Since the beginning of film as a narrative and artistic medium, historical events and eras have been popular subjects for filmmakers. The decade of the 1810s, however, has not tended to show up in movies or on TV as frequently or consistently as other eras—but there are still plenty of examples of the second decade on film. Beginning in the 1920s with French filmmaker Abel Gance, depictions of the 1810s, many involving Napoleon or adaptations of popular and classic novels, have woven their way through the history of visual media with varying results. From Miriam Hopkins’s Technicolor turn as Becky Sharp in 1935 to Paul Dano as Pierre Bezhukov in the 2016 miniseries War and Peace, the analysis of the second decade in film covers a lot of fun and interesting ground.
In this episode, a slight departure from the usual emphasis on factual events, historian Sean Munger takes you on a brief tour of the 1810s as they appear on the screen. Films and shows discussed include Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, the 2002 European-made Napoleon miniseries, the classic 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, as well as lesser-known (and less historically serious) efforts like Woody Allen’s Love and Death or the whimsical sendup Lost in Austen. If you’re a fan of the period and you’d like to see it on screen, this episode may give you some new items to add to your Netflix list!
Correction: in the episode, actress Jennifer Ehle is incorrectly identified as “Elizabeth Ehle.” My apologies to Ms. Ehle.
(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).
Additional Materials About This Episode
Here are trailers and/or clips from all the movies and shows referenced in this episode, with the exception of the 1929 film Napoleon at St. Helena.
Napoleon (1927). Not technically a second decade film (it takes place in the 1790s), but discussed in the episode.
Becky Sharp (1935), the first major film in three-strip Technicolor.
The Duellists (1977), Ridley Scott’s first film. Check out the braids on Harvey Keitel!
Waterloo (1970). Rod Steiger inhales the scenery as Napoleon while Sergei Bondarchuk commands the Soviet Army. Really. The extras in the battle scenes are members of the Red Army.
Napoleon (2002), fan-made trailer for the European miniseries. Christian Clavier is, in my opinion, a pretty lightweight Napoleon. Vincent Cassel wasn’t available?
Love and Death (1975) is an inspired sendup of Russian literature. The more you know Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, the funnier it gets.
War and Peace (1966), again directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. This film, in fact, got him his gig directing Waterloo four years later.
War and Peace (2016). Paul Dano heads the cast in this modern BBC adaptation of Tolstoy, with excellent results.
Pride and Prejudice (1995). Colin Firth has been haunted by this role–especially the scene where he comes up out of the lake–for the remainder of his career.
Lost in Austen (2008). A delightful modern mashup of Pride and Prejudice, I actually like Elliot Cowan better than Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
Gothic (1986). Guaranteed to be the most bizarre Second Decade movie you’ll ever see.