On a mission to re-do aerial photographs over a German base during the First World War, the plane is shot down and the two Frenchmen on board are captured by the German army and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There, along with the men sharing their quarters, they attempt to tunnel out, but before they are able to they are shipped to an escape-proof stronghold, run by the same German officer who was the cause of them being shot down in the first place.
La Grande Illusion was nominated for me to watch by Pete Conway of Man I Love Films and the Rambling Ramblers podcast. I’m pretty sure Pete doesn’t know how much I love The Great Escape, so good on him for somehow picking a film covering a fairly similar topic purely by chance. Of course there are differences, with The Great Escape being set during the Second World War instead of the First, and that one chronicling one massive escape of dozens of predominantly British and American men from one large camp, instead of the smaller scale French attempts seen here, but seeing as I tend to really enjoy both war movies and prison escape films, there’s something about a film about an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp that always grabs my interest.
The focus here is on two men, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), the two Frenchmen taking the reconnaissance photographs in the shot-down plane. De Boeldieu is, as with most upper ranking officers during the First World War, more refined and aristocratic, whereas Maréchal is considerably more working class, and gets stuck into things much more than his commanding officer, despite having injured his arm in the crash. Along with these two there’s a collection of other men within their camp, such as the wealthy yet generous Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and others who are putting on a vaudeville performance for the men with the assistance of a chest of women’s clothing. The means of escape from this camp is, as with The Great Escape, tunnelling, with de Boeldieu and Maréchal joining the group with the tunnel well under way, and indeed nearing completion. I’m always fascinated by the logistics and mechanics behind the escape attempts, especially tunnelling, with requirements such as shoring up the tunnel to prevent collapsing, ensuring whomever is digging is supplied with enough oxygen, how the tunnel is covered up, how they distribute the excavated dirt etc., and whilst this doesn’t go into quite the same level of detail as The Great Escape does, there’s still plenty going on to enlighten me.
I was very surprised when the prisoners were all removed from this camp and redistributed around various others, but keeping de Boeldieu, Maréchal and Rosenthal together, placing them in an impregnable fortress similar to Game of Thrones‘ Eyrie, sat atop a high-walled mountain. Supposedly escape-proof, this presented a far greater challenge for our lead trio, and was something I’d not seen before. This middle act – there’s a third at set elsewhere, but to reveal details would divulge spoilers – re-introduces us to a character who provides the most interesting relationship in the film. When de Boeldieu and Maréchal were shot down, they were taken to Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), an aristocratic German officer who, it turns out, shared similar social circles to de Boeldieu before the war. Von Rauffenstein runs the new prison the French prisoners find themselves in, having been severely injured in combat and been promoted away from the fighting. Von Rauffenstein not only seems to resent this action, but also dislikes that his only chance at fraternising with similar nobility to himself is via a prisoner/warden relationship. He and de Boeldieu have a great deal in common, not the least of which is the memory of a particular girl back at a club in Paris, and it’s clear Von Rauffenstein has nothing against this man he’d happily be the closest of friends with were it not for his duty as a German officer to keep him as a prisoner. The way this relationship plays out is unlike anything I’d expected or seen before or since.
Some elements of the third act which did not involve Von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu felt a little out of place and weaker in comparison, but I think that’s just because of how great the interaction between those other two was. In short, I loved this film, and am looking forward to watching it again. If you’re a fan of war films, prison movies, or interesting relationships in cinema, this is truly a film for you.
Choose Film 9/10