20 February 2012

"La Marseillaise" in two movies

This is an iconic scene from the 1939 film Grand Illusion.
The title of the film comes from a book—The Great Illusion by British economist Norman Angell—which argued that war is futile because of the common economic interests of all European nations. The perspective of the film is generously humanistic to its characters of various nationalities. It is regarded by critics and film historians as one of the masterpieces of French cinema and among the greatest films ever made.
In the embedded video, a group of WWI French soldiers in a German P.O.W. camp are performing a series of skits when news arrives that a French town previously captured by the Germans has been retaken by the French.  (The embed has low resolution which reflects poorly on the film [and an unskippable ad], but I couldn't find a better copy of this scene on the 'net this morning; for a better sense of the film as a whole, see this trailer.  Or - even better - this review of the movie.)

When I watched the movie last night, there were two striking episodes.  In one, the POWs dispose of dirt from an escape tunnel by sneaking it inside their clothes to the courtyard, where they dump it in a "garden" they are tilling - a scene that was clearly borrowed during the making of The Great Escape.

I wanted to blog the scene above because of its striking (and probably even more famous) reprise in Casablanca:

And a final bit of trivia for true movie buffs: one of the stars of Grand Illusion was Marcel Dalio, who played the part of the wealthy Rosenthal.  He was also in Casablanca (as the croupier).


  1. The movie 'The Great Escape' showed prisoners dropping dirt dug out of the tunnels, from bags hidden down their trouser legs, simply because that's how the tunnellers did it when they were digging the tunnel out of Stalag Luft III.

    As the escape happened in 1944, it's possible some of the escapers drew their ideas from the Grande Illusion.

    "The next problem was how to get rid of the sand we dug out. The discovery of freshly dug sand by the Germans was the biggest single cause of failed tunnelling attempts throughout the Camps and so it was crucial that disposal was effective. At Stalag Luft III the sand was almost white whereas the surface of the camp was a blackish grey loam, so one handful put on the surface stood out and could be seen from yards away. An officer was appointed to take charge of disposal and he collected a team of about fifty men called "Penguins", who were to devise ways of getting rid of the sand. Because of compression at depth, occasional falls, the construction of chambers and the "halfway houses" (more of which later) the Penguins were faced with the awesome task of hiding, from under the noses of the Germans, 1 ton of sand for every 3-4ft. (about 1m) of tunnel. The total sand dispersed of by the completion of the work was some 230 tons. Of this, one method which was slow but successful accounted for over half the total. A penguin would have two sausage shaped bags, made from German issue towels about 20 inches long, suspended down his trousers and joined by an adjustable sling made from Red Cross braces around his neck. These were filled with sand (approx. 8lbs. or 4kg per sack) and he would walk over to, for example, someone digging a garden, stand in the trench, release a clip and the gardener would cover up the sand. So well hidden were the sacks that the penguins made some 18,000 trips between them to the dispersal areas in this way. At one point they were disposing of sand at the rate of 60lbs (30kgs) per minute - this nearly always in full view of the guards, without once being discovered!"

  2. "Joan of Paris" (1942) also featured the singing of "La Marseillaise" in a similar anti-Nazi context. It starred Paul Henreid and Michele Morgan (who was an early choice to play Ilse in "Casablanca".)


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