5 Unforgettable French Revolution Moments From Literature and Film

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Happy Bastille Day! As most of us know from history class, the French Revolution was born from oppression, began with promise, peaked in guillotine-induced bloodshed, and ended in Napoleon.Fortunately for pop culture, fascination with the French Revolution, from its inception to the bloody Reign of Terror to the Napoleonic era, has produced brilliant works of art, literature, film, and theater. These are just a few of our favorite treatments of the topic, sitting on top of a mountain of fascinating material.

A Tale of Two Cities and History of the World Part I‘s “French Revolution” Sequence

Charles Dickens’ occasionally reactionary but deeply affecting novel of the revolution — one of the best-selling books in history — was written from his position across the channel. The novel was in part an admonishment to the British aristocracy to pay more attention to the plight of the poor lest they suffer the same fate as their French counterparts. The book spawned a beloved MGM black-and-white film, which in turn inspired Mel Brooks’ incredibly hilarious revolution sequence in History of the World Part I, which deftly sends up many of the French Revolution tropes that arose from Dickens’ characters — specifically the sinister Madame DeFarge, who knitted grimly as the guillotine fell.

Danton

Andrzej Wajda’s film starring Gerard Depardieu as the earthy revolutionary Danton may render its hero slightly more noble than he was in history. But that’s a quibble; the film is an excellent, stirring account of how the revolution’s ideals slipped away into terror, and works particularly well as a character study of Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, the architect of the Terror.

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (aka Marat/Sade)

With the Marquis as their nihilist guide, the mental patients at a French asylum enact an assassination story from the Revolution that has since passed into the Napoleonic era. This game-changing play by Peter Weiss is a brutal, meta look at the revolution, and at larger themes of power, violence, sanity, and art.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Representing a much sillier and more conservative side of French Revolutionary pop culture, Baroness Emma Orczy wrote a play and series of adventure stories about a foppish British aristocrat by day who turns into a rescuing avenger by night, stealing his French brethren away from the guillotine. Her hero’s masked crusading set the stage for a number of superheroes, not to mention a movie, a musical, and a pop culture legacy.

A Place of Greater Safety

We know from Wolf Hall that Hillary Mantel can weave a tale of political intrigue and brutality into a story that has an intimate feeling. In this, her novel of the revolution’s major figures — Robespierre, Danton, et al. — the novelist traces their lives from childhood to their adulthood as enforcers of the new regime.