The Great Illusion of War: A Cinematic Retrospective

Paper by Patrick Gordon-Davis.

1. Introduction and Historical Background
November 11, 2018, marked the one hundredth year anniversary of the armistice which brought an end to the First World War. The “Great War,” as it used to be called, claimed the lives of at least nine million soldiers and five million civilians from some 28 countries, and left untold millions more injured or permanently disabled (Mintz para. 2). But it is important that this war is remembered not only in terms of its unspeakable tragedy, but also for its monumentally far-reaching sociopolitical implications. As one historian put it:

Just about everything that happened in the remainder of the twentieth century was in one way or another a result of World War I, including the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, World War II, the Holocaust, and the development of the atomic bomb. (Mintz para. 1)

And so, for one century and counting, filmmakers have tried to make sense of this momentous juncture in world history. Three of these films, La Grande Illusion (Renoir, 1937), Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957), and The Guardians (Beauvois, 2017), all of which focus on French soldiers and civilians during World War I, articulate first and foremost the essential unity of all people, while exploring the “great illusions” which drive them to futile and self-destructive war.

The outbreak of World War I came as a bolt from the blue. There had been no major war in Europe since Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, nearly one hundred years prior. Although various developments began to threaten the relative stability of the European balance of power, such as rising
nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, “No one expected a war of the magnitude or duration of World War I”; in fact, “most Europeans looked forward to a future of peace and prosperity” (Mintz para. 5-6). This sentiment was reflected by an influential nonfiction book published in 1910, four years before the war, by the British journalist and author Norman Angell. The main contention of his book, “The Great Illusion” (the namesake of Renoir’s subsequent film), was that the economic cost associated with war in the modern era far outweighed any potential gain. Because “the interlocking fragility of the international financial system stopped modern states profiting from aggression,” Angell believed that prolonged conflict between states was inherently irrational (Ceadel 1). In other words, his argument was that even the victor could not hope to profit from war, as war would necessarily undermine the common economic interests of an interdependent Europe. Later in his career, Angell characterized this work as “the economic case for pacifism” (qtd. in Ceadel 6). Although Angell “was not disputing the possibility of war” categorically, neither he nor any of his contemporaries anticipated that Europe was on the verge of a cataclysmic war (Ceadel 6).

2. La Grande Illusion (Renoir, 1937)
Twenty-seven years later, two years before the outbreak of another World War, La Grande Illusion urgently reasserted the economic case for pacifism. The film, co-written and directed by the acclaimed French auteur Jean Renoir, follows the capture and eventual escape of French officers from German custody. The basic point of the film is similar to that of Angell’s book: It is a “great illusion” to think that anyone could achieve anything through war, or that people are divided by national borders, language, etc., when in reality everyone is united by social and economic interests common to all of humanity. Upon its release, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed: “Every democratic person should see this film” (qtd. in Sheehan para. 1). Meanwhile, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, referred to it as “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1,” and later attempted to locate and destroy its original negative, after France had fallen to the Nazis (qtd. in Ebert para. 6). Aside from in Germany and a couple other countries where it was banned or censored, La Grande Illusion enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and popular success, thanks to its “direct and obvious connection with pressing issues of its day” (Martin O’Shaunghnessy, qtd. in Vincendeau para. 7). Its brand of pacifism appealed to a war-weary Europe, which was not ready––but already bracing––for another World War.

