I’ve noticed a few trends during my expeditionary voyage through the first 100 years of Great War Films. Whether it’s cultural stereotypes or clichéd plot lines, there’s similarities which rear their heads in films that span the generations from cinemas’ earliest days right through to today. There’s always someone getting their head blown off when they take a sneak peek out into no mans’ land. The goose-stepping German Officer always has a scar down his left cheek, the bastard British Officer always gets him comeuppance, the poor downtrodden Poilus revolt against their pompous leaders. American films tend to be gung ho, British films tend to have an element of class struggle. German films focus on the suffering as their society collapses around them. Turkish films always have a good old sing song slap bang in the middle.
So what about the French? French films have tended to have a bit more nuance about them. It’s probably because it all happened in their back yard. Their land has been shaped by the Great War. The cemeteries, the memorials, the grassed over trenches, the ploughed up shells. If anyone knows the true reality and repercussions of the war it’s the French. Abel Gance screamed at humanity as the war was still being waged. Skeletons danced, the dead rose from their graves and raged against us all. ‘King of Hearts’ (1966) compared the inhabitants of an asylum with the combatants, ‘Black and White in Color’ (1976) laughed and cried as pressganged African tribesman shot each other to pieces. Jean Reno’s ‘La Grande Illusion’ (1937) highlighted the similarities between us all that begged the question of what was the fighting for.
My film today is another in a long line of French films which eschews the standard narrative and focusses in on something more human, real and vivid. ‘Captain Conan’ (1996) is the story of a French trench raiding team and their captain. The eponymous Captain Conan. This ragtag group of fearless killers have, in the words of Conan, ‘Won the war, while all the other soldiers fought it’. The film begins as the war comes to an end. Conan and his boys are suddenly pressed into action policing the peace in Bucharest and Sofia. Whereas previously they were applauded for their killer instinct and lack of fear, these same traits now made them impossible to control in a post-war world.
There’s a large scale battle scene early on in the film which piqued my interest. The scale was clear to see as the camera focusses on a padre giving a pre-battle service, then pulls out and out and out some more to reveal swathes of marching men, logistics, guns, trucks, doctors. Good stuff. The battle itself grabbed me mainly due to the geography. An uphill advance on the enemy positions. The men struggle up steep hillsides and climb shear rock faces. We see soldiers stealing the boots from their just dead colleagues. Conan’s men slit throats and generally make a right old nuisance of themselves.
And then, pretty quickly, the war is over and the real trouble begins. The bastard Generals won’t stand for any insubordination, charges are trumped up and any trouble makers are quickly detained and sentenced for their minor offences. The message here is that these chaps had spent the previous years being lauded for their behaviour and now suddenly that same behaviour, or a watered down version of it is not acceptable in this new world. Conan stands up for his men even as one of them becomes the local Army Prosecutor, the very man charged with bringing these men to account for their relatively small offences.
The film is well put together, the scale is large, the sets, trenches and costumes pass muster. The acting is good (subtitled from the original French) and the story moves along at a fair old pace. My initial feeling was that it had the feel of a book to film transfer which is what it turns out to be. My only real complaint was that the point of the story took about 20 odd minutes to make itself clear. Before that I felt I was just watching Captain Conan and his mates slitting a few throats, making fast paced banter with themselves and leering at some local women. But once the war ended it all started to make sense. These guys just wanted to go home. The war for them was just churning on and on but without the pretence of right and wrong.
And then ***Spoiler alert*** at the end some local army attack them for some undisclosed reason. The stock standard soldiers pick up their weapons and fight. Conan and his men come out of nowhere like wailing banshees and rip the attacking force to shreds. One last hurrah, they chase their attackers back into the reeds, slitting throats, shooting them in the back and ripping their heads off. Freed once more to kill, they set about their task with vicious efficiency. And then it’s over. Jump cut to years later and a sad little ending. Peacetime really isn’t the right place for these heroes.
All in all I’d say it’s a pretty good film. I enjoyed it but it didn’t feel entertained. There are better French Great War Films out there that do the nuanced, jaundiced viewpoint better. There’s those I listed above plus ‘A Very Long Engagement’ which is very much one of my favourites and ‘Wooden Crosses’ (1932). France has and will continue to be the focal point for the war on the ground and the descendants of those who died and suffered still have the medals, photos and passed down stories to remind them of what happened one hundred years ago. They’ve earned the right to do it differently and have a mandate to narrate their forefather’s struggles. Long may it continue.