Throughout history, warriors have usually been part of the ruling class. Most of Europe's pre-World War I nobility held their positions through blood descent from medieval war-lords. Their primary virtues were honor and courage. But centuries of wealth and privilege led them to confuse morality with manners and breeding so that at times social snobbery seemed to be their most prominent characteristic.
These aristocrats often had more in common with their equivalents from other countries than with less well born citizens from their native lands. To postmodern eyes, this insular class has come to symbolize the kind of repressive, heavy-handed, old-guard establishment that right-thinking people want to make sure never achieves power again.
Yet, much good was mixed in with the bad. La Grande Illusion explores the relationship of two aristocratic warriors from this class who wind up on opposite sides of the trenches during World War I. They have differing views on the importance of social status over nationality, but each shows himself to be a person of superior virtue.
A pair of French aviators, the upper-class Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the middle-class Lt.
Marechal (Jean Gabin), are shot down on a reconnaissance mission. The German officer in charge, Capt. Von Raffenstein (Eric Von Stroheim), invites them to join him at dinner before they're shipped off to a prison camp.
It's not what you'd expect in a combat situation. Fine wines and German waltzes on the phonograph accompany the meal as de Boeldieu and Von Raffenstein, both members of the European nobility, talk about friends and relatives they knew before the war. They converse in English, which means that no one else can understand them. Although enemies, they seem to get along better with each other than with lower-ranking officers who wear the same uniform as they do.
Prisoners are separated by nationality, and de Boeldien and Marechal share living quarters with the son of a wealthy Jewish banker, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and a half dozen others. Their German guards treat them well, and food packages from Rosenthal's parents mean they eat better than their captors.
Nevertheless, a plan to escape is already well on the way to completion. The other prisoners have doubts about including the cold, haughty de Boeldieu, who seems more interested in discussing Paris luxury restaurants than in digging a tunnel out of camp. Always elegant with his monocle and fur coat, de Boeldieu treats their plans the same way he looks at the rest of the war—as a kind of sporting event. “A tennis court is meant to be played on,” he says. “And a prison camp is meant to be escaped from.”
By a quirk of fate, the day of their escape, all the French prisoners are shipped to other camps. De Boeldieu, Marechal, and Rosenthal are placed in a mountain-top medieval fortress that has been converted to a maximum security facility. The commandant is Von Raffenstein, whose injuries from aerial combat would have incapacitated a lesser man. He now has a neck and body brace to strengthen his damaged spine and wears white gloves to cover the burns on his hands and arms.
The prisoners organize another escape, but this time it's only possible for two to get away. De Boeldieu offers to risk his life and create a diversion so that Marechal and Rosenthal can make a run for it. This puts him into direct conflict with his aristocratic pal, Von Raffenstein.
La Grande Illusion is a remarkable film in that both the French and the Germans are equally sympathetic. French writer-director, Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game) and coscreenwriter Charles Spaak skillfully mix moments of comedy and tragedy with scenes of social commentary and suspense.
The movie is often described as an anti-war statement that discredits the idea of battle as an aristocratic sport. But the filmmakers also dramatize what was truly noble about that now vanished upper-class way of life. The moral choices made by de Boeldieu and Von Raffenstein at times of crisis show us the real meaning of honor, comradeship, and self-sacrifice. There are no heroes or villains, only a few brave souls trying to do the right thing against all odds.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.