In the early hours of July the 28th, 1794, the leaders of the French Republic's Committee of Public Safety had gathered for one last time.

This is the opening sentence of narrator's voice in the documentary on the French Revolution (here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suZdYkZ_feM). Could you clarify to me why the Past Perfect is used there and not just the Past Simple. Its usage is for me uncomprehensible all the more so that the mentioned gathering of the members of the Committee of Public Safety in fact happened after the events that consist the content of the documentary.


It's a stylistic choice, in that it's perfectly "grammatical" to use either Simple Past or Past Perfect.

Although I followed OP's link, I didn't bother listening after the first 10 seconds. But I can be pretty certain it won't continue with footage showing those leaders actually gathering (all arriving at the same meeting place, having started out from different locations).

The point being that the reference time of the narrative will start some time after the leaders have gathered together (i.e. - when they're already present). Using Past Perfect in this way is a common "literary device" that constrains the temporal frame of the following narrative more sharply. By syntactically splitting off the immediately preceding "act of gathering together", the narrative focuses more tightly on what really matters (what they said/did once they were all assembled together).

EDIT: Okay - I should have listened to a bit more. The second 10 seconds are indeed concerned with what was happening after the leaders had gathered. Then the narrative starts jumping around a bit, mentioning things that Robbespierre had been doing for 12 months before that final meeting. But that's akin to what in movieland we'd call a flashback - quite correctly narrated using Past Perfect.

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The voiceover does not exist in a vacuum, like example sentences in a textbook; you have to watch the video and listen to the actors, too. The opening shot demonstrates that the narrative "now" is a point well into the meeting: Saint-Just scrawls his signature on a document and lays it before Robespierre. Simultaineously, the voiceover gives a date and hour for this Reference Time ...

In the early hours of July the 28th, 1794 ...

... and continues with the background to this moment. This is the paradigmatic use of the perfect: it names a state current at RT which arises out of eventualities before RT.

... the leaders of the French Republic's Committee of Public Safety had gathered for one last time, their once colossal power evaporating with every minute. For 12 months Maximilien Robespierre had ruled revolutionary France in the name of the people.

When that is established, the narrative shifts into ordinary pasts:

But now in the name of the people soldiers were on their way to seize him. His dictatorship was over, and he was about to become the final victim of his own bloody Reign of Terror.

You may (if you have the stamina) read more about this perfect double time reference and how it anchors prior events in a current context at What is the perfect, and how should I use it?, especially §4. When and how should I use the perfect?.

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  • This is really more your "specialist subject" than it is mine, but I can't see there's an absolute grammatical imperative to use Past Perfect for the first statement. But it does make the difference between a "history lesson" sequential presentation (first this happened, then that, then something else), and a more tightly-focused "under the microscope" examination of the (short, but important?) meeting itself. But what do I know? I've still only watched the first 20 seconds! – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 26 '15 at 15:08
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    @FumbleFingers I don't say there's an imperative -- just that in the context, which includes what the viewer is seeing, the PaPf makes a lot of sense. Foreshift it into an historical present: "The leaders have gathered. Robespierre has ruled. But now soldiers are coming: his dictatorship is over and he is about to become the final victim". – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 26 '15 at 15:18
  • Ah. I forgot about "historical present". A reliable technique for adding immediacy to a presentation - specifically one which includes more than one medium. Voiceover + video footage in this case, but I bet it was used as far back as the chorus in ancient Greek theatre (we'd certainly be likely to do that in modern "translations/adaptations", but I honestly don't know if that's how it works in Greek). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 26 '15 at 15:51
  • What is meant by your note about "Foreshift it into an historical present". Is it really possible that the narrator in the documentary would present the events in the Present Perfect? I was thought that when using narrative tenses the Present Perfect is not appropriate. – bart-leby Oct 26 '15 at 19:21
  • @bart-leby This was intended merely to illustrate the principle behind use of the perfect. However, present-tense narrative is not unknown. (We commonly use it for jokes ("A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar"), for sportscasts ("He shoots ... he scores!") and for summaries and scenarios ("Othello smothers Desdemona"), and it is often employed locally in fiction and history to lend immediacy.) And in a present-tense narrative a PrPf may be called for, as in my present-tense rewrite of your passage. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 26 '15 at 20:34

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