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The Real Story Behind ‘Cyrano’

A look at the man known for his big nose and even bigger guts.
Cyrano Movie
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on January 5th, 2022

Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of the real Cyrano de Bergerac.

Cyrano, the upcoming movie directed by Joe Wright and starring Peter Dinklage in the titular role, is based on a 2018 stage musical of the same name by Erica Wright (who also wrote the adaptation). And that musical is based on an 1897 play by the French writer Edmond Rostand called Cyrano de Bergerac.

Rostand’s work, in turn, is based on a real-life 17th-century French nobleman, soldier, and writer. Naturally, 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 is a look at the real Cyrano and the true stories that inspired his depictions in popular culture. Or, at the very least, the various legends and bits of 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 mistreated by adults from an early age, thus leading to a lifelong mistrust in authority figures like teachers and the clergy. At the age of 12, his father, “apparently being glad to get rid of him,” sent young Cyrano off to the University of Paris.

And while he developed “a great thirst for knowledge” during his time at university, his horrible relationships with teachers continued. Cyrano left college at 18 and, for the first time in his life, enjoyed the freedoms that came with being an adult in 17th century Paris.

The 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 center of his depictions in popular culture, including Rostand’s play. 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 2022 film by Haley Bennett).

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. Unlike what we might consider a cadet today, the French army of the period hand-picked cadets, mostly noblemen, to join the exclusive group.

Life in the army gave Cyrano a steady source of income that he put to good use around Paris. He developed a passion for fencing and dueling. It is said that “while he never invited 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 one point on which he was excessively sensitive and which causes him to display his swordsmanship to advantage on his own account. This was the subject of his nose.”

Cyrano’s bellicosity extended to the battlefield. He suffered multiple wounds while in service, including notably in 1640, during the Siege of Arras. The siege was part of the Franco-Spanish War, which in turn was a conflict connected to the larger Thirty Years War.

The French initiated the conflict in order to make their way through Spanish-held Arras. The area is located in what is now the Northern region of France. During the conflict, Cyrano “received a sword thrust in the throat,” but he later recovered. Rostand depicts a fictionalized version of these events in his play.

While some might see a sword to the throat as a reason to retire, Cyrano thought otherwise. Allen Butler writes that after the injury:

“He was denied the pleasure of being on the scene when the siege was raised. This disgusted him with military life, and shortly after his recovery he turned in his commission and persuaded his friend [to do the same].”

Cyrano Picks Up a Pen

After his life in the army, Cyrano began to write. He found camaraderie with the Libertins, a group of writers in 17th century Paris who, Allen Butler writes, “were drawn together by the common bond of intellectual and religious nonconformism.”

Given Cyrano’s past relationships with teachers and the clergy, and his dissatisfaction with the French military, it seems he was naturally positioned to embrace this group of men and their worldview.

His writings included political pamphlets, tragic plays, and works that we might today consider a form of science fiction. They satirized contemporary religious and astronomical beliefs. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, he imagined a number 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 one hundred dudes. This story, perhaps more than any other about his life, makes clear how hard it is to distinguish between Cyrano the man and Cyrano the myth. But, according to Allen Butler, the story appears in the work of “all who write of” Cyrano. It goes something like this:

One night, after Cyrano had left the military, a friend pleaded with him for help. A group of assassins, supposedly numbering around 100, were hired by a man to attack his friend as retribution for something the friend had written. The friend made his plea to Cyrano in a tavern, where a number of his poet friends urged Cyrano to reject the plea. But Cyrano, ever the fighter, agreed to help.

Cyrano and two others then made their way to the Seine. There, they encountered “a huge band of cutthroats” who were waiting in the shadows. All in attendance then fired their pistols but struck no one. Insisting that his friends stay back, Cyrano drew his sword and began to fight. He killed two, wounded seven, and caused others to flee. He then made a speech to mark his triumph. A similar event occurs in the first act of Rostand’s play.

The Fatal Timber

Allen Butler begins her 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 depicts, is that he met his end by way of a tragic accident.

The story goes that a timber, yes, a large piece of wood, fell on Cyrano. A “lackey” let the timber fall on Cyrano’s head one morning while he entered the home of a patron. He spent the next 14 months in bed recovering from a concussion and subsequent illness. Cyrano died at the home of his cousin on June 28, 1655. He was only 36 years old.

Others have speculated that Cyrano was the victim of an attempted assassination and wounded en route to Paris. Or that the beam accident was in fact intentional. We may never know.

Cyrano hits theaters in the US on January 28, 2022.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.