Ah, what a great movie. I had seen this once before, and recalled really liking it, and then it was a rainy Saturday with nothing to do and I mentioned to my friends that it was playing at the arthouse, so we went and had a wonderful time. Though I had seen it before, I had forgotten how very good it is, pretty much involving and enthralling for beginning to end, and delivers a rich message about humanity in the face of political divisions that is moving and not treacly. It is also unlikely to leave too many dry eyes.
We are in Germany during World War I. An officer, Rauffenstein, has shot down some French pilots, and invites the officers in to dine with him. When our key character, Marechal, is unable to cut his steak because of his broken arm, the German officer next to him cuts it up for him. They are soon transferred to a POW camp.
There they are all roomed together, and try to conceal their valuables from the German soldiers, who steal them, and open and confiscate parcels intended for the French. Rauffenstein is soon brought in to a plan to dig a tunnel out of the camp, working slowly over several months, and much of the next hour is made up of attention to this plan and the suspense and drama it creates. This idea was seen as very influential on The Great Escape. A setback comes as they learn that a prisoner was just shot trying to escape from the very garden they intend to emerge in. This whole first hour is very slow and meandering, and after the movie you might wonder why we spent so long here, but it does help to cement the camaraderie and give the whole thing a narrative shape.
This movie also weaves in homoeroticism in a way that makes it a natural nuance of life among men in prison, nothing shocking or weird about it, which reaches its apex when the French are planning a variety show, and one of the younger, more handsome prisoners dons a woman's costume. There is a notable moment when the rest of the men see him, dressed like a woman, and a hush falls over the room as they all stand and stare at him in desire. It is handled in a tender way, and doesn't so much say "They're all secretly gay!" as such a scene might be reduced to today, but carries a melancholy whiff of the way in which they all miss women. Can you imagine such a scene in films today? Can you picture Jason Statham suddenly staring longingly at a man in drag? And honestly, I can't recall seeing a corollary of this scene in The Shawshank Redemption or Con Air.
The guys get bad news that a French town was taken before the show, but decide to go through with it. Then, in the middle of the show, Marechal announces the news that the town has been re-taken, and the French sing a nationalistic song that enrages their German captors. This is the origin of a similar scene from Casablanca. Marechal is thrown in solitary because of his stopping the show for the news, where he eventually starts to crack up, but his guard is sympathetic and tender. The guys back in the room are upset that they'll break out through the tunnel and he'll have to be left behind, but then--he returns. And they're breaking out THAT NIGHT!
SPOILERS > > >
Then--they all get transferred! I'm not sure if it was the first, but the trope of the guys getting transferred on the eve of their planned escape is quite familiar by now. They are being sent to another camp, and Marechal breaks the line to try to inform the incoming prisoner about the existence of the tunnel, but the new guy is American and doesn't understand what he's saying, and is a bit arrogant about it. We lose some of our band of early prisoners, they travel across Germany, and end up in an old castle, run by the guy who shot them down in the first place, Rauffenstein! He and Boeldieu begin having talks as comrades, as they are both aristocrats, and form a world-weary respect. Rauffenstein in particular is a broken-down character, with metal plates in his head and legs, unable to turn his neck, and he seems to prize Boeldieu as someone he can talk to. Meanwhile, the other guys plan a new escape.
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That's all I'm going to tell you, which leaves a lot unsaid, because what happens is unexpected and moving and best for you to experience in your own. This is a wonderful, extremely humane movie that brings war down to a personal level and is political without being alienating or requiring history lessons. It's basically a movie that makes you feel good to be alive, and if you read this site at all you know I'm not a person who often feels good to be alive! If you want to boost your knowledge of classic film but not have to sit through something dreary, here you go.
And now the classic essay question: what is the grand illusion? In this film, it is political boundaries, because, as the film movingly demonstrates, people have a shared humanity that allows them to care for each other, regardless of their nationality. The entire film is rife with different examples of people being kind and humane to each other, based on personal experience and respect, not on who is on which country's side. Apparently Renoir said "[La Grande Illusion is] a story about human relationships. I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world," and that comes across very clearly, but without icky sentiment or being too obvious, in the film.
The other thing going on here that might be difficult for us to see today, is that the movie is also about class divisions. And again, the message is about shared humanity across these divides. The majority of our crew are officers, which puts them above soldiers. Among them are aristocrats, who were raised in privilege and now are thrust into war. Thus, the friendship between Rauffenstein and Boeldieu is between two aristocrats, and when Boeldieu makes the sacrifice he later does for Marechal and Rosenthal, we are to understand this as a statement about the illusory nature of class divisions. Of course, the whole culture on display here is so alien to us now that these rankings will probably be invisible to the modern viewer.
All that said, this isn't an essay. It's a very involving, moving, enjoyable film, and you'll be glad you saw it. If you want to boost your classic film experience while also watching a sure-fire, guaranteed hit (that is, if you still have somewhat of an attention span), this is the one for you.