Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.





  • TV series "Countryside Inventory" (1980) with Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie as historical advisor.



Screenplay written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Daniel Vigne drawing upon the historical work of Natalie Zemon Davis on 16th century France, and the contemporary work by the jurist Jean de Coras.



  • Gerard Depardieu - "Martin Guerre"
  • Nathalie Baye - Bertrande de Rols
  • Maurice Barrier - the Guerre family patriarch, Uncle Pierre Guerre
  • Roger Planchon - a judge at the Parlement of Toulouse, Jean de Coras
  • Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu - the young Martin Guerre
  • Sylvie Meda - the young Bertrande
  • Isabelle Sadoyan - Catherine Boere
  • Rose Thiery - Raimonde de Rols
  • Chantal Deruaz - Jeanne
  • Maurice Jaquemont - Judge Rieux

Sometime in the early 1550s a young peasant (Martin Guerre) from Artigat in Languedoc leaves his Pyrenean wife (Bertrande de Rols), son and inheritance to seek adventure in Spain as a mercenary. After an absence of 8-9 years a man claiming to be Martin returns to the village to claim his wife and land. He is accepted by Bertrande (they have another child) and the Guerre family with whom he works the family lands. Martin has a quarrel with Pierre, the patriarch of the Guerre family, over the management of the family estate and ownership of the rents from Martin's lands during his absence. While this dispute is occurring, a veteran passing through the village claims that "Martin" is not who he claims to be - that "Martin" lost a leg at the Battle of Saint Quentin (1557), and that he really is Arnaud de Tilh ("Pansette") from a neighbouring village. The Guerre family is sharply divided over the problem - Pierre and his sons-in-law believe the soldier's story, whilst Pierre's daughters (Martin's sisters) and Bertrande continue to believe "Martin" is Martin. Suddenly Bertrande changes her mind and brings a formal legal complaint against "Martin" for being an imposter. As the case is being heard in the Parlement of Toulouse before a judge (Coras) a man with a wooden leg appears claiming to be the real "Martin". The judges are forced to determine who the real "Martin" is (in the face of a deeply divided family and two divided villages) and to convict and execute the imposter.

Previous/Later Film Versions

Compare with the Hollywood remake "Somersby" with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere as "Bertrande" and "Martin".


Janet Lewis's novel The Wife of Martin Guerre (1938).

Works by Zemon Davis (Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University)

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard University Press, 1983).

Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford University Press, 1975).

Natalie Zemon Davis, "Inventing Martin Guerre: An Interview," Southern Review, November 1986, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 231-41.

Natalie Zemon Davis,"'Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead': Film and the Challenge of Authenticity," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1988, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 269-283.

Natalie Zemon Davis, "On the Lame", American Historical Review, June 1988, vol. 93, no. 3, pp. 572-603.

Natalie Zemon Davis with Daniel J. Walkowitz for the AHA Ad Hoc Committee on History and Film, "The Rights and Responsibilities of Historians in Regard to Historical Films and Video," Perspectives 30, no. 6, September 1992, pp. 15, 17.

On the Film

Ed Benson, "Martin Guerre, the Historian and the Filmmakers: An Interview with Natalie Zemon Davis," Film and History, 1983, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 49-65.

Pat Auferheide, "Interview with Natalie Davis," Radical History Review, 1984, nos. 28-30, pp. 136-39.

Edward Benson, "The Look of the Past: Le retour de Martin Guerre," Radical History Review, 1984, nos. 28-30, pp. 125-35.

Robert Finlay, "The Refashioning of Martin Guerre," American Historical Review, June 1988, vol. 93, no. 3, pp. 553-71.

Carlo Ginzburg, "Proofs and Possibilities: In the Margins of Natalie Zemon Davis' The Return of Martin Guerre", Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 1988, no. 37, pp. 113-27.


  • the considerable steps taken by the filmmakers to recreate 16thC French village life - using a French village 40 km from the town where the events took place; the director and cinematographer studied paintings by Breughel, van Ostade, and La Tour in the Louvre Museum to get the "look" of 16-17thC countryside; yet the film uses electronic music as the score (why not period music?)
  • do movie-goers really care about a filmmaker's attention to historical detail? is there money in making historically accurate films?
  • NZD's interest in the "anthropology" of early modern European peasants
    • Basque customs, migration, property and land sales, inheritance, women's work, judicial practice
    • folk customs - the charivari to end the infertility of Bertrande's marriage, hunting Martin as the Candlemas bear
  • the detailed depiction of the economic life of the village
    • manufacturing - basket weaving
    • food preparation - slaughtering pigs, plucking chickens, sifting flour, making bread
    • agricultural production - cutting grass, pressing grapes
  • the place of women in early modern village life - the story of women in Brazil where women fight and rule is described as "the end of the world"
  • Natalie Zemon Davis's thoughts on the experience of being an historical consultant to filmmakers - the compromises which must be made between the desire of the historian to have the highest degree of historical "authenticity" (if not always "accuracy") and the desire of the filmmakers to make a saleable drama
    • the characterisation of Bertrande (too "19thC" romantic)
    • the trial at Toulouse (a secret and closed proceeding is made public)
  • the problem of identity (of own's self) and identification (of others) - who is "Martin"? legally it is the man who went away to war and then returned, functionally, the man who was the loving husband of Bertrande, the father of their son, and the active worker on the Guerre family estates, was also "Martin"
  • the undercurrent of war - the family name is "Guerre", Martin meets soldiers at a stream and decides to run away to join them, Martin's loss of a leg at the Battle of Saint Questin (France vs Spain, 1557) establishes an indentifying characteristic of Martin
  • questions to consider - why did Martin leave? why did he return? why was it so hard to establish Martin's identity once it was questioned? why did Bertrande behave the way she did? why did so many villagers side with Martin?
  • possible explanations for Bertrande's behaviour:
    • the economic necessicity of having a productive, male head of the household
    • her possibly protestant-inspired opposition to the Catholic prohibition fn the annulment of her marriage to Martin
    • her personal desire for happiness in a relationship with a caring man
  • things in Davis's book but missing from the film:
    • the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism - NZD suggests that Bertrande might have been influenced by Protestantism