Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Farrago of Nonsense? The French Revolution in the Cinema

Napoleon Bonaparte
Peter Burley looks at how changing times and political climates are echoed in the 20th-century's view of the Revolution on film.
Critical audiences hopes are generally not high when looking to the commercial cinema for interpretations of complex and controversial historical topics such as the French Revolution. They might be tempted to feel that the quotation in the title - from a review of Scaramouche (USA, 1952) - says it all.
The National Film Theatre, however, has been able to rise to the occasion of the bicentenary of the Revolution with a powerful season ranging from classics made by great directors with great stars (Orphans of the Storm [USA, 1922] directed by D.W. Griffith and starring the Gish sisters) to films of impeccable historicity whose motive is to engage and educate the audience (e.g. 1789 [France, 1974]). There is plenty of dross in the cinema's treatment of the theme and an abundance of predictable cliches, but a critical inquiry into the Revolution's filmography reveals earnest and successful attempts to do justice to the period, and a pattern of differing interpretations reflecting both the country and period of production. While it is a truism of the cinema that a historical film tells more about the time of production than about the period depicted, there is a small elite group of films on the Revolution which have placed a very high value on authenticity; they draw audiences into the debate on the importance and meaning of the Revolution, and challenge their own reaction to it.
Well over a hundred relevant films have been made in nine countries over ninety-two years since the Lumiere brothers in Paris portrayed – for sixty seconds – Marat being murdered in his bath in 1897. France – not surprisingly – is the major film maker; even Hollywood falls far behind. The only period when this was not the case was 1914-19 when the French film industry was in eclipse. Interest in the Revolution as a subject remained at a steady level over the ninety-two years until 1957. After that date the French film industry virtually abandoned the theme until 1971 – a period which coincides with General de Gaulle's ascendancy.
The title most often 'remade' will be an unfamiliar one to English- speaking audiences. It is Madame Sans-Gene, taken from a nineteenth-century stage play by Victorien Sardou. It has been filmed nine times and attracted stars such as Gloria Swanson (silently, in France) and Sophia Loren. (Tragically, the Swanson film has been 'lost' and no copies of a viewable quality now exist.) Madame Sans-Gene, was the nickname given to Marechal Lefebvre in honour of his coolness under fire. Lefebvre was one of Napoleon's oldest friends and comrades-in-arms, and under the Empire Napoleon considered him for the crown of Westphalia. What stood in the way was Madame Lefebvre. The plot starts in Paris during the Terror and the Austro-Prussian invasion, when Napoleon, Lefebvre, and a Parisian laundress companion share various escapades. Lefebvre marries the laundress and the action then moves to the Empire period to become a comedy of manners between the Emperor and the washer-woman, making the point that Napoleon discovers snobbery when in power. The story combines an opportunity to celebrate past glories (e.g. the defeat of the invaders) with irreverence for the individuals concerned – Napoleon above all. It has been filmed in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Argentina, and – twice – in Denmark.
'Costume drama' with its emphasis on romance, intrigue, and violent action has predominated. In almost equal numbers Hollywood and France respectively have favoured 'swashbucklers' or melodramas, the latter generally centring on the plight of orphaned children. Most of a surprisingly large number of comedies (over a tenth of all the films made) are accounted for by the endless remakes of Madame Sans-Gene. The only really satisfactory comedy, however, has been the British Carry-On spoof on the Scarlet Pimpernel story, which is as competent as it is predictable.
When looking at interpretations on a national basis there is a straight division between France and the rest of the world. In every other country except France audiences have wanted a consistent interpretation of the Revolution not varying over the decades. In France, by contrast, there are very distinct phases of film making which follow changes in the political climate.
Italy, Spain, and Germany in collaborative productions have looked only to the spectacle, romance, intrigue, and adventure in the period and never ventured into controversial areas of interpretation. In the German inter-war productions there was the additional advantage of using historical costume dramas to discredit France as a nation. This was brought out most strongly in the 1919 version of Madame Dubarry. This story, which was made four times between 1914 and 1934 (three times by Hollywood and once in Germany), followed the career of the Strasbourgeois prostitute who was manoeuvred into Louis XV's bed by court intrigue, became Marie-Antoinettes arch-rival, was a (fictional) eminence grise of the downfall of the ancien regime, and was finally guillotined as an enemy of the people. It has the irresistible formula of rags-to-riches-to-rags. Poalo Negri turned in a classic 'vamp' performance in the 1919 German version and broke new ground in sexual explicitness on screen, but the point of the film was to show French history as dictated by sexual intrigue and political violence – so different from stolid German virtues.
