A rueful epic, Bertrand Tavernier's superb French-language feature, Capitaine Conan, is about a secret war that took place after World War I, when French troops were ordered to stay behind in the Balkans to continue patrol... more »ling the unstable borders. Conan, played in solitary fury by Philippe Torreton, is a merchant's son from Normandy who has come alive in the war and finds in himself a shrewd and ruthless guerilla fighter. His elite unit--a unit of "warriors," he says, rather than soldiers--operates outside the regular army, and is sent by the uncaring, aristocratic officers of the high command to take care of those operations too difficult and too messy for regular troops. A monster under normal circumstances, Conan becomes a hero in the hell of battle. Tavernier uses the widescreen frame to give the action greater scale and scope, but also uses a handheld camera mount to make the point of view as personal, impulsive, and emotionally colored as that of a separate character. The effect is one of being inside and outside the action at once, of being able to see the large-scale movements of the battles while tasting the fear and exhilaration of the individual soldiers. --Dave Kehr« less
"Capitaine Conan is an interesting French-language war film that focuses on the role of the hero in war and peace. The title character is a proven combat leader who has risen from the ranks and leads a small commando-type unit to spearhead trench assaults. Conan does not fit anyone's image of a military hero; he is not handsome, debonair or a macho Rambo-type. Even the other French regular army officers only grudgingly accept this sloppy and ill-uncultured fellow in their mess. Yet on the battlefield, Conan is in his element, cutting throats and smashing faces. The film captures the hard-nose mentality that arose among the fittest of the combatants after four years of brutal fighting. Unlike other officers, Conan leads from the front and participates in killing the enemy, which gains him the respect of his troops, if not his peers. In the most telling remark of the film, Conan remarks to his more conventional friend, Lieutenant Norbert, that, "millions were in the [First World] war, but only a few thousand actually fought in it." The film is set on the obscure Salonika front in 1918, with the French trying to break through the crumbling Bulgarian defenses. In one action, there is an interesting contrast between the adroit commando tactics of Conan's unit versus the costly frontal assault methods of other French infantry units. After the armistice, which arrives about one-third through the film, the French troops remain in the Balkans as occupation troops. In one final fling, Conan's troops are even involved in repulsing a Bolshevik Russian raid across the Romanian border. The one other really telling scene in the film occurs at the end, when Lieutenant Norbert tracks down Conan years later, in civilian life. While Norbert is flourishing, Conan is a shadow of his former self, slowly dying of cancer. Of course, the director infers that the absence of war and the status he derived as a military hero is what is actually devouring Conan. There is nothing particularly new in this film, but it does an effective job of portraying the kind of gritty characters that thrive on war, in comparison to the vast majority of people who shrink from its horrors."
Warrior and the Poet
Doug Anderson | Miami Beach, Florida United States | 01/12/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film comes at you like a sneak attack. The central character Conan is always on the move and this film does not bother with formal introductions, we get to know Conan by watching him do what he does best--he leads a select band of men who make guerilla raids often at night sneaking up on the enemy then surprising them with a volley of grenades and then while the enemy is still in shock they rush at them and finish them off with knives. The fighting is absolutely brutal and Conan as his name suggests is an absolute brute but for this time and place he is just what is needed to make the difference. Conan instinctively understands tactics which combined with his instinct for killing makes him the most valuable player on whatever front he is on. He is respected by both his subordinates and his superiors. So long as there is war Conan performs like a man made for such a task. As the war ends Conans band of fighters do not take well to the transition to civilian life where petty authorities(in most cases men who never saw any action)call all the shots and reap all the rewards. In war things were quite clear and the band of fighters knew what they were good at and they were admired for doing it but in peacetime the army has no more use for them. Many of the men in Conans band were recruited from prisons and in peacetime many of them return to their criminal ways. Tavernier is doing several things at once with this film. He is telling the story of Conan himself but using the story to illustrate large social themes. Tavernier loves Conans earthiness and through him we experience the exileration of life being lived with a kind of barbaric lust. There is something of the French love for the Noble Savage