Movies Set in the Revolutionary War/Regency/Federalist Era

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Almost all of these reviews were penned by Jolie Velazquez. A click on the title of a particular movie -- or its year, when multiple versions exist -- will take you to its listing in the Internet Movie Database. We welcome additions to our film listings, as well the occasional correction.

The Battle of Austerlitz (1960)

Directed by Abel Gance, better known for his 1927 masterwork, Napoleon. This odd and stilted film is not readily available but sometimes shows up on cable. It stars many European actors who later became famous, and includes many cameos, but was shot on such a small budget that almost all the battle scenes are either truncated or take place off screen. Costumes are wonderful, though.)

Beau Brummell

(1913)Silent version of Beau Brummell's life stars Clara Kimball Young and James Young.

(1924) Silent version of Beau Brummell's life stars John Barrymore and Mary Astor. This plot revolves around the Beau's disappointment in love and how it leads to his revenge. For some reason the title spells the Beau's last name with only one L. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

(1954) Lavish biopic about the upstart who used friendship with the Prince of Wales to become the leader of English society. Stars Stewart Granger as the first of all dandies, Elizabeth Taylor as his love interest, and Peter Ustinov as Prinny. Directed by Curtis Berhardt.


Becky Sharpe (1935)

The best-known Hollywood version of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, the story of a scheming illegitimate girl trying to claw her way up in English society. However, fate never seems to give her an even break. Stars Miriam Hopkins, who is lovely and gives a spirited performance that earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.


The Buccaneer

(1938) We haven't seen this early version, starring Fredric March as pirate Jean Lafitte and Spring Byington as Dolley Madison. Lafitte woos the blueblooded Annette de Remy while he aids the cause of the United States in the War of 1812.

(1958) Remake of the fanciful tale of pirate Jean Lafitte joining forces with General Andrew Jackson to liberate New Orleans during the War of 1812. Stars Yul Brynner as the buccaneer of the title, and Charlton Heston in the oft-repeated role of Jackson. This was Anthony Quinn's American directorial debut, which means more action than characterization. Fun but not history.


Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)

Directed by Raoul Walsh. Hollywood depiction roughly based on C.S. Forester's series of adventure novels. The intrepid hero sinks ships, escapes Imperial France with his crew, and woos the wife of another officer while still married himself (sound familiar?) but always manages to maintain his honor and aplomb. Stars Gregory Peck, who for once is a little too stiff-upper-lip, and Virginia Mayo as the love interest. (For those who care, her costumes are dreadful.)


Le Colonel Chabert

(1943) Starring Raimu, from the novel by Honoré de Balzac. A presumed-dead cavalry officer returns home after ten years. (Gee, sounds like Martin Guerre.) In French with English subtitles.

(1995) Remake, starring Gerard Depardieu. Well-reviewed.


Congress Dances (1931)

Also known as Der Kongress Tanzt. Strange semi-musical version of political intrigue in 1814 as representatives of the winning allies divide Napoleon's empire. However, the main plot is about a little shop girl falling in love with Tsar Alexander, who spends his time trying to thwart the efforts of Metternich to take the whole enchilada. The only "name" actor is Conrad Veidt as Metternich (remember him as Colonel Strasse in Casablanca?) Winner of the 1997 BAERS Silly Costume Movie Award. This German movie reunited Veidt with Lil Dagover (the Countess), his co-star in, of all things, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


Conquest (1937)

Also known as Marie Walewska. The story of Marie Walewska, considered a patriot in her native Poland, and one of Napoleon's many mistresses. She petitions the Emperor to liberate her country, but falls in love with him and eventually bears his first son. (This led to the divorce from Josephine, since the birth proved that he was not the guilty party in the task of producing an imperial heir.) Stars Greta Garbo, as always beautiful and providing a haunting performance, and Charles Boyer in one of his not-so-great roles.


