A weird sort of (anti-)war film in that the opposing sides (mostly French vs. German) are extremely nice to each other. The great Jean Gabin (between The Lower Depths and La Bete Humaine) is pilot Marechal, flying the right proper monocle-wearing Captain Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay, star of Le Corbeau and Duvivier’s Phantom Carriage remake) when they’re shot down by the right proper monocle-wearing Erich von Stroheim – who shakes their hands and invites them to dinner.
The next section is the source of many comic/dramatic prison camp films, but without the grit and terror of many of them (although Gabin is painfully placed in solitary confinement after provoking a celebration over Germany losing a battle), since WWII forever changed the face of prison camps. The men are stationed with a series of characters digging an escape tunnel beneath their barracks, including three major Rules of the Game actors: The Engineer (jealous husband Gaston Modot), The Actor (Julien Carette, Gaston’s poacher nemesis) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dallo, the marquis), along with Jean Daste (a brush-mustached vegetarian).
That’s Daste at upper-right, and his L’Age d’Or-starring engineer companion over his shoulder:
Before they can use the tunnel, our initial two Frenchman plus Rosenthal (a rich jew who receives lavish care packages from home) are transferred to a new camp – one run by a stiffly strict Stroheim (is there any other kind of Stroheim?), now in a back/neck brace from an injury. They immediately set about planning their escape again. Boldieu causes a distraction while the other two climb down a handmade rope. Stroheim is extremely depressed to have to shoot down Boldieu, a man he considered too respectful to break the prison rules.
Gabin and Dallo on the run:
Finally, a section that proved unexpectedly resonant with Essential Killing – a prisoner on the run encounters a woman living alone (the lead actress of the film, not appearing until the last fifteen minutes) who brings him in and cares for him. Rosenthal has a leg injury, but overall the guys are in better shape than Vincent Gallo was, and Gabin falls for the lovely Dita Parlo (Renoir was always casting actors from L’Atalante), a German civilian with a young son, whose husband and brothers have all died in the war. The men walk off through Switzerland, Gabin hoping to return. But Renoir obviously doesn’t believe he will.
P. Cowie on the audio commentary:
“War is a great illusion,” said Renoir on another occasion, “with its hopes unfulfilled, its promises never kept.” Of course the interesting thing is that [Marechal and Rosenthal] say farewell to each other with no plans to meet, whereas in the original scenario, Bazin claims that the two fugitives had arranged a rendezvous at Maxime’s in Paris for the first Christmas Eve after the war, and the last shot would show “December 24, 1918,” and their table, reserved but empty in the midst of the busy restaurant, as though even their friendship had been an illusion. . . . Many years later, when Renoir was asked about war films and their effectiveness, he replied soberly, “In 1936 I made a picture named Grand Illusion in which I tried to express all my deep feelings for the cause of peace. This film was very successful. Three years later, the war broke out.”