Tellingly, there are no villains in the film. Not only do the German guards treat their prisoners with respect and tolerance, but on multiple occasions they go so far as to show great compassion towards them. For example, when the protagonist, Lieutenant Maréchal, is falling apart at the seams after having spent many days in solitary confinement as punishment for misbehavior, a kindly old German guard comes into his cell and gives him a harmonica to cheer him up. Likewise, the German people are shown to be warmhearted: After their escape, Maréchal and his compatriot Lieutenant Rosenthal are sheltered by a welcoming German widow named Elsa. Even the ostensible antagonist, the aristocratic German commandant, Captain von Rauffenstein, is really more of a pitiable character than anything. He has been relegated to the position of prison commandant, due to the severe wounds he sustained in the war, and thus can only sit on the sidelines and watch as his beloved aristocratic social order tears itself apart. He is, as critic Roger Ebert puts it, “a man deluded by romantic notions of chivalry and friendship” (para. 11). As such, von Rauffenstein immediately cultivates a friendship with the French aristocrat, Captain de Boeldieu, who is of similarly noble birth. The two converse fluently in multiple languages about Parisian cafes, horses, and other topics of high society. When de Beoldieu creates a distraction as part of a plan to allow Maréchal and Rosenthal to escape, it is with extreme reluctance that von Rauffenstein shoots his friend, and with remorse that he visits him on his death bed. Frankly, von Rauffenstein’s greatest character flaw is his thinly-veiled contempt for the lower classes, such as the working class Maréchal and the Jewish, nouveau rich Rosenthal––but these classist prejudices are not acted on, and he does nothing which would single him out as a villain. Herein lies the pivotal but often misunderstood commentary on social classes in La Grande Illusion. One expert favorably likened its message to Paths of Glory: “the differences between people are not those of nation and language but of class” (Kelly 225). However, this reading of the film is slightly problematic. The British film scholar Ginette Vincendeau rightly points out: “La Grande Illusion advocates human solidarity across national and class barriers…[it is] about class solidarity rather than class struggle” [emphasis added] (para. 3, 5). Although the film certainly depicts significant differences between classes, to the extent that soldiers from one country seem to have more in common with enemies of the same class than they do with allies of another class, the relationship between classes is not depicted as antagonistic. (It seems implausible that a film about class struggle would choose to have an aristocrat bravely sacrifice himself to save two of his “class enemies.”) Renoir, who had previously made more openly leftist films dealing with class struggle (including a documentary literally sponsored by the Communist Party) in this case chose to portray everyone, including the aristocrats, as victims of the war (Vincendeau para. 4). Integral to the “Grand Illusion” thesis is the notion that war is detrimental to people of all nationalities and classes, and so Renoir avoided portraying a particular group of people as evil, instead focusing on the ways in which each group was negatively impacted by the war. For instance, von Rauffenstein is forced to kill the only character in the film who he had anything in common with, which represents the self-destruction of the aristocratic social order. Indeed, the war spelled the end of hereditary aristocracy and monarchy in Russia, Austria- Hungary, Germany, and Turkey (Mintz para. 3). In La Grande Illusion, the upper class is not motivated by evil intentions, but indeed by an outdated sense of chivalry.

But the question remains unanswered: Why did the ruling classes ignore the counsel of Angell and his enthusiasts, and embark on a foretold course of self-destruction, however chivalrous? If anything, World War I seemingly proved Angell’s thesis that war would be universally detrimental and unprofitable. Europe was left in ruins; only the United States, which joined the war late, boasted a much more independent economy, and had the geographic advantage of being an ocean away from the battlefields, managed to come out ahead. In short, “the war severely disrupted the European economies and allowed the United States to become the world’s leading creditor and industrial power” (Mintz para. 4). None of the great empires of Europe were ever able to completely regain their former international dominance, which they had squandered on the war. This mystery yields the final illusion suggested by the film’s title––that is, the greatest illusion in the original work of Angell. Noted economist Paul Krugman explained: “Angell was right to describe the belief that conquest pays as a great illusion. But the belief that economic rationality always prevents war is an equally great illusion” (Krugman para. 15). Sometimes national leaders simply behave irrationally, counter to the best interests of their country, the world at large, or sometimes even their own best interests. La Grande Illusion achieves a tragic depth only possible post-World War I: the realization that it is impossible to put an end to war. Before the Second World War, the First World War was known in France as “the last of the last.” But as Rosenthal remarks in a conversation about this with Maréchal: “That’s all an illusion.” This is “perhaps the most poignant of the multiple meanings of the title…the recognition that, sadly, it wouldn’t be the last [war]” (Vincendeau para. 5). According to this view, human illogic, the factor which idealistic thinkers like Angell underestimated, is the ultimate cause of war.

3. Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
Twenty years and another World War later, Paths of Glory built on many of the same themes, but with certain revisions which reflected changing assumptions in the post-World War II age. This was the fourth feature film directed by the up-and-coming Stanley Kubrick, which he had adapted for the screen from a novel he had read as a young teenager (Kelly 216). The plot concerns a self-important French high command sending its soldiers on a suicide mission, being enraged when they fail to take their objective, and as punishment trying three of them at random for cowardice, executing them as examples. Although the film received largely positive reviews when it was released, with some critics citing its “message of universal relevance” (Hollis Alpert, qtd. in Kelly 218), other critics entirely missed the point, opining “that a film about the First World War in a nuclear age was out of place” (Kelly 218), such as one reviewer for Time, who wrote:
made 20 years ago, [the film] might have found a sympathetic audience in a passionately pacifist period, might even have been greeted as a minor masterpiece. Made today, it leaves the spectator often confused and numb, like a moving speech in a dead language. (qtd. in Kelly 218)

This overlooks the crux of Kubrick’s message, which was more relevant than ever in a nuclear age. Namely, Paths of Glory recognized the need to reinvigorate discussion about the foregoing “great illusions,” with the added element of class struggle.