Damn the Defiant! (1962)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert. Well-done story about a crew on a British man-o-war during the Napoleonic conflict. Alec Guinness plays the honorable captain saddled with sadistic Dirk Bogarde as his second-in-command.


Desiree (1954)

A fictional account of the relationship between Desiree Claré, the daughter of a silk merchant, and the rapidly rising Napoleon Bonaparte, who eventually passes her over for the more politically-connected Josephine. She later marries one of Napoleon's marshals, Bernadotte, who eventually becomes King of Sweden and his former boss's sworn enemy. Very Hollywood, meaning not terribly historically accurate, but fun. Starring Marlon Brando (born to play the part) and Jean Simmons as his innocent first love.


The Duellists (1977)

From the Joseph Conrad novella, directed by Ridley Scott. A cult classic among serious movie-aficionados. Only natural lighting was used to film, and the script follows the story faithfully. The tale of two French cavalry officers, one an upper class scion and the other an upstart from the ranks, who perpetuate an affair of honor throughout Napoleon's wars and beyond. The cause of the quarrel is ambiguous but the adherence to social ritual and military life is fascinating to watch. Starring Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, and a slew of English character actors and actresses.


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Eagle in a Cage (1971)

Said by many to be one of the worst Napoleonic movies ever made. Unlikely plot involving a daring planned escape from St. Helena, and a tawdry affair between the deposed Emperor and a little hussy played by Betsy Balcombe. Quote from J. David Markham of the Napoleon Series: "Watching this movie will cause your mental health to fail!" Starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who should have known better.



Several adaptations of Jane Austen's novel about a spoiled only daughter who fancies herself a matchmaker and grand arbiter for all her friends and acquaintances. Her education in humility at the hands of her older neighbor/brother-figure/friend is the heart of the story.

(1972) BBC adaptation. Stars Doram Godwin and John Carson.

(1996) A&E production shot in England with Kate Beckinsale as the willful heroine and Mark Strong as her devoted advisor. Directed by Diamuid Lawrence. At four hours, this one gives attention to the minor characters, so we get more than cardboard figures manipulated by the heroine.

(1996) Feature-length version that made a star of Gwyneth Paltrow. The writers went for the humorous bits in this one, and it is a lovely thing to observe, but purists may find it a bit too "modern." Directed by Douglas McGrath, and also stars Jeremy Northam.


The Far Horizons (1955)

Also known as Untamed West, this is the Hollywood version of Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery. Charlton Heston is William Clark, Fred MacMurray is Meriweather Lewis, and Sacajawea is played by Donna Reed (!) in this pedestrian western treatment. ('50s TV fans, note that William Demarest co-stars.)


The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

In Alabama in 1818, Kentucky militiaman John Breen (played by John Wayne, in what's reputedly one of his better roles) falls in love with a French exile and discovers a plot to steal the land her fellow exiles plan to settle on. Co-stars Oliver Hardy!


Gothic (1987)

Ken Russell's version of what happened in the summer of 1816 when the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron camped at Lake Geneva. Lots of psychodrama, naturally, and the birth of Mary Shelley's timeless Frankenstein. Not for the squeamish. Stars Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands and Amanda Richardson.


Haunted Summer (1988)

Ivan Passer's attempt to recreate the famous Villa Diodati house party of 1816 (see Gothic). Tamer than Ken Russell's movie, this one got better reviews at the time but is already not easy to find in video stores. Stars Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern and Philip Anglim.


Horatio Hornblower (1998)

New BBC/A&E series based on the C.S. Forester novels. Four movies based on the adventures of Midshipman Hornblower. Wonderfully authentic and where the plots stray from the book, they err on the side of historical accuracy. Ioan Gruffudd makes a dashing young hero, and all the character actors are beautifully done.

Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and the Devil (1999)

Horatio Hornblower: The Even Chance (1998) Also known as Horatio Hornblower: The Duel.

Horatio Hornblower: The Examination for Lieutenant (1998) Also known as Horatio Hornblower: The Fire Ship.

