It is 1792 in France, and the French Revolution is in full swing. The guillotine toils away hourly at its “ghastly work,” swiftly executing hundreds of traitorous aristocrats each day, and each evening, scores of French citizens gather at the barricades of Paris to watch the “foolish” aristocrats try to escape the city. Lately, a clever and mysterious Englishman, known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel, has successfully led several noble families to safety in Britain, and each member of the French guard is on high alert. Bibot, a particularly capable guard, inspects each cart that approaches his assigned barricade. When an old hag pulls up and informs him that she won’t be returning the next day because her grandson is sick with smallpox, Bibot, worried he may catch the deadly illness, recoils and quickly waves her through. Immediately afterward, a captain of the guard appears in search of the cart and the hag. In the cart is the Comtesse de Tournay and her royal children, and the hag is none other than the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.
Across the Channel in Dover, an “honest” Englishman named Mr. Jellyband welcomes hungry and thirsty fishermen and travelers to his comfortable inn, “The Fisherman’s Rest.” Like most English citizens, Mr. Jellyband is “a royalist and anti-revolutionist,” and he wholeheartedly supports the Scarlet Pimpernel and his heroic efforts to save “innocent” aristocrats from of the “murderin’ devils” across the Channel. Two of the Pimpernel’s trusted men, Lord Anthony and Sir Andrew, stop at “The Fisherman’s Rest” after bringing the Comtesse de Tournay and her children across from France, and Mr. Jellyband is more than happy to welcome them. As they recuperate and enjoy a good meal, Sir Percy Blakeney, one of the richest men in England, and his wife, the beautiful and fashionable Lady Blakeney, formerly Marguerite St. Just of France, arrive at Jellyband’s inn. Lady Blakeney’s brother, Armand, an “ardent” republican and French citizen, will be returning to his country with the tide. The Comtesse loathes Lady Blakeney; Marguerite St. Just had contributed to the death of the Marquis de St. Cyr and his entire royal family back in France, and the Comtesse hates her on behalf of nobles everywhere.
Sir Percy, too, resents his wife for her role in the execution of the aristocrat and his family. Sir Percy’s pride in his noble heritage threatens the deep love he feels for Marguerite, and he privately treats her with contempt. Marguerite resents Sir Percy as well—she is “the cleverest woman in Europe” and Sir Percy is hopelessly “stupid”—and she often “sharpens her ready wits at his expense.” Unbeknownst to this clever woman, however, her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel, and his “brainless” persona is only an act. But Sir Percy’s pride and anger towards his wife are quite real and have all but destroyed his love.
Marguerite is again tricked when Chauvelin, an “accredited agent” of France, dupes her into helping him find the Scarlet Pimpernel in exchange for her brother’s life. Armand has been discovered to be in league with the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Marguerite’s help will ensure his pardon. After Marguerite finds a ring in Sir Percy’s private study engraved with a Scarlet Pimpernel, a traditional English flower and the symbol of the man by the same name, she realizes that her shallow husband and the brilliant hero are one and the same. She has unwittingly betrayed her husband, whose love she has sworn to win back, and with the help of Sir Andrew, she travels to France to warn him. Sir Percy has already crossed the Channel to save the Comte de Tournay and Armand from the guillotine, and Chauvelin is close behind. If captured, Sir Percy’s death is all but certain, and Marguerite is completely responsible. Her offense is truly “base”—she knew that helping Chauvelin could potentially lead to the death of the Scarlet Pimpernel but did it anyway, for Armand’s sake—and she must atone for her sin if Sir Percy is ever to love her again.
When Marguerite and Sir Andrew finally make it to France after a violent storm stalls their progress, they go directly to the “Chat Gris,” the agreed upon meeting place of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men, known to Chauvelin through letters stolen from Sir Andrew in Dover. Marguerite and Sir Andrew arrive at the “squalid” French inn, where they learn from Brogard, the dirty and unpleasant landlord, that Sir Percy has already been there and is out looking to obtain a horse and cart but is expected back soon. Sir Andrew goes in search of him and Marguerite waits, hiding in an attic room. Chauvelin is the first to appear, dressed as a priest, and when Sir Percy arrives, he is surprised by this “holy” guest. Sir Percy manages to evade Chauvelin by offering him pepper disguised as a pinch of snuff and slips out the door.
Chauvelin is furious. He knows Sir Percy is headed to a place called the Père Blanchard’s hut, but he doesn’t know where it is. One of Chauvelin’s loyal men inform him that Sir Percy had been spotted in town talking to a Jewish man and has since left with his horse and cart; however, a second man, a dirty and “cowardly” Jew, has agreed to help for a price. He knows every inch of Calais and the Père Blanchard’s hut, and he can lead them to Sir Percy. Marguerite quietly follows as Chauvelin and his men leave with the Jew, and they soon arrive at a small hut. Armand is inside, with the Comte and two other men, but Chauvelin’s men follow their leader’s orders too closely and allow the men to escape. Chauvelin finds a letter from the Scarlet Pimpernel discarded in the hut claiming that the Englishman is headed back toward the “Chat Gris.” He rushes to follow, leaving Marguerite alone with the Jew, but not before he orders his men to beat the old man for failing to lead them to Sir Percy. Once Chauvelin and his men are gone, the dirty old Jew removes his disguise, revealing himself as Sir Percy—the Scarlet Pimpernel—to Marguerite.
Sir Andrew soon arrives from an alternative route, and the three slip quickly aboard Sir Percy’s private yacht and head for England, along with Armand and the Comte. Sir Percy has abandoned his pride and Marguerite has atoned for her sins, and together they finally find “a great and lasting happiness.”