in Taverniers depiction of this warrior but he shows the "Savage" in Conan is not always "noble". In fact as a contrast Tavernier gives us a character who has all the lofty attributes that earthy Conan lacks in Norbert who in civilian life was a literary professor. One man shines during wartime, the other will shine in times of peace. Their curious friendship underlines the many sides of human nature. The two men are fascinated with each other as they are such opposites. Conan is the man who did heroic things on the battlefield and is absolutely inept and unfit for life during peacetime and Norbert is the man who sees through the word "heroic" to the real story of the man capable of doing such things. Norbert both admires and is repulsed by Conan. Both men share a hatred for hypocrisy in all its forms. Norbert voices his disgust with words while Conan knows only how to vent his rage by killing(often one imagines he is channeling rage directed at his own superiors toward the enemy and it is a fierce rage indeed). Both men are however in some ways fighting the same battle. Tavernier's vision of civilization is that it is hopelessly hypocritical and compromised. With these two characters he gives us two possible reactions to that state of things-- Conan earthy simplicity only capable of expressing itself with violent outbursts and highly educated Norberts lofty attempts to reconcile mans conflicted state by understanding it. This is as exciting as any war movie and yet deep as any novel. Highly recommended you view this more than once."
Unknown Classic of WW1
Roger Kennedy | 07/30/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This little known movie deserves greater noteriety. For one thing it shows a different aspect of WW1. The Balkan Front. Here was a somewhat more fluid campaign and the fact that it is depicted shows that the director wanted to provide a different perspective of the war. Everything as far as equipment and uniforms goes is super-accurate. Even the French Infantry uniforms are shown to be khaki-green instead of the standard blue-grey that they wore on the Western front. The battle scenes are chaotic and confused and show the ironies of war. The character of Conan is fascinating. He thrives on war. As he once says to his friend Norbert "you are a soldier, but I am a warrior". An important distinction as it turns out. It's interesting to see that the French also employed Stosstroopen tactics like the Germans did. Admittedly these same even more unconventional than the standard. At times Conan's "Attack Group" seems more like WW2 commandos than WW1 trench raiders. I wonder if the director went a little over- board in trying to show Conan's unconventional tactics. Still, the poertrayal seems to work and we get to see that Conan's men are fierce in their unconventional ways. This is contrasted by his friend Norbert who is an effective leader of men in the standard infantry tactics of the war. The friendship between these two in post war Bucherest is meant to show their contrast of character. The fact that the war ends before half the movie is over might seem odd, but the conflict is really between Conan and the French military. This movie is rich with minute details, and the picture qaulity is often quite dark. Turn up your brightness on this one! While intended to show a period feel, the dark scenes while effective in the movie theater, come off badly on the video screen. The French military gets lambasted in this movie. Every French officer above captain seems interested only in the next meal, and can provide endless details on how certain dishes should be cooked, but otherwise cares little about the welfare of their men. Norbert and Conan are noteable exceptions in an otherwise inept French officer corps. One wonders how the French accomplished anything with officers like this. Conan's comment that many participated in the war, but only a few actually fought it seems apt as far as the French army goes. The movie is slow and tedious at times, but all the while it is providing a careful character study of Conan. We see him in war and peace. At one point the movie takes on the character of a murder film almost! The final battle scene in 1919 is fascinating. The Soviets were just beginning to expand after their Revolution and the use of French troops to guard the Balkan border is little known. Another fascinating aspect about this movie. The river raid staged by the Russians explodes into a real heavy fire-fight where we again see the contrasting styles of how Conan and Norbert lead and fight. With the bloody repulse of the Reds at the last minute we see Conan finally lose it as he realizes the war is truly over for him. The final scene some years after the war brilliantly shows how peace has affected both men. Norbert seems to thrive while Conan's health is rapidly going. This great movie is not your standard war movie. While concerned with war, and is more a chartacter study of what war does to men's souls. It is a fascinating work and deserves to be right up there with "Paths of Glory" and other WW1 epics. Those wanting an unconventional war movie can't go wrong here. This is a French movie that is really worth something for a change."