Horatio Hornblower: The Frogs and the Lobsters Also known as Horatio Hornblower: The Wrong War.


John Paul Jones (1959)

Directed by John Farrow. Hollywood biopic about the American naval hero of the War of 1812. Robert Stack offers his usual wooden stalwartness.


Kolberg (1945)

Also known as Burning Hearts. Hard-to-find movie about one of the few battles Prussia won against Napoleon Bonaparte. This was made during the Nazi regime as propaganda, as were most German pictures at the time. Sometimes available through war movie clubs.


Lady Caroline Lamb (1972)

Directed by Robert Bolt. Fictional account of the relationship between Romantic poet/hell-raiser, Lord Byron, and the equally tempestuous Caroline Lamb. Shot in England, so sets and costumes are at least worth looking at. Overacted by both Sarah Miles as the lady of questionable virtue, and Richard Chamberlain as the brooding celebrity. According to the user comments in the Internet Movie Database, this movie is mad, bad, and dangerous to watch.


Les Miserables

Based on the novel by Victor Hugo about Jean Valjean, a poor man who steals bread to feed a starving family only to be hounded for the crime by an obsessed police officer. More than 20 interpretations of this work can be found in the Internet Movie Database; we offer only a few of them here.

(1935) Starring Frederick March and Charles Laughton, directed by Richard Boleslawski. One of Laughton's best.

(1947) Starring Gino Cervi and Hans Hinrich, directed by Riccardo Freda. In Italian.

(1978) Made for TV version with Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins, directed by Glenn Jordan. This one is much admired for the performances and set direction.

(1995) This version is not set in Revolutionary France, but in Nazi-occupied France. If you like the story, check this one out. Stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and is directed by Claude Lelouch. In French with English subtitles.

(1998) Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush and Uma Thurman, directed by Bille August. The latest interpretation, which also takes liberties with the plot, did not get good reviews when it opened.


Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)

Ok, this isn't a movie, but this is one of the finest documentaries ever done, and its on the major accomplishment of American heroes Meriweather Lewis and William Clark. President Thomas Jefferson picked these soldier-friends to lead an expedition across the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, recording its geographical, biological and ethnographic riches. The two-part film covers not only the particulars of the journey, but a lot of material about American society in the early 1800's. Created by Ken Burns, narrated by Hal Holbrook, and many actors lend their voices as participants reading journal excerpts.


The Little Minister

Silent film buffs can choose among several versions of this adapted play, released in 1913, 1915 (written by J.M. Barrie, author of the original play), 1921 (co-written by Barrie), and 1922.

(1934) But most readers probably know this adaptation best. Katherine Hepburn stars in this tale of a Scottish clergyman who falls for a supposed gypsy girl during the time of the Luddite riots. Also stars Donald Crisp. Directed by Richard Wallace.


Love and Death (1975)

Woody Allen wrote, directed and stars in this parody of Russian novels (especially War and Peace). With Diane Keaton, he tells the tale of a hapless coward (wearing anachronistic black-framed glasses) who becomes a hero during the Napoleonic Wars and gets involved in a plot to assassinate the Emperor himself.


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Mansfield Park

(1983) BBC production of Jane Austen's novel about the overlooked poor relationwho must maintain her sense of propriety, even when attractive and exciting acquaintances threaten to take away the only person who has ever cared for her. Stars Anna Massey as the obsequious Mrs. Norris, Bernard Hepton and Angela Pleasance as the elder Bertrams, and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny. Directed by David Giles.

(1999)At this writing, director Patricia Rozema's production of the Austen classic has yet to be released.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Biopic of the Queen who (purportedly) said "Let then eat cake." Interesting speculation on the truth behind the "Affair of the Necklace" but otherwise just a Hollywood romance that makes martyrs of the Royal couple. Usual lavish treatment for sets and costumes. Starring Norma Shearer as the Academy-nominated Queen who comes to a bad end, and Tyrone Power as her erstwhile lover, Count Fierson. Robert Morley makes a sadly befuddled but ultimately noble Louis XVI.


