18 March 2005 | bregund
Okay, but not detailed enough
I can understand that the producers of this show would choose to balance history and drama, even on this the History channel, but this program feels strangely unsatisfying. There are thousands of fascinating details about the people and events of the French revolution, but this program concentrates only on the surface details. Instead of an in-depth look at the revolution, it's like a word-for-word retelling of a children's text book. In between the close-up scene recreations, which are repeated eight times each so you don't forget them, there are snippets of interviews with history professors. It feels authentic but it also feels emotionally empty, not an easy thing to do with such a fascinating subject. I wonder if it was deliberate.
As with most re-tellings of the French revolution, the nobility are painted in broad strokes as evil people. This program is historically wrong about Marie Antoinette; she did not care for big, elaborate gowns and hair styles, and she never wore her hair in the fashion of the pictures they showed during the explanation of her purported penchant for fine living. She preferred simple muslin dresses to the elaborate dresses that she was normally expected to wear as a member of nobility. One of Madame Vigeee-Lebrun's portraits shows her in just such a muslin dress, relaxed and casual in the style she was accustomed to. Also, she did not ignore her third-estate subjects as the program purports, in fact she desperately tried to fit in. True she preferred to speak in her native German language, which her countrymen took as a sign of haughtiness, but at fifteen years old, kicked out of her mother's palace and sent miles away to live in a country she did not know, and go through an arranged marriage to a man she never met, I would say she showed a remarkable willingness to make the best of adverse circumstances. She did what was expected of her, based on her Austrian mother's ambitions. It is tiresome and inaccurate to see her constantly portrayed as greedy and superficial , when she was exactly the opposite: polite, refined, gentle, and considerate. The damage to her image was manufactured by the pamphleteers of the day, who made up all kinds of vicious lies about her to stir up hatred against the nobility. It is remarkable that the power of these eighteenth-century tabloids is still able to influence impressionable people's opinions of her even today, based on her inaccurate portrayal in this program.
The portrayal of Louis Capet was pretty much spot-on; he did not seem to care very much about anything and was a very poor statesman. He loved tinkering with clocks and hunting, and that was about it. Like most fathers, he loved his children dearly. The king and queen happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, expected to perform in certain ways that were established hundreds of years before their time. How could they be expected to live any differently, surrounded by people much like their ancestors were surrounded by their subjects? Another thing this program glossed over was the Bastille. There were only a handful of prisoners in the Bastille, but this show perpetuated the myth of Parisians liberating the captives of the medieval building. The storming of and destruction of the Bastille was symbolic rather than effectual.
Also, though the program implies otherwise, Guillotin never invented the guillotine, he never designed it or drew it or had anything whatsoever to do with its construction. He suggested the idea of the guillotine as a humane method of execution, that's why the thing was named after him.
Robespierre was anything but a fiery orator, he had a very quiet voice, a reserved manner, and all the presence of a shop clerk. It was only the strength of his convictions that made him a powerful figure. Even today the idea of a quiet, well-mannered but bloodthirsty lawyer should send chills down anyone's spine, but this strange little man filled with so many contradictions is watered down in this program. Robespierre couldn't stand the sight of blood and avoided watching executions.
In short, the entire scope of the revolution is difficult to cover in only two hours. It's like covering WWII in only two hours, it's impossible, that's why the History channel has a rotating assortment of dozens of shows about WWII from every perspective imaginable. It would be nice to see different shows about the French revolution from different perspectives as well, for instance the political ambitions of Madame du Barry and her heart-wrenching display as she was lead to her public beheading; where all the other nobility silently accepted their fate, she begged for her life.