I had to watch this movie as part of my graduate film class, and I didn't have terribly high hopes. I took French classes for five years, and my experience with French movies mostly involved Gerard Depardieu in some state of undress and many cameo appearances by disrobed ladies.
But this wasn't bad...perhaps partly because it was made in 1937, before taking your clothes off onscreen was such a common occurence.
This is, ultimately, a class picture. If you know anything about World War I, you know that a lot of the class ideals about upper class gentility and the way an aristocrat behaves died in the trenches. The war was a great leveller, and that leveling is what is showcased here.
You never see the actual war. This isn't All Quiet on the Western Front. You only see some of the French officer POWs, and their treatment at the hands of their German captors. If you're familiar with war movies, you might be surprised at how cushy these prisoners have it--World War II certainly did not exhibit this kind of easy-going "don't escape now, you said you wouldn't" kind of attitude. But this was a different time, remember, when gentlemen still behaved as such, and those of your social standing were your equals, regardless of nationality.
The unlikely friendship that develops between the Frenchman de Boeldieu and the German von Rauffenstein comes out of this class mentality. They are the upper class that is slowly dying out, due to the large number of lower and working class men that are entering the army and gaining some amount of money and respectability. It is the true emergence of the middle class, and the end of the "grand illusion" that was the importance of "old money". Fellow Frenchmen Marechal and de Boeldieu can never truly be friends, even though their nationality would lead you to accept their friendship over one between supposed enemies--Marechal is working-class, a mechanic. "Your gloves, your tobacco, everything seems to come between us," he tells de Boeldieu.
De Boeldieu does, in the end, sacrifice himself for his countryman, but not simply because it is the patriotic and French thing to do. "For a man of the people, it is terrible to die in war. For you, for me, it's a good solution," he says to von Rauffenstien. For the upper classes, this was truly the way they, and their way of life, died. The men that emerged, like Marechal, were the ones who would go on to shape the world we inhabit today.
Wonderful performances all around, especially from von Stroheim. Truly overall a fairly great movie, and much preferable to seeing Gerard with no clothes.
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