The Marquise von O... (1976)

From a story by Heinrich Kleist and directed by Erich Rohmer. Beautiful set direction based on the paintings from the turn of the 19th century using natural and candlelight, authentic costumes and locations. An heroic Russian officer during the Napoleonic Wars rescues a lady from a fate worse than death only to secretly betray her. Her moral dilemma is the crux of the story, which is often amusing, despite its serious subject. Stars Bruno Ganz in one of his first feature roles. In German with English subtitles


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Of all the versions made of Mary Shelley's classic horror tale, this is the only one that pays more than passing attention to her original plot, characterizations and themes. And it is set in the right time period. Kenneth Branagh stars in and directed this one, and made sure that 90% is from the book and the rest at least makes sense. Also stars Robert De Niro as the Creature, Helena Bonham-Carter as the doctor's love interest, and lots of other good actors in supporting roles, including John Cleese in a rare dramatic cameo.


Napoleon (1927)

(Also known as Napoleon and the French Revolution) A biography of Napoleon's rise to fame in the French army, written and directed by Abel Gance. The film is an unabashed tribute to France's greatest general, and no warts are allowed to show. But even if you do not care for the Vile Corsican, Gance's work dazzles as he creates the large canvas of revolutionary Europe using innovative cinematic techniques. Gance's masterpiece was long thought lost until cinema historian Kevin Brownlow began his quest to find the reels scattered over the world and put it all together to great acclaim in the 1980's. The video version has a new score by Carmine Coppola. Pre-war Paris and faithful costumes lend atmosphere. Stars Albert Dieudonne, an actor little known outside his own country, who bears a close resemblance to the early portraits of Napoleon, and does a wonderful job depicting a larger-than-life hero. Watch for Antonin Artaud in the small but riveting part of Marat. Silent with English subtitles.


Napoleon (1955)

Directed by Sacha Guitry. Usually counted among Orson Welles' worst films, this 50's biopic creates a wholecloth account of the Emperor's life. But any cast that also includes Maria Schell, Yves Montand and Eric Von Stroheim can't be all bad.


The Nelson Affair

Also known as A Bequest to the Nation. A glimpse at the great romance between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of his friend, the ambassador to Naples. This version seems like a stage play with the plot squeezed into the course of the few days prior to Nelson leaving for Trafalgar, and characters entering and exiting rooms viewed from one angle. Emma's husband is conveniently deceased but Nelson's wife is still breathing, providing the cause for most of the rows going on at Merton, and guests take sides based on venal consideration. Stars Peter Finch as the hen-pecked naval hero, and a sadly miscast Glenda Jackson as the notorious mistress.


Northanger Abbey (1986)

BBC production starring badly-miscast Peter First as the hero, and Robert Hardy, trying to be menacing, as his father in this tale of a young girl who thinks the characters in her favorite Gothic novels have come to life around her. Shot on location in and around Bath, it is lovely to look at, but the actors, including a goggle-eyed heroine, leave much be desired.


Old Ironsides (1926)

Directed by James Cruze. Story of the famous American battleship that survived the War of 1812. Stars Wallace Beery.



Jane Austen's story of a young woman who has sacrificed her own happiness to the needs of her family and friends for many years, only to be offered one more chance with the man she loves when he returns from many years at sea.

(1971) BBC production. OK but best remembered for the very odd hairstyles created for the female cast members.

(1995) Feature-length film starring Amanda Root as the faded Anne Elliot, and Ciaran Hinds as the dashing naval officer she refused when too young to know her own heart. Beautiful on-location settings, and well acted by one and all. Directed by Roger Mitchell.


The President's Lady (1953)

Charlton Heston once again takes on the mantle of Andrew Jackson in this biopic that concentrates on the relationship with his wife Rachel. The lady in question's reputation caused scandal and heartache for all, especially for the presidential hopeful.


