Desiree (1954)




Director:  Henry Koster.

Starring:  Marlon Brando (Napoleon), Jean Simmons (Desiree), Merle Oberon (Empress Josephine), Michael Rennie (Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte), Cameron Mitchell (Joseph Bonaparte), Elizabeth Sellars (Julie, Desiree's sister), Charlotte Austin (Paulette Bonaparte), Cathleen Nesbitt (Mme. Bonaparte), Evelyn Varden (Marie), Isobel Elsom (Mme. Clary, Desiree's mother), John Hoyt (Talleyrand), Alan Napier (Despreaux).

A seamstress loves Napoleon, but his marriage to aristocrat Josephine spoils her dreams.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Marseilles, France. 1794.  Desiree rushes home and arrives late for dinner.  She tells her family that she went for a walk in the park.   And she was with a young man.  The family is scandalized that she would go out walking with a stranger she only met at their silk shop.  Desiree says she did it so that her sister might have a husband.  She told the man all about her.  The young fellow is a refugee from Corsica.  She tells her brother Etienne not to scold her.  Desiree says that the man has a brother who is a real live general and she wants to meet him.  She gets upset about her family being upset and runs up to her room.  The family comes after her.  She apologizes to them.  They want to know the young man's name and Desiree says its something like Bonapate (sic). 

Joseph Bonaparte comes to the family's home for dinner.  He introduces his brother Napoleon to the family.  They are surprised that the general is so young.   He became general when he drove the English out of Toulon in southern France.  He has no command at present, but he expects to be in command of the Italian campaign.  Etienne says they are not at war with Italy.  Napoleon says it's his own idea.  He has already told Robespierre about it.  Napoleon tells the family that Desiree says the first thing that pops into her head --  she's completely without guile. 

Napoleon says it is France's duty to spread the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity "and if necessary with the help of cannon."  Napoleon takes Desiree for a walk in the garden and Joseph takes her sister Julie  for a walk.  Napoleon asks her what she was staring at earlier and she says she was staring at his uniform.  It looks shabby and she concluded that he must be very poor.  He says:  "I am, Desiree."  Napoleon then asks her when her sister and his brother will be getting married. 

Napoleon is unbelievably self-confident.  He says he is one of the men who make history.  He kisses Desiree.  She writes in her diary that she wishes the night would have gone on and on.  The next day Napoleon comes to the shop to speak with Desiree.  A soldier with three men comes to arrest Napoleon.  Napoleon asks if Robespierre knows of this and the soldier tells him that three days ago the man was guillotined.  Napoleon tells Desiree that he must go with them and he wants her to tell his family.  He tells her to wait for him.  He'll be back.  Etienne says this will be the end of the general. 

One night Napoleon returns. While he was in prison he received books, wines and cakes from Desiree.  They charged him with plotting against the government.  When there was no evidence against him, they released him.  Now he is in charge of tracking down hidden royalists.  Etienne opens his bedroom window and demands to know who is there.  Napoleon speaks up.  He asks Etienne for his sister's hand in marriage.  Etienne says no emphatically.  Napoleon calls him a loon.  He then asks Desiree if she will marry him.  She very happily says yes.  He is leaving for Paris tomorrow morning.  Napoleon says they will be married when he gets back.  They kiss. 

Julie has married Joseph Bonaparte.  Etienne tells the Bonaparte sisters not to handle the silk cloth in the store.  He tells the sisters to tell her brother to write to Desiree.  She hasn't heard from him in months.  The sisters says he is immensely enjoying himself in Paris hobnobbing with the rich and famous.  Desiree runs out of the store.  Her brother shouts where's she going and she responds:  "Paris!" 

In Paris Desiree asks who is the beautiful woman on the coach.  She is Josephine de Beauharnais.  Desiree decides to follow Josephine into the building.  She is stopped by a servant.  He will not allow her in if she does not have an escort.   She turns around and bumps into Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte.  She asks him to be her escort.  He agrees and they go in together.  Once inside, Bernadotte is grabbed by the hostess of the party and taken away.  Desiree wanders around the room gawking at the handsome men and beautiful women. 

