Based off of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables tells the tale of Jean Valjean (Fredric March), who is sentenced to ten years in the galleys for stealing food to feed his sister’s children. The conditions are brutal and when Valjean’s sentence finally ends, he still has to live the life of a convict, where he is welcome nowhere and has to check in for parole every year. When he seems at his lowest, the kindness of a Bishop Bienvenu (Cedric Hardwicke), teaches him that life is about giving.
Years later, Valjean has built himself a new life under the name Champmathieu. He is so respected that he is appointed mayor, with the dutiful Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton) pledging his devotion. Valjean meets a young orphaned girl named Cosette (Marilyn Knowlden) and becomes a father figure to her. When Valjean learns that an innocent man is on trial because he stopped reporting for parole, he gives up the good name he’s built and jeopardizes his freedom to spare the innocent man. That confession launches Javert to pursue Valjean for the sake of carrying out the law. But Valjean and Cosette go into hiding and the chase lasts for years until Valjean sees that his running will cost the grown Cosette (Rochelle Hudson) her own chances at happiness.
The most fascinating character in this film is Laughton’s Javert. With his emotionless, uncompromising view of the law he feels compelled to carry out, he seems to be a personification of the entire justice system in early nineteenth century France. To Javert, Valjean must be captured, the fact that he has lived as a model citizen under another name is just a spiteful act of defiance against the system. That sort of blind determination can be frightening when you’re trying to hide and outrun it and it doesn’t look like Javert will hold any mercies.
From book, to film, to musical, there are plenty of adaptations of Hugo’s classic tale to choose from. Personally, I find this film to be the medium I would choose due to the classic film stars, beautiful silver screen imagery and lack of singing. I know there are some who hold a fierce love for the musical and others who believe a film could never hold all that Hugo puts in the novel, understandable, but to each his own. If you are completely new to the world of Les Misérables, I would suggest either reading the novel or finding this film for your first encounter.
“Keep these always. Silver they say, but they’re more than gold to me.”