History of the World According to the Movies: Part 30 – The French Revolution

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A still of the imposing guillotine in the 1935 version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities which starred Ronald Colman (known for his great sexy English voice). Still, this execution device would be seen as a symbol of the French Revolution in its later years, especially during the Reign of Terror when everyone turned on each other and everything turned to shit.

Unfortunately, at the close of the 18th century, French society during Bourbon France wasn’t doing quite as well as literature would make you think it would be. For one, a series of wars and extravagances of the wealthy nobility and royalty would put France deeply and debt. Not to mention, by 1763, France would lose a major colonial war with Great Britain and gave up its claims in North America and India. France also had a series of monarchs who ascended the throne at very young ages with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette being very much unprepared to run a country, let alone an absolute monarchy. Furthermore, you had a rigid social system more or less akin to castes, a famine making bread too expensive for the average person to buy, bitter, crude, ranting over “the Austrian Bitch” at Versailles, and a arbitrary non-income based tax system greater with tax demand greater than some people’s incomes. No wonder why Madame De Farge was such a bitter and angry bitch in A Tale of Two Cities. Still, another factor I should mention in regarding the French Revolution was The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which was a great big con by a couple of fake nobles who hired a prostitute to pose as Marie Antoinette to buy a certain expensive necklace which duped the court and further damaged the French royalty’s reputation (which has also been made into a movie). Nevertheless, it began with the storming of the Bastille on the progressive ideas inspired by the American Revolution France helped fund. It ended up with the Reign of Terror, the guillotine, and political extremism and chaos. Nevertheless, movies set in this time period tend to get a lot of stuff wrong, which I shall list.

Note: I see a lot of articles relating to the French Revolution to Les Miserables. However Les Mis doesn’t take place during the French Revolution (though the historic events depicted were inspired by it) since it takes place in the 19th century after Napoleon. Also, if it took place during the French Revolution of 1789, all the guys would be wearing 18th century outfits and the women would have dresses without corsets, which they aren’t.

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace:

Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois and her family had a family estate. (They were poor and living in the Paris slums {though she was a descendent of Henri II through an illegitimate son but her ancestors had squandered all their money}.)

Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois confessed to stealing the famous diamond necklace after her trial. (She would’ve never admitted to this. If so, then she probably said she was dead broke and deserved the best of everything.)

Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois’ parents were murdered after speaking out against the corruption of the monarchy and their house was burned. (Her alcoholic dad died of natural causes and her household servant mother abandoned her and her siblings for another man. She and her siblings were eventually taken in by a noblewoman after being forced to beg. Also, her dad went around moaning about how he should have loads of free cash for being an illegitimate descendant of a king as did his daughter. Yet his Valois descent was legally recognized. Talk about an entitlement complex.)

Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois presented the diamond necklace to Marie Antoinette in 1786 but she declined. (She presented it in 1778 and 1781. Marie Antoinette declined both times.)

Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois used the diamonds from the necklace to buy her family estate. (She was a con-artist who tried to use the necklace to gain wealth, power, and royal patronage. Her husband Comte Nicholas la Motte was a con-artist, too, as well as after the same things {he may have had a fake noble title}. Instead, she and her husband helped bring on the scandalous royal Affair of the Diamond Necklace.)

Nicholas de la Motte sold some of the diamonds in Paris. (He sold them in London. Strangely, this guy was actually played by Adrien Brody who’d later play a more different kind of conman than what La Motte was {a bastard who let everyone else involved with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace take the fall by catching the first boat to London}.)

Cardinal Rohan harbored significant doubts about Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois. (He was too trusting of her for his own good and he fell for Jeanne’s scheme because he wanted to be in Queen Marie Antoinette’s favor again. She and her husband even hired a prostitute to play the French Queen buying the diamond necklace from him during a secret nighttime rendezvous at a Versailles garden. The Cardinal and the court fell for it.)

Nicole d’Oliva was a witness at the Diamond Necklace trial. (She was a prostitute as well as one of the accused who tried fleeing to Brussels but was captured and imprisoned in the Bastille {where she gave birth}. She was acquitted for impersonating the queen because she was a simple, uneducated woman with a baby in tow.)

