Capitaine Conan (1996)

“There’s no one I admire more than you, but there’s a limit.”

The film Capitaine Conan begins in the final days of WWI on the bloody battlefields of Bulgaria. Conan (Philipe Torreton) leads a particularly aggressive and successful rabble band of men. Unlike many other officers, he mingles with the lower ranks, and he’s seen by his men as one of them. Consequently, they’re fiercely loyal to Conan, and the loyalty goes both ways.

When WWI ends, Conan and his men are assigned to Bucharest. The men are restless and eager to go home, and left to their own devices in Bucharest, they soon push the boundaries with some of the locals. With the restless army stationed in Bucharest, most of the men are guilty of violating some military code or another. But some are selected for punishment while others are not–there’s no particular rhyme or reason to the selection, and this violates Conan’s sense of justice. In an effort to crack down and reinstitute military discipline, the upper echelons of officers decide to prosecute a handful of the lower ranks for various petty crimes, but when a violent crime is committed by some of his soldiers, Conan is compelled to cover for them. The officer selected to investigate and prosecute is Conan’s friend Lt Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan). While Conan feels betrayed by Norbert, Norbert feels that he’s in a moral vice. He’s reluctant to investigate Conan’s men, but he also believes he can do the job humanely.

Conan’s loyalty to his men surpasses any loyalty he is supposed to feel for his fellow officers. He clearly doesn’t fit in–and this is evident at the officer dinners he’s forced to attend. He’s risen in the ranks due to his skills as a warrior and as a leader of men, but he has no tolerance for the airs of superiority of the officer class. He sees his handful of men–decimated by the war–as almost single-handedly responsible for victory. Furthermore, now that his restless band is stuck in Bucharest, Conan doesn’t see why they should be forced to humour the natives. In his mind the men are justified in taking what they want.

Like most of Bertrand Tavernier’s films, Capitaine Conan is long and could benefit from some skillful editing. As a film concentrating on WWI, Capitaine Conan doesn’t take the usual tack–instead this is a film set primarily after the war. The film’s focus is what remains after the conflict, and how warriors make the moral adjustments from military life to civilian life. What was acceptable for the conduct of a soldier is suddenly not acceptable for a civilian–and yet these men are still bound by the military and still in uniform. This unusual examination of the violations committed by Conan’s men effectively addresses the larger question of the morality of war in general. Based on Roger Vercel’s semi-autobiographical novel, Capitaine Conan is in French with English subtitles. The DVD includes a documentary about the director and the making of the film.

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