An artistically masterful feature, the picture breathes the intimate life of warriors on both sides during the [First] World War. It gives a different slant on the inner mental workings of those caught in the maelstrom of warfare, yet never deviates from the central thesis.
There are only two references to the title but both are pertinent. Once when a French soldier exclaims ‘what an illusion,’ when a comrade says that the war will be over before they have time to escape from military prison, and again when he describes the end of all wars as an illusion.
While the plot centers about the superhuman efforts of a group of French officers, captured in battle, to escape from prison camps, the story concerns various members of human society all juggled about by the terrific conflict. Both the authors and director have laid emphasis on this in the isolated Siberia-like prison scene when two military leaders, one a shell of humanity serving as a prison keeper and the other a captured enemy officer, console and display hearty respect for each other.
Jean Renoir displays imaginative direction. He also wrote the original story and helped with the scripting. Novelty of the scripting is that the British, French and German officers are heard speaking their native tongues.
Jean Gabin recalls Victor McLaglen with his rugged personality as Marechal, one of the captured French officers who eventually escapes. He is tremendously effective in a moving love sequence with a blonde peasant girl (Dita Parlo).
Pierre Fresnay is the polished aristocratic French officer who sacrifices his life in order to insure the freedom of his two friends in prison camp. Eric von Stroheim, cast as a German army officer, appears in one of his most sympathetic roles.