The Scarlet Tunic (1998): running time, 101 minutes (perhaps reflecting the original's serial division, the film is in two parts of equal length, each with closing credits). Format: vhs. Distributed by Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, Salt Lake City, Utah. Screenplay by Mark Jenkins, Colin Clements, and Stuart St. Paul. Starring Emma Fielding as Frances Grove, Jean-Marc Barr as Matthaus Singer, and Simon Callow as Captain Fairfax. Perhaps St. Paul should have placed in his credits "with apologies to Herman Melville for purloining something of Billy Budd."
The Scarlet Tunic (UK) Based on "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion." Directed by Stuart St. Paul; written by Colin Clements and Mark Jenkins.
Cast: Matthaus Singer, Jean-Marc Barr; Frances Groves [sic], Emma Fielding; Captain Fairfax, Simon Callow; Dr. Edward Grove, Jack Shepherd; Humphrey Gould, John Sessions; Emily Marlowe, Lynda Bellingham; Christoph Singer, Thomas Lockyer; Muller, Andrew Tiernan; William Parsons, Gareth Hale; Amy Parsons, Lisa Faulkner; Fridon, Roger May; Dotty Marlowe, Laura Aikman; Strasser, Erich Redman; Lizzie, Landlady, Jean Heard; Officer Hubbard, Tom McCabe. (Wright 384)
The stuff of Masterpiece Theatre on the Arts and Entertainment Network has tended to be Dickens, Thackeray, and the canonical Big Four of Thomas Hardy's Wessex Novels — The Return of the Native being the least popular for cinematic adaptation. We have wagon loads of Tesses and stables full of Mayors accumulating, so the 1998 video The Scarlet Tunlc comes as something of a surprise. Had Hardy written tales of crime and detection like his famous contemporary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hollywood and its British brethren might have given us more of Hardy's short stories. Certainly, "The Three Strangers" (which was dramatised in Hardy's lifetime), "An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress," and even the uproarious "Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deceiver" seem at first glance more likely candidates for the television screen than "The Hussar." When it comes to the theatre box-office, it seems that works of short fiction need not apply: even those masters of the form Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, despite their potential for critical analysis, have not fared particularly well, and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe have been "adapted" in title alone. What, then, is particularly attractive about "The Hussar" that it alone out of Hardy's short fiction should have been recently adapted for the screen? And, once those factors have been identified, what is the relationship between "The Scarlet Tunic" and "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion"?
BBC-2 in 1973 presented a number of Hardy's short stories for a series entitled "Wessex Tales" (after the 1888 volume collection), including "A Tragedy of Two Ambitions", scripted by British adapter Dennis Potter, who later adapted Hardy's 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge for a BBC-2 miniseries in 1978. Technically, one might argue that "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" did not belong in this series because in the 1888 edition the story was not yet present; Hardy moved it from Life's Little Ironies (1894) to its present location for the 1912 edition of Wessex Tales, where it has remained through The Library Edition of 1952 and The Greenwood Edition of 1964.
Hardy wrote the story in the 1880s for a generation of English readers who, through relatives and the British school curriculum, would have been reasonably familiar with the major events and personalities of the Napoleonic Wars, and would, moreover have recognized the enormous social barriers that the hero and heroine attempt to surmount. Local traditions about the period abounded in the Dorset of Hardy's boyhood. So fascinated was the mature Hardy with this period that he also used the turbulent period as the subject of his epic verse-drama, The Dynasts (1904-1908), and as the backdrop for a full-scale historical novel, The Trumpet Major (1880). Hardy distances the reader from the main action of the story by two devices, the first of which is the lengthy prolegomena about the face of the Downs today where once the King's German Legion had encamped (thereby deliberately creating a confusion as to the period about to be explored with such terms as "legion" and such Latin expressions as "impedimenta"). Second,hardy uses the Conradian device of utilizing two narrators (the boy's voice containing and commenting upon the narrative received from the lips of the heroine, Phyllis Grove). In contrast, the film must rely on whatever the camera can show, the soundtrack communicate, and a closing narrative reflection by the heroine's father. Much, then, is lost, as is inevitable in the transformation of Hardy for the screen. However, since this twenty-page short story is hardly one of the celebrated "Wessex Novels," we should not be surprised that much has been added to flesh out the characters, heighten our understanding of their motivations, and extend the plot through incidents not described in the original text.
