Capitaine Conan (Captain Conan) (1996)

 

 

 

 

Director:     Bernard Tavernier. 

Starring:     Philippe Torreton (Capt. Conan),  Samuel Le Bihan (Lt. Norbert),  Bernard Le Coq (Lt. De ScŤve),  Catherine Rich (Madeleine Erlane),  FranÁois Berlťand (Commandant Bouvier),  Claude Rich (Gen. Pitard de Lauzier),  Andrť Falcon (Col. Voirin),  Claude Brosset (PŤre Dubreuil),  Crina Muresan (Ilyana),  Cťcile Vassort (Georgette),  FranÁois Levantal (Forgeol),  Pierre Val (Jean Erlane),  Roger Knobelspiess (Maj. Cuypene).

during the last days of the WWI, French Capitaine Conan is an excellent warrior, but finds he is unsuited for peacetime duty in Bucharest

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Bulgarian Border. Sept. 10, 1918.

The French army is in the trenches fighting the Bulgarians. Someone asks where is Conan? Apparently, he went up and over 10 minutes ago. Conan has a band of raiders with him who crawl on their stomachs, get close to the enemy and then attack the enemy with their knives. Sometimes they also carry grenades with them when they have a big group to attack. In most recent attack on the enemy, they take two prisoners of war. Conan has only one man wounded.

With Conan is his friend Lt. Norbert.  Together they visit the wounded man. After that, Conan wants to go to a bar to see the Greek girl there. Norbert goes with him. Conan talks with the Greek girl, but before he can get very far with her, a soldier comes in telling the men that their leaves are over and they are to get back to their camps.

The problem is that there has been an attack on De Sceveís sector and it was "pretty nasty". Conan is still missing. Lt. Norbert is about to send a man out to find Conan, but soon Conan arrives. The talk is that the "big push" is coming.

The next morning French soldiers in long columns start moving forward. The landscape is arid with mountains. Some of the soldiers have to climb a mountain to get to the top. The soldiers with Conan overrun an enemy position. Conan receives new orders: "Hold the ridge and await orders."

At night, Conanís men capture a machine gun nest. The next day the men keep advancing. They reach some railroad tracks and buildings. When Conan attacks with his men, he shouts to them: "Kill Ďem all! No prisoners!" Again he uses the knife as his method of killing.

In a meeting of all the French forces in the immediate area, the general reads a dispatch from General Petain that there has been victory on all fronts for the allies. And since the 11th of this month, war has been over. He then reads a despatch from General Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces.

Conan and Norbert and the soldiers are put on a train headed west. Conan thinks that they are going to Sofia, the capital and largest city of Bulgaria. Then they will go to Belgrade (in todayís Serbia) and then on to Italy.

The train stops. The talk among the soldiers is that they may go back to Salonica, the largest city in Macedonia, where ships are waiting for the soldiers. Others say they will stop in Bucharest, Romania.

The officers toast to Lt. De Sceve. Norbert gets assigned to the town detail patrol. Norbert doesnít want this assignment, but he has no choice. Conan goes out with a Romanian girl, first to church, and then dancing. While they dance, they kiss.

The general calls Norbert in to speak with him. He says that they need an advocate and he has decided Norbert will take the job. Norbert protests. He says he never studied law. His field is literature. The general doesnít care. He says his general education will make it possible for him to do the job effectively.

Conanís men are billeted in a girlís school. The principal of the school says that the soldiers are being very unruly and destructive. They have been fighting, stealing food and cooking the food in their rooms. Conan tells all his men to get outside with full pack and helmet. He is going to give them some punitive drilling.

The upper officers approve of Conanís punitive drilling, but it turns out that it is all acting on Conanís part. He has his men put down their packs and rifles and leaves three men to watch them. The rest of the men go to a house of prostitution with Conan leading the way.

Lt. Norbert is serving as a defense counsel. He meets individually with his clients. He learns more about them so he can in many cases asks for clemency because of extenuating circumstances.

