As a long-time reader of Thomas Hardy, I’ve been hoping to see the acclaimed early 1970s TV mini-series Wessex Tales, which is said to be coming out on DVD, though it doesn’t seem to have been issued yet.
In the meantime, I was interested to get hold of a DVD of The Scarlet Tunic, a feature film loosely based on another of of Hardy’s great short stories, The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion – here’s a link to an etext at the Gaslight site just in case anyone wants to read the story. Emma Fielding, who was so good in Cranford over Christmas, is good here too as the heroine, Frances Groves (she’s Phyllis Groves in the story, giving her more of a traditional shepherdess-type name). Jean-Marc Barr gives a passionate performance as the German officer who falls in love with her, Matthaus Singer (his surname is Tina in the original story). To be honest, I don’t think it is a completely successful film, because at times it tips too far over into farce or melodrama – but I still found it well worth seeing.
This is an historical tale set during the Napoleonic wars, and, with soldiers in red uniforms amid the beautiful scenery of the Dorset coast, it has a certain flavour of the two adaptations of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd which I’ve written about here. Director Stuart St Paul also co-wrote the script and I have the impression it was a labour of love for him, as it was hard to get the funding together. It was made on a tight budget, but still has high production values and I don’t think there has been any skimping on the sets and locations or the striking costumes.
Since this is a full-length film based on a short story, the plot has been made more complicated, melodramatic elements have been heightened and added, and the characters expanded – some reviews I’ve seen complain about this, but I think really you have to look at it as a film in its own right and not worry about how different it is from the text. More of a problem for me is that some of the acting seems rather stagey and over the top, especially from Simon Callow as the bullying Captain Fairfax, who is in charge of the German legion, a group of foreign soldiers serving in the British army.
The heroine, Frances, lives quietly in a Dorset coastal village with her father, Dr Edward Grove, brilliantly played by Jack Shepherd in an understated performance. She accepts a passionless proposal from a middle-aged businessman, Humphrey Groves (John Sessions), who promptly goes off to Bath “on business” and fails to write to her. There are rumours that Mr Gould plans to jilt her, although her father insists these are false. The lonely Frances finds herself increasingly drawn to one of the German officers garrisoned on her father’s land, Matthaus, and the couple embark on a passionate and dangerous affair.
I thought the romantic relationship worked well, with plenty of chemistry, but maybe even better are the scenes showing the German officers undergoing endless drills and waiting around, talking about their loneliness, homesickness and disillusion. I think the Hardy story suggests they might have been press-ganged into service – that isn’t said in the film, but it is clear they are desperate to get away. While, as I’ve said, Callow does tend to go a bit over the top, his endless shouting, and the floggings and punishments, do show how brutal the regime was for men serving in the forces at this time. It’s just a pity that the German characters constantly speak to one another in English with German accents – I’d much prefer it if they spoke in German with subtitles!
However, just as important as the plot, or more so, are the haunting visuals, with the colour red running right through the movie. Frances wears a red cloak slung over her shoulders as she goes to meet Matthaus – and, when he is lost to her in a series of tragic twists later in the film, she picks up his discarded red tunic and cradles it against her face, in the most haunting image of the movie. I won’t give away exactly what happens in the final scenes, as I think the series of shocks are part of the movie’s power, but don’t expect a happy ending.