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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.


La Grande Illusion (1937) on IMDb

Plot Overview

In 1914 fighting WWI the French command is humming along (“Frou-Frou”) when they are interrupted (“Oui, Josephine”) by a worrisome photo (“This grey smudge worries me.”) They send up two aviators for reconnaissance.

Two captured airmen: working-class Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are brought to the officer quarters of German POW camp N17. Their possessions (“Hide your valuables”) are confiscated (“C'est la guerre.”) They meet the other prisoner officers (“After dark we're digging a tunnel”), help them dig a tunnel (“Bon nuit”), participate in a vaudeville show, and follow the outside news of the bloody battle of Verdun (“Douaumont Recaptured by Germans.”) They befriend fellow prisoner rich Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio.) Captain de Boeldieu finds favor with German aristocrat Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim.) Then comes the announcement, “All officers are to change camps.”

German Iron crossAfter Alsheim & Sente they end up at Wintersborn, which they endure with good humor (“C'est droll. C'est très droll.”) The new German mandarin there, Capt. von Rauffen­stein renews his friend­ship with French Capt. de Boeldieu, isolates the men to “La même chambre” when they become unruly, and orders his men to “send out patrols with dogs” when a couple of the prisoners escape.

The two escapees pursued by German patrols encounter a German woman Elsa (Dita Parlo) whose actions will determine their fate.


I am including here quotations from the Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus, also known as The Wisdom of the Son of Sirach. The theme of the grand illusion is the illusory peace in the camps, the aristocrats relating to each other of the same class even though they're on different sides in the hostilities, and the common soldiers, like­wise relating to their counter­parts as soldiers just doing their duty be it to different sides. It can be expressed thus: (Sirach 13:15–20) “Every beast loveth his like, and every man loveth his neighbor. All flesh consorteth according to kind, and a man will cleave to his like. What fellow­ship hath the wolf with the lamb? so the sinner with the godly. What agree­ment is there between the hyena and a dog? and what peace between the rich and the poor? As the wild ass is the lion's prey in the wilderness: so the rich eat up the poor. As the proud hate humility: so doth the rich abhor the poor.” The common class soldier may get treated shabbily by even his upper class mate.

German Iron crossThen there is a whole series of lessons about friendships. (Sirach 6:1) “Instead of a friend become not an enemy; for [thereby] thou shalt inherit an ill name, shame, and reproach: even so shall a sinner that hath a double tongue.” The commandant turns on his new­found French friend when the exigencies of war demand it. It does not make him look good in this movie.

(Sirach 6:5) “Sweet language will multiply friends: and a fair­speaking tongue will increase kind greetings.” The new arrivals were sung to by the old hands. What a jolly bunch!

(Sirach 6:7–9) “If thou wouldest get a friend, prove him first and be not hasty to credit him. For some man is a friend for his own occasion, and will not abide in the day of thy trouble. And there is a friend, who being turned to enmity, and strife will discover thy reproach.” When one escapee gets a gimp leg, will the other one help him or desert him?

(Sirach 6:10–12) “Again, some friend is a companion at the table, and will not continue in the day of thy affliction. But in thy prosperity he will be as thy­self, and will be bold over thy servants. If thou be brought low, he will be against thee, and will hide him­self from thy face.” The German commandant wines and dines his fellow French aristocrat but when the stuff hits the fan, he'll boldly come down on them all.

(Sirach 6:13–17) “Separate thyself from thine enemies, and take heed of thy friends. A faithful friend is a strong defence: and he that hath found such an one hath found a treasure. Nothing doth counter­vail a faithful friend, and his excellency is invaluable. A faithful friend is the medicine of life; and they that fear the Lord shall find him. Whoso feareth the Lord shall direct his friend­ship aright: for as he is, so shall his neighbour be also.” Our French aristocrat proves a faithful friend to his mates.

(Sirach 9:10) “Forsake not an old friend; for the new is not comparable to him: a new friend is as new wine; when it is old, thou shalt drink it with pleasure.” It was a pleasure for friends to be reunited with friends from the earlier camp.

(Sirach 19:7-10) “Rehearse not unto another that which is told unto thee, and thou shalt fare never the worse. Whether it be to friend or foe, talk not of other men's lives; and if thou canst with­out offence, reveal them not. For he heard and observed thee, and when time cometh he will hate thee. If thou hast heard a word, let it die with thee; and be bold, it will not burst thee.” We must keep that tunnel a secret at all costs.

(Prov. 17:17) “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” True friends, they stick together, and one's brother officer (compagnon d'armes) comes through when you need him most.

(Prov. 18:24) “A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” Friend­ship requires effort to make it work, and then there's the girl­friend Elsa.

Then we get down to the necessities of the escapees making their way through the German country­side to Switzerland. (Sirach 29:21) “The chief thing for life is water, and bread, and clothing, and an house to cover shame.” Being home­less in the worst way, that shed they discover looks mighty good.

(Sirach 29:22–27) “Better is the life of a poor man in a mean cottage, than delicate fare in another man's house. Be it little or much, hold thee contented, that thou hear not the reproach of thy house. For it is a miserable life to go from house to house: for where thou art a stranger, thou darest not open thy mouth. Thou shalt entertain, and feast, and have no thanks: moreover thou shalt hear bitter words: Come, thou stranger, and furnish a table, and feed me of that thou hast ready. Give place, thou stranger, to an honourable man; my brother cometh to be lodged, and I have need of mine house.” It's bad enough in peace­time to have to deal with living off the generosity of others, but traveling through the enemy's land, one is lucky to find even one hospitable home to visit in, and even then one dare not stay long. (Prov. 25:17) “With­draw thy foot from thy neighbour's house; lest he be weary of thee, and so hate thee.”

Production Values

This mellow war movie, “” was directed by Jean Renoir—son of the painter. It was written by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir. It stars Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, and Pierre Fresnay. The acting is excellent. The fine directing is relentless using extensive camera movement and deep focus cinema­tog­raphy to produce the long take. The editing, how­ever, is some­times choppy relying on the viewer's imagination to fill in the transitions but by the same token arriving more quickly at the succeeding material. Renoir derived his film title “Grand Illusion” from a popular 1909 non-fiction book The Great Illusion, by Norman Angell. In the latter the author argued for the impossibility of a large-scale European war as a matter of economics. Here the illusion seems to be the peaceful country club-like living when war is raging out­side and may at any time raise its ugly head. The message could be that all peace is an illusion, we are so warlike. There are, how­ever, no actual battle scenes in this film.

This movie came out before our current rating system was in place, but it probably deserves a G rating. The quality of the print is excellent as it was taken off the original negative that some­how was not destroyed or lost as many old films were. This is the first film in the reputable Criterion Collection. The film is in French—w/ English subtitles—with a smattering of German, English, and Russian thrown in. The poor family's crèche figures were carved out of potatoes.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

This film has a melancholy tone, not the excitement seen in most war movies. It boasts a fine musical score by Joseph Kosma. It's a thinking man's war movie. Its construction is excellent making it worth seeing no matter what your genre preference. One might even say they don't make them like that any more. It has my unqualified recommendation.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes. Suitability for children: Suitable for all ages. Special effects: Well done special effects. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the Authorized Version. Pub. 1611. Rev. 1769. Software.

Apocryphal scripture taken from The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. U.S.A.: Hendrick­son Pub. Originally published by Samuel Bagster & Sons, Ltd., London, 1851. Print, WEB.