I read Eric Hazan’s A People’s History of the French Revolution recently. It was good- lively, readable. Maybe a little soft on Robespierre and the Terror but I think that’s primarily an (over)correction for the generations of revolutionary boogeymen we’ve been presented with for the last two hundred years.
Did you ever notice “character posters”? They’re a movie marketing thing where they make a big deal out of the characters of a yet-to-be-released film, often with a lineup of characters with a sort of description, frequently involving the definite article, attached to each. I first noticed it with Inception and have seen many more since.
I never especially liked them for reasons I can’t explain. I don’t hate them but I don’t like them. It’s not as though the movies haven’t been doing cheap, hackneyed character types for a good century before Christopher Nolan started making movies. And some of my favorite movies rely on cheap, hackneyed character archetypes!
Still, though. Reading Hazan prompted a thought on this type of marketing campaign. A People’s History of the French Revolution is a narrative history, and Hazan’s talents as a writer move the story along, and it’s hard not to imagine it as a film, and possibly a very good one.
You couldn’t sum up the characters the way the character poster would have you do, though. Robespierre, Danton, Hebert, Lafayette, Mirabeau… all play distinctly different roles at different times throughout the revolution. You couldn’t come up with a “The …” statement for any of them. “The Rabble Rouser” describes all of them at certain points, “The Moderate” or “The Executioner” describes most at different times, etc. etc. Perhaps, at the extreme right, you could find people (like the King) who took a consistent part throughout. But even the farthest left of the period — the Enrages, Anarchasis Cloots, etc. — could be painted, as counterrevolutionary, depending on one’s definition of revolution… and they were, when the Montagne saw fit to repress them. And the Montagne had reasons, beyond their own power, whatever one might think of their decisions in this regard.
History — “Thermidorian” history, as Hazan calls it — has tried to chalk the revolution up to the characteristics of a given person or group of people or social class (“it was those mean sans-cullottes!” “no way bro! it was those nasty jealous petty bourgeois lawyers!!”) at least since Burke, if not before. But as Hazan and other historians like Arno Mayer make clear, anything that big, that sucked so many people in and placed them on completely new ground, was bound to comprise a logic of its own. And that logic was what made Danton a terrifying radical in 1791 and a squirrely moderate that the Committee had to execute in 1794, or what made Robespierre a brake on popular vengeance at some points (they don’t mention that in the Thermidorian histories) and it’s encourager at others. It is, put simply, not the logic behind Character Posters.
We’re steeped in an individualism that doesn’t individuate that much beyond archetypes or job roles: “The Architect,” “The Shadow,” etc. The movies, at least The Movies as a capitalist enterprise looking to make a safe return, can’t be expected to break with that, and will naturally play to it. Events transform characters in Hollywood movies, but typically it makes them more of what they already are, and in most cases the events exist solely to eventuate that change (one nice feature of action spectacles; at least they have a point beyond some drip’s development from drippy Point A to drippy Point B!). Something like the revolution, with its own logic, making and remaking people… it’d make a good movie – probably dozens of them, if one was so inclined. But it’d probably make for a difficult pitch.