Cinema de Bergerac: Cyrano on the Big Screen

“That’s not a nose. THIS is a nose!”

When you think of the great noses in movie history, few stand out like Cyrano de Bergerac’s. The rhyme-reciting, sword-fighting, Roxanne-loving, wiener-faced hero from Edmond Rostand’s enduring play has been synonymous with noses for almost as long as Pinocchio, dating all the way back to the late 19th century (1897). Both stories have withstood the test of time, and the past 125 years have brought us several productions of Pinocchio and Cyrano de Bergerac on both the stage and the big screen.

2022 brings us intriguing new movie versions of each. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a stop motion animated musical scheduled for a December release, and Cyrano is Joe Wright’s magnificent new feature that’s now playing in theaters. It flips the French classic on its head in two interesting ways: One, it’s a musical based on Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage musical of the same name. And two, it’s the first Cyrano movie where the protagonist doesn’t have a pickle-sized prosthetic proboscis protruding from his face. That’s right, Cyrano without the big nose. The customary facial deformity is swapped for dwarfism and the movie features compelling turns by Peter Dinklage as the title character, Haley Bennet as Roxanne, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Christian. The movie’s success ultimately hinges on the musical score by twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National and they deliver big time. Cyrano was one of my Top 10 films of 2021 and the only recent musical (in a year packed with musicals) with music I’d actually listen to outside of the movie experience.

While Pinocchio is a household name thanks to the 1940 animated Disney classic, in the US of A, Cyrano de Bergerac is not as well-known, especially among younger generations and folks who don’t know theatre or classic cinema. It’s been awhile since a Cyrano movie made a splash over here, but this new Cyrano has a chance to garner some interest. It’s one of the more accessible versions of the story with its catchy soundtrack that gets better with each listen, its young talented cast, and the inclusion of Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, who might draw some viewers that wouldn’t normally be interested.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a timeless tale, part Quixote part Shakespeare, full of humor and heartbreak, with a leading role that is coveted by actors and a story that’s been adapted in a variety of ways. There are several worthwhile movie versions and picking a favorite Cyrano performance is like picking a favorite Bond. José Ferrer, Toshiro Mifune, Gérard Depardieu, Kevin Kline, and Peter Dinklage all bring a little something different to the role, as do their co-stars playing Roxanne, Christian, and De Guiche. The films tweak the Cyrano story and characters in their own unique ways, and some of them deviate from Edmond Rostand’s vision more than others, but they all keep with its spirit.

Enjoy this selection of the finest Cyrano de Bergerac films that cinema has to offer. Presented chronologically. Watch them all or use this guide to curate your own Cyrano Fest.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1900)

Three years after he first appeared on stage, Cyrano appeared on the silver screen in a 2-minute French short starring Benoit Constant Coquelin, the star of the original stage production. The film was tinted with color and synchronized to a wax cylinder recording and it’s thought to be the first film made with both color and sound. It features Cyrano dueling and spouting poisonous poetry. Available on YouTube^

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Cyrano de Bergerac (1925)

France and Italy collaborated on this gorgeous 104-minute silent film starring Pierre Magnier and directed by Augusto Genina. It took 3 years to color the film using the elaborate Pathé Stencil Color process. Stencils were cut for every frame of the picture and splashes of bright green, yellow, burgundy, and turquoise were applied. This one’s a deep cut on the list and one to skip if you’re only watching a few. It’ll be more of a curio than a fully enjoyable viewing experience for some. The constant cuts to the shaky, uneven title cards have a way of breaking up the action and Cyrano without a voice is worse than Cyrano without a nose. So much of his swag comes from his use of language; not only the words he chooses, but the way he says them. Available on Kanopy

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Love Letters (1945)

I actually haven’t watched this one yet, but it’s based on Edmond Rostand’s play and it’s got Joseph Cotten in it so I’m definitely gonna check it out. I’ll update this post once I do.

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Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

The 1950 version directed by Michael Gordon and starring José Ferrer (Cyrano), Mala Powers (Roxanne), William Prince (Christian), and Ralph Clanton (De Guiche), is considered by many to be the definitive Cyrano flick. It’s the one that set the standard. Ferrer oozes panache and he’s considered by many to be the definitive Cyrano. He spouts memorable lines with gusto (“You shall die exquisitely!”), swashbuckles with the best of them, and rocks the hell out of a cap with a giant feather. Crisp B&W cinematography, a pristine Roxanne, cutting swordplay, and a strong ending make this essential Cyrano. Now in the public domain, it’s easy to find and available on Amazon or YouTube.

