Tuesday, 13 July 2010

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Synopsis: First World War - French pilots get captured, escape, get captured etc. until they end up in posh prisoner of war camp and hang out with Erich Von Stronheim. Much ado about social classes pre-war.

A bit like Blackadder Goes Forth when Ade Edmonson as German flying ace Baron Von Richtoven. French and German pilots getting along in German prison camps. The officers, regardless of country loyalties, recognising the more important ties of social class.

This is one of those films where all the way through you're going 'Oh, so that's where so-and-so got that idea from!'. There's the digging tunnels/distributing of soil via trouser leg episode that we later see in The Great Escape. Then there's the scene when the French pilots all stand to sing the Marseillaise a la Casablanca.

Other lovely vignettes include the posh Brits rehearsing It's a Long Way to Tipperary and the wonderful moment when all the POWs are rifling through a trunk of women's clothes to find costumes for their gang show. One soldier dresses up and pretty much silences the other men, all no doubt dreaming of the women they have left behind. Later on in the gang show, we see one dolled up just like Hugh Laurie as the fair Georgina.

This film must have been one of the strongest influences on later tales of the ridiculousity of war, cf. Catch 22, Dr Strangelove. The constant escape attempts, close look at class/social relationships of soldiers and overall meaningless of war see this satire as a top class example of that genre (if there is such a thing).

The wonderful Jean Gabin stars, as do some familiar Renoir visages from La Regle De Jeu. The sublime Erich von Stroheim (complete with fake 'von') is just perfect as the gentleman pilot von Ruffenstein, trying to make sense of all these upstart working class men taking over the running of the world. There's a fab death scene (won't say whose), in which Erich gets to pontificate about the way of things and how everything's gone downhill that is really reminiscent of Renoir's other masterpiece (if you can have two masterpieces) La Regle De Jeu. This is a film about the change of the world order after the First World War and how seismic that shift was.

Later in the film the two French hero pilots have escaped and find themselves at the (rather lovely) mercy of Dita Parlo as a German farmer's wife who has lost pretty much every male member (now, now) of her family to the ravages of war. Dita and Jean fall in love but he is soon off to finally make his way into Switzerland and safety.

A great companion piece to Regle De Jeu, even though they deal with different wars. You could incorporate a drinking game into your viewing - taking a swig each time you see a scene that's influenced another film. I guarantee you'll be squiffy before too long.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0028950/

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