Much also has been changed: Phyllis becomes "Frances" [i. e., "Woman of France"] Grove (Emma Fielding), daughter of a French and presumably aristocratic mother whose nearest relatives perished in the French Revolution and who died of a broken heart. Her reclusive father, a failed country doctor who rents a "small, dilapidated, half farm half manor-house of this obscure inland nook" (47) and avid gardener becomes the wealthy landowner and concerned father of two daughters ("Frances" and her much younger sister, "Dotty"), Dr. Edward Grove. The relatively lowly and inarticulate "Corporal Matthaus Tina," aged twenty-two, becomes a somewhat more mature "Sergeant Singer" (Jean-Marc Barr), a handsome, Romantically inclined German of middle-class background from Saarbrock who not only speaks English fluently ("meine Liebliche" never passes his lips in conversation with "Frances"), but has developed a taste for the works of Scott and Wordsworth. Finally, Humphrey Gould, of an old local family known to Dr. Grove "from his boyhood," becomes another of those outsiders who in Hardy's fiction cause the plot complications. Introduced simultaneously with Captain Fairfax of the King's Hussars, Gould is not merely a decayed gentleman, "an approximately fashionable man of a mild type" with self-professed "connections and interests with the Court," but an entrepreneur, a military provisioner who has sold his inherited land at Bincombe and used his court connections to start what he intimates is a lucrative business. His plausible connection with Fairfax and the regiment is necessary for the catastrophe of the story, but his precipitate proposal, made after he has just set eyes on Miss Grove, seems far less than probable. And Dr. Grove, in offering his mansion and 2,000 guineas as a suitable dowry, seems to have forgotten about providing for his much younger daughter, a slip in which the screenwriters have betrayed their ineptitude in filling Hardy's intimate portrait with so many characters that it has become under their hands a group study. In addition to these principals already mentioned, the screenwriters Stuart St. Paul, Collin Clements, and Mark Jenkins (the latter responsible for "adaptation") have added Private Christoph Singer (Thomas Lockyer), Matthaus's younger brother, his friend MOiler (Andrew Tiernan), and romantic interest, one of the local tavern wenches, Amy Parsons (Lisa Faulkner), daughter of a business rival of Humphrey Gould, Farmer William Parsons (Gareth Hale). In the story, Hardy's narrator reports that
news reached the village from a friend of Phyllis's father concerning Mr. Humphrey Gould, her remarkably cool and patient betrothed. This gentleman had been heard to say in Bath that he considered his overtures to Miss Phyllis Grove to have reached only the stage of a half-understanding. ...He was not sure, indeed, that he might not cast his eyes elsewhere. (Section III)
Now this is precisely the sort of narrative device that gives a cinematic adapter so much trouble because it must be transformed into a dramatic action with the gossip retailed by a specific character with motivation. In this case, St. Paul and his colleagues use William Parsons to good effect, for he comes and goes on business on the all the time, making his retailing the Gould story plausible, and the screenplay has earlier established some discontent on Parson's part with Gould's leasing Grove's land for the regiment. The nature of the indirect dialogue is substantially altered, so that, instead of quoting Gould, Parsons tells Doctor Grove that his daughter's fiance has been seen in the company of a belle. Although Hardy's method of preparing the reader for Humphrey's marriage is equally effective, the screenwriters' is superior, given the necessarily dramatic nature of the film medium.
The backdrop of the story is not so much the continental conflict with Napoleon as the publication and popular reception of seminal Romantic works, whose tendency to inculcate in readers the desire to follow the call of their own hearts rather than the trumpet of familial or patriotic duty works a sea-change on "Frances" and "Singer," who dares to criticize his dictatorial (and also somewhat neurotic) commander, a Xenophobic Englishman who has nothing but contempt for these unruly adolescents.
lnitially, the film seems to be a fairly straightforward adaptation, with the arrival and encampment of the King's Own Hussars (Hardy's "German Legion," the York Hussars) on the property of Dr. Grove. The resplendent troop of cavalry, whose small number undoubtedly reflects the production's tight budget ($800,000 US), are led by an apoplectic "Captain" Fairfax (the equivalent of Hardy's regimental colonel). Hardy, of course, keeps the commanding officer, whom Simon Callow interprets as deeply disturbed, and Dr. Grove (Jack Shepherd) well in the background, whereas screenwriters have chosen to develop them in order to flesh out the antagonistic forces that undermine the budding romance. Strangely enough, they have somewhat reduced the significance of Humphrey Gould (John Sessions), whose fickleness both here and in the original story (combined with a coincidental overhearing of a conversation, the sine qua non of Hardy plots) contributes significantly to Miss Grove's failing to keep her appointment with Matthaus and the other deserters on the beach.
