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.

ANZACS Part IV and V (1985) The Battles of Amiens and Hamel

This is just a short wrap-up post. I finally watched the last two episodes of the ANZACS mini-series and I liked them as much as the first three. There were a few predictable moments and the end was a bit anti-climatic but very realistic.

I would really like to recommend the series once more. It’s excellent. It’s also an amazing story. The bravery and courage of the ANZACS was really something. I already said it in another post that one thing that struck me was the way they went to war. They took it like some sporting adventure, they were big on comradeship and good spirits. It seemed a bit stretched at first but I’ve done some research and some of my readers confirmed that this was the way they were.

What you get to understand as well, when you watch this series is the huge difference the end of the war represented for the Australians and the French. All through the series you see the ravaged landscape, the bombed villages and although some places remind the lads of home, their country remained untouched. I’m not saying the contribution wasn’t great, no, but when they were finally back home, they could really leave the war behind. That was not possible for the French soldiers who had to cope with a devastated country. The land has still not fully recovered until today. There are still places where you see craters and trenches, where they left the barbed wire and there are still bombs exploding.

While Part IV is still heavy on combat, Part V, which is a bit anti-climatic, is a quiet part. It centers on the Armistice and the ANZACS’ return home to Australia.

Here are the reviews of Part I GallipoliPart II The Somme  and Part III Passchendaele.

Ironclad (2011) A Medieval Gorefest

I don’t think you will hear me say this very often but I must say it this time: This movie was way too gory for me. That bothered me more than the liberties that were taken with history. Or, to be honest, I’m not sufficiently familiar with 13th century England. I know the movie is loosely based on historical facts but the details elude me.

Having said all this you probably think I didn’t enjoy it. Wrong. I like Ironclad a lot. In a guilty pleasure kind of way and during those moments when there was no chopping off of hands, feet and tongues to be seen. I like stories about a small group of men fighting a large number, I like sieges and I think the time period makes for great battles scenes and fights with swords, bows and arrows. And for once the love story wasn’t too corny.  All in all the battle scenes reminded me a bit of the one in Lord of the Rings (Helms Deep) and the love story had a Last of the Mohicans feel (of course not that good but nice enough). Compared to movies like Centurion, I would say, it was much better.

King John of England is a hated monarch. In 1215 rebellious barons force him to sign the Magna Carta a document that will uphold the rights of free-men. A few months later he reneges on his word and with a small army tries to get the kingdom back.

A small group of Knights Templar help one of the barons to fight him. They find some more men, mercenaries, who join them in their fight. They are only seven but all of them experienced fighters. They know he will try to visit each and every baron and take revenge on him. If they can prevent him from entering Rochester Castle, they can prevent his entering England. The group of seven men rides to the castle and arrives just in time before the king’s men. They are in for a long and harrowing siege.

Their number is tiny and it doesn’t seem realistic that they should be able to fight the large army of King John. Their hope is the French army that is approaching and will help them against King John.

Being inside of a castle like Rochester Castle has a few advantages but their losses are high anyway. Every time the army of the king attacks,  a defense layer of the castle goes. Those who are captured are tortured and mutilated. After a few weeks of siege, the people inside of the walls are starving, the baron to whom the castle belongs starts to freak out and the nerves lay bare.

It’s  a very action-driven and suspenseful movie. The actors are quite good, although I needed to get used to Paul Giamatti as King John. He looks really insane. The leader of the group of seven men is the Knights Templar and played by James Purefoy. I personally liked him better than Fassbender in Centurion. I thought the battle scenes and fights were well done and the special effects were quite good as well.

Rated in the category of medieval action-war adventure it deserves at least 4 out of 5 stars

Ken Loach’s Route Irish (2010)

I’ve read a few reviews of Route Irish and while I agree this may not be Ken Loach‘s best movie, I thought it was far better than I expected. There are a few awkward moments but overall it’s well done, well acted, interesting and suspenseful.

Fergus and Frankie are best friends since childhood days. They are inseparable. They join the army together and leave it together. While Fergus starts working as a contractor for Tyree (an organisation like Blackwater), Frankie does the odd job in their hometown Liverpool. The problem is that odd jobs don’t bring money and he is not with Fergus. That’s why he joins up with Tyree as well and they go to different “hot places” together. 10000 £ per month seem enough money to justify what they are doing and to accept the risks they are taking.

