History of the World According to the Movies: Part 45 – 19th Century France


As much as I love Les Miserables, if there’s a movie about the 19th century I should put on this post, it would have to be Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon since this is seen as a very significant film chronicling the life of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte played by Albert Dieudonne. And there is no person who’s more important in France during this period than this guy who tried to conquer Europe but ultimately failed at Waterloo. Nevertheless, I know how the French take their movie industry seriously as well as their history and they probably wouldn’t like it if I put a picture of a film from their history which wasn’t made by them.

Of course, America wasn’t the only place making history in the 19th century. Nor was it just a century of imperialism and colonization either. The 19th century was a very important time in our history. For one, it’s a time of the Napoleonic Wars which would wreak Europe for the first 15 years until Waterloo where one 5’7″ Corsican from seemingly nowhere sought to conquer Europe to put it under his domain. Of course, I’m talking about Napoleon Bonaparte. It was a century of rebellions, revolutions, nationalism, and unification of Germany and Italy as well as the formation of a new country called Belgium. It was a century of great scientific and technological innovation with the Industrial Revolution, modern medicine, the discovery of fossils, and other things I can’t name off the top of my head. Furthermore, it was a great century of cultural contributions of writers, composers, painters, sculptors, and others. Let’s just say the 19th century is perhaps a very trans formative century in which the world would never be the same after all these developments. Not to mention, this is a time well represented in movies since there’s so many world changing things happening here.

While the French Revolution sought to get rid of kings once and for all, the French government wouldn’t get rid of them for good until the 1870s. From this they would be ruled by three dynasties such as the Bonapartes who called themselves Emperor like Napoleon from 1804-1815 roughly and his nephew Napoleon III who ruled from 1852-1870. Both of these guys actually seized power during France’s first two republics and thus put an end to them. You have the Bourbon monarchy that once ruled France prior to the French Revolution who were restored when Napoleon was exiled with the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X that lasted until the 1830s. Then you have the House of Orleans a Bourbon collateral branch with the 18 year reign of Louis Philippe. He would be overthrown when the monarchy was abolished in 1848. Nevertheless, because of all this, France now has three royal pretenders to this day, which puts them in such an unenviable position. Still, other than that, France would see other rebellions such the 1832 June Rebellion seen in Les Miserables which would end very badly for Marius’ friends. You’d also have authors such as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and other literary luminaries. Paris would be the place of great art movements like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as well as others. France would also be the home of Louis Pasteur the famous scientist who would bring medicine out of it’s medieval stasis and the Curies who’d discover radium, win Nobel Prizes, and spawn a daughter who’d also win a Nobel Prize as well. Nevertheless, movies set in 19th century France have their share of inaccuracies which I shall list.

Napoleon Bonaparte:

Napoleon was a near psychotic with dreams of world domination. (He was overreachingly ambitious and ruthless, but he was nowhere in Hitler’s league.)

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to greatness through the ranks. (Yes, but he was also a part of an ancient but impoverished aristocratic family as well as educated in the foremost military academy in France.)

Napoleon spoke with a thick French accent. (He spoke French with a Corsican accent because he was from Corsica and he didn’t learn French until he was 9. Also, he actually hated France when he was growing up and never forgave his dad for submitting to French rule as well as dreamed of liberating Corsica from the French. Heck, he’d be furious to see someone play him in a French accent because for a long time, he didn’t consider himself French. Nevertheless, his support of the French Revolution would get himself and his family thrown out of Corsica for the rest of their lives.)

Napoleon was short, even by nineteenth century standards. (His height was 5’7” which is considered short by our standard but by nineteenth century standards, this was considered about average. As a side note, Admiral Horatio Nelson was 5’4.” Still, Napoleon’s nickname “The Little Corporal” was a more affectionate moniker that had more to do with his humility than his height.)

Talleyrand was present at Napoleon’s reburial in 1840. (He had died 2 years before that.)

Napoleon was able to observe an entire battlefield and beyond from where he was sitting or standing. (Part of his defeat at Waterloo was contributed by the fact he didn’t know what the hell was going on during that battle since he had hemorrhoids. During the Battle of Hougoumont, most of Wellington’s army was hidden from French view among ridges, trees, and etc. and Napoleon was unable to see that Wellington didn’t move throughout the whole time. Also, according to one report, Napoleon was unaware that there was a fortified castle behind the wood of Hougomont when the battle began {the forest was chopped in 1816}.)

Napoleon always had the habit of putting his hand in his coat pocket. (He only had his hand in his pocket while posing for portraits as most men did at the time.)

Napoleonic Wars:

The French used American made frigates during the Napoleonic Wars. (American warships didn’t have a good reputation in Europe until after the War of 1812. The possible exception would’ve been the America the US gave France after the Revolutionary War.)

Napoleon was furious when Marshall Ney delivered a captured British flag from Quatre Bras to him because Ney didn’t launch troops in pursuit of the Duke of Wellington’s army. (Ney was too busy at Quatre Bras to run such an errand on June 16, 1815 and only met Napoleon the next day with the latter arriving at Quatre Bras with part of his force from Ligny. Also, Napoleon didn’t order his top commanders to pursue the allied armies before noon on June 17th, 1815 either.)

