Movie Review #749
Directed by Jean Renoir. Scenario and dialogue by Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir. Produced by Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer (both uncredited) for Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique. Starring Jean Gabin, Eric von Stroheim, Dita Parlo, and Pierre Fresnay. Uncredited cameo: Carl Koch. Distributed by World Pictures Corporation with English subtitles on September 12, 1938. Also released in France on June 4, 1937. Re-released on September 7, 1944 in France; on June 21, 1972 in France; on August 27, 1999 in the USA; and in a restored version on February 15, 2012 in France. Not rated. Runs 114 minutes. (1937 release: 94 minutes; German: 107 minutes.)
The first movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture was “Wings”. That was a movie about World War I, and you’d find a lot of those in 1927. Believe it or not, t wasn’t for many, many years that audiences actually got tired of seeing dogfights and–in the case of films like the third-ever Best Picture winner, “All Quiet on the Western Front”–trench warfare. And I’m not just talking about American movies. This was a worldwide trend, and it was in 1937 (nearly two decades after the end of the war) that France made their best-known contribution.
It’s rather brave that “La Grande Illusion” breaks new ground in the ongoing trend. This film has not one scene with trench warfare or dogfights. Instead, it’s a more dramatic look at the war, with strategy being the key element here. There’s an episodic approach wherein director Jean Renoir covers the lives of all social classes from England, Germany, Austria, and France. Apparently this all-encompassing view was an attempt to cover the contemporary views of fascism, but particularly in a war that predates the formation of the Fascist Party, and with no depiction of Italy at all, the subtext is difficult to see.
The problem is “La Grande Illusion” doesn’t feel like a war movie at all. There’s just so much strategy and so little involvement in the actual plans. Eventually, every character is just talking to hear themselves talk, it seems. “La Grande Illusion” practices a good idea, but the going-about is mediocre. The movie is an influential one, and I can see that in part: the lighting and set decoration make for several memorable shots; I felt like I’d seen these shots imitated in later movies and given the plethora of motion pictures I’ve sen, it’s quite likely. Oh and Erich von Stroheim is worth his mention (even if he’s credited as Eric, not Erich). This man was a revolutionary director during the silent era, and he too can act, so I have learned. Maybe this is a classic and I’m just seeing small parts of that, or maybe Jean Renoir just has a tight-ass grip on his filmmaking technique. I’m not saying I was hoping for jazz, but this is just too far classical. ✴
– Alexander Diminiano