Organisations like Blackwater are the face of modern warfare. Although the men are called “security personnel” by their employers, what they really are is mercenaries. Iraq is a particularly ugly place to be. It’s messy and chaotic. They are constantly shot at and shoot back.

While Fergus is in Liverpool, Frankie is on his last mission, escorting a reporter.  He is killed on Route Irish, the most dangerous street in the world, the road that leads from Baghdad to the Green Zone.

Fergus is guilt ridden because he wasn’t there for his friend. Just before his death, Frankie tried to call Fergus several times as clearly something was wrong in Baghdad. A mobile phone that Frankie has sent to Fergus shows that he was involved in the shooting of civilians and that one of the other mercenaries wanted to cover this up. Fergus is convinced that Frankie wasn’t just in the wrong place at the wrong time but that he was murdered. He swears to track down the killers and take revenge.

Ken Loach could have chosen different ways of showing us the corruption and lawlessness of modern-day warfare and organisations like Blackwater but I thought a thriller wasn’t a bad choice. I liked Route Irish and think it is worth seeing. Not only for fans of Ken Loach.

Bertrand Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre aka Life and nothing but (1989) The Aftermath of WWI

This quiet and beautiful movie deals with the aftermath of WWI in France in a way I haven’t seen before.

Life and nothing but aka La vie et rien d’autre is set in France, in 1920. The landscape is destroyed. The villages are in ruins. 350’000 men are missing. Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret) is working in some sort of army hospital trying to find the missing soldiers. He analyses features and descriptions, looks at those who are so badly wounded that nobody would recognize them, looks at those who have gone deaf, blind or crazy and also at dead bodies. He has them drawn and measured and puts their portraits in huge albums. So far he has found maybe 50’000 soldiers but there isn’t a lot of hope of finding the remaining ones.

Into this mess comes Irène de Courtil (Sabine Azéma), the wife of a missing officer and member of the French high society, part of those who are responsible for this monstrous war. Irène is looking for her husband. Not so much, it seems, because she wants to see him again but because she wants to move on. Her memory of him is almost faded and they were not married for very long either. Dellaplane treats her very unkindly and tells her that her husband is only one out of 350 000 missing men. In other words, he couldn’t care less about one individual person.

She leaves the hospital and tries other places but much has changed, addresses do no longer exist. She meets Dellaplane again in various other places.

When she hears that there is a site in which they display the belongings of dead soldiers, she travels there to try to find something that belonged to her probably dead husband. Dellaplane is there as well. Every time they speak, they quarrel and shout at each other but they also start to understand each other’s positions. Dellaplane feels pity and promises her to help her husband’s body.

While this is happening, there is a second story line. General Villerieux has to find bodies of anonymous dead French soldiers. One of them should be picked and buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It proves to be very difficult as there are as many dead German and American soldiers in this region as there are French ones. The earth is saturated with dead bodies. Plus there were the Senegalese troops. Despite their being French, the government doesn’t want to bury an African soldier or one from another colony. As easily as these are ruled out, for obvious reasons, as difficult it is to make a difference between American and French soldiers.

Unknownsoldier paris.jpg

The idea of the tomb for the Unknown Soldier infuriates Dellaplane and he doesn’t help his superior. He thinks it is cynical and belittles the losses. 1’500’000 dead French soldiers shouldn’t be represented by one anonymous figure.

There are other important story lines in the film. One follows a sculptor who is making monuments for the villages. Each and every village wants a monument for their fallen.

La vie et rien d’autre is beautiful but also bleak. It’s raining constantly, there are accidents with mines that go off, the places are swarming with hopeless people looking for their loved ones. Everything is in ruins. Everything seems so senseless. The destruction, the deaths, the suffering.

I liked this movie a great deal. It’s also a touching love story. What I liked best is the fact, that it starts where most other movies end. After we have seen the last dead soldier fall on the battle field, WWI movies usually end.

I recently finished the mini-series ANZACS and watched this right after. I’m glad I did as the contrast is amazing. As much as the Australians, Canadians and Americans sacrificed, they returned to their countries, countries that had not been touched by war. They lost a lot of young men, but they didn’t have to cope with a war-ravaged country and destroyed cities. I think this shouldn’t be forgotten.

