Judge Gordon Sullivan lives in a remote castle.
"Frontiers are an invention of men. Nature doesn't give a hoot."
When the influential magazine Sight & Sound released its 2012 list of the top fifty movies of all time—a list it has released every decade since 1952—the big surprise was that Vertigo had replaced Citizen Kane as the No. 1 film of all time, according to those who had been polled. Sure, that's big news because Citizen Kane has been the greatest film according to the poll for literally decades, but all the brouhaha over the switch hides the fact that the vast majority of the films are old (1946 is the average year of release) and few of the films have changed (the youngest is 2001's Mulholland Dr.). Perhaps more importantly, many people have probably not seen most of the films on the list, and it's easy to dismiss the poll because it favors films already determined to be "classics." Once a film reaches that level, it's hard to appreciate it as a film, as the weight of expectations can bring down even the greatest film. Though Jean Renoir's 1937 film La Grande Illusion didn't make it on to Sight & Sound list, it is considered a classic film, one I had avoided for fear of being disappointed by overblown expectations. Luckily, La Grande Illusion lived up to expectations, and with La Grande Illusion (Blu-ray), there is no better way to experience the film outside a perfectly restored print.
Facts of the Case
Though the story takes many twists and turns, La Grande Illusion's central figure is Lt. Mirechal (Jean Gabin, Port of Shadows), a French pilot shot down over German territory during World War I. He and a merry band of fellow Frenchmen set about various plans of escape. Though some of them are more successful than others, Mirechal and his group are moved to more and more secure prison camps. Finally, they arrive at an isolated castle where they meet their match in Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim, Sunset Boulevard).
La Grande Illusion is often placed in the august lineage of prison-break movies, presaging, most especially, The Great Escape. On that score, it meets the demands of the genre. We have thieving guards, the digging of tunnels, the procurement of odd instruments to aid in escape, and, of course, heroism amongst those trying for their freedom. Unlike later examples of the genre, Mirechal and his compatriots don't have a compelling reason to escape—no vital mission to complete, no impending death sentence—it's just what is expected of them.
This fact informs what raises La Grande Illusion above its humble genre origins. Yes, it's an escape flick, where a bunch of guys plot to get out of increasingly secure facilities, but it's also a human story about war and duty. Made in years running up to World War II, La Grande Illusion looks back at the first World War and sees little sense in it. Though some casual and more overt racism (especially against the film's Jewish character) rears its head, the perspective of the film is very much "man on the ground" and the film makes it clear that the man on the ground can see little reason to fight. Except, of course, for duty. So, the French do their best to escape and the Germans do their best to keep them locked up. There is almost no malice on either side, and both groups go out of their way to minimize the violence associated with their actions.
Overall, I was left with a feeling of benign humanism from the film. It portrays war as the "grand illusion" of the title, and demonstrates its futility. It does this without any real bloodshed, very little death, and even less preaching. That alone would make it a classic film.
However, Renoir has more tricks up his sleeve than a good story. His first coup was to cast Jean Gabin in the role of Mirechal. Gabin is the French Humphrey Bogart—not the most handsome man, but with a rugged look that disposes him to play the heavy. He's a perfect match for Von Stroheim, who is a monument to Germanic exactness. Von Stroheim is both imperious and vulnerable, courteous but not to be crossed. Much of the rest of the cast includes actors who will later appear in Rules of the Game, and they're even more charming than in that later film.
Renoir also has a way with visuals. Though much of the film occurs on sets, the director uses an unassuming moving camera to keep the action framed. Just as importantly, La Grande Illusion (Blu-ray) is sourced from the restored negative, and it does an amazing job showcasing Renoir's visuals. The print itself is largely undamaged, and detail on this AVC-encoded transfer is wonderful. Grain maintains a richness throughout, and the all-important contrast is spot-on, with deep blacks that never really crush. The DTS-HD mono track is also excellent. The original French dialogue sounds clear and natural, though some of the other sounds can seem a bit thin. An optional German dub is included, as are English subtitles.
The extras primarily consist of featurettes that cover everything from the historical era of the film, to its initial reception and eventual canonization. There's even a featurette that examines the original negative (which made a trip from France to Germany to Russia and back again).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I confess that La Grande Illusion had been sold to me as another Great Escape—a pulse-pounding tale of escape and derring-do in war. That is patently not the case, and those looking for a fast-paced thriller will not find it here.
True fans will also want to hold onto their OOP Criterion DVD because not all the audio-based extras have made it onto La Grande Illusion (Blu-ray). They're not hugely missed in the face of the audiovisual upgrade, but completists will want to keep them in mind.
La Grande Illusion is a recognized masterpiece of the cinematic form. It's a story of war, of humanity, and of escape. More than that, it's a cracking good film that features excellent performances. It's at least worth a rental to fans of the history of cinema, and La Grande Illusion (Blu-ray) is the best way so far to own the film for home viewing.
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