Norbert sees Conan after he finishes with his clients. Conan tells him that he met a singer from back home in France. Her name is Frehel. Conan takes her to a nice place, the Crystal Palace. The management asks Frehel to sing, but she tells the crowd that she will be singing in about a half-hour at a club not far away and invites them to come there after their dinners. A woman starts dancing for the crowd.

Suddenly, someone with a machine gun sprays the place. The Crystal Palace is being robbed by some very rough characters. After the female receptionist gives them the money, one of the men grabs her by the back of the head and really slams her forehead hard on top of the cashier counter. The woman, bleeding from the head, falls unconscious to the floor.

Norbert is now selected to be the replacement prosecutor for the army. Again, Norbert doesnít want the assignment and again he is not given an alternative. The general has an immediate assignment for him. His female cousin, Madame Erlane, has arrived looking for her son. She is a real pest and he wants Norbert to take her off his hands. He wants Norbert to show her around the place and answer her questions.

When Conan finds out that Norbert is to be the proseecutor, he scolds his friend for taking the job. Norbert says he is a good choice for the soldiers, because he will do what he can to lessen the punishments for their crimes.  Conan is so concerned about the prosecution because the robbers of the Crystal Palace most likely came from his men. Who else would be so efficient and brutal? Norbert tells Conan that the robbers banged the receptionistís head into the counter. She was 49 years of age and it took a weak of great pain before she died.

Madame Erlane is the mother of the prisoner Jean Erlane. She is a very determined mother. She is going to see every one that could possibly help her get her son off with a lighter sentence or keep him out of prison altogether.

Norbert goes to the hospital to see one of the beaten women from the Crystal Palace robbery. Afterwards he runs into Conan who again complains to him about taking the prosecutor job. Norbet tells his friend: "You canít protect murders!" He adds: "Thereís no one I admire more than you, but thereís a limit."

In civilian life Conan had the job of sewing notion and shirts for his father and helping his father to sell the goods. He was a nobody. But, in the army, he is a hero, one of the bravest and effective men fighting against the enemy. Yes, he is a really great soldier and leader of men, but, frankly, he seems a bit too fond of killing men at extremely close range. He loves the knife, the very weapon that is the hardest to use for the average soldier, because it is so "personal" with the enemy right next to the soldier knifing him. It is much easier to just shoot a man from a distance where the soldier donít have to see his enemyís face.

In a meeting of the officers, Conan asks for five days leave. He says he wants to be there at the trial of his men. Lt. Norbert blocks Conan from being at court by saying Conan is needed for border control.  Norbert himself recommended Conan for the job and the general accepted.

Conan leaves the meeting. Later as Lt. Norbert walks along the sidewalk, Conan jumps out at him from a dark place. He compares Norbert to a cop and he feels that is none of Norbertís business. He threatens Norbert by saying: "So watch your ass!"

Early in the morning, Judge Advocate Norbert meets Inspector Stefanesco and Deputy Inspector Romesco. The two Romanians will be helping the army raid a house of prostitution. Banging on the doors of the prostitutes, the team does not have much luck finding French soldiers there. All of a sudden, they are told that a Frenchman is with a prostitute down the way. They all go running there.

The prostitute turns out to be Conanís girlfriend and Conan has spend the night with her. He gets mad at Norbert saying Norbert knew that he, Conan, would be there. Norbert denies this. The Judge Advocate, however, does get some cooperation from the girlfriend. She mentions an older woman named Georgette who knows some things about the Crystal Palace robbery.

Lt. Norbert and the others go to see Georgette. It turns out that Norbert knows the woman. The men show her some photos of the robbery suspects and she recognizes one of them. The man in named Forgeol, who she says is a real brute. The fellow extorts money from the girls and then he still knocks their teeth out. Georgette says Forgeol hangs out in the army eye hospital, which is located in a convent. Forgeol, supposedly, because he has slight eye problems.

As a prosecutor, Norbert has divided loyalties. He hates the five Conan soldiers for what they did, especially the beatings of the women. But, in trial, he says all five men are admirable soldiers and deserves praise and awards. On the other hand, they also are murderers of women.

