Les Misérables (1934)

Black and white photograph featuring a reel of 35mm film stock.

Director Raymond Bernard has adapted Victor Hugo’s lengthy French novel Les Misérables into a three-part film adaptation. The unabridged transcript for the book itself is about 1,400 pages in length, depending upon which publication copy you happen to consult. It is my favorite classic novel of all time that completely blows the other classics right out of the water. Who cares about the other classic novels such as Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Dickens’s David Copperfield, or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina? It’s all about Hugo’s Misérables, baby! However, because of the book’s hefty length, there aren’t very many high-quality film adaptations of its story. Well, I thought the lack of a quality adaptation was something that I would have to live with until the moment that I discovered an old 1934 French film that appears to have hit the adaptive nail right on the head. Before you continue reading through the remainder of this article I should point out that the majority of it contains spoilers; so, the reader should consider caution.

Harry Baur in the title role as Jean Valjean

Part One: Une tempête sous un crâne (Tempest in a skull)

The first third of the series is called “Tempest in a skull” and sets up the story of convicted thief Jean Valjean who is released on parole. He served nineteen years as a member of a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread; the first five years were a part of his original sentence, but the remaining fourteen years was an extended sentence for his four attempts at escaping from the chain gang. It is a story of redemption for a thief who changes his own life after a priest shows him mercy. With the gift of silver candlesticks and silver tableware Valjean disposes of his government pink slip, changes his name, and moves as far away as he could to create a new life for himself.

Nearly a decade later he has established a successful career as a business owner and the mayor of a small French town. However, there is one minuscule hitch to his almost perfect new life. He stumbles across an accident that leaves a town citizen trapped underneath a heavy wagon. Everyone fears saving the trapped citizen with the high risk of being killed in the process. Valjean jumps right in to save the guy by lifting the heavy wagon up long enough for the other people to pull the injured man out to safety. One of the onlookers in the crowd is Inspector Javert who is attempting to wipe the cobwebs away from his distant memory. He remembers the physical strength of the convict from the time he spent patrolling the chain gang. Javert rules his life by a personal sense of moral duty and obligation to keep a convicted felon in jail, regardless of Jean Valjean’s attempt at keeping his new lifestyle as clean and innocent as possible.

In the final act of Part One, an innocent man is placed on trial and has been named as the missing felon Jean Valjean. The true Valjean has been living under an alternate name for several years, and he wonders if it is worth revealing his true identity to save the life of the innocent man. He is faced with a tremendous amount of stress when faced with the decision of attending the trial of the misidentified, innocent man or to fulfill a promise he made to a dying mother who doesn’t want to have her daughter live forever as a house slave to a pair of innkeepers known as the Thénardier family.

Thénardier (Charles Dullin) and his wife are the villians of the story

Part Two: Les Thénardier

The married couple has spent several years of their lives conniving every last cent out of their customers. Thénardier and his wife are innkeepers who had taken in Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, with high regard of kind generosity they claim they have for the mother and daughter. The thin veil of moral high ground is clearly transparent as they repeatedly attempt to bleed out every last bit of earnings they could pull from Fantine’s wages. With the letters that Thénardier writes to Fantine, he is able to convince her that Cosette is in need of extra clothing and medicine. Fantine’s debt grows rapidly with the accumulating list of care items that Cosette never receives.

Fulfilling his promise to Fantine as she was lying upon her deathbed, Jean Valjean arrives at Thénardier’s inn to pay off the debt and to become Cosette’s new caretaker. For the next eight years of her life, she views Valjean to be her savior and adopted father offering her protection and guidance as she matures into a young and beautiful woman. Thénardier and his wife believe they received the short end of the deal when Valjean had paid off Fantine’s debt. They conspired for years on new methods in swindling money from the pockets of other people. After nearly ten years Thénardier jumps at the opportunity he is faced when he discovers that Valjean and Cosette are living nearby. However, to his disadvantage, his next-door neighbor, Marius, is in love with Cosette and he comes to Valjean’s rescue when he is attacked by Thénardier’s gang of thugs.

As Thénardier is seeking his sweet revenge the other economically poor citizens of France are politically evolving. They want to see France evolve into a pure Republic. Marius, the young and handsome neighbor, is a member of the ABC Society, which is a local Republican political group consisting of idealistic young men from the lower economic class. Marius is approached a few times by his friends who have noticed his apparent distraction of love for Cosette. Will he be there for them when they enact what they believe would be a political revolution against the French throne? Or will he be enthralled by the wonders of love?

Part Three: Liberté, liberté chérie (Freedom, dear Freedom)

In the final act of the film, their political upheaval is in full swing as the ABC Society is joined by other like-minded poor people who mourn the loss of General Lamarque. They begin their revolution for political freedom during General Lamarque’s funeral procession by staging an uprising against the military and police force. The battle is harsh and unforgiving for the poor activists who are wanting to see their dreams of political revolution come true. Ever since his release from the chain gang, Valjean has continuously fought for personal freedom and independence from the guilt that he’s borne for decades. Javert has been an external reminder of his past, and Valjean has attempted everything he could to keep Javert at a safe distance away.

During the street side battle, Javert covertly enters the barricades where the ABC students are fighting for their cause. He convinces the group that he shares their desire for political revolution, but his true identity as a government spy is quickly uncovered. Javert is taken as a prisoner of war and tied down until the group can decide what his fate should be. Not long after his arrest Valjean arrives on the scene to track down Marius. His intention is to offer Marius his permission to propose marriage to Cosette. Much to his surprise, Valjean wasn’t expecting to find Javert tied down as a prisoner of war. The revolutionaries offer Valjean the opportunity to kill Javert for his sin as a battle spy. Despite the high amount of temptation he has for wanting to remove Javert from his life forever, Valjean reminisces of the generosity the Priest showed him several years ago.

I will end my lengthy synopsis at this point here since I have already given away too much information about the movie’s story. Raymond Bernard not only directed this film, but he is also the co-author of the screenplay adaptation. It is a rare occurrence for any novel to be adapted so loyally to the big screen, especially for a book that is so long in written length. However, it was a very smart move to split the film into three sections. Among contemporary filmmakers, the business of creating sequel films is a popular business venture. Quentin Tarantino was called an innovative filmmaker for splitting his Kill Bill movie into a two-part series. He surely isn’t the first director to attempt such a maneuver since Bernard had beaten him to the much by nearly seventy years.

Raymond Bernard’s adaptation of Les Misérables is the most impressive film that I have ever watched so far based upon Hugo’s classic novel. I highly approve of the film and have found it very entertaining to watch. My final rating for the film has received the highest rating I could ever give a film — a perfect ten out of ten possible review points.

Criterion Channelcriterionchannel.com/les-miserables

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