Selected Documentaries, Movies, & Television Series on the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

Documentaries, Movies, and Television Series

 

It is the task of every student and teacher to analyze the listed documentaries, movies, and television series critically. Especially – but not only – some of the older productions in the chronologically organized overview are, according to contemporary standards, not politically correct, biased, and sometimes overtly racist and sexist.

We nevertheless included these films to foster important discussions in the classroom about the historical change in the construction and perception of war in film and its intersection with notions of class, race and gender. Therefore, all films need to be seen and studied critically as a reflection of the time of their production, including more recent movies. A good introduction into the study of the history of movies and critical film analysis is:

 

Especially interesting films for the subject of gender and war are marked with an *.

 

Documentaries

 

(United States, David Grubin Productions / PBS, 2000)
Director: David Grubin

The documentary on Napoléon Bonaparte follows him through his military victories in Italy and his crowning as Emperor in 1804. Napoléon experienced major military and political victories which gave him control over Europe on the height of his power in 1810, and later dramatic military defeat between 1812 and 1815. He spent the rest of his life writing his memoirs on St. Helena. David Grubin, whose work in film and television has brought him many prestigious awards, was producer, director, and writer of Napoleon.
YouTube (episode 1 | episode 2 | episode 3 | episode 4)
IMDb
PBS website

 

(Britain, The History Channel, 2005) (1h 40m)
Director: Doug Shultz

On July 14, 1789, angry Parisians stormed the Bastille and seized the King’s military stores. A decade of idealism, war, murder, and violence followed, bringing about the end of feudalism and the rise of equality and a new world order. The French Revolution is a definitive feature-length documentary that encapsulates this period in Western civilization. With dramatic reenactments, illustrations, and paintings from the era, plus revealing accounts from journals and expert commentary from historians, The French Revolution vividly unfurls in a maelstrom of violence, discontent, and fundamental change.
WatchMovie
IMDb

 

(United States, David Grubin Productions / PBS, 2006) (2h)
Director: David Grubin

Marie Antoinette (1774–92) born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna was the last Queen of France. She was born an Archduchess of Austria and was the penultimate child and youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. Her name is synonymous with the French monarchy and all its excesses, but there is more to her story than the simplistic tale of how a foreign sovereign helped provoke the French Revolution.  The film traces her journey from the splendors of a childhood in the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire to her final hours in a French prison cell and to the guillotine.
IMDb
PBS website

 

(United States, National Geographic/ Partisan Pictures, 2006) (1h 28m
Director: Doug Shultz

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815 near Brussels. A French army under the command of Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated by two of the armies of the Seventh Coalition: an army consisting of units from the United Kingdom, the German Legion, the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau under the command of the First Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), referred to by many authors as the Anglo-allied army, and a Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742–1819). The battle marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Enjoying success and power as a wartime leader, king, and emperor, Napoléon was in the end undone by his own ruthless ambitions, suffering a humiliating defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
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Movies
 

(France, 1927) (5h 30m)
Director: Abel Gance

A massive six-hour biopic of Napoléon Bonaparte, tracing his career from his schooldays (where a snowball fight is staged like a military campaign), his flight from Corsica, through the French Revolution (1789–99) (where a real storm is intercut with a political storm) and the Terror, culminating in his triumphant invasion of Italy in 1797 (the film stops there because it was intended to be part one of six, but director Abel Gance never raised the money to make the other five). The film's legendary reputation is due to the astonishing range of techniques that Gance uses to tell his story, culminating in the final twenty-minute triptych sequence, which alternates widescreen panoramas with complex multiple-image montages projected simultaneously on three screens.
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(France, 1938) (2h 10m)
Director: Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir's epic account of the French Revolution (1789–99) juxtaposes the opulent life of King Louis XVI (1754–93) with the poverty of the commoners who rose up to overthrow the monarchy in 1789. The film's title comes from the rallying song which grew out of the peasants' march on the Bastille, the song that ultimately became the French national anthem. Filmed with a cast of thousands, the focus is on two members of a large volunteer battalion who help the revolutionary army in its takeover of the Tulleries, which resulted in the publication of the Brunswick Manifesto and ultimately led to King Louis' downfall.
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(United Kingdom, 1951) (1h 57m)
Director: Raoul Walsh

