Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Return of Martin Guerre

Under the kingship of François 1er around 1527 in the region of the Basque, South West France close to the Atlantic Ocean, a young boy and his family make the slow trek inland towards the region of Languedoc just to the south of the city of Toulouse and north of the Pyrenees. Their final destination, a small village called Artigat where they plan to settle and live. This young man’s name would be the subject of a great scandal with events to occur later in his life. His name was Martin Guerre.

This scandal has intrigued historians and people alike in the centuries since. Several books and movies based on the events have been written on it, and the legend is still very much alive with locals in the region today.

However, the two works that this essay will investigate are a film and a written work. The two are closely linked, in that the consultant historian working on the film went onto produce the written work. She felt that the film had not been faithful to the true story, and so she researched further to seek the truth. The film was produced in 1982 under the title Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre) and starred top French actor, Gérard Depardieu. The book of the same English title and was written by the said historian, Natalie Zemon Davis a year later.

As with many book to film productions (or film to book in this case), many discrepancies are normally found. When the production is based on history, discrepancies between what’s portrayed on film or book can also be found.

The basic premise of the histoire (the story) is one of impostor and identity theft. The film begins in 1542 with the marriage of Martin Guerre and his bride, Bertrande de Rols. They both appear to be in their late teens, perhaps 16 or so. After their wedding ceremony and Bertrande’s dowry had been sorted, the pair is blessed in their wedding bed so that they may have many children together. Once the blessing has occurred, instead of following the usual practice of the wedding night, Martin rolls over, shunning his new wife.

The film shows the arrival of a Councillor from the Parlemant de Toulouse, Jean de Coras. He questions Bertrande over a series of events that have occurred since the disappearance and reappearance of her husband. At this time, we are unaware of why this questioning is taking place. She explains to him what happened and how events unfolded. She tells of how her husband Martin was teased and tormented by the villagers because he couldn’t father a child, how he was very much dominated by his father and then how they finally came to be with child after 8 years without.

The film shifts us back in time to where Martin is accused by his father of stealing some grain. This is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Martin disappears with no trace and we see his father pining away awaiting his return each and every day. Eventually Martin’s father and mother die, leaving Martin’s uncle Pierre as family head. During this period, Pierre had also married the mother of Bertrande to try to keep the family together.

For 8 years, Martin was away and had not sent any word, but in that entire time Bertrande was loyal and she was virtuous.

Then one day a man arrived at the village. Martin Guerre, il eut retour (he had returned).

Everyone was pleased to see him (despite their torment of him many years earlier), he reminded them of the past times, and even his family, after being initially perplexed, took him in. The following scene he is reunited with his wife, Bertrande, and then together with his son Sanxi.

Throughout the next portion of the film, we see Martin tell stories of his travels, where he’s been, the war in the north and we see him reminisce with old friends and acquaintances within the village.

We are brought back to the questioning where we discover Martin and Bertrande had another two children together (although one died) and then Coras asks a curious question, “When did the doubts first begin?” Betrande answers and we are taken back in time to when some vagabonds had arrived in the village and claimed that Martin Guerre was not in fact Martin Guerre, but on fact a man called Pansette. The first seeds of doubt are cast.

Martin then questions his uncle regarding his inheritance and demands his portion. Pierre is quite shocked and angry that after Martin being away for so long, he should dare make such demands, and especially as Martin threatened court action very early on in the debate. However, we see Pierre back down shortly after and make arrangements with Martin for him to collect his money in a barn. What with the vagabond’s claim and money demands of Martin, Pierre is suspicious and the collection is in fact a double cross. Martin is beaten up and almost killed, but for Bertrande flinging herself dramatically in front of a fork that was destined for Martin’s chest. She was ready to die for him.

Coras asked if she had any doubts over his identity, she claimed she wavered for a little, but restated her claim that he is in fact her husband. In the meantime, the villagers are split between whether he is who he says he is, or an imposter. And this is what Coras is in the village for, to discover the truth.

