Bertrand Tavernier's Capitaine Conan is a beautifully photographed, authentically detailed epic that disappoints because of its anecdotal structure and the eponymous protagonist who proves less sympathetic than some of the supporting characters, though none of the characters is developed enough to fully engage our attention. The setting is the Balkans in 1918 just weeks before the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War, as several French divisions remain mobilized and, under orders not to engage in combat and to the consternation of troops anxious to be discharged, are moved about the volatile checkerboard of Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania. This undeclared, 'secret' non-war ended in 1919, a year after the armistice that officially ended the Great War, and in the historical context of military doublespeak, this covert Balkan action gave coinage to the term 'theatre of external operations.'
The story opens in the heat of battle between German troops and a French regiment under the command of General Pitard de Lauzier (Claude Rich), a bon vivant eager to get back to a comfortable civilian life. Within his regiment is a 50-man guerilla unit led by Capitaine Conan (Philippe Torreton), an officer so fiercely dedicated and consumed by his calling as to regard himself as a 'warrior' and despise the regular army and its officers as being mere 'soldiers.' So immersed are we in the epic scale of this bloody hell of a battle waged with cavalry officers and soldiers in trenches, and tripod-cradled grenade launchers that require two men to carry, load and fire, we come to realize how we, only a generation removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have become so inured to satellite-relayed, electronically broadcast images of random carnage wrought by aerial bombardment, pernicious chemical exfoliants and the 'smart' computerized weaponry of contemporary global conflicts--no longer 'wars' but rather 'military actions' waged for peace that result in astronomical body counts and horrific atrocities--that this depiction of war is so human, so civil a war, as to almost seem romantic. Unfortunately, what follows is a long, meandering screenplay that lacks all sense of urgency, nor is it helpful that the hot-headed and rashly impatient Conan is overshadowed by Lt. Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), a well-bred young scholar of high moral integrity who, despite his lack of judicial training, is appointed to head a military tribunal, a duty that--given the range of infractions under the non-combat restriction--tends to allow him more screen time than the non-functioning guerrilla leader.
About two-thirds of the way through, a band of masqued robbers break into a crowded cabaret and, in the process of emptying the till, shoot two women. Conan's soldiers are the immediate suspects, arrests are made and, in carrying out his duties, Norbert alienates Conan. The robbery and the ensuing investigation come too late to rouse our interest, as does the court martial of an aristocratic young soldier who has claimed to be a prisoner of war, but who turns out to be a deserter, and who admits to having joined the army, along with other spoiled, rich classmates at his lyce, as a lark. The court martial, conducted by Norbert, is the conclusion of an ongoing sub-anecdote interwoven through other meandering incidents and, like the robbery, it might have been an interesting story by itself. For all of the creative effort that went into the making of this film, none of its parts add up to much narrative substance. Nominated for nine Csars and winner of two (Best Director for Tavernier, Best Actor for Torreton), Capitaine Conan may best be appreciated by American audiences unfamiliar with Roger Vercel's eloquent autobiographical novel about the unheralded war on the Balkan front, far from the glory and honors (and the historical citations) bestowed upon the regiments that quieted the western front.