Published April 1, 1998
Capitaine Conan by Bertrand Tavernier has endured the sort of distribution hell which is the fate of most foreign films, even the best, in this country—which is why I have only just got round to seeing it. But if you are lucky enough to be near where it is playing, do go and see it. It is the sort of film that the facile will inevitably call “anti-war” (all serious war films in their view must be anti-war), but it is much better than that. It is neither pro- nor anti-war but just true to something essential about it, and that is as much as we can hope for from any film on any subject.
Philippe Torreton plays the eponymous Conan, a warrior as opposed to a soldier, by his own definition. His friends Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan) and De Scève (Bernard Le Coq) are soldiers, but Conan heads a sort of proto-commando unit specializing in getting round behind enemy lines by stealth and doing their dirty work with grenades and knives. At one point he explains to Norbert that 3000 men like him won the war. Anyone can kill at a distance, but only a few learn to kill with the knife, eye to eye. It took all the millions of soldiers like Norbert to fight the war, but it took the few like himself to win it. The difference between the warrior and the soldier, he says, is the difference between the wolf (loup in French) and the Alsatian or German shepherd dog (chien-loup in French).
Conan’s exploits take place in the Bulgarian campaign. The film presents us with a brilliant portrait of the confusion and the terror of battle. Also the idiocy of military bureaucracy. What should be a classic comic scene comes with the announcement of the armistice as the rag-tag troops stand on parade in the pouring rain while their commander reads out to them the proclamations of victory by Foch and other generals. As he reads, trying to keep the pages in order in the rain and the wind, the men break formation in twos and threes to hotfoot it to the other side of a woodpile to relieve themselves, as everybody has dysentery. In this scene we also see a harried looking officer saying to his men that he doesn’t expect them to work miracles, but does expect them to put their guts into it. “And don’t,” he pleads, “make me look stupid.” But instead of a reversion to a scene of battle, it turns out to be the bandmaster urging his men to play the “Marseillaise” a little less execrably than in fact they do.
There is then an interlude in Bucharest where the French veterans get into various sorts of trouble and both Norbert and Conan find themselves mixed up in the army’s makeshift legal system. Norbert, a literary man and a schoolmaster, is pressed into service as a prosecutor because of the backlog of courts martial. He hates doing this, especially because of the arbitrary way in which people are convicted of trivial offenses while the most guilty seem to go free. The professional soldiers cheerfully to explain to him that there is so much criminality in the army that “for every innocent wrongly accused, there are 100,000 guilty who get away with it.”
The reason why begins to emerge when some of Conan’s men are accused of robbing a night-club cum brothel and killing a woman, and Conan the warrior who despises any mere legalism which threatens the soldierly bond between comrades, expects his friend to let them off. “You prefer your thugs; no law, no morality,” Norbert tells him. Conan does not deny it but instead says contemptuously: “Is that what you teach your students? To be a cop?” It becomes understandable how Conan considers himself and other warriors to be outside the law. The government taught them and encouraged them to be killers and praised and decorated them for it when they did it well. “Now any clown has rights,” he says, and they are expected to go back to being peaceable citizens. “Adapt?” he says “Ask a dog to adapt to salad.”
Among the legal matters that cross Norbert’s desk there is that of a young soldier condemned to death for desertion. There is a marvelous scene in which the boy’s mother, a handsome and charming aristocratic woman pleads for the life of her only son. Norbert is moved by her plea and he rather brilliantly appoints Conan to defend him. Conan gets seriously into the part and insists to De Scève, in whose unit the boy had been, that it was really his, De Scève’s, fault. “The medics weed out the unfit; you should have weeded out the cowards. Snuffing him for desertion is disgusting.” Both Conan and the boy are saved from what would otherwise doubtless have been dire legal consequences for them both by the recall of the French Expeditionary Force back into the field to give battle to the Bolsheviks of the Red Army, just over the border in the newly founded Soviet Union—men who are said by De Scève to have nothing but hope.
How terrifying that is to the French who increasingly seem, like Conan himself, to have everything but hope! The “anti-war” scene comes at the end when, years later, Conan is dying of some unnamed illness, and his old friend Norbert, with whom he has fallen out of touch, comes to visit him. He is a shadow of his former self and haunted by his memories. “The best are inscribed on the war memorial,” he says; “the rest are swill.” He then tells him that if you get around, you will meet a few others of those famous 3000 who are said to have won the war. “They are like me,” he tells him grimly. “All of them.” But if, for the moment, we believe this to be true, why should Conan’s sacrifice, of something essential to humanity, be any less admirable than that of the men on the memorial?