Saturday, April 8, 2017

A to Z Challenge - G is for Greatest Film Ever Made (according to Orson Welles)

When I decided on my theme, before I came up with any other film, the first one I knew that I would do would be Grand Illusion for the letter G.  It is one of the greatest films ever made, more on that later. This is even one of the films I made my wife watch with me.  That's how good it is.  My wife is not a movie fan and doesn't have patience to sit through an entire movie if she doesn't enjoy it.  I will trudge through to the end of a movie, but not the wife.

In order to explain on how I got her to watch this classic I need to step back in time a number of years earlier when we discussing The Bicycle Thieves.  She had been in a Facebook group where people were talking about classic films and most likely foreign classic films.

Wife: Have you ever heard of a movie called The Bicycle Thieves?
Me: Yes, it is a classic by De Sica
Wife: What's it about?
Me: It takes place in post war Italy about a man gets his bicycle stolen.
Wife: And that's the movie?
Me: Well that and him looking for the bicycle.
Wife: And that's the film?
Me: Yes.
Wife: And it's one of the best films ever made?
Me: Yes.
Wife: About a man looking for a stolen bicycle.
Me: Yes.
Wife: Does he find the bicycle?
Me: I can't ruin the ending for you.  Why don't we rent it.

After she watched it with me she turned to me and said that it was one of the best movies she's ever seen.  A few years ago on the 75th anniversary of Grand Illusion it was being re-released with a restored print.  I found out when it was going to be in town and told her that we have to go see this movie.

Me: Grand Illusion is coming back to the theater, we have to go see it.  It is one of the greatest movies ever made.
Wife: What is it about?
Me: French soldiers trying to escape from a WWI German prison camp.
Wife: And that's the entire movie?
Me: Pretty much?
Wife: Just a movie about soldiers trying to escape from prison?
Me: Yes.
Wife: And it's one of the greatest movies ever made?
Me: Yes.  You remember our discussion about The Bicycle Thieves?
Wife: Fine, when it playing.

We met up with some friends of ours who also appreciate classic movies and watched it in the theater. By the end of the film, and those of you who are familiar with the last scene will know the tension. she grabbed my arm and was so caught up in the film when she saw the German patrol in the forest and was scared that they were going to get caught.

Now my wife is a believer like me and will tell people that Grand Illusion is one of the best films ever made, along with The Bicycle Thieves, and goes through the standard Abbott and Costello routine of trying to explain these movies to people.

How good is this movie?  Orson Welles once said on the Dick Cavett Show, "If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion."  Considering he made probably the best film ever made, this carries a lot of weight (no pun intended).  And it was the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture.

Now that may not seem like a big deal if you look at it from the modern film era.  You have to realize that back then foreign language films did not get recognition, and most of the time for good reason. They were not good movies.  There were a few good films, but they weren't considered as good as American films.  There was no award for foreign language films.  Ten years later the academy started to acknowledge foreign films and almost twenty years after this film was made did a competitive category get created for foreign language movies.  For a foreign language film in 1938 to be recognized for Best Picture was an incredible honor. And this movie is worth that honor.

Staring the great French actor Jean Gabin and other well know foreign actors including Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Julien Carette, and the great Erich von Stroheim.  The film centers around a group of French POW's and other foreign soldiers in a German WWI prison camp.  Besides their attempts to escape and deal with everyday life, there is the drama of the characters interacting with one another, the change in social classes as the world is changing, and the fact that even though you are at war with another nation, we are all human beings with feelings and emotions.

Directed by Jean Renoir, this movie is a classic, although that can be said about almost all of the films he directed.  In fact it was so controversial that the Nazi's attempted to destroy all available prints. The film was considered lost until the late 1950's when copies were found and restored.  We are all lucky to be able to have such a great film survive.

One last note that will be a bit of a rant towards people who don't watch films that have subtitles.  Get over it!  It won't kill you to read while watching a movie.  You will have enough time to read the subtitles and after a few minutes you won't notice it.  And when you think back about a scene later on, you won't remember the subtitles, your brain will remember the actor speaking in English.

Please see this movie.  Or watch it again when you can.  It is really that good.


  1. Thanks for mentioning this film. It's one I haven't seen and I will put it on my must watch list. I agree with you about the subtitle challenge. I love foreign films and don't mind the subtitles at all, but sometimes have to convince others a movie can be enjoyed despite having to read the dialogue! Have a good break on Sunday!

  2. You will enjoy it. And there are no breaks on Sunday, it's the only time I got to try and get ahead :-).

  3. I love, love, love this film! I must get it from the Criterion Collection, money be dammed! Erich Von Stroheim was so good in this film and he added that neck piece himself telling Renoir that it adds to the effect of the character...which it does. Jean Gabin was a big matinee idol in France and I believe Pierre Fresnay was from a noble family so it all adds to the film. Great review on a powerful film. In the 1930's, many people from Europe left and went to Hollywood so the mass exodus hurt the film industry. In the 1920's you had the great German Expressionism that one later sees in horror films and Film Noir. I also love The Bicycle Thieves and it is so heart-wrenching what this man goes through with his son. I am on board with you about sub-titles

  4. It's been maybe 30 or 40 years since I've seen this so I probably need to watch it again. It didn't make a big impression on me at the time. Not like The Bicycle Thief which I have watched a number of times. Maybe from the perspective that I have now I would have a greater appreciation for Grande Illusion.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out