Norbert gets the five soldiers off lightly with only three years in prison (and they will probably be out in a year or less). They could have gotten the death penalty.  Someone tells Norbert that Conan will be thrilled at the news.

The French army in the area is now being sent back to Sofia, Bulgaria to replace the colonials. There they well fight against the Bolsheviks, who recently overthrew the Tsar. Since they are communists, many of the Allied nations have sent men to fight the communists of the new Soviet Union.

The soldiers are on the train again. The prisoners are also going along. The general tells Norbert that he is still having trouble with Madame Erlane. He also mentions that she will be in Sofia.  The general wants him to continue running interferences for him.

The train stops. Some rifle shots are heard and there is confusion over who is doing the shooting. I t turns out that the shots came from Conan. He shot a boar. The general is thrilled and plans to tell the cook how to properly prepare the meat.

Conan and Norbert talk on the train. Conan maintains that even a year in jail is too much for his men. He says itís just not fair. He praises the work of the men he trained in how to kill with the knife. Speaking of his men and the enemy, he says: "We went at them with knives, eye to eye."  Lt. Norbert tells him: "There are new rules. You have to adapt."

The soldiers reach Sofia. Madame Erlane is waiting at the depot. Lt. Norbert talks with her. She tells Norbert that she does not like her cousin Gen. Pitard, because the man could get her son released from prison, but he just wonít speak up.

Norbert talks with Jean Erlane, who tells him that he did not desert from the army. He got lost. A relative of his, De Sceve, is his company commander.  Norbert goes out riding horses with De Sceve. He tells him that Jean Erlane is in a very bad fix. De Sceve says that Jean is a blot on the family record Ė a failure. The young man is extremely afraid during combat. If a shell explodes a mile away from him, he will still hit the dirt immediately.

Conan has been promoted to captain. He goes with Norbert to speak with Jean Erlane. Conan believes the fellow went over to the enemy, but Jean maintains that he just got lost and wound up in enemy territory. Conan says he will act out the part of the Bulgarian interrogator and Jean will tell him what was his response. Conan grabs his pistol and puts it up to the head of the young man and threatens to blow his head off if he doesnít give him the information he wants. Jean just falls apart.

Conan tells De Sceve that Jean Erlane is 100% percent coward. De Sceve asks: "So?"  So, drop the charges against Jean. Some men are naturally brave and some men naturally fearful. To strengthen his argument Conan tells De Sceve that he should have weeded out the cowards long ago and sent them to a hospital. Concn believes De Sceve is responsible for what happened with Jean Erlane.

Conan takes Norbert and the priest who will be defending Jean to the actual battlefield where Jean was. He takes them to the site where, he says, they all got started. He shows them the Bulgarian positions where Jean wandered into. Jean had a dispatch with him with marking where the key gun and soldier emplacements were in the area, except that now Jean was far away from the area of the map. He had gotten lost and couldnít know where the French positions were. And his map was for a different, far away sector, not immediately useful to the Bulgarians. So Conan figures that Conan was not a traitor.

The trial of Jean Erlane begins. De Sceve is of no help to his relative Jean. He refuses to accept the validity of any medical or mental reasons why Jean acted as he did. The man is completely unsympathetic to his relative. De Sceve says that the man is guilty of treason because he should have immediately destroyed the dispatch he carried.

Jean is convicted and will be shot by firing squad. The priest tells Madame Erlane that thereís still the plea for clemency for her son.

Lt. Norbert goes to see Gen. Pitard. He asks to be relieved of his judicial functions. The general gets mad at him and says he dismisses him. And now, as an infantry officer, Norbert will go with the men to fight on the delta of the Danube river in Romania where the river dumps into the Black Sea.

On the train ride there is a lot of talk about how upset the soldiers are about still having to fight after World War I is over. Sgt. Lanzec is especially vocal on this point. He wonders why are they now going to be fight against former allies Ė Hungary and Russia. Lanzec points out that the war ended a year ago and now he is going to put his foot down and demand some answers.