The soldiers of The Scarlet Tunic do not engage in target-shooting or exercise their horses, but merely sit around their campfires, complaining about the climate and a lack of (military) action. In addition to the romantic subplot involving one of the young Germans and Amy Parsons, the screenwriters provide a romantic interest for Dr. Grove, his housekeeper Emily Marlowe (Lynda Bellingham), yet another subplot in no way hinted at in the original story. However, by far the most stunning addition to Hardy's plot line is Miss Grove's attempting to intervene on behalf of her beloved as he and a companion (Christoph having made his escape in a rowboat when the pursuers had every opportunity to shoot him) face a short-manned firing squad (not the 24 hussars in the short story). Furious that Humphrey's duplicity has led to her failure to assist the deserters and possibly prevent their being apprehended, she grabs a carbine and, although we have no assurance of her prior experience with firearms, shoots Humphrey before herself being shot by the colonel. Consequently, she does not live as a spinster to an advanced age, but instead shares her grave with Matthaus in the churchyard, the spot marked by a tombstone provided by her father and his wife, Emily; the spot not "overgrown with nettles" at all, but tended by a doting parent and (presumably) by "Captain" Christoph Singer, who returns from the Continent in the closing minutes of the film.
Although the plot strains credulity at times, as is appropriate to the filming of a Hardy story, background is occasionally foregrounded, with pleasant garden vistas dominating the first half of the film and some truly spectacular footage of the cliffs and beach near Weymouth on the English Channel occurring towards to the end. The film also includes much more of the sexual aspects of the romance between the dark, dashing foreigner and the young English lady than one reads in the original short story, whose narrator was just a boy when he heard the tale from the heroine's own lips (which surely would not have disclosed in intimate detail a tryst in the surf).
However beautiful the photographic images of the shingle near Weymouth, the viewer should reflect on the probability of a respectable young Englishwoman's being permitted sufficient freedom to spend the day with a young foreigner--unchaperoned--at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hardy's plots often require an absent, absorbed, or negligent parent in order to escape the charge of improbability or "unreality," precisely the response of critic George Cottrell in the journal the Academy in 1890. Eustacia Vye, Bathsheba Everdene, Elfride Swancourt, and Tess Durbeyfield enjoy a certain measure of freedom because one or both parents in each case are dead, and the guardian is negligent--such, too, is the case with Phyllis Grove in the original short story.
ln the film, however, it is difficult to reconcile Frances's ease of movement and personal freedom — appealing though they may be in principle to educated European and North American viewers in the present — with Dr. Grove's obvious concern that her reputation be unimpaired so that she will marry well and be looked after when he is gone. For that matter, how can a foreign soldier in time of war escape an equally vigilant commander since the regiment is permitted no leave and he has already ordered one man shot for desertion? If these improbabilities are insufficient to disturb the willing suspension of disbelief, consider Gould's renouncing his gentlemanly status to engage in trade and then have the presumption to demand a military escort all the way back to Bath, or the sudden intimacy in a barn between Frances and Matthaus, who lack even the justification of taking refuge from a sudden downpour, a common enough occurrence in an English summer. But nothing tops the improbability and inadvertent comedy of the penultimate scene when, having shot Frances with his pistol, Captain Fairfax refuses to decamp because, as he stubbornly contends in arguing with the dead girl's father, "I have a lease!" Finally, while Hardy disposes of the executed deserters in an unmarked grave near the wall of the village churchyard (a fate exactly matching that which Captain Fairfax promises any deserter in the film), St. Paul places a headstone prominently in front of the church, the inscription indicating that the lovers are united in death: "Here lies Matthaus Singer and Frances Elizabeth Grove died 30 November 1802."
lncidentally, despite the fact that the execution cannot possibly take place in November since nobody is wearing a winter coat and Frances and Matthaus have just recently been frolicking in the surf, the original story was based on an account that Hardy discovered in the Morning Chronicle for 4 July 1801 in which two privates and a corporal of the Hussars were shot on Bincombe Down, near Weymouth, "pursuant to the sentence of a court martial, for desertion" (cited in Ray 23). One might guess that St. Paul changed the year to allow for the publication of the third edition of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads in 1801, but it is more likely he wanted the action of the film to coincide with the start of negotiations for the Peace of Amiens (1802-3), which would allow for talk of peace and re-posting the Hussars to the East Indies. Hardy himself includes the date "June 30th, 1801" in citing the register of burials for the village church (page 65), there being no sort of marker for any of the deserters.
