KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, a superb historical adventure drama from Britain in 1937, begs for rediscovery in a decent format, where its lavish, exquisitely detailed and directed production can be best appreciated, along with the fine work from its charismatic stars. A quarter-century before Doctor Zhivago, this adaptation of James Hilton’s novel takes in the Russian Revolution and Civil War, focusing on two individuals trying to survive the societal maelstrom.
Czarist Russia,1913. When his articles criticize the government, Englishman ‘Ainsley Fothergill’ (Robert Donat) is commanded to leave the country. British Intelligence recruits him—fluent in Russian—as an agent to infiltrate a revolutionary group. This in turn sees him sent to Siberia. WW1 erupts, eventually Revolution. Sprung by the Bolsheviks, he poses as a Commissar, whereby he encounters captured aristocrat ‘Alexandra Vladinoff’ (Marlene Dietrich), poised for execution. He takes pity on her plight; they undertake a desperate trek to try and escape the ruthless summary justice and firing squads of both the Reds and Whites.
Alexander Korda produced, Lajos Bíró (Rembrandt, The Four Feathers, The Thief of Bagdad) and Arthur Wimperis (Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest) wrote the script, lauded Belgian stylist Jacques Feyder directed, stamping the picture with what was dubbed “poetic realism”.
As the tides of political and social upheaval toss fugitives Ainsley and Alexandra back & forth between forces, the story achieves epic sweep, siding with shared humanity rather than favoring agendas: revolution and reckoning are not made to look simple or glorious. Donat, underplaying with intelligence and sensitivity, makes a splendid Everyman hero, and Dietrich’s ethereal elegance in distress allows a warmth that some of her earlier roles, more flamboyant and famous, lacked. Excellent supporting cast includes a fine turn from John Clements, who made such a strong impression that producer Korda later cast him as the lead in another historical epic, the classic The Four Feathers.
Beautifully lensed by Harry Stradling, with outstanding art direction designed by Lazare Meerson (particularly the large and impressive forest set), backed by one of Miklós Rózsa’s first music scores. The crowd scenes are masterfully done, packed with intricate detail.
Though the figure looks scant in the expendasphere of the Warring 20’s, back in the Britain of 1937, £300,000 was a lot of George VI sterling to wager on a film: the 2022 equivalent around £21,774,840. Box office appears to have yielded $800,000 (roughly $15,762,000 in 2022; Cogerson places it 182nd in the States in ’37. Never mind the figures: seek out the film behind them. We unearthed it on YouTube.