Cheat Sheet

12.24.12

The French Revolution for Dummies (and ‘Les Misérables’ Watchers)

Les Misérables has finally arrived in theaters! Boy, the music is beautiful, but what the heck is going on? The Daily Beast explains the history behind the story.

The movie adaptation of Les Misérables finally hits theaters this week and is already garnering raves. (Oscar, are you out there?)

The film, based on the enormously successful Broadway musical, is a sprawling historical epic set against the backdrop of revolutionary France. Now, mention of the French Revolution usually conjures up images of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette recommending that hungry subjects eat cake before being led off the guillotine. But neither makes an appearance here. In fact, both those guys lost their heads by 1793, while the events of Les Miserables don’t begin until 1815. Here’s what else you might not know:

The Monarchy

The French Revolution ended the age of absolute monarchy in France, but was followed by the Reign of Terror, a violent spell in which rival factions dueled it out for power, resulting in the executions of nearly 40,000 people. What emerged from the rubble was an empire under Napoleon I. A popular general, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power after a coup d’état in 1799. He was made first consul, then consul for life in 1802, and then emperor in 1804. But Napoleon’s dynasty did not last quite as long as the monarchy that had come before it—his collapsed in 1814 after a series of military defeats, including a failed invasion of Russia. He was briefly restored the following year, after escaping from his island exile. But his restoration was brief. Following the famous defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled once more—this time to an island much further away.

But France wasn’t ready for a genuine democracy just yet. Instead the country saw the return of the Bourbon monarchy through Louis XVI’s younger brothers. First, Louis XVIII, followed by Charles X. Even then, the revolutions were far from over. After elections in May 1830 resulted in a majority unfavorable to Charles X, he responded by dissolving the Chamber of Deputies and instituting repressive ordinances, which led the people to ... revolt. During the July Revolution of 1830, Charles abdicated in favor of his young grandson. But Charles’s cousin Louis-Philippe concealed the abdication document, and the crown was offered to, what do you know, Louis-Philippe! He reigned until another revolution dethroned him in 1848.

Thus, France was still governed by a king during the most tumultuous events of the movie, even though they take place nearly 40 years after the French Revolution began.

Jean Maximilien Lamarque

Occasionally mentioned in the movie, Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque was a military hero of Napoleon’s era who was opposed to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following the general’s exile. He became a popular opposition leader during the years of the Bourbon restoration. When he died of cholera in June 1832, there was much fear that the population’s physical and economic well-being was in danger.

June Rebellion of 1832

Just as it does in the film, popular resentment and fear swelled after Lamarque’s death. Opposition groups felt they had lost their hero, and many, especially supporters of the Republic, were bitter and felt that their revolution of 1830 had been “stolen” by those who had made Louis-Philippe the king. The feelings of resentment and discontent bubbled over during Lamarque’s funeral, when a crowd of over 100,000 people descended on the streets of Paris. The demonstration eventually devolved into clashes between protesters and soldiers; dozens of barricades had been erected within two hours of the initial skirmishes. But few of the marchers had actually arrived ready to fight, and few of the unprepared protesters sought to join them. Just as in the film, the small group that had armed itself was massacred.

The entire battle was over just 24 hours after it began; 800 protesters were killed or injured. The king continued to reign for another 16 years. The June revolution of 1832 accomplished little. In fact, historians believe that this event would have been largely forgotten if Victor Hugo had not chosen it to set the scene for Les Misérables.

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On Flick Picks, Ramin Setoodeh and Peter Travers review "Les Miserables."