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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Entertainment

Success Of This Movie Not Just An ‘Illusion’

“Grand Illusion”

* * * *

Event: Benefit showings on Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m.

Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas

Credits: Directed by Jean Renoir, starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio.

Running time: 1:57

Rating: Not rated

There was a time, it is said, when war was considered a gentleman’s game. That notion seems a bit far-fetched now, especially since war typically ends up being fought by the common people.

But there was something sporting about the European excursion called the Great War. At least, it seemed that way at first, before machine guns began cutting down a whole generation of Europe’s manhood.

By the time World War II came along, combat was seen for what it is: a bloody struggle for survival in which simple humanity, not to mention gentlemanly behavior, is often forgotten.

Jean Renoir, one of the authentic greats of world cinema, was himself a veteran of World War I. And when in the late ‘30s the world began again marching toward global conflict, the French filmmaker co-wrote (with Charles Spaak) and directed a film that he hoped would bring the world to its senses. He called it “La Grande Illusion.”

First shown in 1937, “Grand Illusion” has gone on to win universal acclaim. It was nominated for the 1938 Oscar for Best Picture (losing out to Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You”).

The late film historian Ephraim Katz described the film as “Renoir’s first great international success, a perfectly constructed, marvelously restrained film that derives its dramatic force not from its ostensible anti-war theme, not the heroism of its prisoners-of-war protagonists, but from the subtle examination of personal relationships and, above all, from the intriguing juxtapositions of national loyalties and universal class affinities.”

In other words, it was an attempt to be something more profound than, say, “The Great Escape” or “Rambo III.” (Curiously enough, it does have some common themes with the former, although it has no similarity whatsoever with the Stallone-starring latter.)

“Grand Illusion” is set in a German prisoner of war camp that is overseen by the aristocratic Commandant von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Among his prisoners are three French soldiers: Capt. Boiedieu (Pierre Fresnay), Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the Russian-Jewish expatriate, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).

The sense of irony implicit in the film’s title, which involves attitudes toward war, nationalism and class privilege, runs throughout “Grand Illusion” itself.

It shows up best in the personal relationships: Boiedieu has more in common with von Rauffenstein than he does with his own working class countrymen.

Yet Renoir, aware of the changing world, uses the evolving Boiedieu to symbolize both the acceptance and the pain of those changes.

In another benefit for Spokane Public Radio, KPBX and the Associated Students of Eastern Washington University present a pair of screenings (2 and 6 p.m.) of “Grand Illusion” on Sunday at the Magic Lantern Cinemas.

Tickets, which are $10 ($8 for students), are available at the KPBX offices, N2319 Monroe (328-5729), at Eastern’s PUB and at the Magic Lantern.

KPBX film reviewer Robert Glatzer will introduce the film, and viewers are invited to enjoy a postscreening dessert reception.

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