Set during World War I is tells the story of two French Aviators, their capture and subsequent confinement and escape. This film is as much about class and background as it is about war. Indeed one could argue that the war is only a vehicle to carry the story of class difference and how it impacts on the lives of all those concerned. It was directed by the great Jean Renoir (Madame Bovary, 1934) who co-wrote it with Charles Spaak (Justice is Done, 1950). Centred around our two heroes the two aviators; Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay, The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934) the aristocrat of the pair and his working-class lieutenant, Maréchal (Jean Gabin, Le Jour se Leve, 1939). Having gone out to further photograph a site which they filmed on a previous flight (but was too blurred to be of use) our aviators are shot down. As it turns out they are downed by a German aristocrat, a one Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim, Sunset Blvd. 1950). In the earlier part of the war the aviators saw themselves as the last of the gallant military and often observed social niceties across the divide, as in this case. After shooting them down, von Rauffenstein has the two men found and brought to him, where they are invited to be his guests. During the course of the dinner it is realised that von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu actually have mutual acquaintances, reflecting the nature of the trans-national lives European aristocrats often lead.
The two aviators are subsequently sent to a POW camp where they fall-in with a number of fellow prisoners. During their incarceration here we see how Maréchal is given solitary confinement as a result of a commotion; we also see how badly it affects him. Out with the main population the two are fully involved in escape attempts, which ultimately come to nothing as the prisoners are transferred and Maréchal cannot let the English prisoners know of a escape tunnel due to his lack of language.
Transferred to various camps they arrive at Wintersborn, a camp under the command of the now injured and promoted von Rauffenstein. Once again escape is on their minds and along with the rich aristocratic Jew Le Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio Donovan’s Reef, 1963) who they know from their previous camp, they plot to escape. As part of the escape Boeldieu climbs to a highpoint and gets the guards attention. His fellow aristocrat, von Rauffenstein, stops the guards from shooting him and tries to get him down, meanwhile the other make a run for it and climb out/down using the usual home-made assortment of rope/cloth. Von Rauffenstein, aiming for Boeldieu’s legs shoots him in the stomach and fatally wounds him. While dying Boeldiue comments on their place in society and what might be the place for those such as them in the new post-war world.
Meanwhile the others escape through Germany on their way to Switzerland. On their way there they have their share of upsets and even separate, with Maréchal leaving the injured Rosenthal, only to return. They eventually take shelter in a small farmhouse owned by Elsa Parlo, (Dito Parlo, L’Atalnte, 1934), her husband and brothers have all been lost in the war, yet she helps them recover and treats them with kindness, even keeps them safe from her fellow Germans. Eventually leaving the two make their way to Switzerland, only to come under fire from a patrol as the approach the Swiss border, they escape.
We see from the connections such as with Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein that regardless of nationalities, society can, given the right environment function at a level which is unrelated to that of nation-states and indeed should make war obsolete due to the effects it could have on those of that class, the Grand Illusion. Renoir had a message here, clearly filmed against the rising tide of Nazism and fascism in Europe we look to see how Jewish and coloured characters are treated. We could analyses the movie from hindsight, rather we should watch it and perhaps ask what lessons do we still have to learn.
Much has been written about the decline of the aristocratic or ruling families of Europe after the war and the rise of a “new world order”, one where the common man and not the landed gentry would look to guide the world they lived in. Interestingly, only 20 years after the end of WWI Renoir had sufficiently clear a picture of this decline and change that he was able to write one of the best and earliest depictions of this changing Europe/world.
I’ve held off on mentioning a comparison to Kubrick’s Paths to Glory (1957). Again we see elements of the class struggle and the changing face of humanity brought on by the war. The other obvious comparison is All Quiet on the Western Front (based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque) directed by Lewis Milstone (1930) which focused on the physical and mental suffering of the ordinary soldier in the conflict. In deed it is quoted that one of the reasons Renoir made this film was because he felt no other movie, apart from All Quiet on the Western Front, sufficiently told the story of the ordinary soldier.
La Grande Illusion is as strong today as it was in 1937, perhaps even stronger for our failing to learn from it and other writings/productions form “ordinary people”