The Grand Illusion (1937)

The Grand Illusion is a 75-year-old French movie by Jean Renoir that finds its parallel in American movies like Stalag 17 and The Great Escape. Woody Allen alleges it to be his favorite film, and he is not alone in his regard.

And what is “The Grand Illusion”? It’s never explained in the film, but back in 1913, a book called “The Great Illusion” explained to its European audience how war in Europe would be a futile exercise, since the price of conquest to the interdependent European economies would be greater than anything that could be acquired.

This book was re-released in 1933.

So, I guess it was more advisory versus prophetic. But it won the author, Norman Angell a Nobel Prize.

Anyway, this movie takes place during World War I, among various French Air Force officers who were shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans. Officers were relatively well treated, with many of them friends from college days, from their aristocratic circles, or even just extended family.

They had to try to escape, of course, just as their erstwhile pals had to shoot them. Dreadful business, what, but nothing personal: Just duty.

It’s a fairly lively film, beautifully shot and blocked, and you can see why it’s popular among cinephiles. It’s eminently watchable still, although it drags a bit in the third act, when a successful escape is made, and the surviving characters are followed to a bucolic setting in the heart of enemy territory. Not that this section is without its moments of tension and pathos, but it literally takes months of story time, with action largely suspended.

It’s like a different movie, almost.

A lot of the themes that Renoir touches on don’t resonate today like they would have in ‘37: There is this theme of the death of the aristocracy, for example, whereas by now, all the good aspects of aristocracy (manners, class, restraint—or at least discretion) are long gone.

The poignancy of the whole “futility of war” theme may even be lost on us today. We’re in the middle of The Great Peace—and Angell may have been right! It may be the very economic interdependence which keeps the world peaceful. (Which is a good reason in and of itself to promote healthy economies worldwide.)

There’s an ingrained anti-semitism and even a little (very little) old-fashioned white-on-black racism. What’s interesting is where a film like Joyeaux Noel tells us that the schoolchildren were all being taught about the inferiority of other nations (and isn’t this at the heart of all war?) this movie, which is considerably closer to the time in question evinces almost no actual serious -ism.

That is, everyone’s aware of their German, Brit, or French status, but the sort of tribal slurs that were common in the propaganda of the day (the HUN will EAT your BABY!) don’t show up anywhere in the film. (They don’t actually show up in Joyeaux Noel, either, if memory serves, after the begining of the film. I think wars are not so much caused by mis-education of the masses as much as the fever dreams of the elite.)

At times—say, when the French dudes weren’t dressing up in drag and puttin’ on a musical revue—the movie seemed less French than American. I realized, however, that what it was was a general kind of patriotism with an overall pro-Western feel.

I guess French popular cinema had not yet given up on existence. There’s a refreshing lack of ennui, a distinct lack of nihilism, and even a bon vivant feel to the proceedings which make most of the 2 hours seem barely long enough. Great, concise character development, and lively dialogue (that switches breezily between languages) make the experience enjoyable.

You know, it’s a sense of adventure that’s there. Like those great prison camp movies of post-War America: War is hell, life is hard, but this is the hand you’re dealt so you might as well pick your chin up and whistle a happy tune while you’re digging your tunnel. Even if it does use your oxygen up more quickly.

Maybe because the audience knew the hell of war—director included, since Jean Gabin is wearing Jean Renoir’s flight jacket—the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to pound them over the head with how awful it is.

On a final note, the new print that is circulating around is wonderful. Clear as a bell, except for one out-of-focus shot. It may not be the best movie ever made, but it’s certainly one of the best in theaters right now.

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