Pride and Prejudice

From the Jane Austen novel about a family of five sisters looking to make advantageous marriages in order to avoid penury once their father dies. The story focuses on the two elder daughters, both of whom fall for respectable gentlemen (although it takes a while for one of them to realize it) and the near-disastrous consequences of their family's unconventional behavior. The ups and downs of courtship, and clash of town and country society provide the background for witty sparring matches between lively Elizabeth and too-proper Mr. Darcy.

(1940) The Greer Garson-Lawrence Olivier Hollywood version directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Garson brings the proper balance of wounded pride and high spirits to her Elizabeth Bennet, though Olivier is a bit dour as Darcy. The screenplay takes some liberties with the plot, but this one is a lot of fun anyway. Lots of English character actors fill in the smaller parts, including Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine and Edmund Gwinn as Mr. Bennett.

(1979) BBC production in two episodes starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul as the jousting couple. More faithful to the book, and very accurate historically, but rather staid. Directed by Cyril Coke.

(1995) The joint production of A&E and BBC, running 6 hours and covering the entire scope of the book. Stars Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth as resident hunk Darcy. This one has many admirers. Directed by Simon Langton.


Quality Street

(1927) Starring Marion Davies as Phoebe Throssel, and Conrad Nagel as Dr. Valentine Brown. Directed by Sidney Franklin.

(1937)Katherine Hepburn plays a woman who loved and lost Franchot Tone ten years previously. When he returns to Regency London at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, she fears he will think her too old and disguises herself as her own niece to win him back. Directed by George Stevens.


Reign of Terror (1949)

(Also known as The Black Book) Every list has to have some comic relief. A really dreadful tale about spies during the French Revolution that looks like "historical noir" with muddy set direction and broad characterizations -- but beautiful photography! -- that reek of 50's sensibility. Stars Robert Cummings, Arlene Dahl (!), and Richard Basehart as Maximilian (don't call me Max) Robespierre. Winner of the 1998 BAERS Silly Costume Movie Award.


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Scarlet Pimpernel

Again, we will mention here only a few of the several adaptations of the Baroness D'Orczy tale.

(1934) Based on the novel by Baroness D'Orczy about a British aristocrat rescuing French nobility from the guillotine while hiding his daring nature under the guise of a fop. A rare film that is better than the book. Literate screenplay, great acting. Stars Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey as one of the more refined villains in movie history. Directed by Harold Young. The one smirch is Miss Oberon's costumes, which true to the style of a star, are more flattering to her figure than historically accurate.

(1954)An adventure serial starring the Scarlet Pimpernel featured Marius Goring as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Stanley Van Beers as Chauvelin, but the films are hard to find.

(1982) A television remake was made with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen as the leads. Beautiful to look at, and not bad for TV.

(1998) A BBC/A&E Production attempted to make the Baroness' tale more realistic. A very adult version with authentic sets, costumes, hairdos and manners.


Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen's story of two sisters, one of whom is ruled by her emotions, and the other by her head, even though her own heart beats just as strongly. The vicissitudes of love thwarted is the crux of the matter, with money and honor proving the strongest forces in society.

(1985) BBC production starring Irene Richard and Tracey Childs as the beleaguered siblings, and Richard Swann as a love interest. Directed by Rodney Bennett.

(1995) Well-received version with a screenplay by star Emma Thompson that won her an Academy Award. Also stars Kate Winslet as her younger sister, Hugh Grant as her love interest, and Alan Rickman as the long-suffering suitor to her misguided sibling. Thompson manages to truncate the story well into the feature-length version, and gives a moving performance as the sensible mainstay in the family (though she was a bit too old for the part). Directed by Ang Lee.