Unfortunately there was no English trailer but the French one will also help you decide whether you should track it down or not.

Housewife, 49 (2006) British TV Production on Civilian Life During WWII

The British Mass Observation was founded in 1937. Its aim was to record the daily experiences of the British people for social research. During the war many people volunteered and provided information on their everyday life. Nella Last, called Housewife, 49 in the project, was one of them. Her diaries have been published and are still widely read as they provide so much detail on the life in Britain during WWII.

I wasn’t familiar with any of this before watching Housewife, 49. Since I liked it so much I have meanwhile bought the book and hope to get to it very soon. As is often the case, the book is said to be much richer and to contain a lot more than the TV film still, I really liked this film. One reason why I liked it is the great performance of Victoria Wood. Wood, who is better known as a comedian, excels in this serious and intimate portrayal of a sad and depressed house wife who finds new meaning in life. Victoria Woods is also the author of the TV film.

At the beginning of the war, the middle-aged housewife Nella Last finds herself in a sad marriage with a narrow-minded husband who is as sensitive and communicative as a stone. He neither appreciates nor shows any interest in his wife. When her boys join the Army, not in active service, but still they leave, she joins the Women’s Voluntary Service. The women from the WVS are a bunch of conceited snobs. As most of them are upper class they refuse to accept Nella as a member as she is just a simple housewife. Luckily there are a few good women among the steel-hearted group members. Especially one of them becomes soon aware of Nella’s many talents. Being accepted by these women will help Nella to overcome her depression and gain self-confidence.

Something that fascinated me was to see Nella and her husband spend many nights in their basement in a Morrison shelter. I hadn’t heard of them before. They looked like cages and could be used indoors while the bigger Anderson shelter was to be used in the garden. Preferably dug in. Here’s a wikipedia article on air-raid shelters showing pictures. I was wondering how useful they were.

Housewife, 49 is a movie that works well on two levels. Besides offering insight into the life of British civilians during WWII, it follows one woman’s emancipation and search for meaning in life.

Unfortunately I didn’t find a trailer but the movie can be watched on YouTube. Watching part I will give you a good impression and help you decide whether you should watch it.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) War Themed Action

I’ve never seen Where Eagles Dare before and must say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s entertaining and cinematographically stunning.

It’s a fabulously scenic film with some pictures that would even look good in a vampire movie. Plus we get to see two great actors, Clint Eastwood and  Richard Burton who, teamed up, give this movie a special something that I found very appealing.

The story is the tale of a suicide mission. A group of mountaineering soldiers, led by British Major Smith (Richard Burton) and American Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) are sent to free an American officer captured by the Germans and held in a castle in the mountain, called Eagle’s Nest.

From the moment they parachute out of the plane it’s obvious that the mission they are on is a fake one. What they really need to do, is uncover double-agents.

From the moment they land in the snow-covered woods, until they climb into the castle, the action and tension is relentless and is even intensified, when they have to escape from the castle again.

It’s quite a violent movie, with loads of explosions and a great deal of merciless killings. But it is also very suspenseful, there is plenty of action reminiscent of a modern-day movie. (It seems as if this was Quentin Tarantino’s favourite war movie and that he wanted to do a remake. I hope he will not and that the similarities one can find in Inglourious Basterds is all there will be.)

It was a pleasant surprise to find a female agent who has quite a great role, and fights and shoots just like the men.

I loved the cinematography, the steep mountains, covered in snow and the castle, nested on the top of a hill, gave the movie a Gothic feel.

The fact that I always feel uneasy in cable-cars made watching this movie quite impressive as some of the most gripping scenes take place on the top of a cable-car.

Apparently the movie has been criticized for not being anti-war. I think, that there are for sure movies with a clearer anti-war statement, which is one of the reasons why I think this is more of an action movie with a war theme than a real war movie.

In any case,  I found it very entertaining and I loved Clint Eastwood in this.

I’ve heard that Where Eagles Dare is one of a pair, the other one being The Guns of Navarone. There is a certain likeness, logically, they have both been written by Alistair MacLean. I couldn’t say which one I prefer, I think they both have a lot to offer.

Which one do you prefer?