It is not easy to separate British from American interpretations because many films were made and remade on both sides of the Atlantic. What is distinctive about the British cinema is its support for the French monarchy, which was not always necessary for American films. Two wholly British films stand out for consideration. The Young Mr Pitt (1941) had the conscious propaganda intent of equating Jacobinism with totalitarianism and Napoleon with Hitler. The film, of course, is not actually about the Revolution, but uses it as the foil for British moderation, steadfastness, and respect for tradition and authority. The features of the Revolution which are emphasised are its authoritarianism, violence, irrationality, bloodthirstiness, and unprovoked aggression. The plot shows Pitt resolutely combatting successive French regimes, building alliances, sacrificing his health, and enduring domestic political adversity before the final triumph of Trafalgar.
The second British film of special interest is Marat-Sade. Made in 1964 it brought a sensational stage play direct to the screen. It had a star cast and the finest writing and directing talents in the British stage and screen world. The hero is the marquis de Sade, who, in a mental asylum during the Empire, directs the inmates to re-enact scenes from the Revolution with particular reference to Charlotte Corday's murder of Marat in his bath.
There are two films which can be termed transatlantic and are uniquely Anglo-Saxon in their outlook. Between them they have dominated British and American representations of the Revolution, each has been made eight times, never filmed in France, and were among the first of the silent films to be made on the period. They are A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Their common theme is the inhumanity and implacability of the Revolution, but that these can be outwitted by a resourceful and self- sacrificing hero acting as an individual.
A Tale of Two Cities does have the distinction of balancing the abuses of the ancien regime against the extremes of the Revolution, and in this respect it is one of the most sophisticated and authentic of all the treatments of the period. Both plots contain a great deal of authenticity and attention to detail, but both have an historiographical flaw which only a non-French production could tolerate. This flaw is that the whole of the Revolution, from the moment of the fall of the Bastille, is equated with the Terror. The climax of the action in both cases takes place in a political environment which only existed strictly from May 1793 to July 1794.
Hollywood, outside the tradition of filming English literary classics, has a more challenging task than Britain in interpreting the Revolution. This is because of the shared American and French political heritage of a potentially uncomfortable and embarrassing revolutionary tradition. Most Hollywood films from Scaramouche (1923) onwards have solved this problem by the dramatic sleight-of-hand of featuring a very particu1ar type of hero figure, who is probably derived in American consciousness from the real-life character of Lafayette. This character is an aristocrat by origin and is identifiable by his social graces, but is a true democrat at heart.
Scaramouche has been dismissed as 'a farrago of nonsense', but as a plot it deserves closer attention and is an object lesson in not dismissing all Hollywood drama unreservedly, The true criticism of the 1952 film (starring Stewart Granger) would be that Hollywood made silly on screen an intelligent novel which had paid great attention to authenticity and to the detail of French politics in 1788-89. Hollywood's priority was not the plight of the peasantry but the length of the duelling finale. The hero is a minor Breton noble who involves himself in the politics of the pre-Revolution, eventually being elected to the Third Estate of the States-General (thus, a champion of the commoner."), and pleads their cause at Versailles. Along the way there is a romantic entanglement and he gives social and political offence to a high aristocrat (and expert swordsman). He is forced to take refuge with a troupe of travelling players before the final show-down with the villain in the Palace of Versailles. Complete fiction? – on the evening of May 5th, 1789, after the opening session of the States-General, George Washington's special envoy in Europe (Gouverneur Morris) recorded dining with a deputy whose background and politics tallied with 'Scaramouche's' down to the last detail.
Underlying the use of this stereotyped hero figure Hollywood has adopted a more ideological attitude to the Revolution. This attitude has been implicit in most of its films and it draws on the obvious parallel between the more populist and intolerant aspects of the Revolution and Bolshevism as perceived in America. In Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith made this parallel the mainstay of the film's appeal.
Hollywood's most important and ambitious treatment of the period was in Marie-Antoinette (1938). This pretentious film is the perfect counterpoint to the earnest populism of La Marseillaise (France, 1937), and it demonstrates how the Hollywood studio system could thwart the best of intentions. The MGM Studio had long cherished the hope of making an epic costume drama on the Revolutionary period which would break free of the conventional cliches. The project reached the point where a sophisticated (by Hollywood standards) script had been commissioned, the central figure identified as Marie-Antoinette, and no expense spared on wardrobe, props, and re- search on authentic detail.
