In 18th Century France wars were fought as they are in every century, but there was something more egalitarian about them back then, the only sport that kings and peasants could each take part in. Of course, if you thought that meant they were equal in their endeavours, you would probably be higher up the class ladder than lower down, as it was the peasantry who would be recruited and more often than not killed while the kings and generals merely ordered them to their doom. However, there are those who would not wish to be caught up in this endless cycle: take Fanfan la Tulipe (Gérard Philipe) for instance, he's never happier than when he is enjoying a roll in the hay with a pretty lady - just pray her father never finds out.
For a long while, swashbucklers in cinema would arrive in waves of popularity, and every time it looked time to count them out another huge success would hit the box office, this being the case with director Christian-Jaque's revival of the old nineteen-twenties silent adventure Fanfan la Tulipe. There was something defiantly tongue in cheek about this, mixed with a wordly wise demeanour, that appealed to a Europe that had been well and truly sick of war ever since 1945 when the last massive conflict ended, yet somehow the citizens were seeing its effects drag on into the fifities leaving everyone feeling very weary. Then along came a film that called out all that patriotic bullshit that had gotten them into this trouble in the first place.
It made a star not only of Philipe, but of his leading lady as well, for Gina Lollobrigida appeared as the woman who realises she loves Fanfan after posing as a gypsy and reading his palm. What she told him was nonsense, purely invented to get him to join up with the army that her father is high up in, but he believes her claim that he is set to marry a princess and be a nobleman even after she owns up and informs him it was a big fib. Thus the theme of useful lies was introduced, as this particular example was useful to the story as without it Fanfan would have been forced to settle down with the young lady whose virginity he had recently taken, and his roguishness was an essential part of his character.
You can't have a loveable rogue who bends to the will of those less wily than he is, after all, and there was no way Fanfan was going to indulge in anything less than an escapade, with swordfights, quips and romance to contend with every step of the way. Historical romps thus became big business across European cinema well into the sixties, with regular sparks of interest from then on, though for many it was the works from this era that represented the genre at its zenith. But truth be told, while this was an important film in the entertainment industry of its day and how influential it became, it was not necessarily the finest of its kind, for there was something undeniably a shade too pleased with itself about the enterprise, as if someone during its production had pointed out how smart it was and it was falling over itself to prove it.
Not that there was nothing to enjoy, far from it, but its self-confidence as embodied by its titular swordsman did grate a little the further it progressed. Philipe was appropriately dashing and charismatic, Lollobrigida looked luminous (and sported a more revealing décolletage than you would get in Hollywood movies, another reason for her sudden and loyal fanbase), and the supporting cast were all well-chosen, yet the relentlessly self-satisfied mood, as if nobody had ever pointed out the hypocrisies of war before, took away from the more diverting elements. Not that it needed scenes where everyone sat down and lectured one another on the lessons they were learning, it exposed the privileged classes' callousness born of entitlement all too well, but it was a rather one note experience as these things went, meaning you had the measure of it early on and were not likely to be any more enlightened by the final ten minutes than you were by the first. It didn't lack an edge, perhaps what it lacked was a sense that this was more than just a game, at an ironic remove from the graver aspects of war. Music by Maurice Thiriet and Georges Van Parys.