Lafayette (1961)




Director:  Jean Dreville

Cast:  Jack Hawkins (Gen. Cornwallis), Orson Welles (Benjamin Franklin), Howard St. John (Lafayette), Edmund Purdom (Silas Deane), Vittorio De Sica (secret agent), Michael Le Royer

Below average movie of the Frenchman who served as an officer in the American Revolution. Allying himself with the revolutionary bourgeoisie in France, he became one of the most powerful men in France during the first few years of the French Revolution.


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

1776.  America fights against England for its independence.   Washington's soldiers are ill-equipped, ragged and undisciplined.  The Americans suffer a great many defeats. 

Nathan Hale is hanged for being a spy for the Americans.  His last words are:   "I regret that I have but one life to give to my country."  

George Washington meets Silas Deane.  Congress has appointed him their agent in France to buy arms and ammunitions and to recruit officers for the American army.  Washington tells Deane to tell the French that even with inadequate arms, ammunition, officers and food, the Americans will still fight to the end.     

In France Silas Deane speaks with the Marquis de La Fayette.  The French King asks Vergennes who is that man with La Fayette.  Vergennes says he doesn't know the man.  Another man tells him it is Silas Deane, agent of the Americans.  Deane tells Lafayette that Baron Kalb will board the ship with him and Benjamin Franklin has signed the Marquis's commission.  Lafayette is happy about the news.  He goes to speak with his wife Adrienne, second daughter of the Duke of Ayen..  The two of them go and greet King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.  Montparte says it would be a shame to lose an officer such as Lafayette, but the King says there is no war on.  Montparte also says he has placed an embargo on a ship loaded with arms and intended for the Americans. 

Montparte receives a message which he reads to the French King.  General Lord Howe has just crushed the insurgents in battle.  The King says that France should bet on the winner.  They have tolerated clandestine aide to the insurgents, but from now on it will be forbidden. 

Benjamin Franklin tells a small group at his house that the last of the delegates have signed the American Declaration of Independence.  Lafayette says he will provide the needed ship and the arms on the condition that the ship be called the Victory.

Lafayette and another woman attend one of Marie Antoinette's chamber music sessions.  The Queen notes that this is the first time Lafayette has comesto one of her sessions.  She says it must be because his comrades are here:  Lauzun, Monsieur de Maurepas and the Count de Ségur.  The woman with him says Lafayette came to see the Queen on her advice.  The Queen thinks Lafayette has come to speak to her about his preoccupations.  Montparte wants the King to sign some arrest warrants for the men, namely those at the session, who want to help the Americans against the English.  Marie Antoinette objects to the arrest of the men that have come as her guests.  Montparte tells Louis XVI that England is losing patience and there may even be war between England and France.  The King says he better side with England and will sign the arrest warrants.  Marie Antoinette begs him to at least meet the men first.  The King agrees to meet the men.  He tells the men he is signing the arrest warrants for all four of them. 

The Queen again intervenes.  She says there must be another way to assuage England without arresting Lafayette.  Lafayette has an uncle that is an ambassador in England.  The King could arrange a visit.  The King tells Lafayette that he will go to London.  The King goes to bed and the Queen wishes Lafayette good luck in London. 

London.  The brother of King George III says they should never have deprived France of the colonies in Canada.  He is quite the Francophile.  Lafayette's uncle arrives with Lafayette.  The King's brother is surprised Lafayette is so young.  He wants Lafayette to toast with him to the alliance of France and England, but Lafayette says that a third nation stands between them:  America.  Major General Cornwallis comes in to give everyone the latest news of the war in America. 

Lafayette goes hunting with Cornwallis.  The General tells Lafayette that he thinks that even though the Americans suffer many defeats in battle, he thinks they will go on fighting.  Cornwallis says that maybe the next time they meet, it will be on opposite sides of a battle in America.   He says also that he will always remember the Frenchman's frankness.  Lafayette replies that he will always remember the courtesy of Cornwallis. 

Lafayette writes a letter to his uncle, which is brought by a man named Bancroft.  The letter tells the uncle that Lafayette will go to Paris first but then join with Kalb and go to America. 

Lafayette in Paris climbs through a bedroom window of his house to see his wife who is sleeping.  He is taking no chances of getting caught by the French authorities.  A courier arrives from London to let the French know that Lafayette is in town.  Lafayette tells his wife Adrienne that he will not be coming back and he is leaving now.  He says:  "I cannot do otherwise."  His wife says:  "I'll wait."   Three riders arrive at Lafayette's house.  Lafayette goes out the window.  The three men come into her room and want to know where the Marquis de Lafayette is.  She says that everyone knows that he is in London.  They still want to check the house.  To delay the men, Adrienne asks to see their orders. She looks them over and then says:  "Very well." 

Lafayette and Kalb race in a stagecoach to the coast.  They are being chased by soldiers on horseback.  The soldiers overtake the stagecoach, but when they look into the cabin, both Lafayette and Kalb are gone.  Lafayette and Kalb are now both on the ship La Victoire, which Lafayette purchased.   The men tire of the long trip.  They are approached by a ship and are very worried that it will be a British ship.  But no, it's an American ship and all the men shout "hurrah". 