The French Army of the North crossed the Dutch border on the evening of June 15, 1815 during the ball in Brussels. (They actually crossed the border on the morning of June 14th and Wellington received news of it 8 hours before the ball in Brussels. He delayed action because he felt he still had to be concerned about a possible French thrust further to the west of the road through Mons.)

The French Army used rifles in the Napoleonic Wars. (Napoleon had discarded these weapons as too slow to reload since their barrels had grooves inside them. Washington wasn’t too fond of these guns either.)

Colonel Cambronne died in defiance of being forced to surrender to Colonel Halkett. (He actually surrendered to Colonel Hugh William Halkett, the commander of a brigade of lowly Hanoverian Landwehr {militia}. Though wounded, he was still well enough to manage an escape when an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself moments later. He died in 1842 of a ripe old age.)

Practically all of Napoleon’s Old Guard died at the Battle of Waterloo. (C’mon, there had to be some survivors.)

The French commander at Avila threatened local peasants to tell him where the cannon was shortly after the journey to Avila with the cannon started. (Avila was too far away from the cannon heading toward the town. The peasants could’ve never known where it was or even know anything about it. Communication was very slow in those days.)

François Louis Fournier challenged Pierre Dupont to their first duel when Dupont was sent to arrest Fournier for killing the Mayor of Strasbourg’s son in 1800. (Contrary to The Duellists, they had their first duel in 1794. Also, Dupont was actually sent to tell Fournier that he had really bummed everyone out by killing his opponent and was now totally not invited to the party that night. Yes, this triggered 19 years of vicious death matches between the two men. They would duel 17 times with their final battle being in 1813 {not 1816 as the film portrays}.)

Dupont was willing to duel Fournier with pistols. (Dupont avoided fighting Fournier with pistols because the latter was known as an excellent shot famous for shooting clay pipes out of the mouths of Hussars riding past him while smoking. To fight a pistol duel with such man would’ve been a death wish. Also, pistol duels were more fatal in general as in the case of what happened to Alexander Hamilton. Yet, Andrew Jackson did manage to survive one with a bullet in his chest that remained in there for the rest of his life.)

Andoche Junoit said about not needing a sign when the artillery shells dump soil where he was painting one. (This was based on an actual incident, except that Junoit was writing a letter to Napoleon, not painting a sign.)

French troops marched in step when the moved across country. (They used a route step which put the troops in a loose formation but not in step because marching in step was too tiresome and inefficient. Of course, if they were in an American high school marching band instead of a 19th century European army, it would be a different story.)

Franco Prussian War and the Paris Commune:

Paris was a nice place to live in 1870 and 1871. (No, it wasn’t. Paris was actually under siege, battered soldiers anxiously discussed the Franco-Prussian war in the coffee shops, people ate their own pets and even elephants at the zoo just to stay alive, students manning the barricades, beggars dying of starvation in the streets, monocle German officers peering down cannons from just beyond the city limits, and after the city had fallen to the Germans, a revolutionary Commune set up ending the Communards being shot dead by firing squads. In short, this would be a scene that makes Paris in Les Miserables look pretty nice.)

The Dreyfus Affair:

The Dreyfus Affair had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. (It’s like saying that the American Civil War didn’t have anything to do with slavery. Yes, the Dreyfus Affair was one of the nastiest cases dealing with anti-Semitism in which a Jewish military officer named Alfred Dreyfus was accused and convicted of treason before being sent in a Devil’s Island prison in French Guiana. When they found out it was a different guy who committed the crime Dreyfus was accused of, there was a large scale cover-up with the real culprit being pardoned by the French government. Nevertheless, Dreyfus’ Jewishness made him an easy target.)

Alfred Dreyfus was officially exonerated when Emile Zola recently died. (He wasn’t finally exonerated of all charges by a military commission in 1906 as well as reinstated and made Knight of the Legion of Honor. Zola died in 1902. Still, despite being pardoned in 1899, he would again be convicted of treason in a second trial despite overwhelming evidence he was innocent.)

Louis Pasteur:

Louis Pasteur’s daughter Annette married a man named Matel. (Actually his daughter’s name was Marie Louise and she married a man named René Vallery-Radot. She was one of two of Pasteur’s five kids who survived into adulthood as well as his only surviving daughter. His three oldest daughters died of typhoid, which served as his prime motivation for curing infectious diseases. Still, Pasteur is a significant figure since he’s known as the father of modern medicine.)

