La Grande Illusion


Jean Renoir’s masterpiece “La Grande Illusion” is an anti-war film, yet you won’t see any battles in it, nor a lot of blood. There are casualties, one person is shot off camera for trying to escape a POW camp, while another one is shot in a different camp while helping his comrades escape. This to me feels like a very peaceful war movie, and one that seems hopeful, if not for peace then at least for the people who have to fight for it.

“La Grande Illusion” is in the cannon of great essential films, my first viewing of it came in a film class where we were studying the poetic French realism, this film being a poster child for that movement.The film helped create the POW camp sub-genre, its influence can be felt in “Stalag 17” and especially “The Great Escape”, where those prisoners are digging a tunnel in their barracks which is not unlike the one they end up digging in this film. Yet, the genre tropes were merely a device for Renoir to explore his themes in an interesting and accessible way. It’s really about the relationships between the prisoners and their captors, how they are all similar, despite their country, their rank, or their background, he doesn’t show this in any big scenes, but in small intimate ones that can be thought of as universal beyond any country’s borders.

We follow a working class pilot Marechal (Jean Gabin) and his higher class commanding officer De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) who are shot down by an aristocratic German flyer Von Ruffenstein (Erich Von Stoheim). They enter into a POW camp where they are met by a bunch of colorful French prisoners who are planning an escape. Before they are able to do so however, they are all transferred to other camps with Marechal and De Boeldieu, along with another prisoner they met, a half jewish gunner named Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) enter into a fortress run by Von Ruffenstein who is now grounded from the air after an accident that has left him wearing a back brace; and like in the old camp the soldiers plot another escape.

The Grand Illusion in the title suggests many meanings, it’s the illusion that war solves anything, or that it should be idealised in any such way. This is shown through Marechal and Rosenthal who are both weary of the war and realize that if they escape Germany, they will only be put back in circulation as a pilot and a gunner having to fight all over again.They lack any belief that this war will find an end, but hopefully through their actions there could be an ending.

There is also an illusion of class distinction in the film brought on very memorably through the characters of De Boeldieu and Von Ruffenstein, two aristocrats who treat the war as a duty and an honor, to them being killed in combat would be a great validation. Von Ruffenstein it is clear has missed his chance to die an honorable death, he is now confined in his back brace, barely mobile and sentenced to a caretaker position in an ancient fortress, which seems to be as old as his ideals. He has a prejudice towards the lower class, all the while he treats De Boeldieu with respectability. De Boeldieu is far less delusional than Von Ruffenstein as far as class systems go, he has shared experiences with his fellow prisoners and treats them as equals even though his class somewhat isolates him from the others, he knows that his time is gone, and there isn’t much nobility left in war itself.

But the illusion Renoir breaks down most beautifully  with his multi-national characters is the barriers countries put upon the human race. “La Grande Illusion” has no good or bad characters, the Germans are not the villain, and the French are not the heroes, they are all fighting a war that has no end, all for a sense of nationalism. Renoir is able to cut down the borders and bring these people together showing their commonalities, their joys, and their sorrows, all very much alike. A wonderful scene to illustrate this is when Marechal is sentenced to solitary confinement after initializing a patriotic uproar when he finds out the French have taken over a German battleground. He has been alone for weeks and he literally cries out for some human contact, when the German soldier comes in to try and settle him, he ends up giving him a harmonica to play with. When the guard leaves the cell, he stays a moment by the door to hear Marechal play, afterwards another German officer asks what he was screaming about, to which the guard replies with “Because the war is too long”. With this small moment, Renoir breaches the political and national need of conflict by showing how both men from different warring countries can share the same sentiment.

You can feel a great need for communication in Renoir’s film, but there is also a joy of life in it too, each scene breathes life despite the death and destruction surrounding its walls, he is able to savour the light, humorous moments as well as the tender, and touching ones, he’s interested in the people not the politics.

