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In 1863, Louis Napoleon of France, threatened with the loss of Mexico under its new president, Benito Juarez, decides to circumvent the Monroe Doctrine by instituting sovereign rule. Napoleon cleverly engineers an election that puts the unwitting Maximilian von Hapsburg on the Mexican throne. Upon his arrival in Mexico, the idealistic Maxmilian, who is accompanied by his wife Carlota, is puzzled by the absence of supporters, and soon discovers that his French advisors expect him to confiscate the lands that Juarez has returned to the Mexican people. Slowly realizing that he is the victim of a fraud designed to establish French supremacy in Mexico, Maxmilian refuses to confiscate the lands and refuses to issue a decree that would place repressive penalties on the rebels led by Juarez. Instead, Maximilian decides to abdicate, but Carlota convinces him that he must stay and deliver Mexico from its enemies. To accomplish this, he offers Juarez the position of prime minister, but Juarez will not compromise his belief in democracy, thus creating an unbridgeable gulf between the two. With the end of the American Civil War, the United States orders the French flag out of Mexico and sends aid to the rebel army. Juarez' vice president, Uradi, uses this opportunity to betray Juarez and seizes the munitions, thereby creating a split that places victory within Maxmilian's grasp. Just as Maxmilian is about to command his army, however, Napoleon orders all French troops out of Mexico, crushing any chance of victory. Enraged, Carlota returns to Paris to confront Napoleon, where she suffers a mental breakdown over her husband's plight. Meanwhile, Juarez wins back control of the rebels and captures Maxmilian and his loyal followers as they are about to make their last stand. Although arrangements have been made for his release, Maxmilian insists on remaining with his men, and after they are judged guilty, they face the firing squad together.