By now, this Martin is under arrest with Pierre his chief accuser, but Martin responds in his defence that Pierre is trying to cheat him out of his inheritance. Coras calls the village together and after a few questions, pronounces Martin not guilty of imposter and orders Pierre to pay a fine.

He is free, for a while at least. After taking to bed with his wife, he is arrested the following morning and taken away to Toulouse. A document signed by various people, apparently including Bertrande, has been produced, and this is seemingly enough evidence for the arrest to take place.

The following sequences show further questioning by Coras to Martin and various villagers are also questioned regarding Martin’s physical appearance and features. Finally, we discover that Bertrande didn’t sign the document that caused Martin’s second arrest, because in fact she can write (this Martin had taught her) and so would have signed using her own name, rather than the cross mark that was there.
Pierre’s attack was dented, but the trial would still go ahead.

The trial consisted of more questioning, Martin defended himself to the hilt, he is able to talk about the past in precise detail, and he is adamant that he is who he says he is. Various witnesses are called, some back him up, others deny him, and the court has to conclude that the only humane thing they can do in the absence of absolute proof is to declare him not guilty.

Just as his innocence is to be declared, proceedings are halted in favour of one more witness. A man with a wooden leg and crutches enters the court and marches across to the counselors and claims to be… Martin Guerre. Gasps and shocks all round around the courtroom, and so he is questioned and claims he knows the defendant as Arnauld du Tilh, otherwise known as Pansette. The defendant claims never they have never met before.

Pierre and his wife declare the new man to be the true Martin Guerre and the defendant counters by claiming that Pierre paid the man to say these things against him as a last resort. And so a test between the two, back and forth seeing who remembers things from the past. Strangely, the new Martin’s memory isn’t as good as the defendant’s who remembers things so much better.

And this is what trips the defendant up. On being questioned regarding a certain object, the defendant gets irritated and insists that he had told the new Martin Guerre about it. However, just before, the defendant claimed never to have met him before. And so, the imposter has made his fatal mistake and is shown for the charlatan he is.

The game is up, the defendant has been proven not to be Martin Guerre and is eventually sentenced to death. Bertrande privately indicates to Coras that she knew the truth all the time, but in the end knew it was hopeless to be with Arnaud, which is why she went to her original husband once the game was up. Even though he was an imposter, the film makes it clear that he truly loved Bertrande.

After hearing his confession, Arnaud, the false Martin is led to the gallows where he is hanged. The year is 1560.

We are finally told of Coras’ continued involvement in that he was to write a record down of the case. Twelve years later he was murdered as part of the St Bartholomew’s massacre of the Protestant Reformists, plotted by Catherine de Médicis in Paris.

This was the basic storyline of the film, and it led to the film’s historian (Davis) to delve deeper and research more as she was not happy about how the film makers had portrayed the events inaccurately.

The immediate thing to notice about the film compared to the book is that the book is far more detailed and in depth. This is true for the majority of book and film comparisons. The Green Mile, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Stand by Me and the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the Shawshank Redemption can all testify to this. Each are relatively short in book form, yet still manage to reproduce on film well in excess of two and a half hours and they still don’t include everything in despite being quite true to its original. In contrast, Martin Guerre, although not adapted from book form, still approaches the two hour mark in comparison to a little over 100 pages in the book, and yet leaves out so much.

Although the basic story is the same for both book and film, there are many details that are different, some of these are key to the development.

To begin with, the book provides us with far more detail and background information. Whereas the film begins with the marriage of Martin and Bertrande, the book starts in 1527 and gives us the background of Martin and his family, where they originally came from and how they came to be in Artigat. The dates of the marriage are different, the film dates it as 1542, the book tells us it took place in 1538 which falls in line with the report written by Coras. The book informs us Martin was no older than 14 and Bertrande even younger than that. In the film, they appear much older and in fact, checking the ages of the actors portraying these two characters at the time of filming, they were both in their early 30’s!