Napoleon III and Louis Pasteur didn’t get along. (Napoleon III was his patron who built him a laboratory with all the resources he needed for his research only halting it when he became gravely ill since he didn’t want to waste money on a laboratory for a person who may soon be dead. Yet, even when Pasteur was sick, Emperor Napoleon III personally visited him and assured him that he’d get his lab. He’d even bring court members to admire Pasteur’s projects. Still, unlike in The Story of Louis Pasteur, Napoleon III wasn’t a stupid reactionary nor did he exile the scientist but a guy with an ego that got France into disastrous wars and foreign misadventures, which would get him to fall into Otto von Bismarck’s trap in the Franco Prussian War. I mean there’s a reason why Napoleon III was France’s last monarch. Louis Pasteur was Emperor Napoleon III’s favorite scientist and Pasteur’s main worry had more to do with the French Emperor seeing him as a miracle worker who could do almost anything. This led to Napoleon III assigning Pasteur tasks always outside his experience but the scientist always came through. The two would remain friends even after Napoleon III was overthrown and Pasteur would refuse to say a bad thing about the Emperor as well as remained grateful to him towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, I wonder what it would be like to have Louis Pasteur visit a hospital during the American Civil War.)

Moulin Rouge:

The Moulin Rouge was a haven for Bohemian artists animated by the chance to live out their four tenets: Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love. (Actually the Moulin Rouge was driven by commercial success like any other club in its day. Still, it’s commercial success has a lot to do with a dirt little dance of the time called the can-can. Nevertheless, it wasn’t really Henri Touluse-Lautrec’s favorite place in the world but they basically hired him to do posters for it and he had his own table there.)

The can-can was created at the Moulin Rouge. (It had actually been around since the 1830s but it was a far more respectable dance before the Moulin Rouge opened in 1889. It originally started as more of a rowdy as well as reckless high-spirited and high kicking working class jig which didn’t show much flashing knickers. However, the Moulin Rouge took this dance and supercharged it for all the world to see using it to help advertise their courtesan dancers {yes, most of their dancers were whores}. Still, contrary to many movies, the can-can at Moulin Rouge wasn’t a kind of dance you’d want your kids to see since it became more crude and explicit as time went on. Nevertheless, the scandalous can-can put Moulin Rouge on the map.)

Moulin Rouge’s sign read “L’amor.” (It read “Can-Can” which was what it was known for.)

Can-can dancers always danced in a line during the 1890s. (They were semi-professional solo dancers. And it didn’t become a highly choreographed dance until the early 20th century.)

Vincent van Gogh:

Vincent van Gogh went mad and sliced off his ear after a fight with Paul Gaugain. (He only sliced up a portion of his left lobe which he gave to his favorite prostitute Rachel at a local brothel in Arles. Later on 30 townspeople would make a petition to get rid of him.)

Vincent van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field while working on his last painting. (This is depicted in Lust for Life, though there weren’t any witnesses to van Gogh’s shooting so we really don’t know whether he was in a wheat field or a barn. Still, he probably wasn’t working on Wheat Field with Crows, which has been seen as his last work but it’s not since he completed at least two other paintings after it. Also, in 2011 two of his recent biographers contested whether van Gogh committed suicide due to the upbeat deposition of his paintings right before he died, his view that suicide was immoral and sinful, the fact that he traveled a mile between the wheat field and the inn after sustaining a fatal stomach wound {though he died from complications two days later}, how the bullet entered his stomach at an oblique angle {and that it was brown with a purple halo that meant the gun was fired at some distance}, and the possibility of him and the unlikelihood of him of being able to obtain a gun despite his well-known mental health problems {as well as the public knowledge of his destructive tendencies}. The authors contend that a couple village teenage boys might’ve shot him by accident and that he claimed he tried to kill himself so the kids wouldn’t get in trouble. Of course, this theory has recently stirred considerable controversy though there’s some reasonable evidence on both sides. Either way, he didn’t get shot while working on Wheat Field with Crows.)


Alexandre Dumas was white. (He was biracial and had a black grandmother. Father was one of Napoleon’s generals who also became the highest ranked person of color in any European military and was born in Haiti to a French nobleman and his slave. Quoted as saying to a guy who insulted him because of his mixed-race, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.” Still, he’s played by Gerard Depardieu when Lenny Kravitz would’ve made a better choice {at least Kravitz is biracial despite not being French}.)

The June Rebellion of 1832 was a French Revolution. (Not like the one that took place in 1789. Yet, this was set off by the death of one General Jean-Maximilien Lamarque who was a political opponent to French King Louis Philippe. Now this should shed some light on why Marius’ friends were all killed. Still, this is a relatively small and not quite significant event in French history as well as an outright failure.)

Antoine Nicolau was deeply in love with Bernadette Soubirious and vowed to remain unmarried when she entered a convent. (No such relationship was ever said to exist between the two of them.)

Vital Dutour was an atheist who didn’t find faith until he suffered from cancer of the larynx. (He was a devout Catholic who simply thought Bernadette was hallucinating. Also, it was a different guy who suffered the cancer of the larynx in the novel The Song of Bernadette who’s probably an expy of the freethinking Emile Zola who denounced the industry that sprang up at the miraculous spring at Lourdes.)

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s drink of choice was cognac. (It was absinthe which was said to be an alcoholic psychoactive drug of the 1890s but it’s actually about as dangerous as any highly alcoholic and it’s psychoactive properties were highly exaggerated. So no it’s not like an 1890s LSD with booze.)

2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 45 – 19th Century France

  1. What an era of history. I can appreciate “Midnight in Paris” even more now. Napoleon wasn’t short? Van Gogh only cut off a bit of an earlobe? Goodness!

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