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Exploring Duty and Social Class in World War I

Posted on Mon, November 6, 2017
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La Grande Illusion, Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique, 1937

Directed by Jean Renoir

Starring Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo, and Pierre Fresnay

La Grande Illusion is widely regarded as a masterpiece of French cinema and is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. The story explores class relationships among a small group of French soldiers who are prisoners of war during World War I (WWI) and are plotting to escape. The lead characters are two French aviators who were shot down by a German pilot and aristocrat, played by Erich von Stroheim. After they are captured, the French pilots meet their German foe and discover they have mutual acquaintances, revealing a familiarity within the upper classes that crossed national boundaries. The film depicts the decline of the European world of privilege caused by the war and the complex and divergent reactions to the passing of the old order.

The story follows the prisoners as they are moved from camp to camp and plot various escape attempts.  Two of the characters ultimately flee and begin an uncertain journey as escapees hoping to find their way to Switzerland. This journey serves as the backdrop to exploring the role of duty and the relationships between different social classes thrown together in a world disrupted by war. Ironically, this is a war film without any depiction of battle. The inhumanity of war is shown through the intimate thoughts and reflections of the characters rather than overt battle scenes. Director Jean Renoir seeks to refute the idea that war accomplishes anything; his intent is to portray war as a futile exercise. For Renoir, the idea that any war will change the world and end conflict forever, is false. Indeed, that is the “grand illusion” to which the title refers.

La Grande Illusion is a complex and compelling piece of filmmaking. To see it is to understand the power of cinema to help us explore ourselves as individuals and reflect on the larger world in which we live.

Before the screening on November 11, at both the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, join us for a fun and informative quiz game and test your knowledge of WWI aviation history.

La Grande Illusion will be shown at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Request free tickets for the screenings. Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen is a year-long film series showing Hollywood’s finest feature films on World War I, and is part of the National Air and Space Museum’s observance of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War.