A Cinematic Revolution? Sources, Imagery and Interpretation in La Révolution française (1989)

Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley

University of Exeter


La Révolution française was released in cinemas and broadcast as a two-part TV mini-series to coincide with the bicentennial celebrations of 1989. Revolutionary obsessives (or perhaps those who cherish the, shall we say, “unique” flavour of French costume dramas) will no doubt be excited to learn that it was uploaded in its entirety to YouTube at the beginning of 2014. Historians of France in general may be interested to learn that this uploaded version comes with English subtitles. It is the purpose of this review to offer some thoughts as to whether this series presents a useful pedagogic opportunity in the Anglophone teaching world.

Revolution1First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Danton is not played by Gérard Depardieu.[1] Compensation comes in the unlikely form of Christopher Lee as Louis XVI’s executioner, Sanson. Perhaps Lee agreed to this role as penance for his recent contribution to the dire The Return of the Three Musketeers. Sam Neill also wandered onto the set, and soon found himself dressed up as (of course!) an enigmatic Lafayette. For the rest, we have an eclectic European cast including Jane Seymour as Marie-Antoinette, Jean-François Balmer as Louis XVI, Peter Ustinov as Mirabeau and Andrzej Seweryn as Robespierre. The screenplay naturally relies on these “big players” on the revolutionary scene both to provide narrative consistency and to help guide viewers through a complex period. Their representation is therefore vital to the success of the series. Balmer and Seweryn in particular give strong performances, although the former is perhaps a little too knowing in his portrayal of a monarch who was hardly renowned for his perspicacity.[2] Directing duties were split between the Frenchman Robert Enrico (Part One) and the American Richard T. Heffron (Part Two), and their combined efforts weigh in at a hefty running time of five hours nineteen minutes. It is interesting to note in passing that while the French-directed Part One does not take many liberties with the basic historical narrative between 1789 and August 1792, the American-directed Part Two displays a much more relaxed attitude towards even simple chronological details. The unsurprising result is that while Part One could be characterised as earnest and a little plodding, Part Two feels more like an actual film, with the fall of Danton and the paranoia of Robespierre providing the dramatic focus around which the story is made to unfold.

The action begins with the only flashback: predictably, the incident where a young Robespierre was allegedly humiliated by Louis XVI during a rain-soaked ceremony at the gates of Louis-le-Grand, Robespierre’s collège in Paris.[3] After this prelude (which also serves to introduce the key relationship between Robespierre and Desmoulins) the action follows events from 1788 through to the execution of Robespierre on 10 Thermidor Year II/28 July 1794 – although it goes without saying that some liberties are taken with details in the sequence of events. The subtitles and periods of the each part sum up the overall trajectory clearly enough: Part One, called “Les années lumière” runs from the pre-revolution to the storming of the Tuileries Palace on 10 August 1792; Part Two, called “Les Années terribles,” is given the task of making some sense of the more troubling aspects of the Revolution once a Republic was declared.

So, is this series a useful resource for the classroom? I think my honest answer would have to be, “Possibly…” I don’t want to catalogue the shortcomings of the series here, rather to state at the outset that its length alone would seem to preclude asking students to watch and consider the series in its entirety. To be blunt, five hours nineteen minutes could be far better spent reading – especially if your students are only spending one or two weeks on the French Revolution. However, the series does present opportunities to structure and/or trigger some analysis and debate from carefully selected clips. In particular, the staging of key scenes borrows heavily from celebrated contemporary images, from the opening of the Estates-General in 1789 (see Part One, 15 min. 30 seconds) to the Festival of the Supreme Being in 1794 (Part Two, 2 h. and 7 min.). Playing these snippets could provide students a means of entry into the original images – especially regarding the motives behind their construction, as mirrored by the series itself. The swearing of the Tennis Court Oath (which is preceded rather neatly by the deputies kicking players off the court) is a good example of this, because the painstaking reproduction on camera of David’s famous drawing of the event underlines the symbolism in the original (Part One, 12 min. 50). Other examples include the 1790 Fête de la Fédération (Part One, 1h. and 35 min.) and the execution of Louis XVI (Part Two, 43 min.) with the latter presenting an opportunity for students to compare it to Daniel Arasse’s excellent study of the broader cultural impact of the guillotine.[4] The fact that the series recycles these images so faithfully also resonates well with the now extensive scholarship on memory and the French Revolution, and students could be asked to think about iconic images from other periods that have become embedded in this way – and judge how influential this process can be.[5]

Revolution3This need not be limited to visual sources. The series’ somewhat pedestrian dramatic formula, which strings together famous revolutionary set-pieces, provides numerous opportunities to link particular scenes to contemporary texts. I will mention three examples here. The depiction of the fall of the Bastille (Part One, 35 min. 30 to 46 min. 30) and of Louis XVI’s entry into Paris in its immediate aftermath (Part One, 51 min.) could be compared to the self-adulatory account published by the vainqueur Jean-Baptiste Humbert and to Mayor Bailly’s account in his memoirs respectively.[6] Likewise, the depiction of Robespierre’s execution (Part Two, 2 h. and 27 min. 30) strongly recalls Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s account, even if it cannot quite match the gruesome detail of the latter:

When he [Robespierre] reached the scaffold, the executioner, as though himself animated by the public hate, roughly tore the bandages from his wound; he gave a tigerish cry, and the lower jaw falling away from the upper with the emission of jets of blood, made a monstrous thing of this human head, a thing more horrible than can be imagined.[7]

Revolution4I myself found it interesting to read through that account by Mercier again. I had initially been disappointed at the way the film had interspersed Robespierre’s execution with poorly composed slow-motion shots of dancing crowds throwing flowers. However, Mercier ‘s description of “the outburst of uproarious joy that surged round the very steps of the scaffold” suggests that the film version of events gives a more accurate impression of the atmosphere that day than I had first thought.[8]

The series could also be helpful in getting students to think about how the revolutionary texts they encounter in sourcebooks were originally constructed – obviously a fundamental question in source analysis. I was struck, for example, by scenes near the beginning of Part One that depict the writing of the cahiers de doléances. The announcement of this royal initiative, which had such a profound influence in the build-up to the Estates General, is made from the pulpit (Part One, 6 min. 40), directly addressing one of the central problems we historians have in analysing these documents: the filtering of “popular” lists of grievances through local power structures. Subsequently we see Desmoulins acting as secretary, interpreting, rephrasing and condensing a barrage of complaints from fellow members of the Third Estate (Part One, 7 min. 10). Students might also benefit from analysing scenes that give an impression of how an eighteenth-century printed text was physically produced (Part One, 1 h. and 29 min.; 1 h. and 51 min. 30) and disseminated (a hawking scene in Part One, 1 h. 51 min 30). Although the depiction strays quite far from the historical truth, the part which deals with Le Vieux Cordelier (roughly, Part Two, 1 h. 24 min.-1 h. 39 min.) could likewise help students think about the ways in which revolutionaries used texts as weapons – and why these weapons were so feared.[9]

In terms of the broader debates about the origins, trajectory and legacy of the French Revolution, I’m not convinced that this series would be a helpful addition to the classroom. As already mentioned, it is far too long for easy navigation, while the rather simple narrative structure means that students would jump from one revolutionary set-piece to another without being offered sufficient detail to use as analytical ammunition. These problems are compounded by the fact that the series means to summarise a Parisian French Revolution (perhaps because of financial constraints), with all the concomitant problems of interpretation that this brings. These stretch from the omission of disorders in the countryside and the “Great Fear” as the background to the abolition of feudalism on the night of 4 August 1789, to bare mention of the Vendée rebellion, Federalism, and the war effort when attempting to explain the Terror, not to mention a gaping hole where the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and other religious questions needed to appear. These omissions could be made interesting in their own right, but any potential for this to spark debate is offset by the necessity to wade through those five hours of film in order to do so. Nonetheless, I will conclude by mentioning one example where an extract could be used to open discussion on the French Revolution’s legacy. There is a stirringly cheesy rendition of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, accompanied by uplifting shots of grateful sections of French society pausing to stare into the middle distance and listen (Part One 58 min. 30-1 h. and 1 min. 20). This would serve very well to introduce students to the iconic status of this text in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France, right up to the debates which dogged the bicentenary celebrations in 1989.[10] Beyond that, I think we will have to send our students back to their books…

Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron, Directors, La Révolution française [The French Revolution], 1989, Color, 360 min, France, Italy, West Germany, Canada, UK, Les Films Ariane, Films A2, Laura Films, Antea Cinematografica, Alcor Films, Alliance Communications Corporation.

  1. Instructors and their students can of course see the latter fulfil that part of his acting destiny, in Danton (1983), directed by Andrzej Wajda. In the version discussed here Danton is played by German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer.
  2. A good introduction to Louis XVI for students is John Hardman, Louis XVI: The Silent King (London: Arnold, 2000).
  3. For the most recent mention of this, see Peter McPhee, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), p.22.
  4. Daniel Arasse, The Guillotine and the Terror, trans. Christopher Miller (London: Allen Lane, 1989). Arasse’s work combines texts and images from the revolutionary period.
  5. A helpful introduction for students is Pascal Dupuy, ‘The Revolution in History, Commemoration, and Memory’ in Peter McPhee ed., A Companion to the French Revolution (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp.486-501. See also Maurice Agulhon, Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France 1789-1880, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), Pamela Pilbeam, Republicanism in Nineteenth-Century France, 1814-1871 (London: Macmillan Press, 1995), ch. 1, ‘The Republic: Idea and Image,” and Alan Forrest, The Legacy of the French Revolutionary Wars: The Nation-in Arms in French Republican Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  6. Translated versions of both (in the case of Bailly, his entry for 17 July 1789) are available in Jacques Godechot, The Taking of the Bastille, July 14th 1789, trans. Jean Stewart (London: Faber, 1970), Appendices 1 and 5.
  7. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, The Picture of Paris: Before and After the Revolution (Routledge: London, 1929), pp.254-5.
  8. Mercier, “Picture of Paris,” p.254.
  9. The considerable historical inaccuracies during this part of the film could easily be corrected by watching the scenes in tandem with an appropriate text. Marisa Linton has an excellent section on Le Vieux Cordeliers in her most recent work, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.201-14. For more on print as a weapon in the French Revolution, see Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  10. See Steven L. Kaplan, Farewell, Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).



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