Released on its 50th Anniversary by StudioCanal, ‘La Grande Vadrouille’, directed by Gérard Oury in 1966, is a French comedy set during the Nazi occupation that stars Louis de Funès, André Bourvil and Terry Thomas. After becoming lost following a bombing raid, three Royal Airforce crewmen bail out over Paris. Stanislas Lefort and Augustine Bouvet, a conductor at the Opéra National de Paris and a house painter, played by Funès and Bourvil respectively, are thrown together to form an unlikely rescue mission. The pair reunite the three crewmen and get them out of Paris to the free zone in the south of the country, along the way aided by nuns, hotel owners and Juliette, a puppet show operator played by Marie Dubois. The comedy revolves around the satisfying ridicule of the Nazi soldiers, the innocent, and slightly clueless bravery, of the two Frenchmen and a strong, almost ‘Carry On’ line in slapstick physical humour. The presence of Terry Thomas as Sir Reginald, the senior British officer, adds another comedic dimension, that of social incongruity, a theme that is continued through the relationship between the pompous, upper class Lefort and the put-upon, working class Bouvet.
To appreciate the film as a British viewer of a certain age requires an exorcism to lay to rest the nightmare of the unfunny and seemingly endless ‘Allo Allo’, a repetitive and, at times offensive, sitcom that revolved around the same clash of nationalities but somehow felt the need to resort to the same tit-joke every week. ‘La Grande Vadrouille’, in contrast to this, demonstrates how even the dark period of the Nazi occupation can be a setting for a humane and considered comedy. The characters are buffoonish, and the extremes to which they go to hide from the Germans are often ridiculous, but what shines through is their unflinching bravery. This is not to say all the comedy is particularly sophisticated: one character drags up as a prostitute to steal the clothes from passers-by, Bouvet and Lefort accidentally spend the night sharing beds with German officers and senior Nazis seem doomed to end up covered in dust, paint or mashed pumpkin. For all this, there is a good-natured feeling behind the adventure of the aircrew; the film doesn’t feel cruel and doesn’t feel the need pander to go down the path of ‘Allo Allo’ to pander to negative national stereotypes. ‘La Grande Vadrouille’, in short, doesn’t feel divisive. In this sense, it joins contemporaneous films such as ‘The Great Escape’ in presenting the conflict, a time when Europe was tearing itself apart, as an unlikely setting for the friendly unification of nationalities.
Another aspect of the film that makes ‘La Grande Vadrouille’ such a delight to watch is the way that Paris and, later in the movie, rural France is depicted. The first half of the film takes place in the capital and characters spend much of their time racing over roofs or boating through the sewers giving the film a sense of abandoned liberation, as if in times of war whilst some borders are fiercely guarded others are broken down. This feeling of freedom develops when the Frenchmen and the aircrew escape from the city and director Gérard Oury focuses on the picturesque beauty of the sweeping and lush French countryside and on the historical charm of the villages. The whole film is suffused with sunlight to the extent that occupied France (almost) seems like a rather pleasant place to be. Contrast this with earlier and darker depictions of Nazi occupation in the Italian neorealist films of Roberto Rossellini, films that reinforced the sense of moral and social degeneration by focusing on the decay of cities and the quality of life of the occupied civilians. Instead, the German controlled Paris and France of ‘La Grande Vadrouille’ are presented almost nostalgically.
Ironically given the subject matter, and whilst much of the slapstick humiliation is directed at the Germans, the international cast make this film a feeling of European solidarity with each character teased according to their national eccentricities. Lefort is prissy, vain but gluttonous, Bouvet is perpetually confused but good-natured whilst Sir Reginald is presented as a border-line alcoholic with an unfeasibly ostentatious moustache. The two other crewmen are curiously under-written: one seems to be solely there as a romantic action hero but fails to get many opportunities to demonstrate either romance or action. The third crewman seems to be there to act as a foil for Terry Thomas. Part of this is a result of the eclipsing strength of the three principal characters and of the comedy heritage that each actor brings to the role. The best scenes in the film are the ones in which Funès, Bourvil and Thomas are together and riffing off each other, including a magnificent, farcical moment a Turkish bath in which the characters rise and sink within the steam like sharks.
Would I recommend it? Despite the long running time I was swept away by ‘La Grande Vadrouille’. The likeability of the characters, the sunny, picturesque settings and the general feeling of good-natured charm make this film almost impossible to dislike. It acts as an antidote to the dour and (necessarily) brutal depictions of occupied France in the 1940s and 1950s, and as a way of presenting the different nationalities without resorting to the crude generalisations of later depictions such as ‘Allo Allo’. It’s likeable, accessible, lavishly produced and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.