Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Good War

By Devin D. O'Leary

APRIL 13, 1998:  It's been years since the world has seen a good war. I mean a good war. You can't make a compelling movie out of the Gulf War. No drama there at all--just a bunch of grainy bombing videos and a ton of PR flak. Vietnam was great fodder for a few movies (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter), but ever since Platoon, it's just burned out. Korea? Well, we got M*A*S*H out of it. World War II--now there was a good war. Hollywood didn't even have to wait for the war to end to milk some classic films out of that little scuffle.

Having run out of "good" wars, French director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight, Coup de Torchon) strays all the way back to World War I--when battle first lost its noble tint but gained a whole new level of juicy, floating morality. The story of Capitaine Conan (based on the 1934 semi-autobiographical novel by Roger Vercel) begins in the waning days of The Great War. Philippe Torreton is Conan, a ballsy French officer heading an elite guerrilla unit. The French are fighting a sloppy trench war against crumbling German forces. It is the job of Conan and his men to creep under enemy barbed-wire and silently slit a few throats. Talking about another officer, Conan assesses, "He is just a soldier. I am a warrior." Left in the background is Lt. Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), an aristocrat who has gained Conan's respect by joining the infantry and working his way up through the ranks. Conan the war dog and Norbert the career officer are two opposite ends of the spectrum, but the winds of war have thrown them together as friends.

When the armistice is declared, Conan and Norbert find themselves heading--not back to France--but to occupied Bucharest to perform assorted policing duties. Bored, restless, the thousands of French troops turn to drinking, wenching, fighting and occasionally looting to alleviate their tensions. Norbert, being one of the most educated officers in Bucharest (he's got a degree in literature), is immediately appointed a public defender to the soldiers being tried for assorted offenses. Although untrained in law, Norbert takes to his work immediately and succeeds in getting many troopers acquitted. Noticing his talents, the powers-that-be transfer Norbert to prosecutor.

Unfortunately, Norbert's new job brings him in conflict with his old pal Conan. Separated from the blood and thrill of combat, Conan has settled in with the rowdier elements in Bucharest. It's a classic cinematic setup dating back to Jimmy Cagney and Edward Woods in Public Enemy--two brothers/pals, one on the good side of the law, one on the bad. But Tavernier's film has far more subtlety than that 1931 William Wellman melodrama.

At first, Capitaine Conan seems like another "War is Hell" moralizer like Stanley Kubrick's The Paths of Glory or Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant. But this is a far more complex and slippery film. Conan is less of an anti-war film and more an implication of the people who populate a war. Both Torrenton and Le Bihan are spectacular as leads. Torrenton's titular anti-hero is a brutal savage and a fiercely loyal friend, both in the same breath. Is Conan a hero, a psycho or a necessary byproduct of war? Is Norbert a stand-up guy, a man of compromised personal morals or is his character an aftershock of war as well? Tavernier's brilliant film doesn't provide easy answers--but it does pose some intriguing questions.


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