Lovingly restored to its original silvery luster (thanks to digital handmaidens working from a pristine nitrate camera negative), Jean Renoir’s unimpeachable pacifist classic is a gem that now literally sparkles for its diamond anniversary. The director’s tribute to the incarcerated soldiers of the Great War is funny, heart-wrenching, nail-biting, caustic and profound, touting the futility of armed combat while turning imprisonment and escape into a microcosm for society’s aspirations and contradictions. Anchoring Renoir’s story are the dashing, determined Maréchal (Jean Gabin); his wealthy, generous copain Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio); and forlorn officers De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Von Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim), separated by national allegiances but bound by aristocratic codes.
Grand Illusion was released when Europe was on the brink of a second devastating conflagration, and its theme of borderless humanism has resonated beyond the 20th century. But one does wonder about continued relevancy en route to the movie’s centennial. Its depiction of combat is romantic and homogenized; the near absence of women speaks to a bygone fraternal experience; and its illustration of international conflict as being experienced by every social stratum is archaic in an age of all-volunteer armies that represent a sliver of the world’s populace. War should never be an illusion, but for many of us it already is.