Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

Have you seen Capitaine Conan? You haven’t? Well then I’d like to know why you are sitting here, reading this blog when what you should really do, is chase a copy of this unique and brilliant movie? This is one of the best war movies I have seen in a while. I’m doing pretty bad with movies these days and have found my attention span is quite short but this movie had me glued to the screen. WWI movies tend to be a bit repetitive, it’s either the atrocity of the trenches, facial wounds, the analysis of the shortcomings of the high command or the incredible amount of dead and lost soldiers. All of it worthy themes but done a few times and quite brilliantly too. That’s why it was such a surprise that there is hardly any of this in Capitaine Conan. 

Capitaine Conan is based on the largely autobiographical novel Captain Conan by Roger Vercel who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the book. Vercel based the main character on one of his comrades.

The most interesting aspect is that the movie (and the book) takes place on the Bulgarian border where French and English troops fought a guerrilla like war against Germans and Bulgarians. There are trenches but a lot of the combat is hand-to-hand combat, man against man.

The lieutenant Capt Conan is an insubordinate, extremely wild and brutal soldier. But also someone who cherishes camaraderie. Instead of eating with the fellow officers, he rather sits somewhere with the men. He leads a group of 50 men that he calls his wolves. They are all equally fearless, brutal and, as it seems, addicted to violence but also a tight-knit group, ready to do anything for each other. There is nothing they like more than fighting man against man and mostly with knives. Because Conan is highly efficient and can turn around the course of hopeless battles, his superiors let him do as he pleases but when the war ends, things go wrong. His bloodthirsty men are too easily bored. They start to commit one crime after the other. Pillaging, raping, robbery. Conan who calls himself a warrior, as opposed to a soldier, isn’t any better and let’s his men get away with everything. Conan has long-lost his sense of right and wrong and all that he cares about are his men. War has turned him into a brute.

Among this violent crowd is a more gentle lieutenant, who wants to become a school teacher in peace time. If it wasn’t for him, who is appointed as prosecutor, Conan and his men would be court-martialled. The friendship between these two men grows slowly but once it’s established, it is indestructible.

It’s quite difficult to do this movie justice as it is very complex and quite fast-paced. Conan is a fascinating character and the way Tavernier depicts him we can’t help but admire him. In the world of WWI, in which there are so many officers who never dirty their hands but make the most important decisions without having a clue, someone like Conan, with a sense of honour and dignity, despite the brutality, becomes admirable. He is ruthless but he has a sense of loyalty and justice. The problem is, that men like him cannot go back to a normal life, once the war is over. They have gone too far.

After the war has ended, they are boarding a train and sent around without really knowing where they go. They stop in Sofia for a long time and are finally sent to the Russian border to fight the Bolsheviks. The scene in which the general informs them of the Armistice is one of the greatest scenes in any war movie ever. It’s so absurd. We see the guy talk about victory and glory, while the rain is pouring down, half of the men are running away because of diarrhea and the highly decimated band plays an off-key Marseillaise and looks like a bunch of flea-infested hobos.

I really hope I could give a halfway good impression of this wonderful movie and how rich it is. It’s very witty with super fast dialogue that I hope is well captured in the subtitles. I have a French DVD so I turned them off. It’s one of the huge problems of French cinema in translation. French cinema does live to a large extent from the dialogue which is usually fast and a lot of it isn’t translated. This isn’t a comedy but it has a lot of funny elements because it shows how absurd war is and because it juxtaposes many different levels of French society and different French regions.

As I said, the movie is available with English subtitles but the only trailer I found is a French one with Spanish subtitles. It still gives a good impression of the movie.

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15 thoughts on “Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Great review. Really makes me want to see it. I already have it in my Netflix queue. Probably because you mentioned it earlier. Unfortunately, it is currently unavailable. Rats!

    • Too bad. Even if you won’t get all th dialogue it’s still woth wathcing. It alos say quite a lot of how France treated their colonies. And the combat scenes are interesting, I thought. I wasn’t aware that Bulgaria was on the side of the Gemrnas, while Roumania was neutral or on the side of the Allies, not sure now. We always get to see the Frenc/Belgian trenches ususally. hardyl ever the battle field of Eastern Europe.

      • nem baj says:

        Romania joined the Triple Entente in 1916. Before that, they weren’t too keen on fighting on the same side as the Tsar, due to the territorial dispute over Bessarabia.

