La Grande Illusion (1937)
Another film about the World Wars. "La Grande Illusion" has a reputation that precedes it. From word of mouth to "best movies ever made" lists to references in other films like "Annie Hall", it's not easy to avoid when you tackle the history of cinema. It's one of the first foreign movie that got nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and when France was occupied for the second World War, the film was thought to be lost forever, deemed as inappropriate and banned by the Nazis. But negatives were found and the film lives on, and "La Grande Illusion" gives us perhaps one of the most insightful looks into WWI.
It doesn't take long for the movie to get rolling. Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) get shot down by German officer Captain Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and become prisoners of war. Instead of being treated with disdain, the two are greeted with the utmost civility one can have after being captured by the enemy. They are fed, kept warm, and cleaned. But their times of merriment will soon end and another officer comes to take them away to a prison.
In the prison camp, Boeldieu and Maréchal are still treated nicely, as are all of their cohorts. As long as they don't step on any toes, they should be fine.
But the men are itching to fight, they are longing to get back out and fight for France against Germany once more. Alas, escaping from prison is not as easy as it looks.
The men try to dig a tunnel, much like "The Great Escape". After completing it, on the night they plan to escape, everyone is boarded up and shipped off to a new camp.
The men try and try again, seeing the walls of the prison as only a hurdle to vault over. Surprisingly, no one gets killed doing this, even though the threats remain constant and are hurled towards the prisoners time and time again.
Eventually the group of men find themselves back in the hands of Captain Rauffenstein, who considers himself and Boeldieu to be best of friends, simply because of their family names. But the men still want to escape and that is becoming something that seems more and more impossible with each passing day.
There's a lot going on in "La Grande Illusion" from racism to the simple duty of serving in the army during war time. The film isn't anti-war, yet it never gives us the battle scenes that affirm of reject the ideas of war. Instead, it's more of a pro-people movie. This is why the film makes pains never to mock the Germans, though it does slightly chide them, simply for being on the wrong side of history.
Duty and valor are always honored, no matter what side they are seen on in "La Grande Illusion".
In a way Rauffenstein and Boeldieu are very similar character, just separated by their patriotism. The film is trying to show that in another setting, the two probably could have been the best of friends.
Though it has no real main character, the movie is most sympathetic to Maréchal as the soldier who is most ready to get out of prison.
"La Grande Illusion" is not an escape movie in the strictest sense. It parallels "The Great Escape" quite a lot, though this film is much better. It's not quite cerebral and grueling enough to be "Papillon"; but the film wasn't trying to be about the escape, rather the spaces in between the attempts, when humanity is revealed to be strong and resilient.
It's a very optimistic film for such a bleak concept and no doubt its warm heart won it the love it has today.
It drags on a bit too long for my taste and its third act is its weakest; but "La Grande Illusion" is a classic, true and true.
Posted by Micah Jones