The Dangers of Valor: Roger Vercel’s and Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan

John Cerullo
University of New Hampshire, Manchester



When war came to France in August 1914, Roger Vercel (born Roger Crétin, in Le Mans) was a twenty-year-old student of literature at the University of Caen. In the beginning, bad eyesight seemed to limit his usefulness to the French army; he began his tour of duty as a stretcher-bearer on the western front. But as the ranks of France’s junior officers thinned, Vercel, like other educated young men, was pressed to enter St. Cyr and train for a more active role in the slaughter. He would see action at Ypres, Champagne, and the Somme. But it was in the Balkans, where he was transferred in time to take part in France’s final offensive against Bulgarian forces in September1918, that the war revealed a previously hidden face to Vercel. It would take him fifteen years to fully understand it.

Vercel’s novel Capitaine Conan was that reckoning.[1] It won the Prix Goncourt in 1934, and remains one of the outstanding literary works, French or other, of World War I. In masterfully controlled prose, the novel draws on Vercel’s own experiences under fire in Macedonia; in military courts in Bucharest and Sofia; and on one last killing field, on the banks of the Dniester. But it is not Vercel’s plotline that most viscerally engages his readers. It is the complex relationship that develops between the narrator, Lieutenant Norbert (agrégé de lettres, an obvious stand-in for the author) and the title character, a commando of singular skill and ferocity (based on Vercel’s real-life friend Jean des Cognets).


A nondescript, provincial draper in civilian life, Conan reacts with spiraling frenzy to the impending end of the killing:  inaction, for him, is a far more threatening prospect than nighttime raids on Bulgarian trenches ever were.  The awful truth is that the war has not only licensed but massively reinforced qualities within him that cannot be abruptly switched off as the carnage winds down qualities as perversely life-affirming to him and to the squad he leads as they are destructive to others. Whether any sort of civilized order can channel or contain those human qualities is the novel’s core question; or, perhaps, whether any civilization has a duty to try. The answer, in the end, is not entirely clear. For, like Norbert, we find it almost impossible not to simultaneously loathe and admire, fear and respect, this homicidal maniac.       The men of the 50th Infantry Regiment are formally apprised of the 11 November1918 armistice only on November 22. But, no matter — these men are not about to return to France anyway. Rather, they are transported to Bucharest, then Sofia, in a kind of post-combat limbo where they wait in baffled, sullen anxiety for the demobilization that never comes. As frustration mounts and discipline frays, Norbert finds himself pressed into service to the 50th’s military court, first as defense counsel, then as prosecutor. His actions in that capacity will first threaten, then deepen, his relationship with Conan.

In fact, in building his plot around the operations of military justice, Vercel elevated Capitaine Conan into something considerably more than yet another literary artifact on war experience. France’s military justice had been controversial for some time, and by requiring Norbert to balance his regard for the lawless Conan with his responsibilities as a military jurist, Vercel enriched the character study at his novel’s core with a complex meditation on law and justice, manhood and morality, in a civic culture pushed to the brink by four years of ceaseless blood-letting.

Everywhere it has existed, military justice has represented a separate legal subsystem — separate legal codes, courts, and penal institutions administered by the military itself — where the imperatives of discipline are unashamedly elevated over the array of rights, notions of due process, and proportional penalties that prevail in the civilian legal universe. This “exceptional jurisdiction” can be very fearsome indeed to those accustomed to conventional forms of justice, and Lieutenant Norbert is given a taste of the system’s darker capacities quite early, at one of the officers’ messes hosted by Colonel Bouvier.  “God forbid I should decry your role as defending counsel,” purrs Bouvier while recruiting Norbert to that very position; “but allow me to tell you that I can’t see that it serves any useful purpose.”[2]

In Bouvier’s view, shared by other officers, France’s Code de justice militaire (1857) provided military prosecutors the means, especially in wartime, to prosecute nearly anyone in service for one offense or another, should they so choose. “Did none of you gentlemen ever get a great-coat cut down?” asks Bouvier, urbanely. “Show me your cigarette lighters. All made out of cartridges. That, if I’m not mistaken, is known as theft of munitions and effects belonging to the State, and costs you five to twenty years’ hard labor.”[3] In fact, to Bouvier and his colleagues that arsenal of prosecutorial options is the system’s whole point. The Colonel is utterly unembarrassed to acknowledge that the essence of the jurisdiction is, indeed, scapegoating. One or another prosecutable act will be chosen from the nearly-limitless range available, solely for the “exemplary” value the inevitably prompt conviction and harsh sentence will have in stiffening discipline and tuning up morale in a particular place and a particular time.

