10 great films set in the 18th century

Revolution, heaving corsets and pistols at dawn – the 1700s hold plenty of fascination for filmmakers looking to bring the past back to cinematic life.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

These memorable words provide the epilogue to Barry Lyndon (1975), Stanley Kubrick’s monumental drama set in 18th-century Europe. It’s no spoiler to say so. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – while stories thrive on suspense, we all come to the same eventual end.

Looking for a period subject after his planned Napoleon project failed to get off the ground, Kubrick initially considered William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic Vanity Fair, before being turned off by the announcement of a TV version. Instead, he alighted on the author’s less well-known The Luck of Barry Lyndon, published in serial form in 1844 and telling the episodic adventures of Irish soldier, spy, gambler then gentleman Redmond Barry.

The resulting adaptation is one of the high-water marks of the period film, an odyssey into the past to rival 2001: A Space Odyssey’s voyage of the future. Fastidious in its historical authenticity, it is simultaneously highly stylised, with compositions self-consciously echoing the great paintings of the era. Meanwhile, there is repeated use of zoom lenses (perhaps inspired by Roberto Rossellini’s similar technique in his 1966 film The Rise to Power of Louis XIV), which drift into and out of each pristinely arranged scene, coolly observing the tragic human drama.

The era of revolutions American, French and industrial, the 1700s have long provided a rich source of inspiration for filmmakers. Alongside Kubrick’s film, these 10 titles below represent some of the most striking examples, but there’s plenty more where they came from. Particularly recommended are Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), three very good versions of the Mutiny on the Bounty story (1935, 1962 and 1984), the Tokugawa-era-set Japanese masterpiece Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937), That Hamilton Woman (1941), The Young Mr. Pitt (1942), Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), the Albert Finney version of Tom Jones (1963), The Colour of Pomegranates (1968), The Madness of King George (1993) and Amma Asante’s recent Belle (2013).

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Director Josef von Sternberg

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The most lavish of the seven vehicles that Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg stars Dietrich as a Prussian princess who is selected by the Russian empress to marry her dimwitted son, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). Renamed Catherine, the onetime ingénue quickly learns how to play the power game within the Russian court, bedding a succession of counts and soldiers on her way to assumption of the throne as Catherine the Great.

A travesty as history, The Scarlet Empress is regardless one of the most dazzling films you’ll ever see. Ever a master of expressionistic mise-en-scène, von Sternberg fills the screen with light, movement, beauty and grotesquerie. The palace is a shifting fantasia of candles, misshapen gargoyles, vast icon paintings, veils, curtains and secret passages, against which a human drama of toxic privilege and perversity plays out. Witness the extraordinary wedding scene, in which the shimmer of royal pageantry is backdrop for the palpably erotic exchange of glances between the young bride and her adulterous suitor Count Alexei (John Lodge). The tight close-ups on Dietrich’s expressions under her wedding veil capture each improper thought as it passes across her face.

La Marseillaise (1938)

Director Jean Renoir

La Marseillaise (1938)

Coming in between all-time classics of the order of La Grande Illusion (1937), La Bête humaine (1938) and La Règle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir’s French revolutionary epic doesn’t really have the status it deserves. That’s a pity because this is a rare film about history and politics that feels vibrantly alive. While too many period films get intoxicated with replica costumes or their own epic sweep, with La Marseillaise there’s a real sense of flesh and blood characters living through extraordinary events.

At time of production, Renoir was himself passionately engaged with the socialism of the Popular Front, but – typically for the director – his film affectionately portrays characters from across the social spectrum, from King Louis XIV (played by his brother Pierre Renoir) to the peasants and working classes swept up in the revolutionary tumult. As the critic André Bazin wrote: “The primary goal of the film, the one which determines its entire style, is to go beyond the historical images to uncover the mundane, human reality.”

