The France of Cardinal Richelieu is fertile ground for some of the more memorable characters in literature. The pageantry and intrigue surrounding early 17th century France is a rich setting; historical figures seem larger than life, more vital and colorful than in these duller times. Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-55) was one of these characters. A soldier, playwright, satirist, and science fiction writer (Arthur C. Clarke credits de Bergerac's L'Histoire Comique des Etats et Empires de la Lune as the first speculative application of a rocket to space travel), de Bergerac's reputation as a romantic hero was immortalized in Edmond Rostand's eponymous 1898 play.
Jose Ferrer's Academy Award-winning performance in the 1950 film Cyrano de Bergerac is stunning. Ferrer's poise and dramatic flair perfectly capture the arrogance and brilliance of Rostand's de Bergerac. Adding the athletic skill he gained as a college fencer, Ferrer makes Bergerac as physically commanding as he is poetically daunting. William Prince (Christian) and Mala Powers (Roxanne) lead a competent supporting cast, but Cyrano de Bergerac is Ferrer's show. He dominates every scene in which he appears (which is nearly all of them), either physically or verbally. The other characters serve, at times, as little more than sounding boards for Ferrer's lines or pin cushions for his rapier.
Ferrer brings an arrogant insouciance to the role, fitting for a character with enough confidence and panache to single-handedly defeat sword-wielding gangs. This confidence is displayed at its best during a duel with Valvert at the opening of the movie. In one of the great fencing exhibitions in film, Cyrano toys with and then runs through his challenger while composing a poem memorializing the duel. Lacking unorthodox maneuvers, overly athletic stunts, preposterous attacks or special effects, the battle stands out as an example of pure swordplay at its best.
Cyrano's pride is both his triumph and his undoing. It gives him the strength to lampoon nobles, shout down inferior artists, and overcome any obstacle. It also drives him to cast away any hand held out in friendship, anything that could compromise his independence. Yielding anything is beyond Bergerac. He stands alone, "watching other people making friends everywhere, as a dog makes friends." The only thing that bends Cyrano's pride is his love for Roxanne. This love leads Cyrano to woo Roxanne through the unwitting Christian, writing letters, penning poems, even doing the speaking for Christian when an impromptu performance is necessary. Bergerac so loves Roxanne that he willingly sacrifices any chance for his own happiness by assisting her in a quick marriage to Christian.
The tragedy of Cyrano de Bergerac is a study of the oblivious. Roxanne can't see that Cyrano loves her, Cyrano can't see that other women can see past his nose, and Christian can't see that Cyrano is only helping him out of love for Roxanne. Each character is too wrapped up in their own thoughts to really notice external events. Only when it is too late do they really understand. At the siege of Arras, Christian only realizes Cyrano's true feelings when death is nearly certain. Only after Cyrano is assaulted and near death does he see that Roxanne truly loves him, and it is only when Roxanne knows that Cyrano is dying that she understands it as well.
Personal prejudices and misconceptions blind each character. At the siege of Arras, Roxanne professes her love for Christian as "himself," not just as a handsome man. All three of the main characters make this mistake - one's looks are as much a part of a person's identity as one's wit and charm. Roxanne, Christian, and Cyrano must each recognize that their looks and their inner selves are parts of a unified whole. To love people for themselves, you must love the entire package. Anything less is a contradiction. Christian senses this near then end when he says, "I am tired of being my own rival."
Cyrano de Bergerac's stubborn independence and obsessions drive him forward, but they fail him in the end. Obsessed equally with his cousin Roxanne and with worries about his own appearance, Cyrano is oblivious to the lack of concern that others afford his looks: "Look at me and tell me how much hope remains with this protuberance," Bergerac complains to a friend. The tremendous wit and talent of the man, which overcome any shortcomings he may have, are wasted, and the outstandingly delivery and style that Jose Ferrer brings to the film drives this point home.
[ Eric Eller ]