Posted by David Kalat on February 22, 2014
There’s a risk in peaking too early. Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act. Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again. And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion. As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin. But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.
Renoir had one helluva decade in the 1930s, you have to admit. From Boudu Saved From Drowning to The Crime of Monsieur Lange, and then on to Grand Illusion, The Human Beast, and finally Rules of the Game—it’s enough to make your head spin. Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game reliably show up on any critic’s Best Of list, such that if you run across a Best Of list that omits, you should be skeptical of that critic’s opinion.
But here’s the thing—that very reputation can be a problem. Before you even get started, two slots on your Best Of list are already pre-filled by obligation—and most of the others are, too. There’s no room to seriously debate the merits of most films, because the usual suspects occupy too much of the space.
This is precisely the fate of The Elusive Corporal—a 1962 sort-of remake of Grand Illusion that runs orthogonally to the things people loved about Grand Illusion. If you want to celebrate a classic film by Jean Renoir about French POWs in a German camp, it’s obvious which film would get that honor. What chance did The Elusive Corporal ever have?
Grand Illusion (catch it on TCM on Monday morning, February 24: http://www.tcm.com/schedule/index.html?tz=est&sdate=2014-02-24) was a film about French soldiers taken captive by Germans in World War I, and was based on the experiences of an actual soldier who escaped repeatedly from German POW camps, only to be recaptured again and again.
The Elusive Corporal (not currently scheduled, but available on DVD) is… the story of French soldiers taken captive by Germans in World War II, and was based on the experiences of an actual soldier who escaped repeatedly from German POW camps, only to be recaptured again and again.
So… there are similarities. The fact that the later film is set in WWII seems like it ought to be the distinguishing difference, but in practice this is a minor detail.
There is a conspicuous omission of swastikas in this film, despite the prevalence of German soldiers as characters. Never once is Hitler mentioned, no name check for Der Fuhrer. No concentration camps, no gas chambers, no Nazi brutality. Renoir left it up to others to depict the horrors of Nazi Germany. He was uninterested in portraying his German characters as monsters.
Mind you, this is not to say Renoir was himself soft on Nazism. He was an old-school socialist, driven from his home by these bastards, who’d banned his films and would gladly have executed him if given the chance. But making a film about the evils of Nazi Germany wasn’t his goal here—he’s returning to the fertile soil of Grand Illusion for other reasons.
You see, digging into the horrible particulars of Hitler’s Germany and Vichy France would have forced the film into being a very specific kind of wartime thriller.
Instead we get scenes like the one where the German commandant chit chats with the French prisoner charged with keeping the other prisoners in line, as they compare notes regarding which forms of cruelty and punishment are the most effective. In any other film, this sort of scene would be played as a way of showing how the corruption of fascism could fester even in the French, but Renoir doesn’t even come close to that. He’s not even quite going after the banality of evil, to show how mundane and ordinary Nazi cruelty could be. Instead, the scene is mostly funny, a wry comment as two jailors muse on how tough their jobs are.
This is in fact the biggest difference between the two films—The Elusive Corporal is a comedy. The hero’s endless cycle of escape and recapture may touch on existential issues of man’s eternal yearning to be free, and the systemic pervasiveness of oppression, but mostly it’s the structure of a joke, within which farcical sequences are string along. This is the Renoir of Boudu Saved From Drowning—Renoir the satirist.
Grand Illusion spends a fair bit of time developing the theme that class relationships were stronger than national ties—that the aristocrats of France and Germany would have more in common with each other as aristocrats than they would be opposed to one another as citizens of warring states. Erich von Stroheim’s Commandant formed a bond with Pierre Fresnay’s aviator on these grounds—with both men wondering how the brave new world formed in the aftermath of their war would welcome such dinosaurs of the old world order.
Similar class-conscious themes echo in The Elusive Corporal. There are no aristocrats this time around (Von Stroheim and Fresnay were right to assume the post-war world would largely exclude them), but the POW camp is depicted as a place where class divisions are erased and everyone is united in their experiences. One of the hero’s friends is reluctant to escape with him, because he knows he’ll be escaping back to a world where their respective social strata are not expected to, or allowed to, intermix.
Each of our hero’s escape attempt is more elaborate and impressive than the last, and each one introduces new incidental characters, each of whom is given a reality and a depth even if they only appear on screen for a few minutes at the most.
Along the way, our hero is transferred from camp to camp, separated from comrades, and taken ever deeper into hopeless territory—the same narrative structure used in Grand Illusion. It’s not a spoiler to say he finally escapes (what did you expect? That he’d be shot in the back?), and the final shot deliberately evokes the finale of Grand Illusion.
If you want to watch a movie about intrepid people daringly escaping from stalags, there are other movies more to your liking. You could watch The Great Escape from the following year if that’s what you’re after, or Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped from 1956, if you’re keen that it be a B&W French import.
Renoir instead uses the backdrop of war more generically to depict a metaphysical, existential kind of escape—the struggle against prisons both real and metaphorical. Yes, the POW camps shown in this film tend towards the unrealistically pleasant and livable—all the better to show how people acquiesce to their circumstances, how they acclimate to the boundaries that society puts on them. The unnamed Elusive Corporal is your classic non-conformist, kicking against the pricks because he refuses to be put down. That he is a prisoner in wartime is more about making literal the psychological struggle he represents.
(Plus, for all y’all who find the events of the film unrealistic… remember this is based on a non-fiction book by a man who did repeatedly escape from a German camp—and Renoir’s assistant director Guy Lefranc contributed his own firsthand experiences as a POW as well. I’ve never been a POW in a Nazi camp so I’ll defer to those who were)
Given the choice between the two, I’d always choose The Elusive Corporal. I’m not sure I can defend it as a better movie than its more renowned cousin, but there’s no question in my mind it’s the more enjoyable. And isn’t that really the lasting benchmark of real quality?
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