Captain Horatio Hornblower R. N. is a 1951 British-American naval war film in Technicolor from Warner Brothers, produced by Gerry Mitchell and directed by Raoul Walsh, that stars Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo, Robert Beatty and Terence Morgan. The film is based on three of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels: The Happy Return (Beat to Quarters in the United States), A Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors, published between 1937 and 1967. Forester is credited with the screen adaptation. In 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Navy Captain Horatio Hornblower commands the 38-gun frigate HMS Lydia on a secret mission to Central America. He is to provide arms and support to Don Julian Alvarado, who calls himself El Supremo (The Almighty), in his rebellion against Spain, an ally of Britain's enemy France.
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(United States, 1954) (1h 50m)
Director: Henry Koster

In this romance movie, directed by Henry Koster, the young French millinery clerk Désirée Clary, living in Marseilles in 1794, becomes infatuated with Napoléon Bonaparte, but winds up wedding General Jean-Baptiste Berandotte, an aid to Napoléon who later changes sides and joins the Allied forces in 1810 to led the Swedish forces. Instead of Désirée, Josephine Beauharnais, a worldly courtesan marries Napoléon and becomes Empress of France, but is in 1810 cast aside by her spouse because she proves unable to produce an heir to the throne. Désirée stays in contact with Napoléon until his exile on St. Helena and still loves him. Napoléon is played in this movie by Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons stars as Désirée.
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(France, Italy, 1955) (3h 10m)
Director: Sacha Guitry

This film, directed by Sacha Guitry, explores Napoléon Bonaparte's life, loves and exceptional destiny as seen through the eyes of Talleyrand, the cynical politician who once was the Emperor of France's Minister of Foreign Affairs. The film is an epic historical tale that depicts major events in the life of Napoléon.
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(Italy, United States, 1956) (3h 28m)
Director: King Vidor

War and Peace was a novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), published first serially and then in its entirety in 1869. It describes the Russian campaign of 1812 from the Russian perspective. This American movie, directed by King Vidor, is an adoption of the novel, which chronicles the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families. The film centers on the complicated love triangle in Tolstoy’s novel between Natasha Rostova, played by Audrey Hepburn, Count Pierre Bezukhov, played by Henry Fonda, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
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(United States, 1957) (2h 12m)
Director: Stanley Kramer

The Pride and the Passion is a 1957 Napoleonic era war film produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, which tells the story of a British Royal Navy artillery officer (Cary Grant), who has orders to retrieve a huge siege cannon from Spain and transport it by ship to British forces. But first, the leader of the Spanish guerrillas (Frank Sinatra) wants to transport the weapon 620 miles across Spain, to help in the recapture of the city of Ávila from the occupying French before he releases it to the British. Most of the film deals with the hardships of transporting the big gun to Ávila across rivers and through mountains, while also evading the occupying French forces that have been ordered to find it. A subplot concerns the struggle for the love of the Spanish woman Juana (Sophia Loren) by the two male protagonists.
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(United Kingdom, 1962) (1h 41m)
Director: Lewis Gilbert

The historical drama, directed by Lewis Gilbert, is based on the 1958 novel Mutiny by Frank Tilsley. During the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Crawford (Alec Guinness) takes command of the HMS Defiant and is ordered to rendezvous with the fleet in Corsica. With his son aboard as a new midshipman, Capt. Crawford takes an even hand with his crew. This does not sit well with his second-in-command Lt. Scott-Paget (Dirk Bogarde), a cruel officer who is also well connected and someone who has proven to be the downfall of his previous commanding officers. As a battle of wills ensues, Scott-Paget uses Crawford's son in an attempt to get the Captain to lash out against him. With the men on the verge of mutiny, they must also face the enemy.
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(Italy, Soviet Union, 1970) (2h 3m)
Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

This epic war drama by Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk focusses on the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815 and Napoléon Bonaparte, played by Rod Steiger. After defeating France and imprisoning Napoléon on Elba, ending two decades of war, Europe is shocked to find that Napoléon has escaped and has caused the French Army to defect from the King back to him. The best of the British generals, the Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), starred by Christopher Plummer, beat Napoleon's best generals in Spain and Portugal, but has never faced Napoléon. Wellington stands between Napoléon with a makeshift Anglo-Allied army and the Prussians. A Napoléon victory will plunge Europe back into a long term war. An allied victory could bring long term peace to Europe. The two meet at Waterloo in June 1815 where the fate of Europe will be decided.
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(United Kingdom, 1977) (1h 40m)<
Director: Ridley Scott