Desiree finally sees Napoleon.  He is speaking with Josephine and Monsieur Talleyrand.  She hears Josephine say that she loves Napoleon and he loves her.  Talleyrand says Napoleon is with her for her influence.  The hostess offers a toast to the engaged couple Josephine and Napoleon.  Desiree is shocked.  Napoleon sees her and gets up saying "Desiree!"  She says:  "Please remember that I love you."  She throws her champagne glass at the feet of Josephine and runs out of the place.   

Bernadotte follows her to a bridge.  He picks her up and places her in a coach.  She cries and apologizes for her behavior.  Bernadotte comforts her.  He tells her that Napoleon was engaged to be married to a country bumpkin with a dowry before he became engaged to Josephine.  Desiree says nothing on that subject.  She asks him isn't he in love with the party hostess.  He says, no, he's in love with her, Desiree.  He would like to call on her tomorrow but she tells him she is going back home.  He walks her to the door.  She thanks him.  She adds that she's too short for him. 

December 15, 1797.  Desiree writes in her diary about Napoleon, the conqueror of Italy.  And now her brother-in-law Joseph is an ambassador to Italy living in Rome.  Desiree is staying with her sister and her husband.  Later she writes that diplomatic life is dull.  And she hates palaces. 

Desiree goes with Joseph and Julie to a party given by Napoleon at Malmison in Paris.  The three are announced at the party.  Josephine comes to greet the three.  Napoleon tells Desiree that she has become a temptress.  Bernadotte also sees her.  He comes over to say hello.   At dinner Napoleon talks about attacking Egypt.  He asks Bernadotte's opinion and he says frankly that if he were the minister of defense he would forbid him to sail.  Josephine says that it must have been tough on Bernadotte being without a female companion.  He says that he found the one for him, but she just vanished. 

Napoleon gives Desiree a tour of the place.  He sent many an eligible bachelor to her, but she liked none of them.  She says she is not some prize to be given to one of his officers. Napoleon tells her she should marry.  She says she would like to throw these candlesticks at him.  He explains to her that without Josephine he never would have gotten the Italian command.  He says that they must be friends forever.  Napoleon asks her if she would like to take a walk in the garden.  She emphatically says no.  She doesn't want to walk with him in the garden again, ever!  Desiree runs to her sister's side.  Bernadotte strolls over to ask Julie if he could take her sister for a carriage ride.   Julies is not so sure, but Desiree virtually jumps at the chance.  They leave.  Napoleon watches them leave. 

Desiree tells Bernadotte that it was she who was once engaged to the great Napoleon. He laughs.  He said he came the next day to ask for her, but they said she had gone already.  Desiree tells him that she had asked them to say nothing about her to him.  And, thereby, we lost three years, says Bernadotte.  She says she thought of him many times.  He tells her that he will be commanding troops soon, but he has found a house that will be perfect for her and the child.  She is shocked.  He kisses her.  She says he's the second man she has ever kissed and asks him to kiss her again.  A little later he asks her if she thinks she could ever love him.  She says:  "I think so." 

July 4, 1799.  Desiree writes in her diary that she's had a baby.  Napoleon and Josephine come to visit the baby.  Joseph and Julie are already there.  After looking at the baby, Napoleon says to Bernadotte that he hears that he is not pleased with his return from Egypt.  Bernadotte says a commander's place is with his troops.  Napoleon says he had to come. France is rife with riots, corruption and political assassinations.  The government won't last out the month.  Napoleon says the generals should take over the government with him as the dictator.  That is the only way to save the republic.  Napoleon wants to know if Bernadotte will support him if it comes to that.  Bernadotte says that if he is asking him to support treason, Napoleon had better leave his house. 

November 9, 1799.  Napoleon Bonaparte is proclaimed the first consul of the French republic.  Julie visits her sister saying that Joseph has been named foreign minister and they are moving to the Tuileries.  Joseph tells Bernadotte he is to report to the first consul tomorrow. 

Napoleon asks Bernadotte to join his council of state.  Bernadotte accepts, but he adds that while he will give Napoleon his loyalty, he cannot guarantee his affection. 

