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The Scarlet and the Black

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Title: The Scarlet and the Black  
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Subject: ITC Entertainment, Gregory Peck, Jerry London, Giuseppe Rotunno, Vatican City in World War II
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The Scarlet and the Black

The Scarlet and the Black
Directed by Jerry London
Produced by Bill McCutchen
Written by J.P. Gallagher (novel)
Screenplay by David Butler
Based on The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican
Starring Gregory Peck
Christopher Plummer
John Gielgud
Barbara Bouchet
Fabiana Udenio
Music by Ennio Morricone
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Edited by Benjamin A. Weissman
Distributed by Columbia Broadcasting System
February 2, 1983
143 min.
Language English

The Scarlet and the Black is a 1983 made for TV movie starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer. This production should not be confused with the 1993 British television miniseries Scarlet and Black, which starred Ewan McGregor and Rachel Weisz.

Based on J. P. Gallagher's book The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican (published in 1967), this movie tells the story of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a real life Irish-born Roman Catholic priest who saved thousands of Jews and escaped Allied POWs in Rome. It was directed by Jerry London.

The movie title The Scarlet and the Black is a reference not only to the black cassock and scarlet sash worn by Monsignores and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, but also to the dominant colors of Nazi Party regalia.


In 1943, the Nazi military occupies Rome. Pope Pius XII (John Gielgud) is approached by General Max Helm and SS Head of Police for Rome Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler (Christopher Plummer). The Colonel expresses concern that escaped Allied prisoners may attempt to seek refuge in the Vatican, and requests permission to paint a white line across St. Peter's Square in order to mark the extent of Vatican sovereignty. The Pope grants his permission, and when the SS officers leave, he sees out of the window that the white line has already begun to be painted.

Kappler's main antagonist is Monsignor O'Flaherty (neutrality.

Met with continuous failure, Kappler begins to develop a personal vendetta against O'Flaherty. Despite O'Flaherty's efforts, Kappler manages to recapture many escaped POWs, deport many Jews to death camps, and exploit and oppress the general population; a number of O'Flaherty's friends are also arrested or killed. O'Flaherty is himself the target of an assassination attempt instigated by Kappler, which fortunately fails due to the monsignor's boxing skills. The rescue organization continues operating, and succeeds in saving many lives.

As the war progresses, the Allies succeed in landing in Italy and begin to overcome German resistance, eventually breaking through and heading towards Rome itself. Colonel Kappler worries for his family's safety from vengeful partisans, and, in a one-to-one meeting with O'Flaherty, asks him to save his family, appealing to the same values that motivated O'Flaherty to save so many others. The Monsignor, however, refuses, refusing to believe that, after all the Colonel has done and all the atrocities he is responsible for, he can expect mercy and forgiveness automatically, simply because he asks for it, and walks away in disgust.

As the Allies enter Rome in June, 1944, Monsignor O'Flaherty joins in the celebration of the liberation, and somberly toasts those who did not live to see it. Although the Pope had officially cautioned O'Flaherty about his activities, on the day of the liberation he bestows his personal blessing upon the Monsignor, who then goes into a chapel to pray.

Kappler is captured in 1945 and questioned by the Allies. In the course of his interrogation, he is informed that his wife and children were smuggled out of Italy and escaped unharmed into Switzerland. Upon being asked who helped them, Kappler realizes who it must have been, but responds simply that he does not know.

The film epilogue states that O'Flaherty was decorated by several Allied governments after the war. Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was frequently visited in prison by O'Flaherty, his only regular visitor. Eventually, the former SS officer converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and was baptized by the Monsignor in 1959.


Vatican Officials

SS Personnel

Allied Personnel

  • John Terry as Lt. Jack Manning
  • Phillip Hatton as Lt. Harry Barnett
  • Mark Lewis as Cpl. Les Tate
  • William Berger as U.S. Intelligence Officer (as Bill Berger)
  • Edmund Purdom as British Intelligence Officer / Epilogue Narrator (as Edmond Purdom)


Historical accuracy

The character of General Max Helm was based entirely on the real life of SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, who served in 1944 as the Supreme SS and Police Leader of Italy. The film was unable to use Wolff's real name, since the SS General was still living when the film was in production; he died in 1984.

Actor Christopher Plummer was 53 years old during the production of the film. Herbert Kappler was only 36 when he served as SS Security Chief in Rome.

Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was a real Irish-born priest and Vatican official, credited with saving 6,500 Jews and Allied war prisoners.


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