Before Stalag 17 and Hogan’s Heroes delved into men stuck behind enemy lines dramatically in the second World War, La Grande Illusion looked at prisoners of war in the First World War ala Von Ryan’s Express. Except unlike that film this one’s a bit more cynical even for the 1930s.
The film follows a pair of French prisoners caught by the Germans: Captain de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin). The captain comes from aristocratic origins while the lieutenant from more humble ones; the film follows the two in the prison camp in which they were incarcerated as both are aviators who crashed behind enemy lines. What follows is the two’s experiences through the war as they survive in the camp.
The reason why La Grande Illusion is important is for the same reason The Maltese Falcon is important: it created many moments and scenes that have been duplicated, replicated and imitated wholesale by any number of great films. The Great Escape is among the films that have taken from this film and used the plot devices and story-telling manner this film used for their own purposes. Grande Illusion’s importance over the years has grown because of how many films have cribbed from this as well as the films this one has influenced; it doesn’t hurt that it’s a brilliant film in its own right. And it stands as the pinnacle of Jean Renoir’s career.
Renoir was a fairly known silent film director who transitioned to sound films before this film; he just also happened to craft a brilliant film in his early years of working with sound.
La Grande Illusion is an important film for a lot of reasons; it was so poignant in its time that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made one of his priorities in the occupation of France to seize this film. Buried in Russian archives for decades, and then in French, the original negative print had thought to have been lost and as such prints of the film from its original theatrical release, grimy and grainy, were to be thought of as the best possible scenario. What Studio Canal has done with this film is get the original negative and clean it up further for Blu-ray. It’s been released before via Criterion, et al., but this is the definitive version.
Both of the film’s Trailers are included as well as an interesting piece on the Original Negative and its story. There’s also a look at its Restoration a piece on its place and a piece on Renoir’s cinematic resume. Script doctor John Truby has a piece where he discusses the film’s influence on his own career.
La Grande Illusion is one of the best films ever made and the Blu-ray is actually cheaper, and better quality from an a/v perspective, than the regular DVD release. Well worth the pickup.
Lionsgate presents La Grande Illusion. Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak. Starring Jean Gabin, Dita Pario, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim. Running time: 113 minutes. Not Rated. Released: July 31, 2012 . Available at Amazon.com.