What Makes a War Movie: Thoughts on La Grande Illusion

How does one make a war movie? Do you show the blood, the guts? Is the movie about glorifying the war heroes that arise from battle, shaken but unbroken? Is it about the horrors of war and the depths that humanity is willing to plunge? Filmmakers have long had to grapple with questions like these … Continue reading “What Makes a War Movie: Thoughts on La Grande Illusion”

How does one make a war movie? Do you show the blood, the guts? Is the movie about glorifying the war heroes that arise from battle, shaken but unbroken? Is it about the horrors of war and the depths that humanity is willing to plunge? Filmmakers have long had to grapple with questions like these when making war movies. Before World War One, it was perhaps easier to glamorize war and its heroics.

But WWI was a monumental, earth-shaking, reality-shattering war. It saw the first use of trench warfare and chemical warfare, as well as the introduction of tanks, planes, and submarines into major battles. WWI was the first war to have been fought with motion picture cameras capturing its true horrors.

Along with the changes in technology and warfare, WWI brought changes in how war is portrayed on the silver screen. Men were coming back shell shocked – we know now that what they were suffering from PTSD. People had seen firsthand that war was not a fun romp through Europe. It had been hell. How, then, should it be portrayed in movies?

For Jean Renoir, co-writer and director of La Grande Illusion (DVD 213), the best way to portray WWI was to not show any battles at all.

La Grande Illusion premiered in 1937, to much praise in France. An estimated 12 million tickets were sold in France. It reached similar heights in the United States, becoming the first foreign language film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. FDR declared that “all the democracies in the world must see this film.”[i] Nazi Germany declared it “Cinematic Public Enemy no. 1.” More than 80 years since its release, it still appears on lists of the greatest films ever made. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97%.

Why is a war movie that shows no war held to such acclaim? Part of its appeal is due to the time when the film was made. Almost 20 years had passed since the guns were laid down at the end of World War One. The war was not fresh in the minds of many. Instead, many were focused on the economic recession gripping the world: the Great Depression had hit America hard, and was taking many European countries down with it. Germany, in particular, was struggling. Nazis had come to power. The world was on the precipice of war again. Two years later the world would plunge into World War Two. WWI was called the “War to End All Wars,” but barely 20 years separates it from an even larger, even bloodier, even more horrific war.

La Grande Illusion was a film about a group of men whose bond transcended the radical national identities that now dictated the world. Indeed, Renoir used the film as a lens through which he explored European culture before the rise of fascism.

Renoir very purposefully left the fighting out of La Grande Illusion. By 1937, every Frenchmen understood the horrors of WWI. He focused the film on a group of French soldiers being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp.  He wanted to rectify the fact that he had seen only one film – All Quiet on the Western Front – “giving a true picture of the men who did the fighting.”[ii] By focusing on the men instead of the battles, Renoir was able to examine the universal experience of men who fought in WWI. The class dynamics and prejudices that play out through the prisoners and guards rang true for many who saw the film when it premiered. There is little animosity between the French soldiers and the German soldiers: ultimately, they all know that the war is futile, and are not the fanatic nationalists of WWII. Indeed, many of the nations who fought against each other during WWI had previously been allies or connected through royal families.

Through La Grande Illusion, Renoir was able to paint an accurate picture both of the culture of the time as well as the experiences of men who fought. Ultimately, La Grande Illusion is about the empty frivolousness of WWI. The title in itself is in reference to both the idea that the war would end all wars, as well as the idea that the war was for a heroic higher purpose. These are the grand illusions that swept men into the war, and these are the grand illusions that the movie proves are not true.

La Grande Illusion is entirely unlike other war movies, and this is perhaps why it resonates with audiences even through generations with no memory of WWI.

— Written by Melissa Galvin, Media Services Student Assistant

[i] http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/76799/Grand-Illusion/articles.html

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/movies/renoirs-vision-for-a-united-europe-in-grand-illusion.html