Outstreched arm

Friday, August 12, 2005

Chain Gang vs Grand Illusion

I'd like to quickly compare & contrast two "prison-break" movies I recently watched, Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937).

The reason I used caution quotes in the above paragraph is that both movies tend to get mentioned as prison-break firsts and sources of inspiration for subsequent jailbreak flicks. While this may be true, it would be unfair to label these two as such since neither movie focuses on the nuts and bolts of escaping all that much, and both have bigger fish to fry: in the case of Chain Gang, the cruelness of fate, the cruelness of people, and the logic of the penal system; in llusion, the human interactions behind those of larger entitites (armies, nations, states).

Fugitive follows WW2 veteran James Allen who decides to add more life to his years after being subjected to the routine and regime of the army. Nothing works out in his favor, though, and he ends up in jail after he's unknowingly drawn into a robbery. He serves his time in a chain gang that must make the army seem like a hippy commune. Eventually he escapes and after some trepidation, finally starts his life the way he'd planned to. But this only lasts so long - a venomous girlfriend (though quite seductive in her first scene) reveals his secret just as he's becoming one of Chicago's most prominent citizens. He now faces the chain gang again, unless the public sympathy for him and the outrage he sparks about the inhumane prison conditions keep him a free man.

Grand Illusion is the story of Capt. de Boeldieu, Lt. Maréchal, and other prisoners of a German P.O.W. camp. From the very first scene it's quite apparent that both sides consider the war a gentlemanly sport, and any conflict between them stems from non- war-related issues such as class, money, and pride. Erich Von Stroheim's charming creation, Von Rauffenstein, is the head of the prison our multinational heroes are transferred to - an honorable and, above all, polite nobleman. When they attempt to escape, he reacts with some disappointment, but stays civil. It's a film about many things - male bonding, group dynamics, folk politics, and Europe, and it's packed with strange revelations: one character is vegetarian, another stuns a room full of jailed men when he jokingly dresses like a woman. Renoir fits in every little detail of humanism he can come up with, but none of it feels forced or manipulative. If you laugh or feel otherwise with these characters, it will be genuine.

Fugitive is a very, very good movie, brave and uncompromising, with a surprising and constantly twisting story line. I also guarantee that you will remember the haunting last scene. However, compared to Grand Illusion, it's a hostess cup cake. Not because Illusion is braver or more ahead of its time, but because it's timeless. Renoir's "poetic realism" results in truly cross-cultural, cross-temporal images, such as the German war widow's huge dining table, used only by herself and her child now that the battlefront has claimed the rest of the family. You will find the following statement either terribly sophomoric or pretentious: it's one of the best movies I've ever seen.

A word on the titles: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang sounds deliciously campy, and I'm very grateful that at no time does James Allen actually say those words. Still, it's beaten by The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Grand Illusion may seem a confusing choice at first (maybe not - I had to think about it), but I believe it's clarified in the film's last sequence. As Maréchal and Rosenthal cross a vast, featureless sea of snow, the German patrol stops shooting at them because they've crossed into Switzerland. A silly sense of "playing by the rules" on the Germans' part, or basic humanity in diguise? In either case, the illusion of there being clear-cut borders between peoples is unmasked.

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