A look at the man known for his big nose and even bigger guts.
By Will DiGravio · Published January 5, 2022
Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV series. It’s that simple. This section focuses on the true story of the real Cyrano de Bergerac.
Cyrano, the upcoming film directed by Joe Wright and starring Peter Dinklage, is based on a 2018 stage musical of the same name by Erica Wright (who also wrote the adaptation). And the musical is based on a play from 1897 by the French author Edmond Rostand called Cirano de bergerac.
Rostand’s work, in turn, is based on a truly French nobleman, soldier and author from the 17th century. Of course, the play takes a number of artistic licenses to create a fictionalized version of Cyrano de Bergerac and his life. And what a wild and interesting life it was!
Here’s a look at the real Cyrano and the true stories that inspired his depictions of popular culture. Or at least the various legends and information we know about the man.
Life in Paris with a big nose
In 1619, the real Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac was born in Paris. According to scholar Mildred Allen Butler, he was beaten and abused by adults from an early age, leading to a lifelong distrust of authority figures such as teachers and pastors. At the age of 12, his father, “apparently happy to get rid of him”, sent the young Cyrano off to the University of Paris.
And while he developed “a great thirst for knowledge” during his time at university, his terrible relationship with teachers continued. Cyrano left college at the age of 18 and enjoyed, for the first time in his life, the freedoms that came with being an adult in 17th-century Paris.
That Encyclopedia Britannica notes one aspect of Cyrano that seems to follow him in every article written about him: “a remarkably large nose.” His insecurity over his nose existed in real life and is at the heart of his depictions of popular culture, including Rostand’s plays. IN Cyrano de Bergerac, the main character, embarrassed by his nose, lacks the confidence to confess his love for a woman named Roxanne (she is played in the film from 2022 by Haley Bennett).
– Theatr Clwyd (@ClwydTweets) April 15, 2016
Duels and wounds in the army
Not long after leaving university, Cyrano enlisted in the French army, where he served under Carbon de Castel-Jaloux, captain of the king’s cadets. Contrary to what we might consider a cadet today, the French army of the period hand-picked cadets, mostly nobles, to join the exclusive group.
Life in the army provided Cyrano with a stable source of income, which he used well around Paris. He developed a passion for fencing and dueling. It is said that “while he never invited to a quarrel, he never avoided one.” More often than not, the duels were fought in defense of his friends. But Allen Butler writes:
“There was a point where he was overly sensitive, and that makes him wield his swordmanship in favor of his own expense. This was the subject of his nose.”
Cyrano’s desire for war extended to the battlefield. He suffered several wounds while in service, including especially in 1640, during the siege of Arras. The siege was part of the Franco-Spanish War, which in turn was a conflict associated with the larger 30-year war.
The French initiated the conflict to get through the Spanish Arras. The area is located in what is now the northern region of France. During the conflict, Cyrano received “a sword blow to the neck”, but he recovered later. Rostand depicts a fictionalized version of these events in his play.
While some might see a sword against the neck as a reason to retreat, Cyrano meant something else. Allen Butler writes that after the injury:
“He was denied the pleasure of being at the site when the siege was raised. This disgusted him with military life, and shortly after his recovery he surrendered his commission and persuaded his friend. [to do the same]. “
Cyrano picks up a pen
After his life in the Army, Cyrano began writing. He found camaraderie with Libertine, a group of writers in 17th-century Paris who, writes Allen Butler, “were pulled together by the common bond between intellectual and religious nonconformism.”
Given Cyrano’s past relationships with teachers and clergy, and his dissatisfaction with the French military, it seems that he was naturally positioned to embrace this group of men and their worldview.
His writings included political pamphlets, tragic plays, and works that we can today regard as a form of science fiction. They satirized contemporary religious and astronomical beliefs. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he envisioned a series of inventions and scientific discoveries that would eventually become a reality, including the phonograph and the atomic structure of matter.
Cyrano fights 100 men
Apparently, Cyrano once fought with a hundred guys. This story, perhaps more than any other about his life, makes it clear how difficult it is to distinguish between the man Cyrano and the myth of Cyrano. But according to Allen Butler, the story appears in the work of “everyone who writes about” Cyrano. It sounds like this:
One night after Cyrano left the military, a friend asked him for help. A group of assassins, allegedly numbering about 100, were hired by a man to attack his friend in retaliation for something the friend had written. The friend offered his prayer to Cyrano in a pub, where a number of his poet friends urged Cyrano to reject prayer. But Cyrano, who was always the fighter, agreed to help.
Cyrano and two others then made their way to the Seine. There they encountered “a huge herd of shattered ones” waiting in the shadows. All those present then fired their pistols, but hit none. Cyrano insisted that his friends stay behind, drew his sword and began to fight. He killed two, wounded seven and caused others to flee. He then gave a speech to mark his triumph. A similar event occurs in the first act of Rostand’s play.
The fatal timber
Allen Butler begins his summary of Cyrano’s death with the following:
“He had made many enemies, and whether his death was an accident or a murder, no one can say.”
And to this day, we are not really sure. But the common understanding of Cyrano’s death, and one that Rostand portrays, is that he met his end by a tragic accident.
The story goes that a timber, yes, a large piece of wood, fell on Cyrano. A “lackey” dropped the lumber on Cyrano’s head one morning as he entered a patron’s home. He spent the next 14 months in bed recovering from a concussion and subsequent illness. Cyrano died at his cousin’s home on June 28, 1655. He was only 36 years old.
Others have speculated that Cyrano was the victim of an assassination attempt and wounded on his way to Paris. Or that the radiation accident was in fact deliberate. We may never know.
Cyrano hits theaters in the United States on January 28, 2022.
Related topics: Real stories
Will DiGravio started writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.