The first part of this message may have on some level been motivated by the disturbing reality that Americans had already forgotten the “great illusions” of the World Wars. Indeed, a climate of prosperity and optimism prevailed in the post-World War II United States, conditions not unlike Europe pre-World War I. Like Angell before them, many prominent American theoreticians believed that the threat of mutually assured destruction (this time in the form of nuclear annihilation, as opposed to financial catastrophe) would be sufficient to guarantee peace between the major world powers. For example, one of the most famous international relations theorists, Kenneth Waltz, championed nuclear proliferation based on a frighteningly familiar premise: “[Nuclear weapons] make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons” (4). The title alone of Kubrick’s subsequent film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), is an unambiguous satire of this complacent, post-war attitude. Evidently, this theme is also a subtext of Paths of Glory: a reminder that rationality failed to prevent the First World War, and by extension, that rationality could fail to prevent a Third World War.

Paths of Glory goes further than La Grande Illusion in its emphasis on class struggle, and its introduction of a new theme: the illusion of power. The night before their execution, the condemned Corporal Paris laments that the next day, the cockroach in their cell will be closer to his wife than he will be. Crushing the cockroach with his fist, Private Ferolles remarks: “Now you’re one up on the cockroach.” As one critic astutely observes:

By a brutal act of destruction, an illusion of power is achieved. Later on, the lives of the three soldiers are snuffed out as abruptly and brutally as was the cockroach’s life, for the sake of General Mireau’s illusion of power. Mireau himself is professionally destroyed by General Broulard for the sake of his power which, presumably, is another illusion…we begin to see war as springing from the love of life––the love of one’s own life…it is easily converted into envy or fear of the lives of others, and expressed as brutality, coldness, or cowardice. (Burgess 8)

In this way, Kubrick portrays the irrational, immoral, and downright villainous acts of the high command as manifestations of unfortunate but natural human tendencies exhibited at all levels of society. (Hence, why Colonel Dax is sometimes “ashamed to be a member of the human race,” horrifyingly imperfect as it is.) According to this view of humanity, it is expected that people in positions of authority will abuse their authority to further their own illusions of power––like Mireau, whose scars attest that he was once an infantry soldier, too, and is only doing what many other people would do if they had been elevated to the same powerful position. Therefore, the hierarchical nature of society, which necessitates that some people have greater illusions to maintain than others, and provides them with the political means to act on these illusions, is taken as the primary cause of war.