Once Norma Shearer had been cast in the title role, however, the film began to revolve around her as the star and not around the historical queen any more. The original script was abandoned, and the focus of attention in the plot shifted from Marie-Antoinette's predicament as queen to her supposed romantic entanglement with Axel Fersen and the remorseless efforts of Philippe-Egalite to destroy her. Shooting started, but the cast were overwhelmed by the opulence of the sets and costumes; costs soared as the production slowed. To prevent it going over budget the director was fired and a new man – Woody Van Dyke – was brought in with the specific brief of finishing on time and within budget no matter what. Robert Morley starred as Louis XVI and he wrote, '... Van Dyke had never seen the script before he started shooting and knew apparently nothing whatever about the French or their Revolution'.
What was left from the shambles? The film was a commercial success as an epic tear-jerker, but French history itself is garbled to the point of incomprehensibility. What rescues the film is its painstaking reconstruction of the court of Louis XV, and a definitive portrayal of Louis XVI from Robert Morley.
In France the Revolution is a perpetually current and controversial event – just as the Vietnam War is in America. Also, as for the Vietnam War in the cinema, there has been no consensus interpretation for the film-maker to fall back on. How has the industry coped, bearing in mind that French audiences have burned down cinemas if an interpretation of the Revolution was too far out of key with their own sympathies'?
First, it has to be noted, the majority of French films have avoided direct involvement in the politics of the Revolution, and effectively comment only (unconsciously) on the period when they were made. However, while no film can truly transcend the milieu of its production, a few of the films on the Revolution have proved to have lasting interest and attraction. The list, however, would have to include titles such as La Marseillaise, 1789, or Danton (1982).
The early days of the French cinema, up to its eclipse during the First World War, were a time of discovery and experiment. Politically it was a period of turmoil but this meant that neither left nor right had an ascendancy, and a spirit of enquiry was respectable in the cinema. Eleven films were made between 1910 and 1914 covering every aspect of the Revolution. This period ended suddenly and dramatically when the outbreak of war coincided with the release of the film 1793. This was a dramatisation of Victor Hugo's novel of the Terror in Paris and the civil war in the Vendee. The plot showed the depths of inhumanity and heights of self-sacrifice achieved by Jacobins and royalists alike, and its climax showed the rescue of hostage children from a blazing chateau. It challenged the audience to confront their own reaction to the Revolution. It was the last sort of film the government wanted in 1914, and it was banned. The director never worked in France again.
The aftermath of both wars saw the filming of Balzac's story Les Chouans – also set against the background of civil war in the Vendee, but in 1799. The importance of this plot is that the hero and heroine are divided by politics, but united in love, and die heroically but tragically on the battlefield. The message of the film is reconciliation. The other post-war response was escapism, and the Revolutionary period provides a rich back-drop for costume drama, action, and romance if politics are kept firmly suppressed.
Cinematographically, the greatest film about the Revolution was made in part as a response to French demoralisation after the hollow victory of 1918. This was Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), which is also one of the films which has transcended its milieu. Gance's vision was of making a film which would restore French pride and self-confidence. He planned a three part, eighteen-hour long, biography of Napoleon using all that was best in the French cinema industry and breaking new technical ground. The project took a long time to start, and in the event only Part I was made. This fragment, however, is an epic in its own right lasting six hours. It tells Napoleon's story from his birth until he assumed command of the army of Italy in 1796. Napoleon was in Paris during the Terror, and much of the film is about his witnessing of the great events of the Revolution and his ambiguous relationship with the Jacobins. The film is, therefore, a history of the Revolution from a Bonapartist perspective. The Revolution is seen as an essential prelude to the Empire, but flawed by its chaos and extremism.
If Napoleon is a critics' film and towers over the 1920s, then La Marseillaise dominates the 1930s but will appeal more to historians for its documentary and interpretive features. The context for the production of La Marseillaise was the Popular Front socialist-led government of Leon Blum and the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Revolution. Leading figures in politics, the trades unions, and the cinema wanted to make a film about the Revolution which would be educational and exhortational and do for the Revolution what Gance had done for Napoleon. Commercially the project had no hope, so money was raised by subscription and the whole enterprise had the status of a private production. However, the leading talents of the film industry were attracted to it and the budget was large enough to do full justice to the theme. By any standards the film is one of the classic 'greats' of the cinema.