Warriors after the war
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 11/19/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"It took a second viewing for me to really 'get' Bertrand Tavernier's Capitaine Conan, which I found very underimpressive the first time (not helped by the fact this transfer is in the wrong ratio - 1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1). With lowered expectations, I was actually surprisingly impressed second time around.
It's not one of the great Great War pictures, but it is an interesting attempt to address the problem of what happens to the warriors who find themselves at their most alive during war when the war is taken away from them? Only the first half hour deals with the war, the rest of the film set in the uncertain period between the Armistice and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles as Conan (Phillipe Torreton) and his men are shipped across Eastern Europe before ending up fighting the forgotten war of 1919 in Russia. With no enemy, his trained thugs turn on the civilian population or each other, while Conan finds himself at odds with one of his few friends among the conscripted officers (Samuel le Bihain) who becomes involved in courts martial, first as defense then as prosecutor.
The staging is impressive, with Tavernier's long but often far from static takes capturing the mood of weary restlessness well without drawing undue attention to themselves. Part of the problem is that it's an aimless film, perfectly capturing the limbo of the period when most soldiers just wanted to go home while a few just wanted someone else to fight. As a result the narrative line is weak and on first viewing it can be hard to see exactly where its going: when Tavernier introduces a widow looking for her lost son you're suddenly wondering if it's going to turn into Life and Nothing But 2. But while not immediately accessible, the film does ultimately reward a second viewing and left me wondering why I thought so little of it first time round.
Sadly, Kino's DVD release is very disappointing. Although shot in Super 35, the film was intended to be seen in 2.35:1 but here gets a soft 1.85:1 transfer. There is one good extra, an excellent 54-minute making of documentary by Tavernier Jr. that is quite candid and revealing, but it pales into significance compared to the Region 2 French 2-disc set, which includes a beautiful 2.35:1 transfer (with English subtitles), the documentary, audio commentary, deleted scenes, interviews with filmakers and historians, stills gallery and trailer, although the extras are not subtitled in English."
Only 3000 Men Won The War
Octavius | United States | 09/08/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Bertrand Tavernier's 1997 film on the tensions of war in a time of 'peace.' Set primarily in Bulgaria and the Balkans, the film explores the psyche of the elite soldiers and commandos who fought in the Great War and how the coming of the peace took a toll on the hardended souls of such men.
Capitaine Conan (Phillipe Torreton) is an elite commando whose nihilitic views on life don't agree with peace but who understands how his men want to go home. He doesn't really have a high opinion of regular officers and his claim is that only 3000 crack troops like himself won The Great War. His unit is kept active in the Balkans doing various details such as peacekeeping and fighting Bolsheviks. The men are restless however and feel neither comfortable with the tought of peace or in remaining on active duty. Unlike his friend (Samuel le Bihain)who believes in fair punishment against some rogue soldiers who robbed a hotel, Conan doesn't want to lose face with his men nor punish them for the results of idleness, frustration, or just boredom.
The film lacks a clear plot and doesn't have great production values either but it is complemented by a good theme and an excellent script exploring questions of morality, politics, and life in general. The film does have an interesting sub-plot exploring concepts of cowardice and politics similar to the plot and theme in Kubrik's brilliant film 'Paths of Glory' starring Kirk Douglass that is also set in the French army during WWI. As with other foreign films, the audience will enjoy the film even more if they understand all the nuances of the original language and culture. The film also has some reasonable combat/action scenes. Finally, the main reviewer is mistaken as to Conan's origins: he is from Britanny not Normandy. People of Britanny are decendents of Celts and are known for their hardiness, simplicity, and for being rugged sailors. People from Normandy are of Viking/Scandinavian descent and do not speak the same dialect as the Britons. To support the development of Conan as a character, the film's title song is an old hymn sung in a Celtic dialect spoken only in Britanny and now mostly by older generations."