The Sharpe Series

Made for BBC, the 14 stories are from the series of novels by Bernard Cornwell. (Our apologies for not offering you all 14 listings here at this writing -- check the Internet Movie Database's search engine using the word "Sharpe's" and all 14 TV movies will be selected.) Some are more faithful to the books than others. A "scum or the earth" foot soldier rises from the ranks to become an officer in Wellington's army during the Peninsular Campaign, and sometimes single-handedly saves the day. Historically accurate in many details and devices, but the plots can be a bit far-fetched. Stars Sean Bean in the role that made him an English heart-throb, and a large cast of handsome riflemen and supporting characters. Some great villains too.


A Tale of Two Cities

From Charles Dickens' tale of innocent pawns drawn through improbable plot devices at the time of the French Revolution. Cynicism, revenge, betrayal, love woes, and ultimate sacrifice, you name it. It's all here.

(1935) Stars Ronald Colman at the height of his popularity, Elizabeth Allen, Basil Rathbone, and Edna May Oliver. Several Academy Award nominations. Directed by Jack Conway.

(1958) Faithful English version with Dirk Bogarde as the flippant lawyer, and Dorothy Tutin as the woman loved by two best friends. Directed by Ralph Thomas.

(1980) Stars Chris Sarandon, Alice Krige and Peter Cushing. Directed by Jim Goddard.

(1989)This Masterpiece Theatre version stars John Mills, but it is hard to find.


That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Directed by Alexander Korda. British biopic about Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton starring Lawrence Olivier and Vivian Leigh during the height of their off-screen romance. Critics mention the intelligent screenplay and good acting (although there is some difference of opinion on this). Nominated for several Academy Awards. It was Winston Churchill's favorite movie.


Vanity Fair

1971 From the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, made originally for BBC TV. A wonderful six-part series about the intelligent and beautiful Becky Sharpe, who pretends and flirts her course through advantageous alliances in an effort to find financial security. A good introduction to English society and its strictures during that era. Sets and costumes are all one expects from British productions, and it is very well acted by all and sundry. Stars Susan Hampshire, who was fresh from her triumph in The Churchills.

(1987) Mid-'80s production starred Eve Matheson as the determined Rebecca Sharpe.

(1998) The most recent TV production stars Natasha Little as Becky Sharpe and Eleanor Bron as Lady Bareacres.

Several other versions of Vanity Fair were made, but are hard to find. Silent pictures were shot in 1911 (with Helen Gardener), 1915 (with Helen Fulton), 1922 (with Cosmo Kyrle Bellew), and 1923 (with Mabel Ballin). Myrna Loy played Becky Sharpe in the 1932 remake.


Waterloo (1971)

Epic rendition of the Little Corporal's downfall produced by Dino De Laurentis, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. Lavish sets, costumes, and the usual cast of thousands. Rod Steiger delivers an unflattering portrait of the Emperor, and Christopher Plummer does a credible job with the stiff but brilliant Wellington.


War and Peace

From the novel by Leo Tolstoy. The story of several Russian families during the time of the Napoleonic wars living through political, social, and religious upheaval. Napoleon and his Russian counterpart, General Behzukov make cameo appearances as the great puppet masters of events.

American (1956) The Hollywood version stars Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, and Henry Fonda doing decent jobs with the script they were given. Condensing the story to a feature-length format doesn't help either, and many lesser characters are missing altogether. But if you don't mind that, this one is at least diverting entertainment.

Russian (1968) Many movie fans like the Russian version at five hours and with most of the characters and plot left intact. Beautifully filmed in Europe with the Russian army providing combatants for the military duels. Nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Picture. Russian with English subtitles.

British (1973) The BBC television series could finally do justice to Tolstoy's novel over the course of a dozen episodes, including the bits about spiritual and moral anguish. All the minor characters and plots are there, and being from the BBC, the sets, costumes, and acting are first-rate. The battle scenes are not as brilliant, but if you loved the book, this is the one to see. Stars Anthony Hopkins, Alan Doby, and Morag Hood.

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