The reason for that is likely that showing two children in marriage on film especially with the suggestion of intercourse (particularly in the early 80’s) would have caused a fair bit of controversy. From the film’s point of view, their ages are not critical to the storyline so it is more sensible the route the filmmakers took, whereas in the book, it is critical to the accuracy and authenticity of the history.

There are many other discrepancies in the film, such as the way the fraudulent Martin was exposed (which I personally enjoyed), the fact there was just the one proper trial (the first trial was more of an informal judgment in the film). Also, the initial judgment in the film was not guilty, in the book he was guilty and the reason the case was heard in the Parlement de Toulouse was in appeal to the original judgment. The epilogue telling us that Coras was hanged for his Protestant beliefs along with 100 of his friends at Parlement de Toulouse after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 was another innaccuracy. Raymond A. Mentzer’s ‘Blood & Belief: Family Survival and Confessional Identity among the Provincial Huguenot Nobility’ tells us he was murdered in prison following the aforementioned massacre. Why that truth couldn’t have been told at this point, who knows?

The book also goes into detail regarding the shift of many people at the time from Catholicism to Protestantism, which was quite significant to the development of what was happening. It is plausible that Bertrande really knew the truth that this Martin was not her true husband, but for a variety of reasons was to her advantage to conceal the truth. The Protestant church would certainly have been far more tolerant of the situation compared to the Catholic Church. After all, hadn’t the King of England just created a new religion from Protestantism for much the same purpose in 1534? In contrast, the sole mention of this religious strife in the film came at the end with the inaccurate telling of the death of Coras, previously mentioned.

Despite these and many other inaccuracies, the film does well in bringing over the point of the story – how a man can convince so many people that he is someone when he actually he is not. It successfully shows that not only would his memory have had to be extremely good, his persuasive powers and his own belief in himself in order to carry the deception out must have been something extraordinary. Perhaps he carried off the deception and lies so well, that he had himself convinced so much that he was actually Martin Guerre and that he was telling the truth.

‘A translation of the main text of Coras, Arrest Memorable’ by Jeanette K Ringold of Virginia University in 1982 has proved to be invaluable to deciphering the accuracy of the film and the book. Although it should be noted that the translation is not perfect, French in those days was quite disjointed, (most of the population did not speak the language, rather their own dialects which are still very strong today from region to region) so we are reliant on the skill of the interpreter, not only in the translation of words, but also in the translation of the logic, the context and message the writing is trying to portray. And of course we have to take into account Coras’ own perception of events, his own judgment on who was speaking the truth and who not as well as his own biases. Nonetheless, this translation of source material is still an extremely useful tool in comparing the authenticity of the film to book.

One part the film was accurate on is when talking about how Arnaud du Tilh came to know so much about Martin Guerre. Now while this is also speculation on Coras’ part, it does feature in the film, towards the end when Arbaud is confronted by Martin. To quote the above translation “And the said du Tilh, as is likely, being comrade in arms of the said Martin Guerre, heard from him (under pretext of friendship) several private and personal things about him and his wife.” The book also highlights this point, also with conjecture, although the film is rather more direct in its interpretation of this.

In my opinion, the film blends the history with entertainment well. It does take many liberties and ignores a lot of historical fact, but the basic message and essence of the history is there. Perhaps adding more fact would have slowed the film down and made it unnecessarily long, in my opinion a film should last not much longer than 2 hours, it is a good length and unless absolutely necessary or spectacular, shouldn’t go on for much longer. As it stands, it is close to two hours in length. In terms of set and location, it looked and felt real. Whether the costume or customs of the day are that closely reproduced is hard to say, but they did use real buildings from long ago, and most certainly the church part of the film was set in was real. I have visited many churches and cathedrals in my time in France and England from a tourist perspective, and the feeling I received from the film was the same as the memory I have from visiting those places. The footsteps echoing inside, the reminder of the chill always felt inside those large stone structures like that, to the architecture, the stonework and the size.