Drums along the Mohawk (1939)

Director John Ford

Drums along the Mohawk (1939) poster

This rattlingly good historical adventure is set in New York state during the American revolution. In one of a trio of consecutive classics that he made with director John Ford (in between Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath), Henry Fonda plays Mohawk Valley farmer Gilbert Martin, who marries a respectable society girl (Claudette Colbert) and takes her to live on his homestead. Newlywed happiness is short-lived, however, as their home comes under attack from marauding Indians, while Gilbert is compelled to sign up for the fight against the advancing British.

An evocative tale of frontier life, Drums along the Mohawk is beautifully shot in early Technicolor, making appealing use of its woodsy locations. Edna May Oliver all but steals the show (and got an Oscar nomination for her efforts) as the battleaxe widow who kindly takes the newly homeless couple in. But there’s also colourful work from John Carradine as a dastardly, eye-patched Tory, and Arthur Shields as the local reverend, who delivers a memorably profane sermon mixing advertising spots with local gossip. For similar terrain, see also King Vidor’s Northwest Passage (1940) or Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – both set during the French and Indian War (1754-63).

Culloden (1964)

Director Peter Watkins

Culloden (1964)

The Jacobite rising of 1745 had provided a cinematic backdrop before, notably with Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1948 and The Master of Ballantrae in 1953. But such derring-do suddenly looked very old-fashioned with the advent of Peter Watkins’ extraordinary TV film Culloden, broadcast by the BBC in December 1964.

All but inventing the docudrama, Watkins’ film uses the boldly anachronistic approach of reporting the battle between Scottish clansmen and English soldiers via a contemporary news crew, with an interviewer and cameraman roving the battlefield documenting the bloodshed. Instantly diminishing our distance from these centuries-old events, Culloden thereby launches us into the pell mell of the bloodthirsty conflict, overturning the glamorised thrill of violence by the sheer immediacy with which we witness its effects. Critiquing both the romanticised leadership of the Jacobite pretender and the overweening might of the British military, it announced the arrival of a brilliant new filmmaker of confrontational intent.

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

Director Piers Haggard

Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

Set in the early 1700s, Blood on Satan’s Claw reveals an England countryside where the superstitions and paranoia of the 17th century live on. Beginning with the discovery of a strange, furred skull in a farmer’s field, it’s the story of wyrd goings on that ensue in the local village, whose female population become possessed by dark forces.

Piers Haggard’s film for horror giants Tigon British is rising to the status of a classic on the back of its celebration in Mark Gatiss’s BBC4 documentary A History of Horror (2010) as one of the cornerstones of folk horror, a strand of horror cinema preoccupied with the uncanny rural past. Retroactively conjoined with Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) as the subgenre’s ‘unholy trinity’, it has a strong claim to being the most disturbing of the three. Its berserk forest cavortings, including a horrifying rape ritual, look to have been an influence on such modern films as The Falling (2014) and The Witch (2015). Then there’s that score by Marc Wilkinson, with its eldritch strings and unbalancing electronics.

Amadeus (1984)

Director Milos Forman

Amadeus (1984)

Milos Forman’s multiple Oscar-winning 1984 spectacular takes Kubrick’s closing assertion of Barry Lyndon’s characters that “good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now” and says: Ah, but what about Mozart?

Amadeus is a boisterous riposte to the idea that all men end up equal, a hymn to the possibility of immortality through creativity, but also a pitiless demonstration of the chasm between genius and mediocrity. Peter Shaffer’s fanciful screenplay is told from the perspective of Salieri (F. Murray Abrahams), once composer at the court of Joseph II, now confined to an asylum. It’s from here that the ageing maestro confesses how his wonderment at the advent of Wolfgang Amadeus (Tom Hulce) mixed with murderous jealousy as his own talents were eclipsed. Hulce’s inanely giggling, American-accented turn as the boy genius won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it makes the theme of unfairly distributed talent all the more resonant. It’s a thought that torments Salieri to madness: why should God have chosen this philandering goofball as his vessel for such heavenly music?

