Friday, January 07, 2011

Major John André and The Grand Illusion

Reading the chapter “The Traitor” in Ron Chernow's new Washington: A Life, I came across this, in a discussion of the fate of Major John André (the British spy caught with papers given him by Benedict Arnold):

In the eighteenth century soldiers often identified with their social peers on the other side of the conflict because they subscribed to the same code of class honor. André's youth and gallantry touched the imagination of Washington's officers. [Alexander] Hamilton visited André several times at the tavern in Tappan, New York, where he was held captive and left breathless with admiration. “To an excellent understanding, well improved by education and travel, [André] united a peculiar elegance of mind and manners and the advantage of a pleasing person,” he attested. (385)

All I could think of was Jean Renoir's seminal war movie, La grande illusion of 1937. It is about a war a century and a third more recent, but Chernow's description evoked memories of the discussion between the French Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and his German captor Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) about the destruction of just the sort of grand illusion that André and Hamilton bought into.

 (de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein)


André ended up hanged as a spy, over the opposition of many of Washington's young officers, who believed he should be afforded the dignity of a firing squad. De Boeldieu died atop a building, shot while he diverted attention from the escape of two other French prisoners—the type of 'honorable' death that a soldier of André's sort would aspire to, must he die.

One of the reasons The Grand Illusion remains such an important movie is that it contains an abundance of allusions, of discussions, of culture. Of tragedy and humor. Of human failure and foolishness. Oh human dignity and honor. It brings to life the nuance of existence, allowing viewers to plumb depths of being they might otherwise assume are just shallow puddles.

In a way, Chernow's book is doing something similar for me, so the fact that it brought the film to my mind is not surprising. Though I am only halfway through, I am seeing the times of George Washington with a greater sense of the people (at least, of the people in leadership roles) than I would have thought possible—even more so than in Chernow's earlier Alexander Hamilton.

To me, connections like this one, or connections between what we see or read and our own lives or lives we have observed, are the heart making the arts real and alive.

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