The film centers on the master sergeant Galoup (played by Denis Lavant) recalling via voiceover his memories of being stationed in Djibouti with a group of Foreign French Legion soldiers. As the soldiers train diligently in the harsh elements, one of the new recruits under his command — the promising young Gilles Sentain (played by Gregoire Colin) — catches Galoup's eye. Winning over the whole group with his strong work ethic and enigmatic personality, Galoup struggles to make sense of what Sentain means to him, whether through a perceived envy-driven rivalry, or another kind of connection...
The film is oft regarded by critics as one of the greatest films of all time and is no. 78 on the 2012 Sight and Sound Critic's Poll.
Beau Travail provides examples of:
- A Father to His Men: Mostly Bruno towards Galoup, but also to a lesser extent Galoup towards his men.
- Ambiguously Gay: One of the driving questions of the film is whether or not Galoup's feelings toward Sentain cross over into romantic, especially considering he already has a girlfriend named Rahel but is continuously drawn to him.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Galoup regards the beauty and precision of military exercises to be a mark of their quality as a soldier, which is what sparks his envy in Sentain.
- Bittersweet Ending: Ultimately unable to confront his feelings for Sentain, Galoup projects his inner turmoil onto him and sets out to "destroy" him by deliberately getting him lost in the desert. While he and his men presume him dead, he's actually narrowly rescued by a group of tribespeople, and we see him slowly being nursed back to health. Regardless, this move costs Galoup his position in the Foreign Legion, and to him it means he has lost everything, and his suicide is heavily implied. However, the last image we see of him, detailed in Gainax Ending below, could represent him finally finding a way to release his guilt and repressed emotions.
- The Chains of Commanding: Galoup feels this in the "present day".
- Driven by Envy: Galoup becomes jealous of both Bruno and Sentain for how unanimously his men seem to like them.
- Gainax Ending: Galoup makes his bed and lies in it, looking forlorn and holding a gun. It's heavily implied that he's about to commit suicide...and then the end credits show him doing a chaotic freestyle dance number on a club floor. Whether it's a Dying Dream or took place sometime in the past is never explained.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Galoup, increasingly towards the end of the film.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Galoup's excuse for effectively sending Gilles to his death.
- Large and in Charge: The Commandant Bruno.
- Misery Builds Character: All the soldiers to a varying degree believe this given their willingness to the harsh military exercises, until Galoup pushes it to far by ordering a man who went for a wee on duty to dig a hole in the rocky desert until his hands start bleeding.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Galoup in the "present day", likely for being Court-Martialed and having sent Gilles to his death.
- The Quiet One: Sentain has an aspect of this in his character. It probably enforces Galoup's perception of strength in him and his subsequent Envy.
- Rated M for Manly: This film breathes masculinity, and it's perhaps the central theme.
- Scenery Porn: The arid, salty landscape of Djibouti, which is contrasted with mountain planes and the sea.
- Silence Is Golden: A large portion of the film goes by without dialogue, instead focusing on its pristine settings and the minute expressions of characters, which has largely led to the film's reputation as a tone poem.
- Training from Hell: Training in the harsh desert and being forced to endure the harsh sun. Although it must be said that all the soldiers take it on board, likely because they believe that Misery Builds Character.
- Warrior Poet: Galoup, who sees military exercises almost as a form of ballet and who aspires poetic qualities to disciplined and strong soldiers.
- We ARE Struggling Together: Galoup vs. his men towards the end of the film.