The Return of Martin Guerre

A true story

The action takes place in the 16th century, in a village located at the foot of the Pyrenees, in Southern France. Bertrande de Rols and Martin, both still adolescents, are married by the village priest because their parents decided that such a marriage was good business for both families. The young couple is unhappy and Martin leaves.

When he returns from having served in the army, eight years later, he is a transformed man. Shy and weak previously, he is now strong and self-assured. Bertrande takes him in and now they form a happy loving couple.

Vagabonds who pass through the village state that this man, that they met in the army, is not Martin but Pancette. Martin is brought in front of one court after the other and always manages to prove that he is indeed Martin.

The judge of the court of Toulouse who presided over the case wrote down the story in Latin. It has been translated into many languages, re-written many times and made into movies several times. An American movie version of the story is entitled "Sommersby". It takes place in the United States during the Civil War and stars Richard Gere and Judy Foster.

What makes this movie outstanding is the meticulous reconstruction of life in a remote village in the Middle Ages. We see more superstition than religion or justice, lack of amenities, lack of education, and life totally dependent on the rhythms and whims of nature.

The film is beautifully photographed, with many scenes looking like paintings by 17th century French and Flemish painters. The two main actors are impressive, Nathalie Baye by her gentle sensitivity, Gérard Depardieu by his powerful strength of character.

The ending of the film suggests the new attitudes and ideas sweeping across Europe in the 16th century, the Renaissance (a cultural revolution) and the Reformation (a religious revolution). The judge who authored the transcription of the trial was a liberal whose opinions (and judgment) reflect those new attitudes.


Website designed and maintained by Barbara Vigano, Prof. emeritus of French, Mt. San Antonio College