Saturday, September 6, 2014

Grand Illusion

The World War I in Classic Film Blogathon observes the centennial of the first World War through the films based on or inspired by it, hosted by Movies Silently and Silent-ology. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

Grand Illusion
seen @ "Films on the Green Festival," Pier 1, Riverside Park, New York, NY

When I was in college, I took an art class whose specific name I don't remember, but I certainly recall the teacher. Julie was perhaps my favorite college instructor, partly because she was such a cool person, but also because she encouraged us to think outside the box when it came to our art, and to try things we wouldn't ordinarily do.

In the second half of the class, in the spring, our assignment for the whole semester was to make an art book - a booklet of whatever size featuring original artwork which may or may not have a theme. (See here and here for examples.) This was a new concept to me, and though she didn't say otherwise, I thought she meant a graphic novel, so that's what I did. After wracking my brain for ideas, I came up with a story set during World War 1. Why? Like I said, Julie encouraged us to think big. Even though I had never written a war story of any kind before, nor did I have any experience with drawing things like biplanes or tanks or guns (all of which had to be period- and place-specific), I took a shot.

No, I won't go into detail about it because looking back on it now, the end product is pretty damn embarrassing. I will say a few things about it: I lucked out in finding a photo book on WW1 in a used bookstore, which was of tremendous value. Still have it, in fact. I put myself and a bunch of my friends in the story as characters, which they got a kick out of. And Julie liked my finished book (which I bound myself as well) enough to give me a passing grade. Still, if I were to do it again, it would look very different.

The WW1 movies I've seen almost never get into the politics of the conflict. They tend to just plop you down into the middle of the war and assume you understand why it's going on in the first place. World War 2 movies, on the other hand, tend to be different. It's easy to see why Hollywood, and indeed, the European film industry as well, returns to WW2 time and again, even today. For one thing, it's still within living memory for some. More importantly, though, there are clearer-cut good guys and bad guys. When the Pearl Harbor centennial comes around in 2041, I have no doubt that it'll be a major event that every American will reflect on to one degree or another. The generation who grew up with WW1, by contrast, is gone, and the name Franz Ferdinand is arguably better known today as that of a rock band.

Still, the movies we got out of WW1 are good, and few are better than Grand Illusion. For one thing, Erich von Stroheim gets to speak three different languages, which is pretty boss. It may seem quaint, the way it depicts German officers having such respect and even admiration for their French counterparts, even though they're on opposite sides of the conflict, but I think it says something about the common humanity they share. It's so easy to make the enemy out to be unworthy of mercy or sympathy, especially when they come from another culture.

And of course, for those of us removed from the fighting, it's an aspect of military culture we rarely get to see - at least, not while the fighting's still going on. I'm reminded, as I write this, of a documentary that I saw earlier this year, The Second Meeting, in which two soldiers on opposite sides meet in civilian life years after they met in combat. Once again, war is incapable of obscuring the things we all share, on both sides of the battlefield.

It was a huge crowd, or at least it felt like one, at Riverside Park's Pier 1 on the night I saw the movie, back in July. The pier is comparatively skinny, and everyone was seated close together, which certainly made it seem like there was lots of people. They ran out of seats at one point and the latecomers simply sat down on the concrete, maybe 20-30 feet behind the seated audience at least. It wasn't as windy that night as it was last year, when I went there to see Gold Diggers of 1933, but the weather out on the Hudson River was still cool and pleasant.

The woman seated next to me told me that she and her husband (I think he was her husband, anyway) came without knowing what movie was playing. I had to tell her! They were an older couple, perhaps in their 50s or 60s. They had heard that movies were being shown at Riverside and decided to come down for a lark. I had never heard of anybody doing anything like that before, though now that I think about it, I'll bet it may happen more often than I imagine. Still, I thought it was quite a leap of faith on their part. I mean, the movie could've been Manos: The Hands of Fate for all they knew!

She had a bit of a problem seeing the subtitles in the beginning. She switched seats with hubby but that didn't seem to help. I was sitting on the aisle, and I thought about letting her switch with me, but then she whipped out her cell phone and started texting somebody, and as soon as I saw that, I thought, the hell with it. Let her suffer! They both ended up moving forward when space opened up, so I never found out what she thought of the movie. Oh well.

Other WW1 movies:
Sergeant York
All Quiet on the Western Front
War Horse


  1. The respect between opposing officers is something that interests and moves me, especially in the face of such destruction.

    "Still, if I were to do it again, it would look very different." Sometimes it is helpful to look back. Sometimes I find myself blushing inwardly for days.

    "They were an older couple, perhaps in their 50s or 60s." Hey! 50 is the new 30!

  2. Well, they were older than me, anyway!

  3. Am loving the blog...... Thank you
    Greetings from an old movie geek from wales

  4. You're quite welcome! Drop by anytime.

  5. Thanks so much for joining in the event. You are so right, modern audiences and filmmakers seem unsure of how to handle WWI (I have seen several films that simply treat the Germans as Nazis). It was a complicated war but then wars are complicated. Perhaps WWII was the fluke, right?

    Ugh! People who text at the movies should have their theater privileges revoked.

    1. As time goes by, I've become more convinced that WW2 was indeed the fluke!

  6. I saw a 75th anniversary showing of this a couple of years ago and was really impressed, I'm not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn't this overwhelming, part-humorous, part-poignant epic film. It clearly influenced everything from Stalag 17 to The Great Escape. And just when you think the film can't better itself, there's a christmas miracle...

  7. It's definitely more than just a war film.

  8. I have enjoyed this one since I first saw it on PBS when I was in grammar school. Then I read about it in one of those 50 greatest films book. Then I read Renoir's autobiography. I don't know how many times I have seen the movie, but I always see something new. Thanks for sharing your art class memories with us. That must have been a good one.

  9. It was a class that was a first step in the evolution of my work, so yeah, it was indeed a good one.

  10. I agree re: WWI and the "politics of the conflict", and I think that's why there are more WWII movies than WWI movies. You raised a good point there.

    I'm keen to see this movie because (1) Erich von Stroheim and (2) Erich speaks three languages. Thanks for the introduction to this film. :)

  11. I like how you contrasted today's perception of WWI with WWII...definitely thought-provoking. Thanks for joining the blogathon--Grand Illusion was one of the films I was hoping someone would cover!

  12. A comparison seemed only natural to me. They were such different conflicts, and our involvement in them both led to such different outcomes. I'm kinda surprised more people didn't compare the two.


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