The characters of Danton and Robespierre are almost archetypical in their approach to power, leadership, and governance. This film does a good job of capturing the radically different philosophies and characters of these two men and their struggle for power. I enjoyed reading Hilary Mantel's excellent A Place of Greater Safety several years ago, a book that goes into great depth on this phase of French history. I found that this film covers the final confrontations between Danton and Robespierre, an extremely dramatic time in the history of France.
Danton was a populist and hero of the revolution. He is brave, masculine, womanizing, a heavy drinker and a man who could appeal to the man-on-the-street. In some ways he was a Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton type of personality. His personality over-boils in public, capturing the attention and admiration of the masses. Yet, this heroic populist may be a threat to the democratic process, for the masses are often all to willing to surrender power and decision making to a popular figure that appears to show great charisma, humor, communication skills, and personal courage. Robespierre is everything that Danton is not. Robespierre is a purist, and ideologist, a player in the grand game of power, and most importantly the repository of a philosophical contradiction on the nature of governance. Robespierre in an effort to strengthen the new French republic was on the lookout for those skillful populists that may take the reigns of power from the people and create another totalitarian and authoritarian state. Thus Robespierre saw Danton as a threat to the advances made by the revolution and thus Robespierre eventually became intent on the destruction of Danton. But to destroy Danton, Robespierre had to twist the legal processes and thus Robespierre becomes the very thing he wishes to destroy in Danton. Needless to say this makes for incredible political drama and in this film it is displayed with perfection.
Danton, like many populists, over estimates his oratorical and persuasive skills and also over estimates the loyalty of the crowd. Robespierre, to his credit, tries multiple ways to incorporate Danton into the ruling elite, but Danton backs away several times, thinking that he had the support of the common people. But the common people in a newly created state may not have the political infrastructure to assert their wishes other than through mob violence. As long was Robespierre was able to quickly bring Danton to trial and execution, he could avoid having to deal with the anger of the mob. Danton is simply out maneuvered by Robespierre, and thus his fate is sealed.
Robespierre is a fascinating character for all times and ages. He is the protector of a new fragile state and would violate the laws of that state to protect the state in its fragile infancy. This dilemma is universal and the United States faces this with fragile central authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conflict between Danton and Robespierre is universal. The ideological purist attempts to protect the fragile state from a populist who shows signs of totalitarianism but to destroy the populist, the purist must become the very totalitarian from which he wishes to protect the state.
This film does an incredible job of painting this conflict, this contradiction, this struggle.