Now Napoleon is emperor of the French.  And Bernadotte is a Marshal of France.  Desiree has to attend a training session for the upcoming coronation.  Josephine comes in and speaks with Desiree.  Then Napoleon comes in to say that he wants Desiree to carry Her Majesty's lace handkerchief on a pillow.  Napoleon watches the rehearsal.  His three sisters drop Her Majesty's train saying they are made to do the work of page girls.  They want to be princesses.  Napoleon gets angry, but Josephine tells him to grant their wishes so that they may go on with the rehearsal.  So he has his sisters kneel, he smacks each one on the tops of their hats and declares them princesses. 

Marie, Desiree's old servant, complains to Bernadotte that the French army is now grabbing boys as young as fifteen.  She says her own nephew is at the Austrian front.  Desiree comes back from the rehearsal.  Her husband is a little jealous of all the attention Napoleon has been paying to her.  The emperor has paid her back the 98 francs he borrowed from her once by giving her a gold case filled with gold coins.  Seeing how sad her husband looks, she says she won't go to the coronation.  She will say she is sick. 

The coronation ceremony takes place.  Napoleon gives Desiree a long, dirty look because she is wearing a red dress instead of the sky blue dress he requested.  Napoleon takes the crown and crowns himself.   Many are shocked by his action.  He then crowns his wife. 

Five years later.  Napoleon dissolves his marriage to Josephine saying that he must have an heir.  Desiree does not attend, but Bernadotte does, along with Joseph and Julie.  Josephine cries as she tries to read her statement at the ceremony.  She has an official read it for her.  In her bed, Josephine receives Desiree.  She asked her to come because she had a similar experience with Napoleon leaving her.  Desiree does her best to comfort Josephine. 

At night Desiree tries to sneak out.  Napoleon comes out of his room. He wants to know who is there. Itís Desiree. And now he wants to know why. Her Majesty sent for me, says Desiree. He says itís a pity sheís married to Bernadotte. He shows her a picture of Marie Louise of Austria. Politically speaking she is very desirable. And she has a look of fertility about her.  He wants Desiree to teach him how to waltz. He goes for the kiss but she pulls back. She says they are both different now. He says he wonít try to kiss her again. So they waltz.

Desiree says that her husband has medals from many different places. ĎThe one he looks at the most is the one from Sweden. And he looks at it with a most curious smile.

Bernadotte wakes Desiree up. She must get dressed quickly. Swedish government officials have arrives to tell them that the Swedish parliament has elected Bernadotte heir to the throne of Sweden. King Charles XIII wants to adopt Bernadotte as his Crown Prince.  Desiree, will, of course, become the Crown Princess and eventually queen. They want to avoid civil war. And they want fresh blood. And heís the only Marshal of Napoleon's who is not subservient to him. 

Napoleon calls in Bernadotte and Desiree.  He wonders how can a man change his citizenship.  He doesn't like the idea of Bernadotte going to Sweden.  England has been breaking their continental blockade through Sweden.  Bernadotte persists and Napoleon finally gives in saying"  "Very well, go back to Sweden."   Bernadotte says he will serve the interests of France when they do not conflict with the interests of Sweden.  It's easier for Bernadotte to leave because he feels the ideals of his youth have been betrayed.  France is not a republic, but a dictatorship.  One great thing about Sweden is that the people there have a free country.  

Bernadotte says that he will govern according to his own ideas. Napoleon demands that he remain a Marshal of France and when there are new wars he will lead one of his armies. And he will add the Swedish regiments to those of France. But Bernadotte persists and Napoleon gives up. He asks Desiree if this is her wish and she says yes. So he signs the permission for Bernadotte to leave.

Bernadotte, Desiree and their son Oscar make the journey to Sweden by ship. They arrive to a cannon salute. They take a coach to the palace. The palace is huge. Desiree walks around the place and looks at the portraits of her predecessors. A lot of the previous queens look way too stern.  She runs out of the hallway way saying:  "I hate palaces!"

