Les Misérables (1978)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Over the years, fans of Victor Hugo's epic novel have been forced to make allowances and find compromises when it comes to movie adaptations. None of them are completely like the book and some even depart mightily, such as this one. But this is also one of the better versions I have seen, albeit limited in its budget and design due to the period in which it was made.

In post-Revolutionary France, people are starving. Rather than see his sister's children face the same fate, Jean Valjean (Richard Jordan) steals a loaf of bread from a shop window and winds up sentenced to five years in prison. Believing this to be deeply unfair, he tries to escape -- and is given another five years as punishment. Years in chains working in the rock quarries wears at his soul, and his spiteful hatred toward his captors, and in particular the guard Javert (Anthony Perkins), begins to turn Valjean into a dangerous and violent man. When fate gives him a chance to escape, he runs into the forgiving compassion of a local bishop, who saves him once more from prison with the stipulation that from this moment forward, he dedicate his life to doing good.

Some years later, Valjean has assumed another identity and is a factory owner in a small town. Javert has been promoted to an inspector and comes in to take over the police force. Suspicions run amuck between them and when the truth finally comes out, Valjean is forced to go on the run -- with a little girl belonging to a prostitute he helped out of a bad situation. For fans of the novel or other adaptations, the story is a familiar one but has the distinction of following Valjean's arrest and imprisonment in addition to all that follows. This allows the audience to become familiar with the man Valjean truly is -- filled with bitterness and prone toward violent behavior. This makes the second half all the more powerful of a contrast, particularly when dealing with a threat made early on -- his vow to "kill Javert" one day is turned completely around when he is given the chance at the barricades. 

The acting is quite good, in particular from Perkins, who has both a charismatic presence and a hint of danger to him. He can be cruel when he needs to be, and always interesting even when merely lurking in a corner with a frown on his face. The supporting cast is quite good as well, but the production does suffer somewhat from the staples of 70's television -- including bad make-up to age the actors. Those familiar with modern film may find it a bit too theatrical and subdued, but it was refreshing for me to watch a film on this topic that didn't have any objectionable material in it. Even so, the emphasis is on the inspector and the escaped criminal, so don't expect to emotionally attach to Fantine. Still, it was good enough I watched it twice before I sent it back to the library.


Sexual Content:

A woman references having to sell her body for money.




Fist-fights; guns go off and people are killed. A man drowns. Another is crushed by falling rocks.