5 French historical movies to watch

History is an important source of inspiration in the French movie industry. Many dramas, action movies and comedies take place in a historical setting. This page lists five French history movies worth watching. Note that the choice is subjective and not based on critics, ratings or historical accuracy.

  • Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre), directed by Daniel Vigne and starring Gérard Depardieu, Nathalie Baye and Roger Planchon, 1982.

Set in 16th-century France, the movie is based on the real case of identity theft of Martin Guerre, who left his village to fight in the Wars of Religion. A decade later, a man returns, claiming to be Martin. The villagers and Martin’s wife accept him and life returns to normal. However, one day vagrants recognize him as being Arnaud, a man from a nearby village. The village begins to be divided on whether or not Martin is really Martin Guerre. Soon, Martin asks his uncle to settle a debt owed but his uncle refuses and attacks him. This event results in a trial over his real identity which could lead Martin or the thief to be sentenced to death. The trial will also decide the fate of his wife and children. Should he not be the man he claims to be, then his wife would be accused of adultery and the children would be illegitimate.

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  • Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A very long engagement), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou, Clovis Cornillac, Marion Cotillard and Jody Foster, 2004.

This French-American production is set during the First World War. It tells the story of Mathilde whose fiancee Manech was among five French soldiers to be sentenced to death for cowardice during the battle of the Somme. Mathilde is told that Manech is “missing in action” but soon learns that he was sentenced to death by a court-martial. But Mathilde is sure that the man she loves is still alive somewhere. She starts a long journey to uncover the truth surrounding Manech’s fate after his sentencing. Despite Mathilde’s uncle and aunt advise to let go, she spends all her money travelling and hiring private investigators to find the last people Manech spent time with and their families, hoping to find somewhere a clue that will help continue to believe Manech is still alive. Mathilde will soon discover that she is not the only one trying to understand what really happened to these five soldiers.

US trailer

  • Paris brûle-t-il ? (Is Paris burning ?), directed by René Clément, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Kirk Douglas, 1966.

Based on the eponym book, Is Paris Burning ? is a Franco-American movie about the August 1944 Liberation of Paris from the German occupation during World War Two. While the Allies are advancing through France, the Resistance in Paris is pondering over the course of action to take since the American command is not ready to march on Paris. The Gaullists would rather wait. However, the Communists are ready to start a Parisian uprising to liberate the capital. When word that Hitler ordered General von Choltitz, commander of Paris, to burn the city to the ground if the Allies take it, both Communists and Gaullists are ready to take up arms. A messenger informs the Allied command of this order and General Eisenhower grants the permission to the Free French Forces under De Gaulle’s command to race to Paris. Meanwhile, General von Choltitz, a rational officer aware of Germany’s precarious situation in the war, is unsure about Hitler’s order.

A famous scene

  • Trilogie de La Septième Compagnie (The Seventh Company trilogy), directed by Pierre Lamoureux and starring Jean Lefebvre, Pierre Mondy and Aldo Maccione.

La Septième Compagnie is a series of the comedy movies set during World War Two. The first movie, Now Where Di the 7th Company Get To (1973) follows the story of Sergeant Chaudard and Pivates Tassin and Pithivier, all three members of the 7th Company of Transmission during the 1940 Battle of France. Their commanding officer sends them to scout the area but the soldiers cut the wrong tree in an attempt to camouflage themselves. The tree blocks a division of German soldiers and reveals the transmission cable, leading to the capture of the 7th Company except for the three main characters. They then try to escape the Germans and Chaudard wants to fix their mistake. Not very bright but lucky, the three soldiers’ adventure leads them to meet a downed fighter pilot, to an unecessary swim in a lake and to capture a German . The second movie, The 7th Company has been found  (1975) tells the next part of their adventure. Chaudard, Tassin and Pithivier escape the Germans and dress as French officers. But they are once again captured and sent to a castle requisitioned by the Wehrmacht as a prison for officers. There they meet their company commander Captain Dumont and they try to set up an evasion plan. The final movie, The 7th Company Outdoors (1977) is set during the German Occupation. The three main characters have been dismissed from the army and returned to civilian life. Chaudard invites his two friends to visit him and spend some time with his family. One day, Tassin caught a conversation between Chaudard’s wife and Gilles, a Resistance commander on the run. As they use secret codes, Tassin thinks they are lovers but in reality they are both working for the Resistance and helping the British.

A famous scene

  • Au Revoir Là-Haut (See You Up There) directed by Albert Dupontel, starring Albert Dupontel, Niels Arestrup, Emilie Dequenne and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, 2017.

In the last days of the First World War, Albert Maillard, a modest accountant, understands that Captain Pradelle killed two of his men in order to launch an offensive and be regarded as a hero. In the offensive, Maillard is saved by Péricourt, an eccentric artist from a bourgeois background. Péricourt is disfigured while Maillard suffers from PTSD. Now bond by friendship, the two find it difficult to come back to civilian life after the traumatism they suffered. They imagine a scam where they sell fictitious memorial to the dead to cities and villages. Meanwhile, Pradelle is making a fortune in the repatriation of the corpses of French soldiers, selling empty coffins or coffins with the cadaver of German soldiers inside to grieving families.

Trailer