Knight Without Armour

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Knight Without Armour
Knight Without Armour.jpg
U.S. film poster as reproduced on bookcover
Directed by Jacques Feyder
Screenplay by Lajos Bíró
Frances Marion
Arthur Wimperis (additional dialogue)
Based on Knight Without Armour
by James Hilton
Produced by Alexander Korda
Starring Marlene Dietrich
Robert Donat
Cinematography Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Francis D. Lyon
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 1 June 1937 (1937-06-01)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$350,000 [1] or £300,000 [2]

Knight Without Armour (styled as Knight Without Armor in some releases) is a 1937 British historical drama film starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat. It was directed by Jacques Feyder and produced by Alexander Korda from a screenplay by Lajos Bíró adapted by Frances Marion from the 1933 novel by James Hilton. The novel was published in the United States as Without Armour. The music score was by Miklós Rózsa, his first for a motion picture, using additional music by Tchaikovsky.



Englishman A. J. Fothergill (Robert Donat) is recruited by Colonel Forrester (Laurence Hanray) to spy on Russia for the British government because he can speak the language fluently. As "Peter Ouranoff", he infiltrates a revolutionary group led by Axelstein (Basil Gill). The radicals try to blow up General Gregor Vladinoff (Herbert Lomas), the father of Alexandra (Marlene Dietrich). When the attempt fails, the would-be assassin is shot, but manages to reach Peter's apartment, where he dies. For his inadvertent involvement, Peter is sent to Siberia.

World War I makes Alexandra a widow and brings the Bolsheviks to power, freeing Peter and Axelstein. When the Russian Civil War breaks out, Alexandra is arrested for being an aristocrat, and Peter is assigned by now-Commissar Axelstein to take her to Petrograd to stand trial. However, Peter instead takes her to the safety of the White Army. Their relief is short-lived; the Red Army defeats the White the next day, and Alexandra is taken captive once more. Peter steals a commission as a commissar of prisons from a drunken official and uses the document to free her. The two, now deeply in love, flee into the forest on Alexandra's estate, where they enjoy a brief idyll. Later, they catch a train.

At a railway station, they pretend to be brother and sister, but one Communist official has a photograph of the Countess. A young and sensitive Commissar Poushkoff (John Clements) entranced by Alexandra's beauty, brings in an old gardener from her father's estate who, tipped off by Poushkoff, swears that she is not the Countess. They must go to Samara for confirmation of her identity, and Poushkoff arranges to escort them. On the train, on the first night, his suspicions are confirmed when he sees Peter tenderly kiss her hand. Poushkoff's articulate speech, good manners and immaculate appearance suggest that he was a student. He advises them to come up with a better story. On the long journey, the trio become good friends, their poignant conversations about life and death operate on two levels. At one point, they tell him they “understand” (that he is in love with Alexandra), and Alexandra says that meeting him was the greatest luck they have had. Deeply moved, he breaks down, weeping and kissing her hand, and they both console him. At a stop, he quietly and obliquely suggests a means of escape and steps away. Peter wonders, “What about the boy?” who might suffer if they do run. A shot rings out: Poushkoff has committed suicide to provide a diversion.

The lovers board a barge travelling down the Volga River. Alexandra becomes seriously ill. When Peter goes for a doctor, he is arrested by the Whites for not having papers. Meanwhile, a doctor from an international Red Cross team finds Alexandra and takes her for treatment. About to be executed, Peter makes a break for it. At the station, a Red Cross doctor, a Scot who believes his story, dresses his wounded arm while a nurse reads aloud the passenger list of the train departing for Bucharest. When he hears Alexandra's name, Peter crashes through the door and runs for the moving train, calling her name. He clings to the outside of the cars. She hears him, tears the shade away from the window beside her bed, and reaches out to him, crying “Here!” as the train speeds them to safety.



According to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, Donat suffered a severe, week-long bout of his chronic asthma during production, causing Alexander Korda to consider replacing him. Dietrich persuaded him to wait until Donat recovered.

In September 1936, two LNER Class J15 locomotives (numbers 7541 and 7835) were withdrawn by the LNER and sold to London Film Productions for use in this film. The locomotives were moved to Denham studios, where they underwent cosmetic modification to look more Russian. They were later sold to the War Department and worked on the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway as WD221 and WD212. During their war service, both were involved in incidents and returned to Stratford in 1944 and were subsequently scrapped. [3]

The sets were designed by Lazare Meerson the renowned Franco-Russian. [4]


New York Times critic Frank Nugent praised the film, approving the title change from the book (from Without Armour to Knight Without Armour), “placing it in the realm of chivalry and high adventure.” He described the production as “a perfect fusion of several remarkable talents, so serene a blend that we cannot be sure which division is entitled to the most credit... It is a soundly narrated picture—colorful, romantic, melodramatic, and a first rate entertainment.” [5] Nugent singled out “relative newcomer” John Clements' “moving and poignant” portrayal of Poushkoff, predicting “we shall probably hear more of him.” In fact Clements had a brilliant career ahead of him, including a knighthood. [6]

In a 2016 article for Criterion, critic Michael Sragow notes that “Between 1935 and 1940, when (Graham) Greene was the movie critic for The Spectator and the short-lived weekly Night and Day, no spy film won higher praise from him than.. Knight Without Armour...(Greene described the film as) ‘melodrama of the most engaging kind, the heroic wish-fulfillment dream of adolescence all the world over.’ But he loved it all the same. Using one of the highest terms of praise in his critical lexicon, Greene called it ‘a first-class thriller.' “ Greene's complete review appears at the end of the piece. [7]

The Variety review was somewhat unfavourable: "A labored effort to keep this picture neutral on the subject of the Russian Revolution finally completely overshadows the simple love story intertwining Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat. ... Performances on the whole are good, though Dietrich restricts herself to just looking glamorous in any setting or costume." [8]

Dietrich had been promised $250,000 plus 10% of the gross profits for her efforts. [9] Korda's usual extravagance resulted in a budget of $350,000, much of it spent on authentic sets and costumes, and the film did not make a profit. [1] Korda was unable to pay Dietrich fully, [1] [10] but she agreed to forego the rest if Korda hired Josef von Sternberg to direct I, Claudius . [9]

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  1. 1 2 3 "Knight Without Armour (1937)". American Film Institute.
  2. "Knight without Armour" Author: Campbell Dixon Date: Wednesday, Sept. 22, 1937 Publication: The Daily Telegraph (London, England) Issue: 25683 p12
  3. Walker, Peter (July 2017). "Classic Camera". Great Eastern Journal. 171: 2.
  4. Knight Without Armor (1937) - IMDb , retrieved 19 July 2020
  5. "THE SCREEN; A Romantic Adventure Picture Is 'Knight Without Armor' at Music Hall-'The Emperor's Candlesticks' At the Capitol At the Palace". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 June 2020.
  6. Ap (10 April 1988). "Sir John Clements, Stage Veteran, Dies at 77". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 24 June 2020.
  7. Sragow, Michael. "Graham Greene on Knight Without Armour". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 24 June 2020.
  8. "Knight Without Armour". Variety. 21 December 1936.
  9. 1 2 "Knight Without Armour (1937)". BFI Screenonline.
  10. "Knight Withouot Armour (1937): Notes". Turner Classic Movies.

Further reading