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Bulgaria near the end of World War I: Conan, warrior and wolf, leads a band of 50 ruthless French fighters who love hand-to-hand combat. Their motto: "We forgot to take prisoners, Captain." At war's end, the unit goes to Bucharest, where Conan tries to keep them out of trouble, defends them when they behave as warriors, and finds he's unsuited for peacetime. His friendship with Norbert, a teacher turned lieutenant, is tested when Norbert accepts a job as court-martial prosecutor because he's learned that Conan will be facing charges and he wants to protect his friend. When they are sent to the Russian border to fight Bolsheviks, Conan is back in his element and Norbert is off the hook. Written by
It took a second viewing for me to really 'get' Bertrand Tavernier's 'Capitaine Conan,' which I found very underimpressive the first time (not helped by the fact Kino Video's transfer is in the wrong ratio - 1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1). With lowered expectations, I was actually surprisingly impressed second time around.
It's not one of the great Great War pictures, but it is an interesting attempt to address the problem of what happens to the warriors who find themselves at their most alive during war when the war is taken away from them? Only the first half hour deals with the war, the rest of the film set in the uncertain period between the Armistice and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles as Conan (Phillipe Torreton) and his men are shipped across Eastern Europe before ending up fighting the forgotten war of 1919 in Russia. With no enemy, his trained thugs turn on the civilian population or each other, while Conan finds himself at odds with one of his few friends among the conscripted officers (Samuel le Bihain) who becomes involved in courts martial, first as defense then as prosecutor.
The staging is impressive, with Tavernier's long but often far from static takes capturing the mood of weary restlessness well without drawing undue attention to themselves. Part of the problem is that it's an aimless film, perfectly capturing the limbo of the period when most soldiers just wanted to go home while a few just wanted someone else to fight. As a result the narrative line is weak and on first viewing it can be hard to see exactly where its going: when Tavernier introduces a widow looking for her lost son you're suddenly wondering if it's going to turn into 'Life and Nothing But 2.' But while not immediately accessible, the film does ultimately reward a second viewing and left me wondering why I thought so little of it first time round.
Sadly, Kino's DVD release is very disappointing. Although shot in Super 35, the film was intended to be seen in 2.35:1 but here gets a soft 1.85:1 transfer. There is one good extra, an excellent 54-minute making of documentary by Tavernier Jr. that is quite candid and revealing, but it pales into significance compared to the Region 2 French 2-disc set, which includes a beautiful 2.35:1 transfer (with English subtitles), the documentary, audio commentary, deleted scenes, interviews with filmmakers and historians, stills gallery and trailer.
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