Philadelphia.  American Congress.  A man is giving a speech before the assembly.  He says that many of these foreign volunteers are little more than mercenaries out for money and prestige. Lafayette enters the hall and hears some of the speech.  He steps up and explains that he is the Marquis of La Fayette.  He is not here for fame or money.  He says he has "my friends, my ship, my money, your war!"  The American speaker says they need skilled artillery men more than French aristocrats.   Lafayette says he and his friends left everything behind.  They ask for nothing, but only to fight by the side of the Americans.

The Congress confers on the matter and returns with the decision that Lafayette's services are welcomed.  He is made a Major General in the American Army.   The Americans now say that they welcome a comrade-in-arms.  Lafayette says:  "Thank you!"

Lafayette and Kalb arrive to speak with Gen. George Washington.   Washington is surprised that the Marquis is so young.  He brings Lafayette up to speed.  He says Gen. Cornwallis has received 5,000 Hessian troops;  Gen. Howe has received an additional 120 guns; and Gen. Clinton has received a full regiment of Scottish Highlanders. 

The American soldiers are upset that they only have six cartridges each.  Washington tells them it doesn't matter, because they are withdrawing.  Gen. Sullivan is going to cover their withdrawal and he needs the extra ammunition.  Washington then takes a short ride over to the militia to tell Lafayette that he will be in charge of this band on men.  Many are barefoot and most are hungry.  He says that Lafayette's personal story of courage and endurance to come some 3,000 miles from France to fight alongside the Americans will inspire the militia and restore their courage. 

Brandywine, Pennsylvania.  Gen. Clinton and his Highlanders are fording the river.  His plans are to come up behind Sullivan and his men and attack them.  A scout informs Washington of Clinton's progress.  Lafayette rides to his militia to take charge.  He shouts to them:  "You only have six cartridges, but I have only my sword!  Follow me!"  The men give out a roar and they follow their new commander.  Cornwallis and his troops arrive and attack.  The Americans launch a counter-attack.  The militia is part of the attack.  They approach the British but take so many casualties that they become afraid and turn and run.  Lafayette on his horse chases after them telling them:  "Don't retreat!  Form ranks!"  The men rally for Lafayette. 

In the process of rallying his men, Lafayette in wounded in the leg.  Washington visits him in the field hospital.  He tells the doctor to have Lafayette taken to his home at Mt. Vernon, Virginia.  News arrives that Kalb got his troops across a key bridge.  Washington is relieved.   

When he is better Lafayette wins over the Iroquois to the American side.  A British supply convoy approaches the Iroquois unafraid because they are thought to be British allies.  Imagine their surprise when the Iroquois start shooting their arrows at them.  The British have to turn around and leave the area.  Cornwallis learns the bad news that his supply column was attacked and turned back.  And it is due to that young Frenchman, with whom Cornwallis once went hunting.  Cornwallis is upset a bit that Lafayette never confronts the British troops head on.  It's always from the sides or the rear. 

Lafayette and other officers are with Washington.  The commander says that Burgoyne has retreated.  They will attack Burgoyne at Saratoga. There they will trap the British and crush them. 

The news of the day is of the American victory at Saratoga.  In France, the French people shout "hurrah" when they learn the news from America.  Benjamin Franklin says it fills their hearts with joy to hear of the victory.  Now, he says, what they need for real victory is the help of the French.  Madame Lafayette is there with him and he mentions her use of her influence with the Queen of France.  A messenger arrives with news.  Franklin has Madame Lafayette read it aloud.  It says the project for a treaty of alliance between France and America has started. 

Lafayette comes home to France via the ship Alliance.  He is part of a diplomatic mission to France.  Madame Lafayette takes her carriage and they meet on the road home.  The couple goes to see the King of France.  The King knows he has to make nice now with Lafayette because they have a Treaty of Alliance with America.  Marie Antoinette says her husband should place Lafayette under house arrest at his home with his wife.  The King agrees and tells Lafayette that he is forbidden to leave his wife.  This sounds good to the Lafayettes.  The King says:  "Now tell me about these Americans."

Lafayette returns to America and talks with Washington.   He brings with him a number of French troops.  Cornwallis is a bit shocked at the news that the French navy is coming as well as French troops under Rochambeau.  Lafayette  goes to to Yorktown. 

Cornwallis is going to attack the American forces at Yorktown.  But Washington is going to do what he can to save Lafayette.  Rochambeau will approach Yorktown from the North, while Washington himself will approach Yorktown from the west.  Washington sends order for Lafayette to try and capture the two forts guarding Yorktown.  An officer warns that Layette could be caught in a crossfire between Cornwallis and the English fleet.  Washington is gambling on the arrival of the French fleet to save the day. 

In Yorktown Lafayette tells his troops that he a trick up his sleeve.  He is going to go behind the stockade to attack Philip's position.  A messenger arrives to tell Cornwallis that the Rangers of Lafayette are attacking from the rear.  Cornwallis says:  "The damned boy!  Here already and attacking us?"  

