Jean Renoir’s 1937 film, La grande illusion, focuses on a group of soldiers trying to escape from their Prisoner of War camps (POW) during the Great War. Each soldier is from a different country, yet when brought together viewers can see there is still a status hierarchy among them. I focus my examination on the main character Captain Boeldieu, specifically on how his entire identity is his soldier status; this represents the midpoint transition of soldiers in my analysis. For Boeldieu, his material uniform represents the collective identity of his country’s values. The uniform becomes the link that “makes the social skin” of his soldier status (Hansen 372). Thus, Boeldieu suppressing his identity to embody the status of aristocratic captain can be seen through his uniform’s interaction with the setting. The setting emphasizes Boeldieu as the focal point other soldiers respect.
The first time viewers are introduced to Boeldieu, the POW soldiers are standing in line to be inducted into camp number seventeen. As seen in the video below, the camera pans through the line to show the guards and prisoners. Passing each soldier, it is apparent that while each uniform is different, they all blend to the extent of looking equal in status; no one stands out more than anyone else. Yet when the camera pans to Boeldieu, he is automatically noticeable as a soldier of higher status because he is the only one wearing a fur coat over his uniform. Boeldieu is also standing in the middle of the cluster of soldiers, signifying his status as the crux compared to everyone else’s. His hat as well looks more expensive because of the height and gold straps making it seem brighter. The coat in addition to his hat visually makes his status more prominent. The fact that he is also the only one eyeing the camera with a smirk on his face adds to his clothing appeal, making him stand out to viewers. This introduction makes Boeldieu memorable compared to the other prisoners, thus alluding to viewers that his higher status is significant.
When the POW soldiers are brought inside to have their things confiscated, Boeldieu is once again in the center of the group. As seen in the picture below, every soldier is angled towards him, displaying his status as superior. This is again visually accepted because his uniform and coat are superior to the men’s clothing around him. The circle of men around Boeldieu is also reflected in the basket in front of the captain. The fact that he is starring at the basket while everyone else is staring at him implies the unvoiced question of whether or not he will willingly give up his high status as he surrenders his belongings. As the scene goes on, this question is answered as he refuses to give up his belongings, forcing the guard to instead pat him down. This implies that while the soldiers can take his physical belongings, Boeldieu refuses to give up his soldier status.
The third scene that emphasizes Boedlieu’s dedication to embody his soldier status is when his belongings are being searched through in Wintersborn camp. As the guards start their inspection, the camera pans past each POW’s personal space. Seen in the video below, surrounding each man’s bed are pictures, art, books, etc; each give a preview to the men’s status in life before becoming soldiers. In addition, the men are seen either reading or taking part in something they are interested in. In contrast, the camera pans to Boeldieu’s corner, showing the emptiness of life outside his soldier status in the war. The only thing he has on the wall is pictures of horses. These horses symbolize prestige, which adds to his superior aristocratic soldier persona. The fact that nothing in his space displays his personality conveys his commitment to living only to fulfill his status as captain, even though viewers hear from Boedlieu that he has a wife and mother. Adding to his status persona, Boeldieu’s personal space is in its own corner of the room, away from the rest of the men. This is a contrast to the other men’s spaces being shared between each other. This also adds to the idea that the soldiers’ statuses are divided horizontally in social terms, with Boeldieu’s being the highest. Additionally, he is the only one sitting properly in a regal-looking chair while reading a newspaper. The lack of pleasure-reading enhances the idea that he is entirely defined by his soldier status. Even while Boeldieu’s uniform looks similar to the other men’s in this scene, he still looks superior because he interacts with his personal space in a strictly professional manner. His status is confirmed when captain von Rauffenstein of camp thirteen orders the soldiers to stop searching Boeldieu’s things. Instead, he only asks Boeldieu for his promise that he is not hiding anything. The captain does not give this courtesy to any of the other POW soldiers, affirming Boeldieu’s status is seen by others as all consuming.
The final scene that demonstrates Boeldieu’s aspiration to embody his uniform status is when he volunteers to be the distraction that allows the other two POWs to escape from camp. Boeldieu prepares for his distraction by cleaning his white gloves, donning his hat, and making his uniform look its best. This is all preparation for his final sacrificial tribute; it is in his uniform that Boeldieu plans to be remembered by. As the soldiers chase him throughout the compound, Boeldieu climbs higher and higher through the castle; first he climbs the stairs, and then he climbs the rocks. As seen in the picture below, his climbing symbolizes his status rising higher and higher. For Boeldieu, this is his greatest moment as a soldier. When he can climb no further on the rocks, it is a representation that he has reached his greatest prestige in status. Captain von Rauffenstein at this time cries out for Boeldieu to come down, not wanting to kill him. Yet, Boeldieu’s refusal to leave his newfound status is consequently death as the captain shoots him. Boeldieu accepts his death though because he is fulfilled. He has reached the highest honor granted to a soldier, and he has fully embodied his soldier status persona.
By Kelsey Knight