The first time I saw this film I was in my early twenties and I couldn't see what all the fuss was about; I knew it was universally acclaimed as one of the two masterpieces that Jean Renoir directed in the 30's, and while I could see the attraction in the second of these two, Rules of the Game(1939), La Grande Illusion left me cold. While I still think Renoir's La Bete Humaine(1938) is a better film, and his Crime De Monsieur Lange (1936) is just as good, I can now see that La Grande Illusion is also worth watching.
The film starts when two French soldiers, the commoner Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the aristocrat Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), go up in a plane and get shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans. The first half plays out much like The Great Escape, except that this is World War One not Two, and all the soldiers in the German prison camp are French. But they likewise dig a tunnel out from under their barracks and there is even a sequence of the men dropping earth from inside their trousers and mixing it into the topsoil with their feet, which was presumably the inspiration for an identical sequence in The Great Escape.
The first half of La Grande Illusion is a bit slow depending on your patience for scenes of bored French soldiers sitting around talking about what they miss back home, the bars they frequented in the Champs Elyssees and the current fashions in women's hemlines in Paris. But I liked the scene where they get on stage and sing a French version of 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', and then 'La Marseillaise'. Renoir shows the French defiant against their German captors, but as they do so half of them are wearing dresses: he seems to be having some fun at the whole concept of nationalism. And as Gary Cooper's iconic face was once used to represent the resilience of America manhood, Jean Gabin's features seemed to personify French strengths in the 1930's, and there are some beautiful shots of him. They are fine examples of what was special about the French poetic realist style of that decade, the soft impressionistic beauty that Renoir, Carne, Duvivier and a few other directors achieved.
If the first half served as the prototype for The Great Escape, the second half surely did likewise for The Colditz Story: a few of the men, including Marechal and Boeldieu, are moved further into Germany to an ancient castle that's being used as a prison. Much is made of class differences in the movie. Renoir was fascinated by how German and French aristocrats had things in common with each other which they didn't have with their fellow countrymen of lower status, bonds which even war couldn't break. Erich Von Stroheim, playing a rigid-necked Prussian officer in charge of the castle, apologises to Boeldieu when he shoots him; it grieves him greatly to have killed a fellow nobleman, despite the fact he comes from an unfriendly nation.
Gabin's character, Marechal, has earlier described Boeldieu as 'OK, but hoity toity' and says there's always a wall between them. Yet it's Boeldieu who causes the main diversion that allows Marechal and Rosenthal (the latter played by the wonderfully impish Marcel Dalio) to escape, and for this he pays with his life. The two free men then make their way through the German countryside, to a house overlooking a beautiful valley, and some of the vistas here are as beautiful as anything painted by Jean Renoir's father, Auguste. After sleeping in a barn, the two fugitives are found by the German woman who owns the farm it resides on, and she takes them in and feeds them. She tells them of her husband and brothers, all dead in the war, and soon Gabin is falling in love with her and getting Renoir's 'We are all one' message across by talking to the German cows, saying 'What do you care if you're fed by a Frenchman?', telling them 'You have the same good smell as the cows in France'.
Remembering that this film was made in 1937, it's notable how sympathetically the Germans are portrayed. The guards exhibit none of the brutality we expect from later films depicting the Germans of World War Two; they are all as gentle as the one 'Good Nazi' who befriends Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. It's almost as if Renoir was placating the Germans of the time and trying to make the Nazis understand pacifism and humanism the way he did. Of course if that was the case it now seems that it was he himself who was suffering from a ‘Grand Illusion’.