The History Channel has, at times, strained the bounds of what can be considered historical topics in the shows they air. A portion of the shows put on, however, are worth watching, and luckily, many of these shows are released on DVD.
In 2005, the network aired a documentary, The French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, which examined events leading up to and during the French Revolution. The documentary can be broken into two sections; the first illustrates the causes of the French Revolution, while the second discusses the events of the Revolution.
Narrated by Edward Herrmann, this documentary illustrates the influence of the Enlightenment on the Revolution, notably the concept that people could improve their lot in life, something that had not previously been an option for the majority of the population. And while this wave of change brought new ideas and people to the forefront of French politics, it also brought the Terror.
Historians throughout the film explain the role of the French Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many revolutions in the Western hemisphere in the 1810s and 1820s were sparked by the same flame that swept France a few decades earlier. The ideals of 1789 also also gave rise to movements that would pave the way for revolutions elsewhere into the 20th century.
A few criticisms of the film include the failure to adequately transition into the period of Napoleon. While the focus understandably remains on the Revolution and its immediate aftermath, a bit more should have been included to illustrate how the country shifted from a surge of democracy and republicanism into rule by an emperor. The Napoleonic era requires another documentary altogether, but a transition to demonstrate how the events of the French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon would have been instructive.
Additionally, the failure to mention the newly formed United States gives an incomplete global view of the French Revolution. While the American Revolution was in a class of its own, it did help to influence the way in which events in France would gain momentum in the inevitable landslide toward revolution. The assistance which France provided to the United States during the American Revolution contributed to the already destitute socioeconomic situation in France. The American point of view also demonstrates the mixed feelings that the Revolution evoked. The newly formed country stood divided in its view of the French Revolution, particularly once the Reign of Terror began. Some Americans felt that France deserved complete support, while others were reluctant to support what they considered to be a bloodbath as the 1790s progressed—an intriguing perspective coming from a new nation emerging from a revolution against a monarchy. The film does not pay these topics much, if any, lip service, but would benefit from their inclusion.
The documentary, taken as a whole, definitely merits viewing. It gives a thoughtful presentation of the French Revolution without getting too bogged down in minute details, which can drag a film down (and should probably be saved for historical monographs). At 100 minutes, the film would be an alternative for the classroom, or just an informative film for those who find themselves enjoying the delights that a night of documentary-watching and monograph-reading can offer.
Check the WRL catalog for The French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité