Desiree (1954): Henry Koster’s Historical Romantic Melodrama, with Brando as Napoleon, Jean Simmons, Merle Oberon

By 1954, Marlon Brando had become a legit movie star, alongside being Hollywood’s most acclaimed actor.

His first six films were all prestigious and commercial works, such as The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, earning two Best Actor Oscar nominations.

In Desiree, director Henry Koster and writer Daniel Taradash present a fictionalized historical chronicle of the rise and fall of Napoleon (Marlon Brando), due to his unrequited love for the noblewoman Desiree (Jean Simmons).

Using chronological order, the film posits Napoleon’s love of a woman he wanted to marry as a young general, but abandoned for the sake of his career. Both Napoleon and Desiree go their separate ways–he to become Emperor of France and husband to Josephine (Merle Oberon) and she to become Sweden’s disinterested Queen.

Napoleon and Desiree meet up again in a confrontation in which Desiree urges the Little Corporal to surrender and go to St. Helena.

The film is based on a novel by Annemarie Selinko that, like the film, takes liberties with the facts. A lavish, handsomely produced story-book historical romance with Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean Simmons as the girl of the title who loves and, supposedly, inspires him.

Brando was not enthusiastic about playing the role, but was under pressure by 20th Century-Fox. The studio had signed him for The Egyptian, another big-budgeted costume picture. Brando backed out of the film just prior to the shoot, claiming reasons of health, forcing Fox to get a replacement. They gambled on the relatively unknown Edmund Purdom; The Egyptian was not a success and Purdom’s Hollywood career was short lived. Brando had no choice but to accept Fox’s request to appear in Desiree

Detailed Synopsis:

The tale begins in 1794, with Desiree Clary, a pretty girl of 17, runs through the streets of Marseilles and arrives home late for supper. She tells her mother (Isobel Elsom), her sister Julie (Elizabeth Sellars), and her stuffy brother Etienne (Richard Deacon) that she has been walking in the park with a Corsican named Joseph (Cameron Mitchell). The Clarys, an affluent family, are shocked by her behavior, especially when she tells them she has invited Joseph and his brother to visit them.

The brother is a young general named Napoleone Buonaparte, whose uniform is shabby but whose manner is compelling. Napoleone sees that his brother and Julie are attracted to each other and he tells Desiree that he approves of such a union because of the Clarys’ wealth. Desiree is smitten with Napoleone, a fact she writes about in her diary. The diary serves as a transition device throughout the saga, telling much of the story.

At the Clarys’ silk store, Desiree shows Napoleone material suitable for her sister’s wedding gown when soldiers enter and inform Napoleone that they have a warrant for his arrest, and that his friend Robespierre has been executed. He gives Desiree the address of his family and asks her to let them know what has happened. She visits the Buonapartes and meets his mother, brothers and sisters. Only the mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) and Louis (Larry Crain) are concerned about the news, and Louis seems relieved that Napoleone won’t be able to force him into the army.

Desiree is awakened one night by a whistling at her window, and she rushes out to meet Napoleone. He has been assigned to hunt down royalists, which he looks upon as police work and not fitting for artillery expert. Desiree suggests that he resign his commission and work for the Clarys in their store. Napoleone asks for Desiree’s hand in marriage but brother Etienne, the family’s head, refuses. Napoleone tells her they will marry despite this refusal but first he must go to Paris and convince the war ministry to put him in charge of the Italian campaign.

Months go by and Desiree hears nothing from him. Her family tease her, as she embroiders things for her trousseau. She finally decides to go to Paris and locate Napoleone. She goes to La Chaumiere, where Mme. Tallien (Carolyn Jones) caters to the famous, because she has heard Napoleone (who has now shortened his name to Napoleon Bonapart) is often there. She is refused admittance, and while standing outside she watches Josephine Beauharnais (Merle Oberon) enter. Desiree finally gets in through the help of General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie). When she overhears that Napoleon and Josephine are set to be married, Desiree runs from La Chaumiere. She is about to jump from a bridge, when Bernadotte talks her out of suicide.

The scene shifts to Rome where Desiree visits her sister Julie and her husband Joseph Bonapart, now the French ambassador to Italy. She writes in her diary that Napoleon appears to be conquering the world, and when she next meets him she rejects his suggestion that they resume their friendship, due to discontent with Josephine because she cannot bear him a child. Napoleon envies his brother Joseph, who now has a son. Bernadotte is relentless in courting Desiree, and she agrees to marry him. A Marshall of France, he quarrels with Napoleon over his dictatorial ambitions and refuses to support him, but Napoleon wins him over with talks of reforms and improvements for the French.

Once elected First Consul of the Republic, he consolidates his power crowns himself Emperor at Notre Dame. Shortly after, he announces the dissolution of his marriage with the barren Josephine and his intention to marry Austrian Princess Marie-Louise von Hapsburg. Desiree befriends Josephine and once more rejects Napoleon’s advances. In 1810, a Swedish delegation arrives at the Bernadotte home and informs the Marshall that their government has chosen him as heir to the throne. Bernadotte accepts and the family move to Stockholm, to the annoyance of Napoleon, who is affronted by Bernadotte’s surrender of his French citizenship.

Life in Stockholm does not please Desiree; she dislikes the cold country and its formal people. She returns to Paris and a reclusive life. On New Year’s Eve of 1812, Desiree attends a party at which Napoleon displays his new son and announces his plans to invade Russia and attack England. Bernadotte is partly responsible for Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, having advised the Czar on tactics. On his return to Paris Napoleon asks Desiree to write a letter to Bernadotte and plead with him to join the French cause. Bernadotte takes the opposite view and Napoleon is defeated, this time by allied European forces.

Bernadotte comes to Paris, where he is reunited with his wife and where he is among those who sentence Napoleon to exile on Elba. Napoleon escapes from the island and raises a new army, still intent on his plan for a United States of Europe. He approaches Paris with threats of destruction and makes his headquarters at Malmaison. Desiree goes to meet him there, and convince him that his surrender would be in France’s best interests of France, whereupon he hands over his sword.

Desiree is an enjoyable film, but it might have been better ifit were more faithful to the facts.

That Desiree was married to his brother is a fact, but that she was able to persuade the iron-willed dictator to give up his ambitions and accept exile is an absurd fancy. The film is admirable on the technical level, with superb sets and costumes, but as drama it is too pedestrian and verbose.  It derives much of its strength form the charming performance of a radiant Jean Simmons, who is on screen for most of the story, developing from a naïve girl to a woman of assurance. From Marlon Brando, Desiree received an astonishing portrait of Napoleon. Critics have always been divided in their reaction, some feeling that it was a masterfully controlled performance while others felt that Brando was toying with the role and merely enjoying himself.

Brando’s Napoleon speaks with a soft and lyrical voice, crisply enunciating his words in a precise English accent. His model was obviously Claude Rains. Assuming a French accent would have made the characterization ludicrous, but Brando’s use of a quiet, measured English accent somehow gave the role its chilly, man-of-destiny implication. Brando also wisely avoided the posturing that mars many depictions of Napoleon, at no time striking the celebrated hand-in-jacket pose. In this fictional account, Brando suggests the cool, calculating, compulsive, lonely man Napoleon might have been.


Oscar Nominations: 2

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller; Walter M. Scott and Paul S. Fox

Costume Design (color): Charles LeMaire and Rene Hubert

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Art Direction was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Costume Oscar went to Sanzo Wada for the Japanese film, Gate of Hell.


Running time: 115 minutes.

A 20th Century-Fox Production.

Produced by Julian Blaustein.

Directed by Henry Koster.

Screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the novel by Annemarie Selinko.

Photographed in CinemaScope and De Luxe Color by Milton Krasner.

Art direction by Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller.

Edited by William Reynolds.

Musical score by Alex North.

Running time: 110 minutes.



Napoleon (Marlon Brando)

Desiree (Jean Simmons)

Josephine (Merle Oberon)

Bernadotte (Michael Rennie)

Joseph Bonaparte (Cameron Mitchell)

Julie (Elizabeth Sellars)

Paulette (Charlotte Austin)

Mme. Bonaparte (Cathleen Nesbitt)

Marie (Evelyn Varden)

Mme. Clary (Isobel Elsom)

Talleyrand (John Hoyt)

Despreaux (Alan Napier)

Oscar (Nicholas Koster)

Etienne (Richard Reacon)

Queen Hedwig (Edith Evanson)

Mme. Tallien (Carolyn Jones)

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