Marseille As a Setting for Historical Movies

Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise

La Marseillaise

If the most emblematic historical figure associated to the city is undoubtedly Edmond Dantes, the fictionalized hero of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo which was the subject of many film adaptations, the historical-cultural heritage of the city has been showcased in a wide variety of productions featuring the port as the vibrant heart of the city.

Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1937) portrayed Marseille as a revolutionary figure and starred Pierre Renoir (brother of Jean) and Louis Jouvet as well as actors usually working with Marcel Pagnol. Paradoxically, sequences shot on location were pretty scarce – mostly panoramic shorts of the port and islands –  the city being recreated in studio while the Antibes fort was used to represent Marseille’s St. Nicolas fort.

Written and produced by the popular playwright Sacha Guitry, Le destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary (The Fabulous Destiny of Desiree Clary – 1941) recounted the fictionalized life of a local girl who after having an affair with Bonaparte – the future Napoleon –  became the wife of General Bernadotte and the Queen of Sweden. The film was supported by a strong cast including Geneviève Guitry, Gaby Morlay, Louis Barrault, Sacha Guitry and proved to be a success.

Along period pieces mostly taking place between the French Revolution and the Post Napoleonic era, the other big historical subject was World War 2 and the Nazi occupation, especially because German and allied bombings had left some major scars in the city – one major casualty was the iconic Pont Transbordeur, a suspended bridge linking two sides of the port.

Besides the Jean-Pierre Melville classic Army of Shadows (1969) starring Lino Ventura & Simone Signoret, other notable movies featuring Marseille under the Nazi occupation include Ugo Fregonaise’s Seven Thunders (1957). Starring Tony Wrigh and Kathleen Harrison, it showcases the tragedies that hit the city, including the destruction of the port by the German troops in 1943. Yves Allegret’s Les démons de l’aube (1946) is another good contender. Starring Simone Signoret and Georges Marchal, it focused on the other D-Day – the one that took place in Provence and led American troops to defeat the Germans in Marseille. Directed by social filmmaker René Allio, Transit (1990) was an adaptation of an Anna Seghers novel about refugees fleeing the menacing shadow of the Nazi occupation. Another social director, Paul Capita, tackled similar themes transposed in different eras such as the Algerian and Indochina wars.

back to Provence Movies featureBesides the French revolution and World War 2, other movies portrayed Marseille in different periods,  the weirdest being probably Honoré de Marseille, a musical comedy starring Fernandel and chronicling major local events, from the birth of the city to … the creation of the famous Bouillabaisse fish stew!

The following two tabs change content below.
Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.
Fred Thom

Latest posts by Fred Thom (see all)