Wednesday, January 02, 2013

"Les Miserables": Republicans Man the Barricades Against the Monarchists, 1832

The June Rebellion, Paris, 1832
Yesterday my wife and I went to see the musical version of Les Miserables, a famous novel by French author Victor Hugo, written in 1862.  Over the years, the novel has been presented in plays, operas and films.  Normally, I don't care for musical representations of dramatic historical events.  I prefer to see the famous personages and actors portraying events realistically, rather than singing their way through wars and riots and famines.

The current musical film of Les Miserables was not an exception for me.  Most of the singing was simple tunes to convey daily events of French life in 1832 -- not terribly memorable. The major exception was when Fantine, a poor single mother, resorts to prostitution in order to support her young daughter, Cosette.  Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway, sings "I Dreamed a Dream," a worthy composition.  (Hathaway's version can be heard here, although Susan Boyle did a much better job of it here, creating quite a sensation when she did so.)

I will say that the musical does touch on many, if not all, of the major plot devices of the novel and is a fair representation of Hugo's work.  Further, its attention to authentic historical detail is remarkable.  See here for examples.

French Uniform
Les Miserables
French Uniform,
Les Miserables has a scene from 1832 when citizens of Paris create barricades in the center of Paris and fight the French National Guard.  Eventually, the rebels are wiped out, after courageously fighting off National Guard attacks.  The National Guard waves the French tricolor flag, but the rebels wave red flags.  This bothered me, because the red flags looked identical to those of the Communist revolutions.  Was this historical fact, or was Hollywood trying to associate this citizen revolt with later Communist revolutions, perhaps to convey upon the latter an undeserved righteousness?  I decided to find out and went to the web to see what was going on in France in 1832 -- and if there was such an incident in real life.  I learned that there was.

The street fighting portrayed in Les Miserables was an actual event, known as the June Rebellion.  France had been marked by two major opposing forces since the guillotine executions of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, in 1793:  the monarchists (or royalists) and various other groups, i.e. the radicals, the socialists, the Bonapartists, the republicans.  The former supported the monarchy, or rule by a king, and the others, rule by a parliament or other form of democratic government (more or less).  The republicans were supported by the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero who supported the United States in its war for independence.

I can't say the republicans were "the good guys," since it is all a bit more complicated (real life often is); but they had a point.  The time for monarchies was passing into history and people were looking for a better alternative.  The French working class in 1832 were angry because of rising prices and food shortages.  In addition, thousands of citizens had died from a cholera epidemic.  Since germs were not understood, conspiracy theories abounded, especially the notion that the Royalists were poisoning the wells to finish off the working class.  All of these factors provided the atmosphere for yet another rebellion against the existing order.  Wikipedia explains:
The republicans were led by secret societies formed of the most determined members of their movement.[4] The secret societies planned to provoke riots similar to those that had led to the 1830 July Rebellion against the ministers of Charles X.[4] The "Society for the Rights of Man" was one of the most instrumental. It was organized like an army, divided into sections of twenty members each (to evade the law that forbade the association of more than twenty persons), with a president and vice president for each section.[4]

The republicans made their move at the public funeral of the popular General Lamarque on June 5. Groups of republicans took charge of the cortege and directed it to the Place de la Bastille. They were reinforced by Polish, Italian, and German refugees, who had fled to Paris in the aftermath of crackdowns on republican and nationalist activities in their homelands, as well as by workers and local youth. They gathered around the catafalque on which the body rested. Speeches were made about Lamarque's support for Polish and Italian liberty, of which he was a strong advocate in the months before his death. When a member of the crowd waved a red flag bearing the words "Liberty or Death", the crowd broke into rebellion and shots were exchanged with government troops.[2]Marquis de Lafayette, who had given a speech in praise of Lamarque, called for calm, but the disorder spread.[7]

An insurrection began which for one night made the insurgents masters of the eastern districts of Paris. However, the rebellion failed to spread. In the night national guard forces were reinforced by 25,000 regular army troops who pacified the peripheral districts of the capital. The insurgents made their stronghold in the Faubourg Saint-Martin, in the historic city center. They constructed barricades in the narrow streets around the Rue Saint-Martin and Rue Saint-Denis. On the morning of June 6 the last rebels were surrounded at the intersection of rue Saint-Martin and Saint-Merry. At this point Louis-Philippe decided to show himself in the streets to confirm that he was still in control of the capital.[8] The final struggle came at the Cloître Saint-Merry (June 5–6),[4], which resulted in about 800 casualties. Anyone who continued to fight was shot immediately. The army and national guard lost 73 killed, 344 wounded; on the insurgent side there were 93 killed and 291 wounded.[1] The forces of the insurrection were spent.[6]
And the red flags depicted in the film?  Apparently, a true representation of historical fact as noted in the above quote.

Conclusions:  The musical film of Les Miserables is true to Hugo's novel as well as to historical fact, an unusual occurrence in Hollywood, to be sure. Now I better understand the forces in play that are depicted in this famous tale.

Update:  I was also curious as to the authenticity of the French uniforms of the time period and discovered that the film's representation was accurate. (I so enjoy authenticity in films about historical events.) I added the above graphics of French soldiers, one as presented in the film, the other as the actual uniform.  See also here, of three actor-soldiers taking a snooze on the set of Les Mis.  More scenes from the film can be viewed here.  Also, there are a couple of books available that illustrate French uniforms from different periods of French history, and actual uniforms on display at the Army Museum in Les Invalides (where Napoleon is entombed) in Paris.


Stogie said...

thanks for share..

Stogie said...

Saw the actual musical here in Liverpool at our remarkably beautiful Empire Theatre about 10 years or so ago. Very moving and really aroused my interest in the rebellions in Paris during the 1830s and 1840s and how cruel people could be sentencing a poor, hungry man to 20 years hard labour for wanting to eat. His crime: broke a window to steal a loaf of bread. Sentence: six months for the theft and 20 for destruction of property: the stupid window. Property was more important then than the life of a man or his family. Not a lot has changed there, but these rebellions by students and ordinary people did over time bring about rights for common working men and women. Recently, today watched the two film versions of Les Mis and cried at the end when the hero takes the place of Marius the boyfriend hero of his daughter Cosette at the baricades. I remember his song from the musical in which he sings Let Him Live: Bring Him Home: a passionate prayer to God to spare Marius for the sake of his love for Cosette. His prayer is heard and he takes Marius home to his daughter. The film ends with the marriage of Cosette and Marius but the book and musical end with the death of our hero and his blessing on them both, as an old man of course. I am hoping to see the new musical film this week. Victor Hugo was a great writer and a genius. He beings home the misery and the total hopelessness of so many lives and yet here is a tale of redemption, love and honour and finally of mercy, against a back drop of struggle for simple human rights. What a wonderful book! And as you say the film and the musical are very accurate, down to the smallest detail in fact.