Also, the village felt real. It was real mud and grass, the barn, the straw, the tools in the background and there being no special effects either added to the authenticity. The villagers looked the part, their activities, their clothing and so on. However even today in rural Languedoc, the French there is very difficult to understand; even the French from other regions have trouble with the dialect. But of course, the actors involved are no doubt from various other regions throughout France and of course trained to speak clearly and losing their regional dialect, so the French was too good. With the aid of subtitles, I was able to pick out most of the words in French relatively easily, which is very unusual for me. I have recently spoken with French friends regarding this film and they have assured me that there was very little in the way of Languedoc dialect within it. Not so much a problem for non French speakers, but for the French perhaps it would spoil its realness a little.

So, the film was good in a visual sense to gain an understanding of the past, to see how certain activities were carried out, to see how they lived and under what conditions, to see some of things they wore, to gain a sense of the isolation they would have been under as other villages would have been a trek away. But for the deeper meaning and understanding of the time, it didn’t do as much. The book gave me a much a greater understanding and along with imagination, a greater sense of what actually happened. A film will always be hard pressed to achieve that, not even with the greatest CGI a film maker could ever come close to replacing the imagination. But Le Retour de Martin Guerre did a good job on the visual aspects in a historical sense.

The main points that struck me in the film regarding artistic license or liberties were with Bertrande learning to write (which was how she proved that she didn’t sign that document to send Martin back to court) and in the confrontation between the two Martins where Arnaud claimed never to have met Martin and then a couple of minutes later tripped himself up by saying “it was me who told him these things”. These two aspects did enhance the film, but of course they didn’t happen in reality. The book tells us there were hundreds testifying in this case, to reproduce this on film would have been difficult and ultimately rather boring for the viewer, so highlights or snapshots were used to show the opinions of the people regarding the case.

I found the book didn’t have much bias in it, but on reading other people’s reviews and essays of Davis’ thoughts towards Bertrande and how she portrayed her as a strong (modern) independent woman, I can see where they’re coming from. It’s not something I picked up on originally, but perhaps these writers are correct in their opinion on this. Regarding the film, I felt the bias was very much in favour of the fake Martin. Throughout I felt myself hoping he would win through (despite already knowing the ending), and I have put this bias down to the film makers perhaps pandering to their star actor, Gérard Depardieu.

In conclusion, one has to wonder how the film would have turned out had Davis penned the book before the film was created. It would certainly have made life easier for the director as he would have had a clearer overall picture in his mind as to how events occurred.

Nonetheless, personally, I have always viewed films based on history as a shop front, a glossy image of how a certain past unraveled. They serve to entice, to give a taste of snippets of a far greater history and to gain an overview of it. And from there to be able to take it further by reading the source materials and other writings in order to really find out what happened and finally to explore the differences and to wonder why the director decided to choose the path he chose.

The Return of Martin Guerre is no different. Primarily the film is there to make money, so the makers have to make it accessible to as many people as possible. To keep too true to history, sometimes does make a drab story, and so artistic license is needed to add extra spice to the story. In this format, I believe it doesn’t hurt too much, but in written format, it doesn’t work as well, and yet the true story has more impact. I enjoyed reading both the book and the film, and in my opinion both worked well within their respective formats. Reading the book before the film helped flesh out the film some more, especially the background stuff like what Martin was doing while away, his early background and the events of the church that were occurring at the time. Of course all are necessary for an authentic accurate writing, but for film in this case, they are not essential to the plotline.

And that’s essentially the difference. Both are telling the same story but with different aims. The point of the film is to provide an entertaining tale from the annals of history with a twist. The point of the book is to provide an accurate and authentic factual work, a proper record of historical events.

Grade A


  1. damn if you actually got an A on this in college you must be going to some arts college, or trump university. This is absolutely not worth an A in a college level course. It is riddled with horrible mistakes

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    Allow me to correct it :)

    Damn, if you actually got an A on this in college. You must be going to an arts college or Trump University. This is absolutely not worth an A in a college level course. It is riddled with horrible mistakes.