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Samurai Saga aka Life of an Expert Swordsman (1959)

Did you know that Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese legend who appeared in 16 Akira Kurosawa films starred in a Cyrano movie? He did and it’s one of the best. Life of an Expert Swordsman or Samurai Saga, as it’s known in the States, transports the story to the Tokagawa Period of 17th century Japan but keeps Rostand’s narrative beats. Mifune plays Heihachiro Komaki and Hiroshi Inagaki directs. The presentation is stunning, with colorful costumes, trees, and flowers (cherry blossoms!). Mifune’s facial deformity is of a different variety, he’s got a short, wide nose instead of a long one. His performance isn’t short, it’s probably the most intense on this list (and one of my favorites). The story wears the Samurai trappings well and the ending’s a cutter. Available on the Criterion Channel

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Roxanne (1987)

The best known film on this list features Steve Martin with the snozz of all snozzes in a movie he wrote over the span of three years. Martin was a fan of José Ferrer and his commanding presence in the 1950 movie, and he wanted to make a modern version of the story with a less edgy and more goofy/comical Cyrano character. Martin plays “C.D.” Bales, Darryl Hannah is a very sweet Roxanne, Top Gun‘s Rick Rossovich plays Chris, and Shelly Duvall is Dixie, owner of the diner (a pastry shop in the play). Directed by Fred Schepisi. Available on Hulu

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Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

Aside from Roxanne, this lavish French production is the best known Cyrano de Bergerac of my generation and it’s star, Gérard Depardieu, is an iconic Cyrano. The costumes are exquisite, the swordplay is top-tier, and this 1990 “vintage” (along with the 2008) is one of the truest to Rostand’s play. Depardieu is a solid, if slightly subdued Cyrano. He looks great and has presence, but he lacks the bravado of Ferrer, the intensity of Mifune, and the tenderness of Kevin Kline. Worth watching if you can track it down (DVD’s kinda pricey). Available on Roku Channel

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The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996)

Another modern twist on the Cyrano story with Janeane Garofalo in the Cyrano role, Uma Thurman in the Christian role, and Ben Chaplin playing the Roxanne. I hadn’t seen this movie in years and I remember liking it back in the day, but I recently watched it for this article and it just didn’t hold up. The characters are all kind of dumb and their antics are more annoying than entertaining. The film treats Janeane Garofalo’s character like she’s Quasimodo, just because (in the movie’s opinion) she’s no Uma Thurman, but it’s hard to be sympathetic when she’s so attractive. No comment on the phone sex scene. Good for unintentional laughs and available on Hulu.

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Cyrano de Bergerac (2008)

The 2008 vintage is a recording of the 2007 Broadway revival starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner. Both are in top form and Kline’s portrayal of Cyrano is touching and full of heart. This version is one of the truest to Rostand’s original words and it shouldn’t be discounted or overlooked just because it’s a filmed version of a play. The show’s captured in front of a live audience and it’s a fine production with moving performances. Available on YouTube

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Cyrano Agency (2010)

One of the more unique approaches to the material, this South Korean romantic comedy features a smooth-operating theater troupe who form a dating agency that helps paying customers win the hearts of their desired loves. One of their new client’s targets causes a dilemma for the team. No sword fights or big noses here, just an enjoyable Cyrano-inspired yarn by writer/director Kim Hyun-seok. A spin-off television series was released in 2013. The movie isn’t streaming anywhere and it’s difficult to find. Shout out to Brother B for tracking it down for me.

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Cyrano (2021)

Written by Erica Schmidt and based on her 2018 stage musical, Cyrano is a modern musical marvel. To be honest, I can’t stand most modern musicals. They’re campy, artificial, and full of hollow music. Turning Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical is the riskiest thing that’s been done to the play in it’s 125 years of existence. If the song lyrics and the music backing them weren’t right, this could have been a disaster, but instead we’re treated to one of the best, most enjoyable Cyrano movies of all. Peter Dinklage is everything that the part requires, a BIG character in a little body, and without the woodpecker on his face the character has an added level of humanity. He raps, sings, duels, and claims his spot on the Mt. Rushmore of Cyrano’s. Haley Bennett is an ethereal Roxanne and her singing voice can be beautifully haunting. (Cheers to the creators for not casting Taylor Swift or some other pop star.) I’ve been a fan of Kelvin Harrison Jr. since he caught my attention in Waves and Luce, and his Christian is probably my favorite of all the Christians. He can sing too. The three leads are well-equipped to make Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s incredible music soar. I’ve seen the film a few times now and it improves with each viewing. I preordered the soundtrack on vinyl and I’ve been spinning it to death. (“You shall die exquisitely!”) I love that Glen Hansard from Once (another 21st century musical I enjoy) pops up briefly on Wherever I Fall – Pt. 1 (Houston Film Critics Society’s Best Song of 2021!) and that Icelandic piano sensation Víkingur Ólafsson graces the ivory. Picking out a favorite track would be difficult.

Cyrano is now playing in theaters. It inspired me to watch the other Cyrano movies and to write this article. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed my Cyrano Fest. Cheers!

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Salty Winters

http://www.nerdlocker.com

Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.