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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Grand Illusion (1937)



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Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is the granddaddy of all POW films. Stalag 17, The Great Escape, and even Hogan's Heroes owe their existence to it. But Grand Illusion, inasmuch as it works entirely as a genre POW movie and a chronicle of an ingenious and suspenseful escape, is more besides. It's the story of a changing world. The class system is in its death throes. Men are abandoning the old codes of honor. On both sides of the war, there are men who can make that transition and men who cannot. The prisoners of war seek escape or liberation, whichever comes first. Some get out, only to find they don't have a place in the new world.

Although most of the films Grand Illusion inspired are set during World War II, Grand Illusion is inextricably grounded in World War I, a very different war that people on both sides felt very differently about. The film captures the complexities of those feelings in a way no other film ever has. Yet it was made when World War II was on the horizon and has thoughts -- or perhaps more accurately feelings -- to express about that.

The Nazis weren't so keen on what the movie had to say. It was confiscated when they occupied France, and the original negative was thought to be lost for decades. After a complicated move to Germany, then Russia, then back to France, we now have a pristine DVD transfer of this great treasure.