“A British spy tries to get a countess out of the new Soviet Union.”
This is the short synopsis of KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR from TCM. The first time I saw this film was during a Robert Donat kick. I had just seen THE 39 STEPS for the first time and was totally enamored of Robert Donat. I still am to be honest, but this was when it was still new and I wanted to see all the films that I could with him in them. I recorded this film with no idea of what awaited me.
A.J. Fothergill (Robert Donat) is a reporter in exile. Sent to live in Russia as punishment for an article he wrote, Fothergill has been there for six years. His fluency in Russian has not gone unnoticed and he soon receives an offer from the Secret Service. A ruined career behind him, Fothergill agrees to forgo British protection and join the Secret Service. He takes the identity of Peter Ouranoff and enlists in a revolutionary group lead by a bookseller named Axelstein. When one of the group’s members bombs a carriage carrying the father of Countess Alexandra Vladinoff (Marlene Dietrich), he is chased by police and shot. He manages to make his way to Fothergill’s apartment where he later dies, while Fothergil is arrested and sent to Siberia for his trouble.
World War I breaks out and Countess Vladinoff is left a widow, while Fothergill has spent two years in the frozen tundra. Axelstein predicts that the war will lead to a revolution thought Russia and in 1917, when the Siberian exiles are freed, he is made a Commissar of Khalinsk. He asks Fothergill to assist him in his new world order. One morning the Countess Vladinoff awakens to find that all the servants have left. Masses of people swarm the mansion, looting the household and taking the Countess prisoner. Soldiers take members of the elite and members of the Vladinoff household away for execution. Axelstein arrives and demands fealty of those assembled. He also gives Fothergill the task of taking the Countess Vladinoff to Petrograd to stand trial.
The two are unable to take a train as the rails are no longer running. This doesn’t bother Fothergill as his plan is to take the Countess over to the White Army and to safety instead. They reach the White Army and all seems well until the next day when the Red Army soundly defeats the White. The Countess is captured once again and now Fothergill has two problems. One, he much find a way to free the Countess and get her to safety and two, he is deeply in love with her.
This was the first time I can truly say that a film left me breathless. KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR just stopped me in my tracks. The story was compelling and so well done, the acting superb, and the visuals stunning. But the most amazing thing to witness is the relationship between Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich.
Let me start off by saying that I love Robert Donat. He has such a gentle and kind spirit, a real honest generosity that comes through in his acting that I just can’t help but fall for him just a little bit each time I see him. Don’t worry my husband knows and he is OK with it. Fothergill is a man of principle, a man who does what must be done for what is right, and for King and country. But he is also a man deeply affected by the suffering he sees around him, a man who is strong without being brutish, a man who is tough without being hard, and a man who is a warrior without losing his heart.
Robert Donat was the first draw for me in viewing this film but he wasn’t the only one. Marlene Dietrich usually seems so aloof, so unknown, so dangerous almost in her portrayals that you don’t always feel as if you have a handle on her. But in this film she brings a sadness, a fragileness, and a humanness to the Countess. She is at once bewildered to what is happening around her and understanding of what must be done in order to survive it. She is a refined woman but able to be humble when necessary. And the love that grows between her and the truly gentle gentleman played by Robert Donat is a stunner.
The real power in this story is the love story between the Countess and Fothergill. Without that the story of their journey would not have nearly as much impact. When I first saw KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR I was riveted. The relationship grows slowly but deeply, having moments of open affection before being tucked away and hidden from view. Just like in A BRIEF ENCOUNTER, it is the moments where they cannot say or do what they wish with all their heart to that mean the most. Watching this film we find ourselves just as invested in their relationship as the characters are themselves. We want them to find safety with each other but we don’t know how that might happen. There is a moment that I still remember all these years after seeing it for the first time. Fothergill has returned to find the Countess whom he has left hidden for safety. When they find each other the two embrace and Fothergill almost whispers to her, “Did you think I would not return…for you?” It gets me every time.
As TCM celebrates #LetsMovie I have to take this moment to say thank you. Over the years TCM has changed in some ways while staying the same in others. At the core of the channel there is a feeling that while there will be films that are more “mainstream” than others, there will still be these little gems hidden amongst them. Come to see Robert Donat in GOODBYE MR. CHIPS or THE 39 STEPS, but stay to see him in THE CITADEL or KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR. Basically, TCM gives us all the chance to see films that we might never have had a chance to otherwise. Be they from the 2000s or 1900s, I am always grateful when TCM introduces me to a film that I have never seen before but end up loving. There is nothing better than finding a film that takes your breath away, just like KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR did for me. So…#LetsMovie