The subject of the film is the new life breathed into the Revolution by the arrival of 'Les Marseillais' in Paris for the 1792 Fete de la Federation. The action starts with these men rescuing the Revolution in Provence from the doldrums into which it had fallen. Royalist sympathisers are evicted and peasants burn the chateaux. During the march to Paris the national anthem is composed. In Paris the Marseillais stiffen the Revolution, act as the vanguard of the (documentarily reconstructed) assault on the Tuileries Palace on August 10th, 1792, and then take pride of place on the battlefield at Valmy. No Revolutionary leaders are depicted at all; the entire focus is on popular support for it. By contrast, Louis XVI has a substantial role. Here the script cleverly shows the royal family in a sympathetic light as bewildered victims of their own circumstances. An element of comedy is provided by the emigres living in their dream world in Germany. Disingenuously, the film treats dissent only in terms of humour.
At the time audiences were struck by the socialism, and particularly the ega1itarianism, of the film. Like the Revolution itself, however, the film is reinterpreted afresh by each generation which comes to it. Its striking feature to today's audience is the clarion call of nationalism and its anti-German sentiments.
In 1939 a film entitled Remontons les Champs Elysees was released. Sacha Guitry was the director and he made more films about the Revolution under more regimes than any other one director, with six productions over fifteen years. His outlook was primarily commercial and he used the Revolution as a back-drop for costume dramas. He had more sympathy with the Revolution's victims than its heroes. He was able to make the transition to the Vichy regime and back to the Fourth Republic by keeping overt politics out of his films, but his Vichy film, Le Destin Fabuleux de Desiree Clary (1943), was anti-Napoleonic. Desiree Clary was one of Napoleon's early lovers. In the film she pursues romantic vengeance after being jilted by working her way through all Napoleon's better-known marshals until she finds and marries the one – Bernadotte – who hates him the most. In 1948 Guitry made Le Diable boiteux, a biography of Talleyrand concentrating on his diplomatic triumphs of 1814-15 when he rescued France from the depths of defeat. The parallel with France's situation in the late 1940s is obvious. Instructively, bearing in mind Guitry's basically anti-Revolutionary sentiments, he omitted the period of Talleyrand's life when he played a pivotal role in the early Revolution – being the leading opponent of the crown among the clerical deputies to the States-General.
Guitry's most important films were the three 'mosaic' compilations of episodes from French history linked by their connection with a specific location: the Champs Elysees, Versailles, and Paris respectively. These were ambitious and egocentric films because Guitry not only wrote the scripts but also directed and starred in them. (Si) Versailles (m'etait conte) (1954) contains the famous supposed incident of Marie-Antoinette saying 'Let them eat cake'. The film was commissioned by the French national museums service to publicise the restoration of the Palace of Versailles and to raise money for the work. Carefully recreated sets were intended to show the audience what the palace would look like after successful restoration.
To return to the Vichy regime, this presented French film makers with a unique and very different political environment. Apart from Desiree Clary there was a remake of Madame Sans-Gene (1941), with its implied belittling of Napoleon, and one other wholly Revolutionary film – Pamela (1944). This latter film ought to be the most interesting of the whole filmography because it was overtly royalist and was directed by Petain's son-in-law. Unfortunately it has been critically acknowledged to be the worst film of any kind made during the Occupation – 'une mascarade ridicule' to quote one recent review. The plot tells of an attempt to rescue Louis XVII and Madame Royale during the Directory. The eponymous Pamela is a royalist prepared to sacrifice her virtue to distract Barras while the rescue is being carried out by – of all people – Josephine de Beauharnais, who was Barras' mistress at the time when the plot is set.
Themes from the Cold War can be detected in most of the ten Revolutionary films made between 1951 and 1956. The most obvious motif is that the heroes or heroines are individualists and free spirits standing out from the drab conformity, puritanism, and repression of the Revolution. The most colourful of these films was a conscious effort to produce a French Forever Amber in Caroline Cherie (1951), which went on to spawn sequels following Caroline's career into the Empire period. Like most films of this period, it has not lasted well, largely because what was saucy in the 1950s looks just silly today.
In this period also, the French cinema was finally ready to make its first big-budget, wide-screen, colour historical epic. The choice of subject had to be lively enough to attract audiences but not so controversial as to offend them. The result was in fact, though not in name, a reworking of the plot of Les Chouans in Les Revoltes de Lon Manach. The sister of the (noble) leader of the Breton rebels in 1799 has slighted the republican commander. Another sister tries to assassinate the commander, but instead they fall in love, and the commander is torn between his love for her and his duty to the Revolution. The protagonists try to reconcile the warring groups but are killed in fighting between the royalist and Revolutionary sides, which are both depicted as fanatical enemies of France's best interests.