The French Revolution:

Danton was a moderate liberal revolutionary killed by the revolutionary excesses by the Reign of Terror. (Danton may not have been as hot on the Reign of Terror as some of his fellow Jacobins would, but he commended huge loyalty and respect from the militant Parisian crowd who was at times more extreme than the Jacobins.)

Louis Philippe II Duke of Orleans was the primary orchestrator of the French Revolution that he cooked up to seize the throne, used forgery and impersonation to frame Marie Antoinette for fraud in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, and cast the deciding vote for the execution of Louis XVI. (Actually, he didn’t orchestrate the French Revolution, but he did support it at first only to turn against its excesses, saved several people from being executed, and was eventually guillotined himself. Still, unlike most aristocrats, Philippe did believe in the principles of Rousseau and Montesquieu as well as used his position to support liberalism and democratic reform. And yes, he did vote for the execution of Louis XVI though he was hardly a decider and some took it as an attempt by him to get rid of the king and seize the throne for himself.)

Maximilien de Robespierre sent some secret police thugs to destroy the print shop where Camille Desmoulins had printed Le Vieux Cordelier, which popularized the Dantonists attempts to turn back the Reign of Terror. (Robespierre did no such thing but he did have Desmoulins and his wife executed {not his child}.)

Fabre d’Egalantine was present at the Tennis Court Oath. (He didn’t because he wasn’t a member of the Estates General in 1789. Thus, contrary to Danton, Robespierre would have no reason to tell Jacques-Louis David to exclude him in his painting depicting it.)

Maximilien Robespierre was an icy, neurotic, ugly and inhuman man. (Yet, he was the model of the modern French intellectual who was the touchstone of orthodoxy in the French Revolution. He was a theorist turned man of action who laid out party lines and devised strategy in the interest of the masses. Nevertheless, as fanatical as he was, there were still people more bloodthirsty than him. Not to mention, he co-authored The Declaration of the Rights of Man with Thomas Paine, advocated against capital punishment, and was involved in such causes as abolishing slavery, eliminating property qualification to be represented in government, and granting rights to Protestants and Jews. Still, he was actually quite attractive as far as his portraits go. Basically his artistic depictions vary according to what people thought of him.)

Louis de Saint-Just was a young hippie of the 18th century. (Yes, he was one of the younger French Revolutionaries but he was no hippie. He’s described by his contemporaries as a fanatical egomaniac who was more daring and outspoken than Robespierre. Still, he was respected for his strong convictions despite his flaws, which were fairly moderate. Oh, and he wasn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of guy.)

Louis-Antoine St. Just had a cousin who was an actress and married an English noblemen traveling incognito to save French aristocrats. (I’m not sure about this. Probably something made up by Baroness Orczy in her Scarlet Pimpernel novels.)

Guillotines on wheels were available around 1789. (The earliest record of a guillotine was in 1792, just in time to slice King Louis XVI’s head. And there was never one on wheels or even one small enough to fit into someone’s front door. Actually a real guillotine was about 12-15 feet high and had to be disassembled for transport.)

Most of the nobles fleeing during the French Revolution were innocent people persecuted by the barbarous French republicans. (In the earliest years they were fleeing the French Revolution because they hated every single thing about it from the beginning especially being deprived of their unearned class privileges. Nevertheless, neither was better than the other. Still, with every Charles Darnay, there’s a Marquis de St. Evremonde who made Madame De Farge look like a girl scout. At least Madame De Farge’s anger is understandable, but it’s how she takes out her rage which makes her a bad person.)

Hundreds of innocent people were guillotined every day during the Reign of Terror. (The Reign of Terror lasted for 14 months in which the average people executed a day was two, and the number was much smaller in total. Among those guillotined were sleazy profiteers, troublemakers, military deserters, and petty crooks whom any court in its normal course of business would’ve hanged in a heartbeat. They also executed people who resisted them as well. Charles Dickens may exaggerate the body count of the French Revolution as well, but he’s right when he said that the British government was no less oppressive to criminals nor the poor either. Of course, his A Tale of Two Cities is much less biased about the French Revolution than other 19th century accounts in his language.)

