Cultural identity is a funny old thing… Ask your average British or American cinema-goer what kind of films they associate with France and you will likely receive a description of either the hyper-stylish films of the French New Wave or upscale contemporary dramas in which upper-middle class people are forced to contend with moments of identity-consuming misery. These images are largely down to the arbitrary nature of cinematic distribution as cinema chains long ago decided that the kind of people who are willing to go and see sub-titled films are the same kind of people who go and see art house dramas. This means that while British and American audiences still occasionally get access to the best in French cinema, they seldom get to see France’s most popular home-grown films. Films whose popularity reveals things about French society that even the most insightful and high-minded of filmmakers would struggle to articulate.
For over forty years, Gérard Oury‘s La Grande Vadrouille was by far and away the most successful film in the history of French cinema. Not only did it shift over seventeen million tickets, but even relatively recent television re-runs have secured audiences somewhere north of nine million viewers. To this day, the only films to have sold more French cinema tickets than La Grande Vadrouille are Titanic and Danny Boon‘s Bienvenu Chez Les Ch’Tis, a phenomenally successful French comedy that remains completely unknown to English-speaking audiences. In other words, La Grande Vadrouille is not just a popular comedy; it’s a national institution that has been loved by generation after generation of French film-goers.
Lost after a raid on German positions in occupied France, the crew of a British World War II bomber (including a perfectly cast Terry Thomas) find themselves flying over the middle of Paris on a beautiful summer’s day. Promptly shot down by German guns, the crew are lucky enough to be rescued by some locals including a house-painter named Augustin Bouvet (Bourvil) and an egotistical and demented conductor named Stanislas Lefort (de Funes). Despite having no training and no real connection to the resistance, the two men decide to help smuggle the airmen across the border to unoccupied France resulting in a broadly comical family road movie filled with laughter, action and some of the most fondly remembered cinematic images in France’s post-War cinema.
Primarily a comedy, the film draws as much energy from its casting as it does from the individual performances of its leads. De Funes is a small man with patrician features who seamlessly integrates an air of dignified and yet tetchy officiousness with a manic physicality full of funny faces and strange noises. Meanwhile, Bourvil has an almost limitless capacity for generating comic pathos. His persona is that of a naïve and sentimental man who is always on the receiving end of some terrible but hilarious injustice. In and of themselves, these performances produce moments of great comedy (such as De Funes’ attempts to silence a snoring bed partner through whistles clicks and bangs or Bourvil’s misguided attempts at seduction) but it is when you throw these two personas into the mix together that you see the true power of the double-act and the brilliance of the film’s casting.
One reason for La Grande Vadrouille’s success is that the film recreated a dynamic that had already proved hugely successful in a film entitled Le Corniaud in which Bourvil’s long-suffering everyman was taunted and tormented by de Funes’ tyrannical bourgeois. Indeed, the comics’ differing styles not only complement each other to perfection, they also comment upon the class divisions of French society as the rich are forever taking things away from the poor who grumble, grouse, and ultimately put up with the mistreatment. This dynamic pops up again and again throughout La Grande Vadrouille as de Funes first steals Bourvil’s shoes and then his bicycle before eventually convincing the miserable working-class oaf to carry him on his back over a mountain because he cannot be bothered to walk. Aside from providing a rich comic vein, this class dynamic also goes some way to explaining the film’s continued popularity.
In the aftermath of France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany and the wide-scale collaboration that ensued, it was clear that the French body politic needed to reinvent itself. The political class needed the support of the people to rebuild the country and the military needed an image of France that could inspire its men. The result, according to French historians such as Henry Rousso, was the creation of a pervasive myth of universal participation in the French resistance. This myth not only emphasised the importance of those French who did resist the German occupation, it also downplayed the extent of the collaboration and the power of the Vichy regime. This cross-party political and cultural consensus was then fed to the French people through films such as Clement’s La Bataille du Rail (1946), Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) and La Grande Vadrouille.
Though challenged in the wake of the May ‘68 riots through films such as Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary The Sorrow and The Pity, the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity. The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive. It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films like La Grande Vadrouille.
However, even setting aside political and social issues, La Grande Vadrouille is still an intensely likeable piece of film-making: Its comedy is broad but gentle and warm-hearted, its direction well-paced and imaginative (keep an eye out for a chase scene involving pumpkins), and the entire film is beautifully shot by legendary director Claude Renoir who manages to fill every single scene with an incredible sense of light and air.
Studiocanal are re-releasing this film to coincide with its fiftieth anniversary and have taken the opportunity to restore the negative and put out a proper 4K version of the film. With most great films now having been released and re-released multiple times for home consumption, 4K releases are proving a popular way of either drawing new attention to old films or convincing fans to buy yet more versions of their favourite films. Normally, this type of thing passes without comment but La Grande Vadrouille was released on DVD in the UK as recently as 2010 and the image quality was already excellent for a popular film of this vintage. Naturally, the restored 4K version is superb but curious people with a bit less money to burn will likely be just as pleased with a copy of the slightly older DVD release.
Also frustrating is the fact that, despite going to the trouble of getting the prints remastered, Studiocanal have chosen to follow the bad example set by the last people to re-release this film and not include any extras. This is a terrible shame as the re-release of a classic comedy like La Grande Vadrouille would have been an excellent excuse to shine a critical light not only on some of French cinema’s best-loved performers but also introduce a generation of British film fans to the pleasures of French comedy.