Mind you “La Grande Illusion” was made in 1937 prior to World War II where the Nazi Regime would stomp out Renoirs ideals, and the humanity  seemed taken over by madness. Renoir knowing a conflict was coming made this film as a warning, he believed if war was not stopped, the joy of living would no longer exist. His other great film “The Rules of the Game” played with this idea of a certain way of life, a more innocent one would be extinguished with the oncoming war, it is an idea you could see worried and angered him very much.

“La Grande Illusion” is one of the great anti-war films, it feels so humble with its thematic subtleties, it doesn’t go for big gestures to get its point across, it moves like poetry in a world of madness, it might be the only war movie to celebrate how wonderful life can be and how we are all part of the human race. Renoir never subscribed to the idea of hatred in people, he was the great humanist of cinema who saw past anyone’s faults, he knew war was a futile endeavor because he felt the human race was too beautiful to be destroyed, that I suppose is something worth fighting for.





Hot and Bothered Blog-A-Thon: The Films of 1932: Horse Feathers

This is my entry for the “Hot and Bothered Blog-a-Thon: The films of 1932 which is today hosted by Once Upon a Screen today, and then tomorrow will be hosted by Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch.  Check out all the great bloggers talking about some of the great movies of 1932. But for me there is really only one film I could possibly talk about….


If there’s one thing you can take away from “Horse Feathers”, it’s that the password is “Swordfish”. Some movies were just made to be funny, and “Horse Feathers” is one of them, in fact you can say that about every movie The Marx Brothers ever made, but “Horse Feathers was made at their zenith. They were at the height of their powers at Paramount studios, where they made five of their finest films including this one, before they were ultimately transferred over to MGM where they gained more popularity but were put on a leash as their films became more plot driven and glossed over with romantic leads and big production numbers; fine for some, but death for a group of disorderly brothers who always gleefully looked like they were about to blow the whole movie business to kingdom come at any moment.

But let me back up a bit and talk about just why The Marx Brothers themselves are so important to the history of movies. The Brothers’ brand of humour was something new to the world of film when they made their debut in 1929. They were zany, off the wall vaudevillians, you couldn’t control them, they were the patron saints of anarchy, they represented something edgy, something dangerous, they were unpredictable, wild, and even a little bit naughty with Groucho spewing double entendres like bullets from a tommy gun zinging past anyone who wasn’t paying attention. The Marx Brothers didn’t so much make movies as they invaded them leaving comedic debris in their wake.

With “Horse Feathers”, the Brothers try their hand at a college comedy, where Groucho’s Quincy Adams Wagstaff becomes the new Dean of students at the imaginary Huxley University. The main plot involves Wagstaff trying to recruit professional football players to help their team win the big game against rival university Darwin, but he inadvertently mistakes two icemen as the ringers he was supposed to acquire at a local speakeasy. One iceman is Baravelli played by Chico Marx, and the other is  Pinky a part time dog catcher played by Harpo Marx. The two then enroll into Huxley University and of course chaos ensues usually involving blond bombshell Thelma Todd who the brothers all seem to have a thing for. The film concludes with a highly comical football game that throws sense out the window in favor of sight gags, and Groucho’s occasional one-liners, ESPN called it one of the greatest football related scenes in movie history.

I could talk about the plot which doesn’t really matter, or I could talk about the gags that are funny throughout such as Groucho and Chico going through a vaudeville routine about saying a certain password to enter a speakeasy, or Harpo, cutting a deck of cards with a hatchet, or Groucho singing to the college faculty the song “I’m against it”, in where he declares “I don’t care what they say, it makes no difference anyway whatever it is I’m against it,” a refreshing phrase to sputter when heard today in our PC ruled environment. The film is full of different types of humour either physical, gag filled, pun filled, or musical, it hits all the marks. It even has time for trademark moments for Chico to playfully perform his piano, and Harpo to be at one with his harp, which is the only time a brother ever shows an ounce of seriousness in these films. “ Horse Feathers” and The Marx Brothers seemed to understand the barriers film brought, which was probably the reason they instigated their fourth wall breaks brought on by a bored Groucho listening to one of Chico’s endless piano recitals where he advises the audience to leave the theatre. This approach seems to be telling the audience “Hey this is a movie, and we know you’re watching us, forget the writers, the directors, and the crew, we’re in charge.” That of course wasn’t true, there was a man in charge with director Norman Z. McLeod who also directed W.C. Fields’ great film “It’s a Gift” and Bob Hope’s “The Paleface”. At the time The Marx Brothers could court the best comedy writers in town the same way an Astaire/Rogers film courted the best songwriters, everyone wanted to work with them, that didn’t stop from some adlibbing here and there.