This historical drama, directed by Ridely Scott, is set during the age of the Napoleonic Empire (1803–15). The Duellists is based on a story written by the Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad (1857–1927), which, according to the author, was itself based on a true story whose origins sprang from a ten-line paragraph in a small Southern France local newspaper. An officer in the French army insults another officer and sets off a life-long enmity. The two officers, D'Hubert and Feraud, cross swords time and time again in an attempt to achieve justice and preserve their honor.
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(France, Italy, 1982) (2h 30m)
Director: Ettore Scola

This movie, directed by Ettore Scola, is focusing on the French Revolution (1789–99). It tells the story of a group of passengers in a stagecoach who find themselves caught up in the events of the French Revolution in June 1791. They arrive in the city of Varennes, when the local revolutionists arrest the fleeing King Louis XVI (1774–92). The imagined group of travellers on the same road, linked to this event, include the American patriot Thomas Paine (1737–1809), the noted seducer Giocomo Casanova (1735–98), the French novelist Restif de La Bretonne (1734–1806), and one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting.
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(France, Poland, Germany, 1983) (2h 16m)
Director: Andrzej Wajda

The film, directed by Andrzej Wajda, portrays the conflict between the rival Jacobine revolutionary leaders Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94) and Georges Danton (1759–94), particularly in the period leading up to Danton's execution in 1794. The film is an adaptation of the 1929 play The Danton Case by Stanisława Przybyszewska, who wrote the play in 1928/29, after many years of studying the French Revolution (1789–99). In 1793, as the Terror begins during the Revolution, Danton, a champion-of-the-people, clashed against Robespierre and other radicals in the Jacobine party. In the end, Danton was guillotined by the advocates of revolutionary terror after accusations of venality and leniency toward the enemies of the Revolution.
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(France, 1994) (1h 50m)
Director: Yves Angelo

The movie Le Colonel Chabert, directed by Yves Angela, is based on a 1832 novella by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). It is included in his series of novels known as La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), which depicts and parodies French society in the period of the Restoration (1815–30) and the July Monarchy (1830–48). The main character in the novel and the film, directed by Yves Angela, is French Colonel Chabert, who serves in the Napoleonic army and has been severely wounded in the Russian War (1812) to the point that the medical examiner has signed his death certificate. When he regains his health and memory, he goes back to Paris, where his “widow,” Anne has married the Count Ferraud and is financing his rise to power using Chabert's money. Chabert hires a lawyer to help him get back his money and his honor.
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(United States, 1998) (2h 14m)
Director: Bille August

This 1998 film version of the historical novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1802–65), first published in 1862, stars Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes. As in the original novel, the storyline follows the adult life of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict (paroled following 19 years of hard labor, for stealing bread) pursued by police Inspector Javert.
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(Poland, France, 1999) (2h 27m)
Director: Andrzej Wajda

This movie by director Andrzej Wajda tells the story of Poles who fight for the liberation of their divided and occupied homeland in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. It is based on the eponymous epic poem by Polish poet, writer and philosopher Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855). As in the poem, the conflict between the Soplica and Horeszko families serves as a backdrop for discussion of issues of Polish national unity and the struggle for independence. In the early 1810s, Poles, part of Russia's client state of Lithuania, think the independence of Poland will come if they join forces with Napoléon, when he invades Russia. This unity of purpose is undermined by two families, feuding since the head of one shot the head of the other twenty years before.
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(United Kingdom, United States, Ireland, Switzerland, 2002) (2h 11m)
Director: Kevin Reynolds

The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds, is based on the 1844 novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas (1802–70). The story takes place in France, Italy, and islands in the Mediterranean during the era of the Bourbon Restoration between 1815 and 1839. The film begins just before the Hundred Days period between 20 March and 8 July 1815, when Napoléon Bonaparte returned to power after his exile on Elba. The historical setting is a fundamental element of the novel and the film, an adventure story primarily concerned with themes of hope, justice, vengeance, mercy, and forgiveness. The main character of the movie is a young man, falsely imprisoned through betrayal by his jealous “friend.” He escapes and uses a hidden treasure to exact his revenge.
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(United States, 2003) (2h 18m)
Director: Peter Weir