Desiree is told by her husband that she must learn a little restraint, like donít slide across the throne room with Oscar. The Swedes want to get a tutor for her to learn Swedish. She also learns piano. She attends musical recitals and falls asleep.  The Queen talks with Desiree and asks her if she thinks she is fulfilling her duties as crown princess. She says she does not know.   But the Queen does.  She says a crown princess does not fall to sleep at court functions. They want Desiree to forget what she used to be.  Desiree becomes very defensives and finally says that she is leaving Sweden. She runs out of the room.

Desiree bursts into her husband's meeting with a lot of important government officials. Everyone stands for her. Desiree says she will wait until her husband is done. The Swedes say that they donít want trouble with Napoleon, but Bernadotte wants to be tough with the French. This worries the Swedes.  When the meeting is over Desire says that she came to tell him that she is leaving. "Iím going home." He apologizes for his recent preoccupation with political business. She looks out the window and sees Oscar marching in his cadet corps. Bernadotte says he will make a good soldier. Desiree say the Swedes call her a foreigner. She must return. "Say that you will let me go." When his position is secure with the Swedish people, she will return.  He tells her that he cannot do it without her. One reason he doesnít want her to go is that she will see Napoleon again.  Desiree answers back saying that he cannot do it if she is with him.  He finally agrees to let her go. 

Desiree has been back in France for eight months. Now she is at a New Yearís Eve party. The Emperor is announced. He comes in with his wife and child. There are a lot of oohs and aahs over the baby. Napoleon sees Desiree in the audience and goes over to her. He asks her why she left Sweden and she says because of the cold. Napoleon points out that since she is no longer a French citizen, her visit should have been arranged through the French government. He says she remains in France because of his courtesy. Napoleon then dances with her.

Julie and Joseph think that itís Napoleon who was the real reason why Desiree came back to France. Sheís still in love with him, they say. Others say the same thing.  Desiree tells Napoleon that she will return to Sweden when it is no longer cold there. He tells her that her husband is playing a dangerous game. He seems to want an alliance with Russia. Now is not the time for neutrality. Sweden must chose sides. He will be sending a French army into Russia and later to England. Napoleon stops the dance to tell everyone that France has never had such a lovely hostage.  For France will invade Sweden to cover the left flank of their approach to Russia. He says before next New Yearís Eve he will sleep in Moscow.

The French are on the march across Europe. Desiree wakes up screaming. She had a nightmare that Oscar was on the battle field wounded and bleeding. Bonaparte is here, says Marie. He has just returned from Moscow. He is very dejected. No one in Paris knows that Napoleon has returned. He asks Desiree why she is surprised by his visit. The late hour and that he is unshaven, she says. He says he has come on a mission. He describes the devastation in Russia of his troops. Marie cries over her nephew and wants Napoleon to take a shawl to him. A shawl for his hundred thousand dead, says Napoleon. Desiree tells Marie to go to bed.

Napoleon says it was Bernadotte who advised the Russians to burn Moscow. He wants her to write him a letter and say that Napoleonoffers him an alliance. He wants Bernadotte to march at his side once again. And thatís why you came? Yes, and, of course, I was cold and tired and alone. He leaves.  She writes the letter. Bernadotte answers that he will march against Napoleon, not with him.

Napoleon is defeated and Bernadotte led one of the armies against him. Another entry in her diary is that the allied troops are about to enter Paris. She hopes her husband is with them. A carriage arrives and Bernadotte comes out. Desiree runs to him and they kiss. They go back to their bridge. She tells him there that she wants to go back to Sweden.

Napoleon is ready to go into exile on the island of Elba. It reminds him of Corsica. He speaks alone with Bernadotte. He tells him that his deployment against him at Leipzig was brilliant. He asks him if he enjoyed his triumph. Bernadotte answers that  he felt despair. Napoleon says:  And this coming from the most illustrious traitor France has ever known. Bernadotte leaves and he won't be coming back to France. Napoleon says about himself that he will be back.

Desiree confides to her diary that Napoleon has escaped from Elba. Later she writes that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. He now is holed up at Malmaison. Government officials come to Desiree in the hopes that she can convince Napoleon not to fight on. If he is not turned over to the Allies by tonight, they cannot save Paris from destruction.

