In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “So much more than the good guys verses bad guys that so many war movies reduce things to.”
The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“For me it’s simple. A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.”
When it comes to movies about real life, historical wars, World War II would have to easily be the most represented. Close behind would be the Vietnam War. I get it, Adolf Hitler is such a perfect villain, it’s almost unbelievable to think that he really existed. And the Vietnam War was so polarising and politically charged at the time, the effects on that level are still being felt by a lot of film makers working today. But what about World War I, the Great War, the war that gave its combatants the moniker of “the Greatest Generation”? Why aren’t there more movies about that? Well, I figure one way to find war pictures that aren’t about WWII or Vietnam is to watch war pictures made before those conflicts even happened. War pictures like La Grande Illusion.
French pilots Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) are shot down by German ace, Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Taken prisoner, they meet a group of other French POWs who are working on an escape tunnel Meanwhile, they might be enemies, but the aristocratic, upper class upbringings of Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein mean they have general life experiences and specific acquaintances in common from life before the war.Even in a prison camp, the class differences are evident. The Russian prisoners survive on cabbage roots discarded by the Germans. They French are supplied with the actual cabbages, but dine mainly on delicacies mailed to them by friends and family back home. While the English enjoy plumb pudding. All of these little details go to show the similarities, for better or worse, between these different nations, regardless of their status as allies or enemies.
For the first act or so, I assumed La Grande Illusion was a clear predecessor to The Great Escape. The methods of tunnel digging and dirt disposal were very similar, and the prisoners made up of a range of colourful characters with their own particular quirks seemed like it could have been an inspiration for the various specialists of the classic WWII escape caper. But what The Great Escape didn’t have was any sort of German perspective.
The krauts are pretty faceless and one dimensional in that movie, there only to thwart the work of the allies. But in La Grande Illusion, they make it clear that before the war, the Germans were real people too, just like the French protagonists. von Rauffenstein is a fully realised, fully formed character, with a life before the events of this story and plans for a life after it. There’s a real mutual respect between the officers here that makes it so much more than the good guys verses bad guys that so many war movies reduce things to.
It’s kind of amazing to think that this move was made in 1937. The First World War had ended less than a decade previously. And Hitler had been in charge of Germany long enough for the rest of Europe to already be