This epic adventure movie, directed by Peter Weir, is telling the story of the H.M.S. Surprise, a British frigate, under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). In April 1805, his and the Surprise's orders are to track and capture or destroy a French privateer named Acheron. The Acheron is currently in the Atlantic off South America heading toward the Pacific in order to extend Napoléon's reach of the wars. This task will be a difficult one as Aubrey quickly learns in an initial battle with the Acheron, which it is a bigger and faster ship than the Surprise. Aubrey's single-mindedness in this seemingly impossible pursuit puts him at odds with the Surprise's doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who is also Aubrey's most trusted advisor on board and closest friend.
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(France, United Kingdom, 2003) (2h)
Director: Antoine de Caunes

The film Monseur N., directed by Antoine de Caunes, explores the mysterious circumstances surrounding Napoléon’s death in 1821. It deals with the last days of Napoléon on St. Helena through the eyes of a British officer assigned to be his liason with the British government. The film hints that Napoléon retained a loyal entourage of officers at St. Helena who helped him plot his escape, and evaded the attentions of Major-General Sir Hudson Lowe, the island's overzealous Governor. It suggests further that Napoléon could have escaped to Louisiana, where he died, and that the body exhumed and now at Les Invalides is that of Napoléon's officer Cipriani.
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(France, Japan, United States, 2006) (2h 3m)
Director: Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette is a 2006 historical comedy-drama film written and directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst. It is based on the life of Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette, born in the splendor of the Habsburg Empire, is married to the young King of France. She lives a life of excess luxury at Versailles, eventually triggering the uprising that will lead to the French Revolution. It won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.<
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(Portugal, France, 2012) (2h 31m)
Director: Valeria Sarmiento

This movie, directed by Valeria Sarmiento, tells a story from the Peninsular campaign during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). On September 27, 1810, the French troops commanded by Marshal Massena, were defeated in the Serra do Buçaco by the Anglo-Portuguese army of general Wellington. Despite the victory, Portuguese and British are forced to retreat from the enemy, numerically superior, in order to attract them to Torres Vedras, where Wellington had built fortified lines hardly surmountable. Simultaneously, the Anglo-Portuguese command organizes the evacuation of the entire territory between the battlefield and the lines of Torres Vedras, a gigantic burned land operation, which prevents the French from collecting supplies. This is the setting for the adventures of a multitude of characters from all social backgrounds—soldiers and civilians, men, women and children, young and old—to the daily routine torn by war and dragged through hills and valleys, between ruined villages, charred forests and devastated crops.
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Television Series
 

(Soviet Union, 1966–67) (4 episodes a1h 45m)
Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

This eight-hour film epic in four parts is based on the 1869 novel by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Two main story-lines are complex and intertwined. One is the love story of young Countess Natasha Rostova and Count Pierre Bezukhov, who is unhappy in his marriage. Another is the “Great Patriotic War” of 1812 against Napoléon's invading Armies. The people of Russia from all classes of society stand up united against the enemy. Napoléon's 600,000 men strong army moves through Russia and causes much destruction culminating in the battle of Borodino. The Russian army has to retreat. Moscow is occupied, looted and burned down, but soon Napoléon loses control and has to flee. Both sides suffer tremendous losses in the war, and Russian society is left irrevocably changed. This version of War and Peace is more realistic than the American film version from 1956.
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(France, Germany, Italy, 1997) (2 episodes, a 1h 30m)
Director: Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe

The two-part television series Le Rouge et le noir is based on the historical novel by Henri Beyle Stendhal (1783–1842), published in 1830. The two films, directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, chronicle the life of Julien Sorel, a young man who wishes he could have been a part of Napoleon’s grand army. He grows up in a small French village, but will leave his father's sawmill to attempt to rise socially beyond his modest upbringing through a combination of talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy.
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(Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain,
United Kingdom, United States, 2002) (4 episodes a 1h 35m)
Director: Yves Simoneau

The historical miniseries in four parts, directed by Yves Simoneau, explores the life of Napoléon Bonaparte. The miniseries covers Napoléon's military successes and failures, including the Battles of Austerlitz (1805) and Eylau (1807), the retreat from Russia (1812–13) and his final defeat in the battle of Waterloo (1815). It also delves into Napoléon's personal life: his marriage to and divorce from Josephine de Beauharnais (1763–1814), his marriage to Marie Louise (1791–1847), the Duchess of Parma and daughter of Francis II, and his affairs with Eleanore Denuelle and Marie Walewska. The series draws from Bonaparte historian Max Gallo's bestseller.
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