        The whole Armée d’Orient adventure under Gal Berthelot is something amazing. They landed in Odessa and Sevastopol, fighting alongside Polish and Ukrainian volunteers against the Bolshevik army (who repelled them) and eventually invaded Budapest with Romanian troops, crushing the Hungarian soviet republic in… August 1919.

        Though the film focuses on operations in the Balkans (Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania), the peculiar character of this part of the war, both in time (long after november 1918) and space (very far from the motherland), and its effects on morale, is clearly rendered in the movie.

      • When I think of WWI, I only think “Gallipoli” and France and Belgium and Northern Africa, I rarely think of other battle fields. I don’t think it’s that well known or remembered.

      • nem baj says:

        I guess the Middle Eastern theater is more well-known than the North African. Is there even a film about the Senussi uprising in Libya? I’m not even sure the Italians made one.

      • There are not all that many Italian war movies anyway. So far I wasn’t even able to compile a list with at least 10 worth watching.

      • nem baj says:

        Italy produced a lot of war movies, unfortunately a lot may seem rather bland (stock fascist propaganda / the works of De Robertis / nazi exploitation flicks) . However, beetween the 30s and the 80s there’s at least:

        Scipio Africanus (Gallone)
        The Siege of the Alcazar (Genina)
        Rome Open City (Rossellini)
        Paisan (Rossellini)
        Senso (Visconti)
        La Ciociara (De Sica)
        Everybody Go Home (Comencini)
        General della Rovere (Rossellini)
        Garibaldi (Rossellini)
        The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)
        The Great War (Monicelli)
        Many Wars Ago (Rosi)
        The Inglorious Bastards (Castellari)
        Attack and Retreat (De Santis)

        I haven’t seen the recent ones (for instance Monteleone’s El Alamein (2002).

      • Thanks a lot for this list. I knew only a few and have seen only two of them. I had El Alamein in my hands not too long ago but for some reason didn’t buy it. I’ll have to try and find a few of the others.

  2. nem baj says:

    I have mixed feelings about Capitaine Conan. On one hand, it has absolutely brilliant battle scenes, a fantastic performance by the male lead (Philippe Torreton), quite endearing moments of typical French popular cockiness (the French social stratification of the times is very well conveyed), and the movie has a lot of food for thought about the many choices and behaviors of men in a war.

    On the other hand, I find it too long and rather loosely scripted, as if the director had wanted to put too many things, too many themes, in it. And the cast is uneven, with a few so-so performances by supporting cast which, being quite theatrical in a bad way (it’s not entirely the cast’s bad, some of the lines are just too declamatory), break the mood for me on several occasions.

    Nevertheless it’s a very good war movie, well worth watching.

    • I didn’t find all that many flaws and was in a Tavernier mood at the time any way, watching quite a lot of his other movies too.
      I think I preferred La vie et rien d’autre, but I liked this a lot. In both movies the characters are far more interesting than in most war movies.
      I didn’t mind the supporting cast, or can’t remember it. I watched it for the first time and as so often, the review is an overall impression more than a detailed analysis.
      It’s precisely what you call “French popular cockiness” which gets lost in translations and might be a reason why in the US and the UK, there is a preference of German movies over French movies. They are more easily subtitled. Don’t you think?

      • nem baj says:

        I find La Vie et rien d’autre better. But this one is certainly more focused on war itself, and I agree with you: we might have seen a lot of scenes elsewhere (the warrior vs. soldier theme, the court martials, the career officers/enlisted civilians tensions etc.), but the main characters and situations are far more complex than in many other war movies.

        I’m not sure about the translation: most non-Americans (including myself) also have a very hard time understanding the references to social and geographical differences in the United States, which are sometimes a part of (good) U.S. movies. Notwithstanding the fact that many viewers still go for the dubbed version, losing the accents entirely in the process…

        It might simply be that a large number of cinema goers like strong archetypes more than anything else, and Continental European cinema has never been very good at producing those. When you mention German movies preferred by UK and US audiences, am I wrong in thinking you were not referring to Germany Bleak Mother nor I Was Nineteen, but rather to recent German productions?

      • No, you are quite right. I meant more recent productions.
        That’s an interesting way of seeing it. I find Europena movies more focussed on dialogue and character but making a difference regarding the cproduction of archetypes is very pertinent.

  3. Derrick says:

    WHAT IS THE NAME OF THE OPENING SONG OF (CAPTAINE. CONAN?)

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