One of these days I’ll get to Paris for Bastille Day. Not too likely this year. The closest I’ll get again will be this clip from Casablanca. It’s the best La Marseillaise I’ve ever seen on film, helped along no doubt by the fervor of the extras who were all refugees from Paris, escaping the Nazis. You can feel the genuine emotion in the explosion of Vive la France! at their anthem’s rousing finish.
You have to admit it’s a helluva song, La Marsellaise, an 18th century march, a popular form of the time, and written by some creaky old brigadier to fire up the hearts of the ragamuffin citizen soldiers being sent out to face the combined armies of all the kings of Europe. It worked, and the citizen armies made quick work of the walking muskets (Napoleon’s term) facing them. War was changed forever, it seemed, with massed drafts of citizens fighting in simpler formations (that needed less drill) and driven more by elan than the automaton discipline. War became vaster, more overwhelming, more dangerous. It took atomic bombs to finally slow it down, and there is no song for dropping atomic bombs, except maybe We’ll Meet Again. But then we’re being ironic, and there was nothing ironic about La Marseillaise. Irony went out with the Ancien Régime. Revolutions are like that.
I think when we Americans hear anything sung in French we think La Vie En Rose. Romantic, sad, wistful. When we actually see the lyrics of Le Marseillaise it’s kind of shocking. We forget it was written in the 1780’s to spur on citizens to take up arms against foreign armies intending to crush their revolution. So when we hear this:
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
We still think of Maurice Chevalier loving Paris in the winter when it drizzles. We don’t know it says this:
Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!
And that is the nice verse. It goes on for half a dozen more.