Source: Extract from Mike Newell, ‘La Grande Illusion’, in Geoffrey Macnab, Screen Epiphanies: Film-makers on the Films that Inspired Them (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 207-208
Text: My father took me when I was fifteen or sixteen to the Academy on Oxford Street – the old Academy, the one with the flock wallpaper in the main house. We went to a performance of La Grande Illusion. With it, I saw a cartoon called The Little Island. I can’t remember who made it but it was some famous and modish cartoon-maker of the time. I also saw a newsreel in which the very first Aldermaston march was featured. There was this extraordinary shot of a man with a sandwich board round his neck walking along some terribly rainy, Scottish highland road on his way to Aldermaston. All three of these things made an enormous impression on me but the main movie [La Grande Illusion] hit a very particular kind of nerve. I’ve always remembered it in great detail and it set all sorts of things going in me. I would not have gone down the road I did without that, I think. It was very clear to me and very precise. It wasn’t the anti-war message. I was generally aware of that because I was born during the Second World War and so all my uncles had gone through the war. Nobody wanted to talk about it and nobody ever really did talk about it. I don’t think they suffered in any great way. They were in Burma mostly. The war that I had focused on and was beginning to be much more aware of was the First War. It was the great literary war. I was beginning to be aware of the collision between Victorian sensibility and a modern factory method of [destruction]. I was aware of the First World War having been some colossal upheaval which wasn’t just a matter of a great many people being killed in all sorts of dreadful ways. It was bigger than that.
There are some scenes in La Grande Illusion that I particularly remember. One was the scene between the two aristocrats – the french aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu [played by Pierre Fresnay] and the German aristocrat Captain von Rauffenstein [Erich von Stroheim] who is wearing the neck brace. They were from the same class. Their shared assumptions and lives and friends brought them together. They all knew the same people. They talks about the same horse race, the Liverpool Cup. They talk in three languages. They talk in French, they talk in German and they talk in English and they swap, absolutely smoothly, from one to the other. You see that class for them is way beyond national conflicts. You also see that they are dying – that their type is not going to survive. Whereas Lieutenant Marechal, the character played by Jean Gabin, is going to survive because he is full of a vigour that they don’t quite have.
I couldn’t possibly have rationalised the film like that at the time I saw it [as a teenager] but it was very exciting to see that was clearly what was going on. I had never come across a film in which apparently inconsequential dialogue like that had such a ringing energy and juice in it. I didn’t know why it was. The neck brace that Von Stroheim is in, the way you have two apparent enemies who are not enemies at all. All those extraordinary opposites was something that I remembered very clearly and do to this day.
No, I wasn’t aware that Renoir directed it – but I sure as hell became so. I don’t think I said I will try to be a film director from that moment on. But what I did think was that this was better than most things I had seen.
Comment: Mike Newell (born 1942) is a British film director. La Grande Illusion (France 1937) was directed by Jean Renoir. The Little Island (UK 1958) was made by Richard Williams. The first Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons was in April 1958. The Academy cinema was located in London’s Oxford Street and was renowned for its art house fare. Screen Epiphanies is a collection of reminiscences by film directors of seeing films which had a transformative effect on them. Words in square brackets are given so in the original text.