American forces attack a fort while Lafayette sets up for an attack from the rear.  Lafayette tells his men:  "Follow me, Rangers!"   Cornwallis watches the action and says that Lafayette is falling in the mousetrap.  Lafayette's men enter the fort.  Soon Lafayette is sword fighting with Gen. Philips.  Cornwallis says that Philips killed Lafayette's father at Minden.  Lafayette stabs Philips with his sword and the man falls from the top of the fort to the ground.

Washington is now just three miles from Yorktown.  Lafayette's men capture the English cannon and turn them on Cornwallis and his men.  Cornwallis tells his staff to move because he has no desire to die, especially by English guns. 

More than thirty French vessels arrive.  Washington arrives and learns the good news.  He says to his staff:  "Gentlemen, this is the greatest day of the war!"   Cornwallis hears the bad news that the army is surrounded by General Washington's army. 

Kalb sword fights on horseback.   He is stabbed, falls out of his saddle  and his horse drags him.  Lafayette finds Kalb near death.  Kalb says:  "This is my last battle!"  Lafayette tries to encourage him, but Kalb knows death is coming, turns his body away from Lafayette and says:  "Turn your head away!"  He dies. 

The British are retreating.  Cornwallis says:  "It seems the mousetrap was set for me."  The British soldiers lay down their arms.  Cornwallis presents Washington with his sword.  He then asks Washington if he can speak with Lafayette.  Yes.  Cornwallis and Lafayette speak in private.  The British general says:  "This meeting has cost me dear." 

The Americans have a big celebration.  The war is not over yet, but it's secure enough that Lafayette can go home.  He says goodbye to Washington.  Washington tells him:  "Godspeed!"


Fairly good movie.  The picture quality was not very good and there were no subtitles available.  Just dubbed English.  At the time it was made, it was the most expensive French film ever made.  They did use a lot of men for the battle scenes.  Brandywine and Yorktown are the two battles that are most dealt with, but there is also mention of the American victory at Saratoga.  Lafayette perfomed valuable service at both Brandywine and Yorktown.  The movie is rather short and we really don't get to know Lafayette very well.  He's not a "real" man, but a "hero". 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


Lafayette, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de

1757  --  born in Chavaniac, France into an ancient noble family.

1759  --  Lafayette's father was killed when struck by a cannonball at the Battle of Minden in Westphalia.  An Allied Anglo-German army defeated a French army during the Seven Years' War. 

1774  --  marries the daughter of the influential duc d'Ayen. He joins the circle of young courtiers at the court of King Louis XVI.

1777, July  --  arrives in Philadelphia and is appointed a major general . Quickly becomes friends with George Washington.

1777, Sept 11  --  Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania.

1778, May 28  --  as a division commander he leads a masterly retreat from Barren Hill.

1779  -- returns to France; helps persuade the government of Louis XVI to send a 6,000-man expeditionary army to aid the colonists.

1780, April  --  Lafayette back in America; gets command of an army in Virginia. Forces the British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis to retreat across Virginia

1780  --  traps Cornwallis at Yorktown where Cornwallis surrenders, ending the war, October 19. Lafayette is a "hero."

1782  --  back in France he is promoted to brigadier general.

1784  -- tours several states on a visit to the United States.

1784-1789  --  he was a leader of the liberal aristocrats and an outspoken advocate of religious toleration and the abolition of the slave trade.

1789  --  is elected a representative of the nobility to the States General. He supports the maneuvers by which the bourgeois deputies of the Third Estate gain control of the States General and the conversion into a revolutionary National Assembly.

1789, July 11 --  he presents to the Assembly his draft of a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

1789, July 15  --  a crowd storms the Bastille.  Lafayette becomes commander of the newly formed Paris national guard.

1789, August 27  --  after extensive revisions the document is adopted.

1789, Oct 6  --  his troops save Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette from the fury of a mob at Versailles on October 6; takes the royal family to Paris, where they are held hostage.

Lafayette starts to become disillusioned with the radical nature of the revolutionaries.

1791, July 17  --   his guard fires on a crowd of petitioners demanding the abdication of the King on the Champ de Mars in Paris, killing or wounding about 50 demonstrators.

1791, Oct  --  his popularity destroyed, he resigns from the guard.

1791, Dec --  is appointed commander of the army at Metza.

1792, April  --  tries to suppress the radical democrats after France goes to war with Austria.

1792, Aug  --  monarchy overthrown in a popular insurrection.

1792, August --  Lafayette defects to Austria to avoid being tried for treason.  They hold him captive.

1797  --  free from captivity with the Austrians.

1799  --  Napoleon Bonaparte in power; Lafayette returns to France and becomes a gentleman farmer.

1814-1824  -- sits in the Chamber of Deputies during most of the reign of King Louis XVIII .

1824-25  --  receives great adulation during a visit to the United States.

1830 --  commands the national guard that helps overthrow King Charles X and installs Louis-Philippe on the throne; six months later, he retires.

1834  --  dies in Paris.


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