THE 35MM PRINT that Cinema 21 will be showing this week is brand new, but Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is 75 years old. That's 70 more years than it took to reboot the Spider-Man franchise, which should say something about how powerful this war movie really is.
The French Humphrey Bogart, Jean Gabin, stars as a WWI pilot captured and imprisoned by the Germans. He joins his fellow POWs in digging an escape tunnel, and while bad luck ends that particular scheme, it doesn't end the dream: When Gabin and his effete captain transfer to another camp, this one run by the pilot that shot them down (Erich von Stroheim), the urge to flee becomes undeniable.
There's humor and heartbreak in the first two-thirds of Grand Illusion, but the real meat of the film is in its final reels, when Gabin's flight from incarceration tests his endurance and even leads to love in the countryside. Renoir's script is both sprawling and devilishly compact. The freewheeling structure still feels fresh, and comments that "the war to end all wars" will do nothing of the kind seem eerily prescient. Yet it's not what Grand Illusion says about war that keeps it relevant—it's what it says about the bonds that people form in troubling times.