The other charge that Cottrell leveled against the story was that it struck him as being "as melancholy as its title" (cited by Wright 217). This version is romantic, picturesque, sexy, and ultimately sensational, but it cannot be "melancholy" precisely because the good-looking sergeant "has a woman," as one of his companions remarks. The first half might best be characterized as "sentimental," for as the hussar himself remarks: "In my experience soldiers are very sentimental, except when they're not having to kill one another . . ., and that is why I read poetry." Quoting a little Wordsworth, as both Frances and Matthaus do, befits urban intellectuals at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the date 1802 being often mentioned, and appearing prominently on their joint headstone at the close of the film, as noted above.
Finally, the screenwriters have attempted to utilize water--especially the estate's lake and the sunlit breakers of the English Channel--symbolically, as Hardy had developed the wall and thistles are the bottom of Dr. Grove's garden. In the story, the young German "had never ventured to come, or to ask to come, inside the garden, so that all their conversation had been overtly conducted across this boundary" (52), which represents Dr. Grove's authority, the bounds of propriety, and the limits imposed upon a respectable young woman's freedom at the time. The wall and thistles are an extension of the socially isolated, prickly physician himself, cutting off his household from both the pasture and the village (and, after the arrival of the York Hussars, the young, foreign males encamped nearby). Clearly this wall could not function as such a symbol in St. Paul's film since he intends Frances to enjoy ladylike freedom and her father a vast estate, and so he felt compelled to develop another. A lake divides the manor house and its immediate grounds from the encampment. On one side is a domestic and largely female establishment; on the other, young men, stripped to the waist, toweling themselves vigorously and talking about the possibilities of martial and sexual conquest. Frances, however, is perfectly at liberty to circumvent this barrier and conduct clandestine meetings with Sergeant Singer in the woods. The sea suggests escape and freedom, a route home, to the dissatisfied young soldiers, but since the seashore is where Matthaus and his companion are captured, vacillating because the former insists that Frances intends to join them, it too proves a barrier and a danger.
The other, most obvious symbol in the film is the scarlet tunic itself, the colour of excitement and adventure, casting a ruddy glow upon its wearers but ultimately foreshadowing their deaths before a firing squad. Since Frances is much attached to it, and indeed wears it after her initial intimacy with Matthaus in the barn, it connects the lovers visually. If it is supposed to represent manly responsibility, the glory of war, and an active, adventurous life lived outside the constraints of dull village existence, it fails--in part because it is the uniform of young men confined to camp and constantly complaining of boredom. This same jacket of her lover Frances finds, apparently discarded, on the beach at the end of the film, and assumes that his having dropped it there signifies his renunciation of the military profession. She holds it close, thinking that he is safely on the water when in fact he has been apprehended and is about to be shot. The scarlet tunic seems too various in its associated meanings (the exotic, passion, and death) to be a coherent symbol, but St. Paul found it useful in knitting together the various events and characters that he and his fellows invented to flesh out Hardy's far simpler, far more effective, and far more probable short story of love and duty set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars.
Hardy, Thomas. "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion." (October 1889). Wessex Tales, the Greenwood Edition (first published 1964). Toronto: Macmillan, 1967. Pp. 45-66.
Murray, Giala. "Review of The Scarlet Tunic." Web. July 1998.
Production details available at http://entertainment.msn.com/movies/movie.aspx?mp=c&m=136121
Ray, Martin. "The Melancholy Hussar." Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997. Pp. 22-34.
"Scarlet Tunic, The." (1978). lnternational Movies Data Base.
Wright, Sarah Bird. Thomas Hardy A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2002.
- The Textual History of Thomas Hardy's "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" (1888)
- Necessary Vocabulary
- Reading and Discussion Questions
Entered the Victorian Web 8 September 2004; last modified 9 June 2014