I can’t really argue with anyone who doesn’t like the Marx Brothers, because usually if I find out they don’t, I stop listening to them. Cases could be made for other comedians, but The Marx Brothers to me are untouchable (another spot could be held for Buster Keaton as well); I realize that at this point you may find my opinion somewhat one sided, and it is,  at the part of this essay I’m basically gushing, so I ask you to please indulge me. I like to think there was a certain philosophy with how the Marx Brothers viewed the world, for them it didn’t hurt to ruffle a few feathers whether with education as in “Horse Feathers”, or with politics in “Duck Soup”, or with the artsy crowd in their last great film “A Night at the Opera”. To them anyone on their high horse had the right to be taken down a peg or two and they were always there to make sure it was done, they were comedy heroes through and through, what can I say I love them, I love this movie which is without a doubt in my totally biased opinion the funniest movie ever made. Swordfish!


Movies I saw in June


1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): A classic kung Fu film about a young student who runs away from his oppressive village and swearing vengence on the regime who rules his people by becoming a master of Kung Fu in the legendary Shaolin temple. The film is an excellent Fung Fu film filled with some great action sequences, and I was fascinated with the philosophy it brought to the art of Kung Fu showing it less as a means for battle but more about discipline of the body and the spirit. However this doesn’t stop the film from becoming a well done action film in the end. 3.5 stars out of 4

2. Hello My Name is Doris (2016) The story of a women in her sixties who finds a new found freedom in her life after her mother who she has cared for all her life suddenly dies is very sweet, funny, and kind hearted. It follows the beats of this type of film very well, but it’s really the performance of Sally Field as Doris that makes this film very special. Field creates a full character that is lonely, shy, but also manipulative and a little misguided. She’s the main reason to see this film. 3 stars out of 4

3. Midnight Special (2016) The fourth film by director Jeff Nichols a truly unique voice in American film, and one of my favorites. His films are becoming highly anticipated for me. This film is a science fiction story involving a father on the run with his son who has special abilities. They are running away from both a religious cult who worship the boy, and the government who see him as a potential weapon. Although Nichols borrows from early Spielberg films and John Carpenter’s “Starman”, his way of telling this rather familiar type of story is very unique and strictly his own. I have a feeling Nichols will be a major player very soon. 4 stars out of 4

4. Love and Friendship (2016) Based on the Jane Austin novella “Lady Susan”, this tells the story of a recent widow played to witty perfection by Kate Beckinsale who is the bane of the existence of the family of her late husband. We watch with glee as she moves in with her in-laws and plays matchmaker to her daughter and herself as well in order to stave off poverty. Written and directed by Whit Stillman who fills it with the type of witty dialogue not really seen in films these days. The film is a wonderful comedy of manners. 4 stars out of 4

5. The Lobster (2016) The best film I’ve seen so far this year, this dark, dark, dark, comedy builds a wonderful world where people must find a mate or else they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. Colin Farrell stars as a hapless architect who’s wife suddenly leaves him so he checks himself into a place to find a mate in time. That is only the beginning as the film goes into unexpected territories. It’s a brilliant satire on how dating has turned into a thing where couples now feel like they are assigned to eachother rather than falling truly in love. This film goes to a lot of dark places, but it’s very touching, but also hilariously deadpan, with Farrell showing off his comic sensibility just as well as he did with his other great performance “In Bruges” along with star turns by John C. Reilly, Rachel Weiz, Ben Whishaw, and Lea Seydoux. It uses a highly inventive narrration, and I can’t wait to see this one again. 4 stars out of 4