Hulu a couple weeks back, but think I saw it on Amazon not long before. I enjoy Donat as well, and am always looking for more of his films.

      Like

  2. The Lady Eve says:

    You’ve convinced me to take another look at this film. I’m a big fan of the Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich films which, at least as I’ve experienced them, are more like dreams than strictly plotted stories. Fabulous dreams. But Marlene was occasionally able to do quite well with other directors and I may not have given this film a fair chance the first time around. Excellent review.

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    • Paul says:

      To be quite fair, I tend to give Marlene Dietrich more than a fair chance in her films. I always appreciate her ability to control things, that for other actresses, seem to be out of their hands. There are so few woman capable of dominating the way Marlene can, but somehow in this film she knew when to step back and it works brilliantly.

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    • Paul says:

      I am so thrilled to find that many of us movie lovers have enjoyed this film. I was surprised how much I was drawn into the story and apparently “Knight Without Armour” deserves to be more well known today. Thanks so much for your kind words!

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    • Paul says:

      I could see how this film would leave an impression. It isn’t flashy in a way that would grab everyones attention, but it could fester in one’s mind over time. I have a feeling I will be looking forward to owning it one day.

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  3. R.A. Kerr says:

    Confession: I have never seen Dr. Zhivago. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I just can’t get excited about it. So many people love it, and I should just drop my preconceived notions and watch it. I’ll probably love it.

    However, “Knight without Armour” sounds like a film I could really get into and I’m glad you reviewed it. I’ll have to watch for it.

    Your posts are always thoughtful and very well-written. You really give your readers a quality product.

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    • Paul says:

      WHAT?!!!!! I can’t believe it!!!! I am shocked, shocked!!! (Way more so than Claude Rains.) Actually, I do believe it, and completely see how this epic film could be put on the back shelf of a movie lovers mind. My dad had a love for “Doctor Zhivago”, but not in an obvious way. He never showed the film to me, and in fact never owned it. But I knew it was something special to him, from his past-even if it was the novel-and when I was old enough and out on my own, I made time to see it for sentimental reasons. After, when I discovered how brilliant and inspiring the film ended up being, I began watching it all the time. Now (with the patience and undying love of my wife) I still sit down once a year and watch it from beginning to end. It is an experience in my house, much in the same way as “Casablanca” or “The Red Shoes”. I was able to see it last year in theaters and that was an all-together new and exciting way to enjoy this masterpiece. I hope you can find time to give it a chance, and I dearly beg you to let me know what you think.

      Thanks for your kind words, and for sharing and adding so much to this blog. The conversations that we embark upon together are the entire reason I began Lasso the Movies-so I would have others which whom I could share this obsessive passion for film.

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  4. Andrew says:

    Have to admit that I never heard of it, but it sounds interesting. Also want to thank you for introducing me to Marlene Dietrich’s Dishonored. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, even though Victor McLaglen’s sneering became a little irritating.

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    • Paul says:

      Glad to hear you enjoyed “Dishonored”. I will admit that I do love Marlene Dietrich quite a bit and would watch her in anything, so I keep finding her less popular films, and I find that I still am able to discover something special in the film, and her performances. If you ever get the chance, I do suggest giving “Knight Without Armour” a chance.

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  5. Chris Arturo says:

    “Knight Without Armour” is a very great film. The opening 30 minutes could have used better editing, as they are a bit choppy in places, but still superb—and after that—-WOW! What a film. John Clements, Hay Petrie, Miles Malleson, Allan Jeayes, and all of the other supporting players were in fine form, but Donat and Dietrich were riveting. Miklos Rozsa’s first film score, and rousing one at that. Great love theme, too. The finale was unexpectedly abrupt—perhaps one last shot of the two leads (Donat and Dietrich) would solve that problem.

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    • Paul says:

      I feel the same way about this beautiful picture. “Knight Without Armour” should be held with much higher regard. I can’t wait to see this one again.

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  6. Chris Arturo says:

    I emailed Criterion about a year ago about this film, saying it would be ideal for restoration and release, and one of their people wrote back, thanking me for the suggestion. Many of the facts in the messages above were in my post as well. Perhaps some more of us should write to them about this film, eh? Would love to see a DVD with the finest print and restoration available.

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