4. The Guardians (Beauvois, 2017)
Sixty years later, The Guardians tells the story of World War I from the perspective of ordinary women, which has typically been neglected by mainstream historical narratives. Directed by the contemporary French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, best known for his Cannes Grand Prix and César award-winning Of Gods and Men (2010), The Guardians is a work of exemplary realism. The film begins in 1915, when a quiet young woman without any family is hired by an older woman and her daughter to help out around the farm, while the men are off at war. The seasons pass, the men return on leave every once and a while, eventually one of them is killed in action, and through all of this, the women are out working in the fields. What was supposed to be seasonal work turns into a steady job, as the war rages on and on. In an interview, Beauvois explains that he made the film “to pay homage to… that class of peasants and their own particular nobility” (qtd. in Burdeau 8). The Guardians is not a comprehensive epic about war and human society in the same way as films like La Grande Illusion and Paths of Glory, but is instead an intimate portrait of the consequences war has on ordinary lives, and a tribute to the countless forgotten women who held society together while men tore it apart.
What The Guardians shares with the other two films is the humanistic view of the “great illusion,” that war is a futile exercise founded in false division, which ignores the common interests of humankind. In an early scene in the film, schoolchildren recite a poem they have written decrying the wicked ways of the Germans. This sanctimonious attitude is in stark contrast with the reality of the war witnessed firsthand by Clovis, who bitterly encapsulates the conflict for his family while back home on leave: “The Germans are people like us: workers, schoolteachers like Constant, farmers like us. I expect nothing. In one day, we gain thirty feet. And the next day, we lose them.” Even more dramatically, Georges, has a nightmare later in the film. In it, the walls of his bedroom fade away to reveal hostile German troops in no man’s land. After shooting the rest of them, he charges at the last man, driving his knife into the German’s stomach. Georges then takes off the soldier’s gas mask, only to find out that the face of the enemy soldier is his own. Both of these scenes indicate that the decent working men of one country are fighting the decent working men of another. A Frenchman has no more reason to kill a German soldier than he does his own brother, for they are one and the same––it is only through the “great illusion” that people are convinced otherwise.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Guardians is its depiction of the unintended positive byproducts of the war, most notably regarding the tragic circumstances which ultimately helped to empower women. As young men were sent to the war en masse, innumerable women were suddenly thrust into the position of having to run their husband’s farm or business, all the finances, all the work––none of which they had ever been taught how to do, nor in many cases allowed to do. “All of them proved themselves quite capable of doing [these tasks],” Beauvois commented in an interview, continuing: “the women had been better at managing [and investing] the money…and in many cases they bought more land, so the men came back to more property than they had left with, and they had more equipment” (qtd. in Shaffer para. 12). Due to a “macho element,” this did not sit well with many men returning home, who expected things would go back to the way they were before. In the film, the women overcome the initial challenges posed by the labor-intensive nature of farming, and progressively buy more efficient equipment, which allows them to economize the whole process. After the war, Solange shows her slightly uncomfortable husband how to operate the tractor she purchased and used while he was gone, perhaps a sign that women will continue to remain involved in affairs which used to belong exclusively to the domain of men. Perhaps the most salient feature of The Guardians is its humanization of women, who are usually featured only as side characters or love interests in war films (if at all), and brings their much-needed wartime perspective to the screen.

5. Conclusion
Analysis of La Grande Illusion, Paths of Glory, and The Guardians demonstrates that over the course of eighty years of cinematic tradition, a shared message of universal relevance has been preserved: namely, that war is made possible by “great illusions,” which deceive people into believing that political violence is in their own best interest, when in fact the opposite is true. Secondary differences of opinion between the films, regarding issues such as the ultimate cause of war––i.e., whether it is the product of human illogic, class struggle resultant of a natural flaw in human nature, or something else entirely––seem to reflect, at least in part, the changing attitudes of the times in which they were produced, and should not distract from the three film’s essential unity of purpose. Paraphrasing the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Beauvois observed: “History teaches us that people learn nothing from history” (qtd. in Shaffer para. 6). It is films like these which intend to help audiences learn from the mistakes of history, and thereby avoid repeating them. The prescience necessary to prevent World War III requires an understanding of the “great illusions” which lull humanity into willful self-destruction.

Works Cited
Burdeau, Emmanuel. “The Guardians (2017).” Biografilm.it, Biografilm Festival, 2017.
Burgess, Jackson. “The ‘Anti-Militarism’ of Stanley Kubrick.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1, Autumn 1964, pp. 4-11, University of California Press.
Ceadel, Martin. “The Founding Text of International Relations? Norman Angell’s Seminal Yet Flawed ‘The Great Illusion’ (1909-1938).” Review of International Studies, Vol. 37, No. 4, Oct. 2011, pp. 1671-1693, Cambridge University Press.
Ebert, Roger. “Review: ‘Grande Illusion’ (1937).” Chicago Sun-Times, 3 Oct. 1999.
Kelly, Andrew. “The Brutality of Military Incompetence: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957).” Historical Journal
of Film, Radio, and Television, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1993, pp. 215-227.
Krugman, Paul. “The Great Illusion.” The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2008.
Mintz, Steven. “Historical Context: The Global Effect of World War I.” GilderLehrman.org, The Gilder
Lehrman Institute of American History.
Shaffer, Marshall. “Interview: Xavier Beauvois on the Making of ‘The Guardians’.” Slant Magazine, 30
April 2018.
Sheehan, James J. “Jean Renoir’s ‘La Grande Illusion’.” Perspectives on History, American Historical
Association, 1 Mar. 2008.
Vincendeau, Ginette. “The Great Escape: ‘La Grande Illusion’.” Sight & Sound, British Film Institute,
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Waltz, Kenneth. “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better.” Adelphi Papers, No. 171,
London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981.

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