As the Fourth Republic gave way to the Fifth and de Gaulle's ascendancy, the French cinema ceased for fifteen years to make films about the Revolution of an interpretative or enquiring nature – an extraordinarily long gap and one not filled by the cinema in other countries. It is very difficult not to correlate this gap with the milieu of the right-wing regime which eschewed the Revolutionary tradition and developed a credible political and parliamentary conservatism for the first time in French history. Films such as 1793 or La Marseillaise would have rocked the boat. The Days of May in 1968 produced no immediate cinematographic response in terms of revisiting the original Revolution.
Politics liberalised in the 1970s; only eight films were made between 1971 and 1985, but five of these have been of exceptional interest reviving the old spirit of challenge and enquiry. Les Maries de l'An II (1971) is a romantic and political odyssey through the Revolution with the hero and heroine finally finding reconciliation on both levels in their service to the Empire. Both Jacobins and royalists are portrayed and treated even-handedly as fanatics thwarting national and individual happiness. Two films broke new ground by bringing the Revolution direct to the screen with no barriers of comment or interpretation to protect the audience. The first was 1789 (1974) in which Revolutionary street theatre incites the audience to share in the passion of attacking the ancien regime and supporting successive Revolutionary leaders. The second was the first part of the three-part history of socialism in France, Les Guerres civiles en France (1976), where an actor simply declaims from the screen relevant passages from the writings of Gracchus Babeuf. These films are the most purist attempts to bring the Revolution to the cinema, not for the uninformed or uncommitted!
Three films in the period 1971-82 take a very different approach, that of consciously presenting the historical figures as they themselves might have wished to be portrayed. In other words no retrospective or interpretive gloss is placed on them. Que la Fete Commence (1975), ostensibly concerns itself solely with the Regency of Philippe of Orleans, but ends with a powerful prophecy of the decay of the ancien regime and the burning of the chateaux. The Cannes prize winning 'art' film La Nuit de Varennes (1981) makes no pretence at historicity, but aims to use art to show higher truths – surprisingly, it succeeds. The action is set during the royal family's attempt to escape from captivity in June 1791. The whole film is an allegory of the new order chasing out the old, but Marie-Antoinette in particular achieves the status of a tragic heroine. The camera itself is used to comment on royalty, with the cameraman approaching the king and queen on bended knee and lens downcast to give the audience the same view of them as would have been allowed to their subjects.
The third of these films is Danton. The script is not the same as that used in previous films of the same title but is taken from a Polish stage play of the 1920s. The film plunges the audience straight into the heart of the Revolution and the struggles between Hebert, Camille Desmoulins, Dan- ton, and Robespierre. It is a riot of colour, oratory, and passion. Although Danton has all the best lines, the hero is actually Robespierre. The film shows Robespierre defending the purity of the Revolution against successive challenges and culminates in his defeat of Danton. There is no or assessment that is left for the audience to make. The dramatic tension in the film is between the attractiveness of Danton as a person and the purity of intention of Robespierre as a Revolutionary.
Other than a satire on Fifth Republic politics acted out in Revolutionary costume (Liberte, Egalite, Choucroute – 1985) there have been no French films about the Revolution since 1981. This seems to be because new productions have been scheduled to coincide with the bicentenary. The two feature films, seven major television series, and the odd production so far televised all seem to follow the official government-led lines on the bicentenary. These lines are, first, that 1989 will serve as the bicentenary for the whole of the Revolutionary period, thus, in theory, pre-empting bicentenaries of events such as the Terror, and secondly that productions associated with the celebrations should emphasise the positive and constructive sides of the Revolution and enhance national unity.
French television launched the bicentenary with a marathon reconstruction of Louis XVI's trial. In true bicentennial spirit he was found innocent. The flagship feature film of the bicentenary will be a remake of Les Chouans – a tried and tested 'safe' product. There will be two dramatic reconstructions of the history of the period on television, but of greater interest for their specific heroes will be series on Lafayette and on Gouverneur Morris (the American ambassador during the Terror). These two men shared a common political outlook supporting the early constructive phase of the Revolution but opposing the Jacobins and putting their careers at risk to defend the royal family.
It is clear that there will be an emphasis on education through entertainment in the media, but that these productions will not seek to engage, challenge, or confront their audiences. It is likely that the bicentenary will tell us much more about the Fifth Republic than about the Revolution.
Clearly, the cinema's treatment of the Revolution taken overall has by no means been 'a farrago of nonsense'. Equally clearly, and understandably, there has been no consensus view. An attempt to impose one in France would certainly stultify creativity because, for the French, their Revolution is a still living and confrontational tradition.

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