conan4This, of course, is why so many French republicans found the system so terrifying in purely civic terms, quite apart from any humanitarian concerns about the treatment of military prisoners. To them, “exceptional jurisdiction” undermined the rule of law on which the republic was based, by aligning it so fully with the maintenance of order rather than securing justice. In fact, what most alarmed the system’s many critics for decades prior to the war was the steady encroachment of military justice on civilian juridical space. Its adjudicative locus was measured in categories of citizens rather than categories of offenses (i.e., rationae personae rather than rationae materiae), and by 1914 those categories extended well beyond active-duty servicemen.  They included, first, reservists; then, certain veterans; then, all civilians bringing suit against military personnel; and finally, any civilian writers and journalists whose writings could be construed as “inciting desertion.”[4] In fact, it is worth noting that, in theory at least, the jurisdiction’s reach during the war years was theoretically extended to all of France.[5]

Norbert, trained as littérateur rather than advocate or investigator, is initially reluctant to involve himself with this nightmarish “judicial minotaur.”[6] What he does have is intelligence and sensibilité. But what will happen to them when his institutional function requires him to attack those very rights, even the whole idea of a rights-based civic culture, to which he is personally committed? Norbert’s friend Conan experiences no such ambivalence. He will have no truck whatsoever with military justice (or any other “official” or routine variety), and is overtly contemptuous of the “cops” who administer it.  Norbert, however, realizes that the conscience of those cops represents the only brake on the damage that military courts can inflict, and settles into his new role.

conan5Bernard Tavernier’s film version of Capitaine Conan, released to great acclaim in 1996, offers a vivid and absorbing treatment of Norbert’s dilemmas. The filmmaker was initially drawn to the novel, as most readers probably have been, by the character (or rather, the pathology) of Conan himself — a pathology Tavernier recognized as all too common in today’s world (“You see a Conan every night on television – in Bosnia or in Zaire, in Israel or Palestine – those young kids with machine guns”).[7] Stopping wars, Tavernier had come to realize, is one thing; re-civilizing warriors something else entirely, and something that merits a lot more attention than it generally receives from either artists or statesmen. Philippe Torreton’s haunting, César-winning performance as Conan certainly helped the director command that attention. But, like Vercel’s novel, Tavernier’s film makes its deepest impression through two cases that Norbert oversees, cases that test both his friendship with Conan, and his own understanding of justice.[8]

In the first, Norbert elects to prosecute three men under Conan’s command arrested for killing two Romanian women while robbing a nightclub. Conan’s outrage at Norbert’s action speaks volumes about him. By the commando’s lights, the dance-hall is just another field of battle; its prostitutes and their prey are combatants who, much like his own men and their foes, recognize and accept the risks; moreover, the assailants, decorated war heroes all, have done little more than “relieve some pimps of their loose change.” It’s the first time Norbert sees what his new friend really represents, but it won’t be the last. Blithely acknowledging a vicious attack on the Romanian husband of one of his sexual conquests, Conan explains impatiently that the woman was, in fact, a conquest – he had every right to defend what he had won by his own daring. It is the code of the warrior, plain and simple, and utterly repugnant to Norbert.

Capitaine Conan – Bande annonce FR by _Caprice_

Yet if Norbert recognizes that the commando’s ways are incompatible with law or justice, he nonetheless retains a deep, rather paradoxical respect for Conan as a man, and in fact is drawn closer to him during his investigation of another case. It is that of soldier Jean Erlane, a well-born but woefully un-martial young man recently arrested for desertion. Erlane’s commanding officer, Lieutenant de Scève (himself a vicomte) insists that the hapless youth not only decamped to the Bulgarian trench, but revealed military intelligence that resulted in thirty-seven French deaths. Erlane, however, finds an unlikely ally in Conan. Upon examining the shattered boy personally, Conan concludes that Erlane is, in fact, biologically unfit for military service — a natural, quivering coward, incapable of responding other than he did, and therefore not culpable for anything he did under fire. Norbert, himself sympathetic toward Erlane even while enjoined to prosecute him, is surprised by the zeal Conan brings to the case.  But he recognizes the roots of that zeal when he, Conan, and Erlane’s advocate visit the battlefield in question. Familiar with every foot of the rocky, mountainous terrain, Conan is able to demonstrate what probably happened to Erlane that night. He also reveals, indirectly but with aching clarity, what has happened to himself.

conan6Erlane is convicted, nonetheless. So, in fact, is Conan of yet another assault, this one fatal, on a Bulgarian civilian. Each sentence is delayed when the unit is moved to the unsettled borderland between Romania and Russia, where French forces are fighting the Bolsheviks. Given each man’s character, the outcome of this final engagement is not entirely surprising. Yet the story’s coda, set in peacetime France, is – although it really shouldn’t. As Eugen Weber has noted, the Gazette des tribunaux of those post-war years was filled with cases of veterans struggling to cope with the unexpected torments of peacetime.[9]

Tavernier’s film is faithful, for the most part, to Vercel’s narrative. Yet in subtly altering some of the novel’s characterizations, he and co-scriptwriter Jean Cosmos may have partially occluded its main theme. For example, they portray the 50th’s top commanders as alternately buffoonish, megalomaniacal, or sadistic:  a corrupt and inept ruling class. There is far less of that in the novel. The one officer treated respectfully in both film and novel, Lieutenant de Scève, explicitly states in the film that the moneyed Erlane must die because his cowardice threatens the notion that aristocratic status is the just and proper reward of aristocratic valor and leadership. Vercel’s de Scève shows no such commitment to the aristocratic ethos. The film inserts scenes of angry soldiers singing Communist anthems and threatening mutiny when pressed into the anti-Bolshevik crusade. They lack such political consciousness in the novel. In these and other ways, Tavernier’s film manifests a conventional, late twentieth-century left-wing sensibility, deeply attuned to the crimes of the powerful and the righteous rage of the lowly.

