I posted this in my AP euro class, so I thought I would start out with it.

Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Dito Parlo, Marcel Dallo, Eric von Stroheim

Directed by Jean Renoir Written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak

The story of this highly influential and prized film is as interesting as the plot itself. Made as the cogs of WWII were being put into place, director Jean Renoir made this to illustrate the decline in the class system and the fall of chivalry that was soon to worsen. When The Third Reich occupied France, they placed this movie above all others as public enemy number one and banished it to a vault. An allied raid was believed to have destroyed it, but it was recovered in Paris. The rest of the world was oblivious to this primary negative, and Renoir was forced to assemble a new cut from surviving theatrical print, leading to a visually muddled and confusing reel. His original cut was captured by Russia, and then exchanged with France. It was in their hands, but it took thirty years for them to realize what they had obtained. Now, it is available on DVD for anyone to watch, and of course, they would do well to take some time to sit down and experience one of the greatest escape films ever made.

As the story unfolds, we learn from conversing German officers that a German officer named Von Rauffenstein has shot down two enemy planes. “If they are officers, invite them to lunch.” The captured pilots, Marechal and de Boieldieu, are sent to a POW camp, where they meet with a banker named Rosenthal. During their time in prison, they gradually dig a tunnel underneath the camp, a plotline later given homage in The Great Escape. Their plans are interrupted when the prisoners are transferred to a less penetrable castle, whose commandant is the pilot whose career ended with a bullet in the back. It is the same pilot who shot down the prisoners in the beginning of the story. He soon forms a friendship with de Boieldieu, both being wealthy aristocrats. However, von Rauffenstein is still a firm believer in class loyalty, whereas de Boieldieu knows his kind is in a declining stature. The prisoners have agreed to not attempt escape, so surely they would not compromise their own honor, or so the German believes.

It is a tragic flaw that von Rauffenstein refuses to acknowledge a changing world, where knightly codes and the grand illusion of a ruling class leading the peasants, which the film takes its name from, are to be replaced with one shaped by the common man. He and de Boieldieu are two roaming giants, the last of their kind. One is stubborn, while the other is accepting, and by the end of the film, one is forced to kill the other, to name him the very last.

With such a well-told tale, The Grand Illusion has influenced every prison movie ever made, from The Great Escape to The Shawshank Redemption. It’s an incredibly shock that it took so many decades for the original print to surface, a testament to the fact that true art will never be destroyed. Don’t be put off by the lack of color or the mainly subtitled dialogue, it is essential viewing regardless, recommended to movie fans of all types.