Ah, France — good wine, great mimes, the best accordion players you could ever find. It's a bastion of culture in an uncultured world; just ask anyone from France and they'll tell you. And as the new international blockbuster "Les Misérables" (now on DVD and Blu-ray) proves, it's also a country filled with amazing history that is perfectly suited for big-screen epics.
Which got us thinking: Is there any place on Earth that has had more historical dramas than France? Sure, there have been plenty of good old-fashioned American period pieces — what with Hollywood being in America and all — but there's just something about France and its complicated history that keeps bringing filmmakers back for more.
So with that in mind, we've put together our ultimate guide to the history of France as told through through the movies. Viva la cinema!
'Henry V' (1989)
Well, this is probably a bit of French history that the French would rather forget. In 1415, at the battle of Agincourt, a tiny English army that was outnumbered roughly three to one (estimates vary) completed routed the French thanks to using an insane bit of super technology called "a bow and arrow." Kenneth Branagh was nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for his 1989 adaptation of the classic William Shakespeare play "Henry V," which climaxes with the battle of Agincourt and, of course, several long speeches. Better luck next time, France!
'The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc' (1999)
Actually, worse luck next time, France. Just 16 years later, France's heroic religious and military leader Joan of Arc was captured by her enemies and sold to the British, who then burned her at the stake at the age of 19. There have been several movies about Joan of Arc's life and death, but few of them have quite the same verve as Luc Besson's epic "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," starring Milla Jovovich in the title role. She went on to put her new fighting prowess to good use in the "Resident Evil" films while France went on to eventually win the Hundred Years War. All well that ends well — except, of course, for poor Joan.
'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1996)
Set in the 1480s, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" provides a slice-of-life look at French society in the 15th century, especially the role of religion in the shaping of French culture. Victor Hugo's sprawling novel has been adapted for the big screen numerous times, but our favorite has to be Disney's bizarrely suggestive 1996 animated version, which may be the only take on this tale that has a happy ending. The message seems to be that no matter how bad things get, there's nothing that can't be improved by adding a menacing clown. Now that's a moral we think the French would agree with.
'The Three Musketeers' (2011)
Ah, the 1620s, when a man could be a man and a woman could be a felonious assassin posing as a noblewoman in order to murder the Duke of Buckingham. Filled with historical characters doing things that may or may have been quite historically accurate (see: Queen Anne's affair with said Duke), "The Three Musketeers" is nevertheless an interesting glimpse at a period of prosperity — and political intrigue — in France. Paul W.S. Anderson's balls-out swashbuckling action version from last year is also the second film on this list to star Milla Jovovich ... who, of course, is actually Ukranian. Hey, close enough.
'Marie Antoinette' (2006)
Everyone loves cake, right? Well, that's what we thought, too, right up until Marie Antoinette proved that cake is a lie. A symbol of the decadent aristocracy overthrown during the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette is also a symbol of what a cool indie filmmaker can accomplish when she sets her mind to it, as evidenced by the ultra-stylish version by Sofia Coppola. The real Marie Antoinette may have been beheaded in 1793, but she lives on forever thanks to Kirsten Dunst's expertly nuanced performance.
'A Tale of Two Cities' (1935)
Speaking of the French Revolution, if "Marie Antoinette" provided the prologue, "A Tale of Two Cities" provides the climax. Our favorite version of this yarn is the classic 1935 edition, which stars Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton, a downtrodden lawyer who sacrifices his life to save the husband of the woman he loves. All the horror and nobility of the French Revolution and its terrible aftermath is on full display in this classic adaptation of the beloved Charles Dickens novel. Bonus for film fans: The events of the time period depicted in "A Tale of Two Cities" help set the stage for the 1832 rebellion depicted in "Les Misérables."
'Joyeux Noel' (2005)
Just how devastating was World War I? An estimated 1.7 million French citizens alone were killed during the four-year conflict, with millions more dying on French soil thanks to the protracted system of trench warfare that ravaged the continent. "Joyeux Noel" tells the true story of one of the few bright spots in France during the war: a spontaneous Christmas Eve truce between the British and French on one side and the Germans on the other. The film is moving enough as it is, but it becomes more moving when you realize that with almost four full years left following this 1914 holiday miracle, nearly all the participants would end up as casualties.
'Midnight in Paris' (2011)
One of last year's most highly acclaimed films, "Midnight in Paris" follows the story of a modern day dude (Owen Wilson in a career-best performance) who, on a trip to Paris, begins experiencing what can only be either time travel or severe hallucinations. Whatever is going on, it sends him back to the vibrant post-war Paris of the 1920s, when world-renowned artists, writers and musicians rubbed shoulders to turn the City of Lights into the culture capital of the world. "Midnight in Paris" went on to earn four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Woody Allen, en route to becoming Allen's biggest box office hit ever. Turns out they were right: If you can make it in New York, you can, in fact, make it anywhere ... even France.
As you may or may not be aware, Casablanca isn't actually in France. But when it comes to the almost countless World War II films that have been made over the past eight decades, few have been quite as nuanced in their portrayal of France's complex role in the war as "Casablanca." Defeated by Germany, France installed a puppet government known as the Vichy (as embodied by Claude Rains' Captain Renault); the true spirit of France couldn't be kept down, though, leading to stiff resistance from within (embodied by Paul Henreid's Victor Laszlo, who technically isn't French, but trust us on this one). Released in 1942 while the war was still raging — and with its outcome very much in doubt — "Casablanca" didn't just reflect attitudes towards France, it helped shape them. And thanks to the Allies, as Humphrey Bogart famously said, "We'll always have Paris."