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,Grand Illusion

Grand Illusion (1937) - July 18

Working at TCM has boundless perks, but perhaps none more thrilling than getting a chance to form friendships with classic stars. And calling Norman Lloyd a pal is a particular blessing. So I phoned Norman one Sunday morning to ask him about one of his great friends, Jean Renoir, and Renoir's masterpiece, Grand Illusion.

"I was talking to Jean one day about Grand Illusion," Norman says. "He thought he would be making a suspense story with a little love story inside, but it turned out to be one of the great antiwar pictures of all time."

It's the story of three French officers in World War I, detained in a German POW camp under the command of an aristocratic German officer, played by Erich von Stroheim. He bonds with one of the French officers--Pierre Fresnay--whose class status he shares. To von Stroheim, their upper class bond is as powerful as his connection to country. He may be a German officer, but he's a nobleman first.

Renoir was a World War I veteran, and a casualty of perhaps the most needless, futile war of the last 100 years--"A pointless war if there ever was one," says Norman.

Renoir was serving in the French cavalry when he was badly wounded by a Bavarian sniper's bullet to the leg. It was a serious injury--Renoir faced amputation. But his mother came to see him at a hospital in eastern France and convinced the doctor not to take his leg. Renoir walked with a limp for the rest of his life. But he walked. He continued to serve his country after he recovered, finishing the war as a reconnaissance pilot.

Yet despite Renoir's personal history and avowed pacifism, Grand Illusion takes no outward anti-war stance. It doesn't even take a pro-France position. By making the film "totally national," Renoir once said, "it would be absolutely international." Furthermore, says Norman Lloyd, Renoir would never overtly criticize the war out of respect for the men who fought and died alongside him and those who fought against him. "Renoir had a strong feeling about his fellow soldiers," says Norman. "He'd never disrespect them by putting the war down."

The movie is often described as a "humanist" film made by a "humanist" director. If that means Renoir finds the humanity in every character, good or bad, friend or foe, then it's an apt description. That humanity rears its beautiful head in the final scene, which still stands as one of the most surprising endings I've ever seen.

When I first asked Norman for his thoughts on Grand Illusion, he chose to quote another old friend of his, Orson Welles. "If a decree were set forth that all things should be banished and only one saved," Norman recalls Welles saying, "then it should be Grand Illusion."

by Ben Mankiewicz

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