La Grande Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir directs Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo and Erich von Stroheim in this WWI prisoner of war drama where French pilots plot their escape.

Sometimes the problem with watching an early classic is that you are watching a base source. The text has been copied and improved on so much over the decades that the original is important only to film historians. I had that fear watching the opening act of Grand Illusion. It felt like a bloodless initial draft of The Great Escape or Stalag 17. Too stoic except for a ratty jester, lacking grit and dynamism. So it got there first… great… I knew Jean Gabin wasn’t going to be flying his motorcycle over barbed wire fences. But then Renoir moves a few of the established character apart to a deeper war camp. The mood reboots. Class and race are tugged at with a playful ridicule. The next big escape attempt allows for a daft little scheme. The antagonist warden, played by von Stroheim, is a layered and fascinating character. The final third is the gold… an exploration of freedom and solitude. Renoir had won me over, pulled my heart strings. The final moments are perfect cinema.

8

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