At night Desiree is driven to Malmaison. Joseph tells her that Napoleon will not see her. But she walks over to him anyway. He sits on a wide landscape viewing platform. She says she is on a mission.  This angers Napoleon:  "You were send to me as a courier?  What a shabby device."  She tries to calm him down.  She says the Allies promise to destroy Paris if Napoleon does not give himself up. He tells her he has heard the request before. And he can still mobilize 100,000 men. Desiree asks him how many of them will die.

Napoleon says he fought wars to preserve the peace. He dreamed of a United States of Europe. "Was that so rash a dream?"  Desiree says "no". But only the way he dreamed it. She says France is asking him to go to St. Helena. He turns his sword over to her saying at this moment he surrenders to the Allies.  Desiree says goodbye.  He tells her to go and tell her brothers to prepare for his departure. He wants to be alone for awhile. She goes.


As a love story the film is pretty good.  Historically, it is not so good.  Her part in French history is much exaggerated.  For instance, Napoleon did not surrender his sword to her before going to St. Helena.  Her dislike of Sweden is portrayed accurately.  Her love of her husband is exaggerated.  They both had extra-marital affairs.  But Hollywood's version makes for a better, more idealistic story. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See Napoleon (2003). 

Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte  was born in the town of Pau, France. 

He was the brother-in-law of Napoleon's brother, Joseph Napoleon. 

He became one of Napoleon's generals; a Marshal of France, and Prince of Ponte Corvo, southern Italy.

1794  --  the beautiful Desiree Clary, sister-in-law of Joseph Bonaparte, meets Napoleon Bonaparte.

1794-1795  --  Desiree and Napoleon become engaged and the engagement last into the following year.  (His meeting with Josephine Beauharnais led Napoleon to cancel the engagement.)

1797 (December)  --  death of  the French General Lťonard Duphot.  Desiree was set to marry the General  but he was killed in a riot in Rome on the eve of their marriage

1798  --  Bernadotte becomes French ambassador at Vienna.

1798  --  Bernadotte marries Desiree Clary.  

1799   -- he becomes Minister of War. Also in this year Bernadotte and Desiree have their only child, a son, Oscar.  After this, they lived more or less separate lives.

1805  --  he plays a prominent part in the French victory at the Battle of Austerlitz.

1804  --  Napoleon makes him marshal of the empire.

1806  --  Napoleon makes him prince of Ponte Corvo.

1809  --  following Sweden's loss of Finland in the Finnish War, resentment grew against Swedish King Gustav IV Adolf.  The King was overthrown and replaced by his uncle, the childless Charles XIII. 

1810  --  the Swedish Riksdag of the Estates chose the Marshal of France, Bernadotte, to be heir apparent to the Swedish throne.  After receiving Napoleon's approval and joining the Lutheran Church, Bernadotte accepted the new position.  He assumed the name Karl Johan and acted as regent for the remainder of Charles XIII's reign.  Desiree was depressed when she learned that she was to go with her husband to live in Sweden.  She wanted to live no where other than Paris. 

Bernadotte sided with Russia and England against Napoleon and Denmark, because he wanted to take Norway from Denmark

1811  --  Desiree leaves Sweden to go back to France. 

1813  --  the Swedes played an important part in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig.

1814  --  Bernadotte secured a forced union between Sweden and Norway after marching his troops into Denmark.

1818  --  Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte reigned as King Charles XIV and Carl III Johan of Norway.  (He established the Bernadotte dynasty that still reigns in Sweden.)   He took a mistress, the noblewoman Mariana Koskull.  Desiree fell in love with French minister the duc de Richelieu and followed him on his travels until his death in 1822.

until 1823  --  Desiree was not permanently installed in Sweden until this year when her only son became engaged to Josephine of Leuchtenberg, daughter of Eugene de Beauharnais.

1826  --  Bernadotte quits eating with his wife, because she is always late. 

1829  --  Desiree  was officially crowned as Queen.  She never learned to speak Swedish. 

1844  --  the death of King Charles XIV.  He was succeeded by his son, Oscar I.  Desiree wanted to leave cold Sweden, but she was forbidden to abdicate.  She became even more eccentric. 

1860  -- the death of the Queen of Sweden. She is buried beside her husband in a Lutheran Church, Stockholm, Sweden.


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