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Director Stephen Frears

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

In the late 80s, Amadeus director Milos Forman turned to Choderlos de Laclos’s classic novel Les Liaisons dangereuses for another well-dressed trip into the 18th century. But this time the lion’s share of the acclaim went elsewhere.

Starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening and Meg Tilly, 1989’s Valmont has many pleasures but suffered the ignominy of coming second. Released less than a year before, it was Stephen Frears’s rival adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons, that found the favour of critics, audiences and Oscar voters. And it’s Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and a young Uma Thurman who are now best remembered in the story of the scheming aristocrat, the Marquise de Merteuil (Close), who wagers that her onetime lover (Malkovich) can’t corrupt the sexual innocence of her ex-lover’s virginal new bride (Thurman). Filmed in a succession of opulent chateaux in the Île-de-France, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation (following his own successful version for the stage) is an enduring treat. Dark, lusty and immoral, it draws superb work from its starry leads, of whom both Close and Pfeiffer were Oscar nominated.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director Ang Lee

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

In 1779 (around the time that, on the other side of the world, Barry Lyndon was settling into his new life of wealth, marriage and fatherhood), Qing dynasty swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) wants to give up the warrior life and so gives his sword, the Green Destiny, to his old friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to take to Beijing as a gift for the young Sir Te (Sihung Lung).

It’s the subsequent theft of the sword by a masked thief which sets in train the events of this often astonishing wuxia revival action film, which became a huge international hit on its release in 2000. Ang Lee had established his reputation on a string of acclaimed English language titles – Sense & Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999) – before creating this big-budget throwback to the glory days of Chinese martial arts cinema. Wuxia purists will direct you elsewhere first (1971’s A Touch of Zen, for example), but there’s no denying that some of Lee’s weightless fight sequences – including a famous bout atop forest trees – can take the breath away. Winning the Oscar for best foreign language film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon blazed a path for a succession of mainstream martial arts films, notably Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

The Lady and the Duke (2001)

Director Eric Rohmer

The Lady and the Duke (2001)

Better-known for his modern-day romantic entanglement comedies, French master Eric Rohmer made a smattering of period pieces too. These include two returns to the 1700s: Die Marquise von O… (1976), set at the close of the century in 1799, and this one-of-a-kind drama set during the Reign of Terror that followed the start of the French revolution.

Why one of a kind? Because Rohmer took the unusual step of filming his actors against blue screens, later digitally adding in illustrated backdrops of 18th-century Paris and the surrounding countryside. This gives The Lady and the Duke an unreal, storybook look, providing a haunting and painterly background to its true story of a Scottish aristocrat, Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), who is caught up in the era’s political intrigue as the French capital is plunged into chaos. Focusing on the tensions between Elliott, a monarchist, and her pro-revolutionary friend, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the drama plays out in a series of typically Rohmerian conversation pieces. Typical, too, that in boldly embracing the digital era, the director should make a film so out of step with most other modern movies.

Love & Friendship (2016)

Director Whit Stillman

Love & Friendship (2016)

Published in the early 1800s but usually set at the tail end of the previous century and the dawn of the Regency era, Jane Austen’s novels are of course mainstays of the costume movie tradition. By 2016 we were all probably hoping for an Austen armistice, but Whit Stillman’s adaptation of her less familiar early short novel Lady Susan was a welcome shot in the arm for the heritage film.

First and foremost, it’s an absolute hoot. Stillman turns out to be a perfect match for the novelist, so that it’s difficult to tell where Austen’s wit stops and Stillman’s begins. Told with various arch Stillman framing devices, it’s otherwise an archetypal Austen tale of meddling and matchmaking, triumphantly reuniting Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny from the same director’s The Last Days of Disco (1998), this time as the widow Lady Susan Vernon and her American friend Mrs Alicia Johnson. Both excel, but they’re close to having the film stolen from under their ladies’ slippers by a snort-inducing turn from Tom Bennett as dull-witted nobleman Sir James Martin. Sir James’s first dinnertime experience of the “tiny green balls” we know as peas provides one of the comic highlights of recent memory.

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