La Grande Illusion (1937)

Movie Review

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La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, is a must-see film for anyone who is a serious film lover. It is considered to be Renoir’s masterpiece and has made many critic’s lists of best films ever made, including mine.

The film is about a group of French prisoners of war in two German camps during World War I. There are officers in the group that includes an aristocrat, a wealthy Jewish banker, a music hall actor and a mechanic. Pretty much a cross section of French society.

La Grande Illusion

These officers make several escape attempts. Their last attempt to tunnel out is interrupted when they are transferred out to another camp before they can complete the tunnel. They are sent to a fortress called Winterborn from which no one has ever escaped. This camp is run by a German aristocrat named Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).

The French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) forms a bond with Captain Rauffenstein but sacrifices his life in order to help his fellow officers, working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) finally escape. These class distinctions are essential to the story and are part of the overall theme of the illusion of class barriers which artificially separate men in society. The themes of race and ethnicity are also explored. The men are rescued by a German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and eventually make it across the border to Switzerland.

Two other famous movies were directly influenced by La Grande Illusion: The Great Escape and Casablanca. The digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape is performed in the same way as in La Grande Illusion including the way the prisoners hide the dirt from the tunnel in their pants and shake it out on the ground during their exercises period. The singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can also be found in La Grande Illusion.

La Grande Illusion is an anti-war film in which the main thesis is the futility of war. It relies heavily on ideas from the book The Great Illusion by Norman Angell published in 1909. Angell argued that the cost of war was so great that no one would risk starting a war because the result would be disastrous. Of course, this proved to be illusory.

The title of the movie seems to have multiple layers of meaning. The futility of war, the artificial boundaries between men in class distinctions and even the artificial and invisible borders between countries. In the last scene of the movie as Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape into Switzerland across a snowy mountainside a German patrol spots the men and fires shots at them. The order is given to stop shooting as the prisoners are over the border into Switzerland. The camera pans down the mountain side to the two men. Marechal asks, “Are you sure we are in Switzerland, it’s so alike?” Rosenthal, who has a map, says, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”

This is a movie that has definitely stood the test of time in every way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philly PD

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When I moved back to Kentucky a few years ago I got into the car business for a while to make some quick easy money. I did this for a few years with a little time off to do some teaching in the Jefferson County School System.

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One day while I was at the car lot a customer came in and said he wanted to take a look at that Land Rover we had on our lot. I said sure and proceeded to show it to him. During the course of our conversation I noticed a medallion hanging around his neck from a gold chain. I recognized the symbols on the medallion and I asked the man, “Say, were you ever a Philadelphia Police Officer?”  “Why, yes,” he answered, “But I retired from the force to move down here.”

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“Oh, I see. Well, I lived in Philly for 18 years and I recognized the medallion. What made you decide to move to Kentucky?”

“The cost of living is much cheaper here,” he answered. Which is true. “And I got a job teaching kids with learning disabilities here in Louisville. It’s an easy $50,000 a year. You should give it a try.”

“I just might,” I answered. Little did he know he was the inspiration for my short lived career as a teacher.

As we got to know each other a little better during the demonstration process he let me know that he also did a couple of tours in Iraq.

“Wow!” I said. “Let me ask you, I just have to know, what was more dangerous, Philly or Iraq?”

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Without an instant’s hesitation he said Philly. I smiled because I was pretty sure I knew the answer to the question. I thanked him for his service. I didn’t sell him the car, but I got a good story out of the deal.

 

 

 

 

American Sniper

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I have seen the film and I think it is quite good, but my reaction is complicated by the fact that I have a visceral dislike for the whole concept of sniper fire. Shooting people from a distance who never knew what hit them seems a little unseemly to me. I don’t like it. Put that together with the fact that the real life Chris Kyle was a racist and a bigot and would basically shoot any Iraqi, man, woman, or child, gives me even more pause. I am reminded of Wounded Knee and the slaughter of innocents who were also referred to as savages. Kyle is also a proven liar. Jessie Ventura has just won a lawsuit against his estate for a story about him in his book that was completely fabricated. You have to wonder what else is Kyle lying about. Not to mention the fact that we should not have been in Iraq in the first place. It was not a just nor a good war. But this story transcends the life of the real Chris Kyle and brings to our attention the plight of the American soldier returning from multiple deployments and the psychological trauma inflicted upon these tortured souls. Attention must be paid!