But Vercel’s thematic center of gravity is neither class nor power nor even, perhaps, war. It is the qualities that define manhood and bond men — courage, candor, energy in action. Above all, it is the fragility of law and civilized concourse once men lose control over these attributes and let them warp into something else. That is why, if Capitaine Conan is chosen for classroom use, students ought to read the novel as well as view the film. They also really ought to be told something about Roger Vercel himself.

For Vercel continued wrestling with these issues in his life and in his art (he is best known as a novelist of the sea, that time-honored literary crucible of manhood); and there is much to be learned from the personal trajectory those struggles apparently shaped. In 1940, Vercel published in L’Ouest-Éclair a vicious diatribe against the influence of Jews in French literature; and by 1943, he was contributing to the Milice newspaper Combats.[10] That affiliation would result in removal from his academic post in Dinan at war’s end.

It would seem that, for Roger Vercel as for his creation Conan, the end of war was not the beginning of peace. Was there some connection between his concern with male strength, male vigor on the one hand, and his apparent drift toward the Pétain regime on the other?  At one point in Capitaine Conan, the title character bellows that it wasn’t France’s soldiers who won the war (“they fought, yes …”); it was the commandos (” … but it was we who won”).  Somehow, to Conan, that handful of men, fighting face-to-face with knives, were more valuable — even, perhaps, more truly victorious — than all those poilus who relied not on their own animal instincts but on their equipment, their leaders, and their friends. It is probably the clearest expression of what Conan is:  brutal, proud, and more than a little mad. It is also the kind of feeling that an author cannot articulate unless he, on some level, shares it. It seems, at first glance, a fairly clear route to the peculiarly atavistic authoritarianism of Vichy.  At any rate, students should benefit from a consideration of the possibility.

Jacques Vercel, Capitaine Conan, Paris: Albin Michel, 1934.

Bertrand Tavernier, Director, Capitaine Conan, 1996, Color, 129 min., France, Canal+, Les Films Alain Sarde, Little Bear

  1. English translation: Roger Vercel, Captain Conan, introduction Ted Morgan (Columbia, S.C.:  University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
  2. Ibid., p. 65.
  3. Ibid., p. 66.
  4. See, for example, Georges Lhermitte, Le Sabre et la loi (Paris:  Stock, 1900) and Le Code rouge:  À bas la justice militaire! (Paris:  Librairie de la Raison, 1904).
  5. The état de siège, a legal principle dating back to the Revolution, was invoked at the war’s outset to confer on military courts authority to adjudicate any offense against “order, security, and public safety” that, in the judgment of those courts, had serious military implications.  See Peter Judson Richards, Extraordinary Justice: Military Tribunals in Historical and International Context (New York:  NYU Press, 2007).
  6. The term “judicial minotaur” was coined by Socialist Gustave Rouanet in his article “Juges militaires” in L’Humanité, 4 février 1907, p. 1.
  7. Dennis and Joan West, “Filming a Forgotten War:  An Interview With Bernard Tavernier,” Cineaste, April 1998, Vol. 23, Issue 3.
  8. Depictions of the actual operations of French military courts in both Vercel’s novel and Tavernier’s film are, in general, accurate enough.  One quibble, however, is that in neither is the divisional General granted the prominent juridical role allotted him by the CJM.  When Lieutenant Norbert takes over as the judge-advocate (commissaire du gouvernement) for the 50th Regiment’s military court, he appears to exercise a degree of discretion over prosecutorial strategies that would be somewhat unusual. It was the General, not the judge-advocate, who decided whether cases should proceed to a full trial (conseil de guerre).  It was the General who had the final say over the judge-advocate’s witness lists, deposition questions, proposed penalties, and other strategic matters. This was because the judge-advocate was technically accountable to the War Minister and formally charged with representing the broadest interests of state and society. He thus offered a potential conduit back to civilian authority – and civilian interference was precisely what the entire system of French military justice was designed to minimize, lest the real goals of military justice be tainted by the intrusion of “politics.” That end was served by granting the General full oversight over the judge-advocate’s work.
  9. Eugen Weber, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (NY:  W.W. Norton and Co., 1994), p. 12.
  10. Michel Winock, Le Siècle des intellectuels (Paris:  Éditions du Seuil, 1997), p.359.  Combats should not be confused with the Resistance journal Combat.
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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Valor: Roger Vercel’s and Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan

  1. Outstanding essay that I will recommend to my students. Thanks for this. You’ve filled a real need.

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