Of course, 1996 isn’t that too far back in time, but Tavernier’s war epic (adapted from a novel by Roger Vercel) is such a powerful entry into the history of the war-genre that it definitely deserves its due.
The Alliance Française French Film Festival curators obviously share my sentiments, thinking it time for a big-screen revival of the film.
Captain Conan follows its titular character (Phillippe Torreton) as he leads his rag-tag commando squad in night-time raids on the enemy during the first World War. Conan’s brutal squad mates, who take no prisoners, are ill-suited to peace time however and end up raiding a nightclub, killing an innocent woman in the process. Conan, confronted by legal and ethical battles, must battle a world of wartime politics unknown to him.
While Captain Conan seems to revel in the grit and bloodshed of trench warfare, it is really a powerful anti-war film, asking the question “can you ever take the savageness out of the soldier?”
More recently, we’ve seen many films, theatre productions and artworks revolving around this theme, but only from the perspective of modern soldiers, rather than ragged WWI fighters. This film brilliantly confronts this issue, pitting mateship and loyalty against laws and justice through intriguing dialogues and interactions between its key characters.
Captain Conan is epic in every sense of the word. Running for two hours and featuring a cast of extras, thousands strong, it’s early scenes paint a picture of wartime almost as intricate as the Napoleonic paintings of William Sadler II (give that name a quick Google and tell me you’re not impressed!). While the political drama does drag on a bit, I found myself captivated throughout, constantly wondering how justice was going to be handed out, or if it was to be at all. In Captain Conan there is a war being fought in the trenches and in the courtroom.
The film is brilliantly acted, at least by the main cast. A good few extras and secondary characters do fumble a bit which, if you subscribe to the idea of a film “only being as good as it’s worst extra”, is not a good sign. Torreton is spectacular as the “Wolf” Conan, while Samuel Le Behan pulls off the role of reluctant persecutor, Norbert, with subtlety and precision.
While it’s hardly a perfect film, and is beginning to show it’s age in certain ways, Captain Conan remains an incredibly powerful and captivating drama. With sweeping landscapes and visceral close-quarter combat, it portrays the cruelty of war and the similarly brutal legal world behind the scenes.
Captain Conan screens again on 20 & 24 March 2015 as part of the Alliance Française Film Festival.
Reviewed by James Rudd
Rating out of 10: 7