The French Revolution’s main purpose was to kill aristocrats. (Actually it was to set a liberal and progressive system of government like that in the United States after the American Revolution. They wanted to establish a constitution, give all rights to the people and just rights. Yet, they couldn’t just abolish the monarchy and aristocracy just like that who didn’t want to lose their power. They tried a constitutional monarchy approach but it didn’t take due to aristocrat resistance, the spineless tendency of the monarchy to switch sides, loss of control, and lack of organization which led to the Reign of Terror.)

The Dauphin Louis-Charles was smuggled out of France during the French Revolution and found safe haven in Austria. (The boy died in prison at the age of ten in 1794 or 1795. Sorry, Baroness Orczy, but even the Scarlet Pimpernel couldn’t have saved him. Still, the French revolutionary government did keep his death a secret to bargain with the Austrians.)

Maximilien Robespierre was waspish, posturing, and campy. (He was always considered prim and priggish.)

Paul Chauvelin was a member and agent of the Committee of Public Safety and died at Thermidor. (He’s based on a real person named Bernard-Francois, Marquis of Chauvelin who was a notable military officer who served with Rochambeau during the American Revolution as well as assistant ambassador to England during the French Revolution. However, he was never involved with the Committee of Public Safety and survived Thermidor. He died in 1832.)

Miscellaneous:

Everyone in the Third Estate was a peasant under the Acien Regime. (Actually the Third Estate consisted of people who worked for a living and that also included France’s middle and professional class as well. In fact, most of the leaders of the French Revolution were from the middle class as well were college educated.)

Conditions at the Bastille prison were terrible at the time of Louis XVI. (The most horrid thing about the Bastille at the time was that you could end up there without any trial which gave its reputation as a symbol of despotism, oppression of liberty, censorship, royal tyranny, and torture. However, the dungeon cells of the Bastille were no longer in use during Louis XVI’s reign and most prisoners were housed in the middle layers of the building into cells 16 feet across with rudimentary furniture and often, a window. Most prisoners could bring their own possessions {the Marquis de Sade brought a vast quantity of fixtures and fittings as well as his entire library}. Dogs and cats were permitted to control the rat population while drinking, smoking, and card playing were allowed. Oh, and the Bastille governor was given a daily fixed amount for each rank of prisoner with 3 livres for the poor {more than what some Frenchmen lived on} and over five times that for higher ranking ones. So poor Dr. Manette probably didn’t have it so bad.)

French in the Acien regime was backward and stagnant as well as in need of a revolution. (Yes, there was a lot of poverty in France during the 18th century. Interest in enlightened science had never been stronger with guys like the Mongolfier brothers and the Lavosiers with their work in chemistry {both in and outside the scientific realm since they were a happily married couple [Hollywood, please make a movie with them]}. Louis XVI took on invention and innovation and the government was reforming food production, public health, and more. Philanthropy was plentiful and there were schools for the disabled. Arts also continued to evolve and develop. Not to mention, censorship had ended by the 1770s which led to an explosion of the press. Also, you had enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and Voltaire. The Industrial Revolution had also taken hold of France yet not to the same extent as Great Britain and 25% of the pre-Revolutionary French nobility had originated by someone buying their way to a noble title. Still, France did have money problems and every king after Henri IV had ascended the throne as minor.)

Most of the French nobility were a homogeneous group of overfed and debauched abusers. (It was a mix bunch of up and coming ennobled entrepreneurs as well as impoverished nobles from old families.)

French prisoners appeared in the courtroom during their trials. (Those facing criminal charges in France at the time didn’t have habeas corpus or Miranda rights. Most of the time they didn’t know what they were accused of or their sentence until it was carried out.)

French had tight moral standards regarding sex. (In France, it was pretty much anything goes during the Ancien Regime at least at the upper crust. Besides, at the time most people married who their parents wanted them to and as long as they did their duties, they could have as many lovers as they wanted. Also, many married couples in France at the time didn’t have anything to do with each other.)

France was racially equal in the 1780s. (Sorry, but this is just plain wrong. Also, The Declaration of the Rights of Man only applied to white men though slavery would be abolished in France during 1794 though Napoleon would reintroduce it in 1802.)

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