At the delta Sgt. Lanzec gets in trouble for refusing sentry duty. At a meeting of all the troops in formation, Sgt. Lanzec is called out and asked why he refused sentry duty? Lanzec says he refused because the war is over. He then requests to return to France. The general asks everyone who agrees with Lanzec to step forward. Maybe about 10% percent of the soldiers step forward. The general now gives the order to arrest the whole lot of the rebels.

Conan warns De Sceve that the enemy could come in on the French by coming over the marsh using low boats. The French troops up on the ridge are a long way from the marshes and could never get down fast enough to stop the Bolsheviks from emerging from the marsh and getting a foothold on solid ground.

And, sure enough, it is not many days later that the Bolsheviks do attack through the marsh on shallow boats. The French start taking heavy casualties as the French soldiers drip down in small groups to the waterfront. There is no cover at all for the French rushing down the hill and across the base of the hill to the front of the marsh.

Conan sees the problem and immediately goes into action. He shouts to his men: "Come on boys!" He goes over to the area where the prisoners are and he grabs Jean Erlane. He tells him to come along and make up for his shortcomings. He gives him some grenades and off they go with Conanís soldiers loaded up with grenades.

When they arrive close enough to the marsh the soldiers all throw the grenades at the Bolsheviks at about the same time. The explosions of the grenades produce an effect like that of a heavy artillery barrage. The Bolsheviks loose a lot of men and start retreating.

Conan becomes like a crazed man. He takes a bayonet off a rifle and starts stabbing any Bolshevik he can get his hands on. When the Bolsheviks have nearly disappeared, he keeps stabbing a dead Bolshevik over and over again. Conan orders his men to keep after the enemy. He shouts: "Kill Ďem all!" Norbert rushes out and into the marsh after Conan and tells him to come back because the enemy has retreated. Conan eventually hears him and comes back to the shore. Jean Erlane has been killed fighting the enemy.

Lt. Norbert write a well-worded letter to Madame. Erlane about the death of her son. He describes her son's actions in battle in heroic terms. This soothes Jeanís mother somewhat to know that her son proved to be brave in the end.

Awhile later, Lt. Norbert looks over the landscape. He has come looking for his friend Conan. He finds him in his cafť playing cards with some men. Norbert comes in and sees a much heavier Conan very slowly get up, as if he were an old man. Conan takes Norbert back to an empty room. He tells Norbert that he shouldnít have come. He also adds that he thinks about Norbert a lot these days. His doctor has told him that he only has six months to live. He is married. Norbert says he knows. His wife was the one who told him where her husband was.

Conan thinks back on the war. He reminds Norbert that he told him before that it was just 3,000 French soldiers, the brave and committed, who won the war. The rest of them were just there.  He says Norbert in his travels will come across some of his, Conanís, men. He says when Norbert meets them, theyíll all look like Conan. "Theyíre all like me", he says.

 

Very good movie.  Lots of action in the film with many battle scenes.  Poor Conan is a French military hero worthy of all kinds of military awards.  But in his desire to kill the enemy (and to kill them so much more personally, with a knife) he went too far for his own good and the good of his men.  Conan and his men all developed post-traumatic stress disorder because of the terrible things they saw, as well as the terrible things they had to do to make their captain happy.  Conan was too committed and loyal to his men, who he helped turned into real brutes.  When his men robbed places and killed women, Conan was completely unable to feel sympathy for the victims.  He only cared about the happiness of his soldiers.  He was terrible in peacetime when Lt. Norbert tried to bring his men to justice.  Conan was guilty of interfering in a criminal prosecution.  He even threatened Norbert with the possibility of violence, if he didn't drop the case (which, of course, was impossible).  Conan lost all perspective as to what are human kindness and justice.  He was a blind man to the sufferings of civilian women and men.  When Conan went back into combat, this time against the Russian Bolsheviks, he reverted to the military hero.   He saved the day for the French, but he again became a monster, a crazed man whoonly wants to "Kill 'em all!"

When the army produces real killers, they release broken men into civilian life. And this is why Conan could say that he and his men now are all the same:  broken-down men being tortured by unwanted flashbacks of the horrors of war in their heads. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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