King Vidor, having seen Alexander Korda's KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, was so overwhelmed by the 'beautiful photography' and the 'railroad trains coming in at a station' that it inspired him and aided him in filming his movie THE CITADEL. And indeed, it still seems that the two most eye-catching features of KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, based on James Hilton's novel WITHOUT ARMOUR (1934) and adapted to the screen by Frances Marion, are: the grandeur of the Denham Studios that Alexander Korda founded in London in 1932 and the great contribution of the cinematographer Harry Strandling. Another artistic plus is renowned Miklos Rozsa's music score. Nevertheless, although this movie has quite stood a test of time, it prompts quite diverse opinions. On the one hand, Jeremy Arnold rightly observes in his review on the film that "everything about it was big – the cast, the budget, the sets and the scope of the story itself;" on the other hand, Dennis Schwartz bitterly admits that it never gave him "a pause to think he was seeing something special." Consequently, the film has, after all these years, turned into paradoxical 'delight without ardor.' Whenever viewers may be dazzled by the movie's power, there is 'something missing.'
The movie opens in Ascot but soon moves to St Petersburg, the symbol of tsarist Russia, one of the favorite locations for both the great love stories and the great dramas. The time span that the movie depicts is between 1913 and 1917. Though not a long period of time for the storytelling, a highly challenging and dramatic time. 1917 actually marks the most notorious change in the Russia of the time – it is the Russian Revolution, the time when, indeed, 'today' meant the END for so many people. Within these hard circumstances and the nights of history, something very genuine grows – it is the privileged 'love' theme incorporated so frequently into such contexts by Hollywood.
He is a young Brit, a journalist overwhelmed by the revolutionary ideas having been severely punished by the previous tsarist tyranny within the nights without glamor in Siberia. She is the countess, the relic of the past, the twilight of the old world and and mockingly laughed at by comrades. Yet, these differences, echoing the key screen romances of misalliance do not stop them from falling into each other's arms in the most unpredictable and hazardous situations. 'Where would I go without you?' appears to be their message. Within the 'extensive odyssey through revolutionary Russia' (as Jeremy Arnold observes), they blend with the historical background and, consequently, there is no highlight of neither aspect. Variety staff rightly refers to Jacques Feyder's movie being "a labored effort to keep this picture neutral on the subject of the Russian Revolution finally completely overshadows the simple story intertwining' the pair in love. Dennis Schwartz also addresses this aspect saying that the film is "a big-budget sumptuous love-on-the-run adventure story, with the chaotic Russian revolution of 1917 in the background." Therefore, that is not where the movie's delight resides.
It resides in the performances delivered by "Knight Without Asthma" (nickname of Robert Donat) and "Countess Without Armour" (nickname of Marlene Dietrich).
Today, it is perhaps Marlene Dietrich who supplies the movie with interesting aspects for the viewers. Under the direction of Jacques Feyder (known for two Garbo films), she delivers something more sumptuous than under the bizarre, almost authoritatively parental obsessions of Josef Von Sternberg. Although Variety criticized Dietrich for 'restricting herself to just looking glamorous,' one cannot agree that she is the woman with sole glamor herein. Of course, it is not Dietrich's typical role (foremost because she does not sing) but, nevertheless, she offers lots of moments, first as the countess Alexandra Vladinoff in dazzling costumes to the devoted manifestation of pure romance-product of the Hollywood of the time. She is not Catherine the Great but the old Russia, the fallen wealth, the suffering dignity, the manifestation of the declined might. Actually, three scenes require particular attention: first, Marlene facing the mob, which evokes the arrogance and brutality of the Bolsheviks at the Vladinoff Estate which echoes Garbo as the Swedish queen facing the incited mob (of course, the differences are marked by verbal/non verbal communication and the result but the moments bare certain similarities); the humorous bathtub scene (which echoes another 1930s star taking a milk bath – Claudette Colbert) and the scene at the railroad station when the two quote British playwrights.
The collaboration with Robert Donat results in quite a chemistry between the two. From the historical point of view, they truly mark a confusing border between the two worlds they represent, within the conflicts of those worlds; from the artistic standpoint, however, they gain quite outstanding and underrated achievement. And Marlene's collaboration with others? And the supporting cast?
From the supporting cast, one can say that Basil Gill as revolution sympathizer bookshop keeper Axelstein is worth attention. He echoes all male background characters that, to a certain extent, has impact on the leading character. But from Marlene's collaboration with Alexander Korda, there is a nice anecdote in which there was a sum and there was a promotion of...Josef Von Sternberg. James Arnold refers to that. Korda was asked by the assertive woman to hire Von Sternberg in his upcoming production with Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon. The production was one of the most doomed productions ever, the never completed film haunted by a 'mysterious curse...I CLAUDIUS based on Graves' novel, fully materialized much later in the stunning BBC production of the 1970s, this time with a smashing success. But let me conclude about this movie.
KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR is slightly 'delight without ardor – it offers a lot and yet, there is something missing. Something that could have been done to make it less dazzling and more timelessly appealing, something more psychological that, perhaps, had existed in the creative project but did not fully materialize. In spite of that, it's worth seeing!