La Grande Illusion (1937) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I confess to the sin of cynicism, but it's difficult to be cynical about this film.

Directed by Jean Renoir, the son of the famous impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir, it is a French national treasure as well as a world treasure. Even if the film were of no special merit, the story behind it alone makes it a cultural landmark of the 20th century, and that saga reads like the script to Raiders of the Lost Ark.  

The anti-nationalist film was considered dangerous by the Nazis, and Goebbels ordered all prints and negatives seized. For many years it was thought that the only negative was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid early in the war, but somehow a German film archivist had managed to sneak it into a collection in Berlin. When the Russians marched into Berlin, they confiscated that collection and shipped it to Moscow. In the mid sixties, some French and Russian film archivists swapped various materials, including La Grande Illusion, but nobody had any idea that the original negative of this film even existed, so it escaped unnoticed into an anonymous archive. It was not until thirty years later that someone found it in the archives in Toulouse, exclaimed something like "sacre merde", and announced it to the world.

The only thing that would have made the story perfect would have been if Renoir had been around to hear of the rediscovery of the treasure, but he died in 1979, already in his mid 80's.

Renoir had previously supervised a restored print in the 60's, unaware of the existence of the negative, and the restoration pretty much sucked from a technical standpoint. It was just a splice of the best available prints, which were not in exceptional shape, and were burdened by unfortunate sub-titles, which were neither well placed nor well translated.

The DVD is newly mastered  from the pristine negative, with lots of extra features, and the sub-titles are optional if you prefer to see the images unsullied.

When I hold it in my hand, I feel like I'm holding on to a priceless heirloom from the family of man.

So what about the film?

What do you expect me to say - criticizing it is tantamount to saying Michelangelo's "David" really sucks. Even if it were true, there is no chance to convince the world of it. Well, except maybe the Taliban.


Of course, Grand Illusion is somewhat dated. We have learned much in the past 60 years about acting, pacing, and camera effects, and we even make 'em in color these days. One of the scene transitions is choppy, as if there were a scene missing in between. (I've never been able to figure out how Marechal got into solitary)

But the story is timeless, and parts of it have appeared again and again in other great films influenced by this one. 

Do you remember one of the greatest, most emotional scenes in cinema history, when the French used the Marseilles to irritate the obnoxious Germans at Rick's in Casablanca? Guess where the idea came from? Do you remember the elaborate tunnel digging in The Great Escape, where the prisoners snuck the excess dirt out out to the courtyard in their pant cuffs? Guess where that idea came from? 

The film restoration looks perfect, probably better than Renoir remembered it. Between the modern restoration skills and the pristine negative, the result is incredible. The narrative of the film is relatively straightforward and easy to follow. The subtitles translate beautifully into modern American idioms. Most important, don't let me or any reviewers deceive you into thinking this is some kind of effete, lifeless, intellectual film. It is a mass entertainment. It is basically an adventure story with in-depth characterizations, and I believe it is still very pleasant and interesting to watch in 2001.

The basic story: three French officers find themselves as prisoners of war in WW1. One of the men is an aristocrat, one is a working class guy (mechanic turned pilot), the third comes from a rich Jewish mercantile family.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • 1.33:1

  • Renoir's acceptance speech at the New York film critics awards

  • Renoir's instructions to the projectionists

  • filmed intro by Renoir

  • full-length commentary by film historian Peter Cowie

The aristocratic German officer from whom they eventually escape forms a gentlemanly bond with the French aristocrat, and they have an opportunity to polish their monocles together , while they discuss the death of their old way of life and the emergence of a new egalitarian world. 

The French aristocrat eventually creates a diversion so that the other two officers can escape. They make their way back to Switzerland, aided by a lonely German farm woman who shelters them because their human companionship is more important than their nationality. They share Christmas with her and her daughter before making the run to Switzerland.

Are you sure that's Switzerland. 


It all looks the same.

Borders are man-made. Nature doesn't care.


The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: one of the true masterpieces of the cinema, or any other human art form. Maltin 4/4

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. About twenty articles on file. 100% positive reviews. (Unsurprisingly)

  • It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1938. (It lost to "You Can't Take It With You". Frank Capra, the director of "You Can't ... " was also the host of the awards that year!)

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.5, among the 250 greatest films ever made.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. Of course, if you are absolutely opposed to watching a 1937 B&W movie in French and German, don't bother. But if your mind is open to such a thing, this is one of the movies that you have to see if you care about the history of films.

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