La Grande Illusion (also known as Grand Illusion) is a 1937 French war film directed by Jean Renoir, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Spaak. This is one of the great anti-war movies ever made, and its message is relevant even this day. The story concerns class relationships among a small group of French officers who are prisoners of war during World War I and are plotting an escape. The title of the film comes from the book The Great Illusion by British economist Norman Angell, which argued that war is futile because of the common economic interests of all European nations.
The perspective of the film is generously humanistic to its characters of various nationalities. It is regarded by critics and film historians as one of the masterpieces of French cinema and among the greatest films ever made. Orson Welles named La Grande Illusion as one of the movies he would take with him “on the ark.
Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is an often witty, sometimes poignant, frequently moving examination of the futility of war. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “all the democracies in the world must see this film,” which is still sound advice. This movie was made two years before World War II, it gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”
The film explores the story during World War I, two French airmen are shot down while taking surveillance photographs in German territory: Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a wealthy and aristocratic officer; Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a burly but a smart working-class mechanic.The three are brought to a P.O.W. camp, where they meet and befriend Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a prosperous Jewish banker, and the commander, Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), takes an instant liking to de Boeldieu. They are members of the same social class and believe that the political and intellectual ideals of the Europe they once knew will soon be a thing of the past with the rise to power of the public
The three Frenchmen discover that their fellow prisoners have been digging an escape tunnel, and all of them agree to help Maréchal and Rosenthal with enthusiasm, de Boeldieu out of a sense of duty. As he puts it, when on a golf course, one plays golf, and while in a prison camp, one tries to escape — it’s the accepted thing to do. As Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu become friends, and the rank-and-file soldiers banter as much with the German guards as with each other, the characters seem involved less in a war than in some vast, petty game, albeit one with deadly consequences; they often talk about women and food, while never mentioning political ideology
Grand Illusion is movie where the characters are so warm hearted and they act with an essential personality of mutually understanding to each other without denying differences of language and education. The prisoners sustain themselves with small delusions: digging a tunnel by night; dressing up in drag to remind themselves of the womanhood that has no place in prison life; celebrating the smallest and most fleeting of victories as news filters in from the front; or, most pathetic of all, Von Rauffenstein’s careful tending of a geranium in his fortress bedroom.
The plot of La Grande Illusion unfolds in a series of beautifully composed episodes, arranged like the scenes of a stage play. Sometimes the transition from one to another is made with a jump cut, such as the arrival of the guard to transport Maréchal and de Boeldieu into captivity; in many cases, there is simply a brief fade out. The scenes are united by the theme of escape, which Renoir visually expresses with a constant interplay of motion and confinement, restlessness and restraint. In almost every scene the characters are on the move, arriving and departing, walking around their room or across the parade ground, and—in the memorable train sequence—being shipped from one prison camp to another. But their movement is always abridged, by a closing door, a wire fence, an armed guard. All this changes when Maréchal and Rosenthal are able to break out of their fortress prison: suddenly, the walls that contained the prisoners’ community are gone, replaced by an open landscape that is disconcertingly spacious and unbounded
The dramatic experience is the eye-catching is the politeness displayed by aristocratic Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) towards his noble prisoner, De Boeldieu – a portrait of a dying breed sketched with the same empathy, even sorrow, displayed by Powell and Pressburger in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ six years later. Such sharply political films are rarely so entertaining, natural and compassionate. The a gentlemanly world based on codes of honor, valor, and trust, are just as destructive, so Renoir suggests, as the bombs and gas in the trenches at battle’s front, offering no more hope for the future than a bullet to the heart.
Renoir’s masterwork portrays was recognized by most intelligent viewers of the time as a world that had long before been destroyed, that the characters of Grand Illusion existed, at the time of the film’s making, in a world of the dead. Accordingly all their values, whether fascistic or humane, were “grand illusions,” visions of a world that would be destroyed by the war in which they were engaged. By moving us away from the front lines, removing us from the playing fields, so to speak—and Renoir’s work is very much one about the relationship of soldiers and children at play……we can more intensely see the aberrations of all concerned.
- Directed by Jean Renoir
- Produced by Uncredited: Albert Pinkovitch & Frank Rollmer
- Written by Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir
- Casting: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay & Erich von Stroheim
- Music by Joseph Kosma
- Cinematography: Christian Matras
- Editing by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir
- Studio: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique (RAC)
- Distributed by World Pictures (original U.S. release) & Janus Films (later release)
- Release dates: 8 June 1937
- Running time: 114 minutes
- Country : France
- Language: French