When the Nazis invaded France, they trampled all opposition under foot, using their superior air power to crush the resistance and finally the nation had to surrender, leaving an uneasy truce between the countries that saw the Germans in charge. But this still left two million prisoners of war who had to be taken care of, and they were not happy about being kept in camps; among them was a man known as The Corporal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who was determined to be a thorn in the side of his captors, and to that end he decided to take every opportunity to plan his escape. One night, shortly after being imprisoned in a French camp, he took his two friends Papa (Claude Brasseur) and Ballochet (Claude Rich) to the perimeter wall...
Director Jean Renoir was as well known as an artist in film as his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir was known as an artist in painting, but the consensus was that like many a classic talent he produced his best work nearer the beginning of his career than at the end. Certainly if he had signed off with the film previous to this, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, it would have been a precipitous comedown from the man who had helmed La Règle du Jeu or La Grande Illusion, but he didn't, he managed to make one more film before his retirement (not counting a television documentary in the seventies), and it was this known in English as The Vanishing Corporal, or in America as The Elusive Corporal.
Arriving at around the same time as the bigger budgeted blockbuster The Great Escape, this was somewhat overshadowed at the box office, but offered a coda to Renoir's oeuvre which was light and charming as a kind of French movie version of U.S. sitcom Hogan's Heroes only with a more humane understanding of the reality of the prison camps. While we were invited to laugh at the various scrapes the Corporal gets into, the feeling that he and his fellow inmates were in a dire situation never left the film, always there in the background of every scene, that danger it was not simply the crushing boredom of camp life they had to negotiate, but if they were planning to do something to upset the Nazi apple cart as well, their lives were on the line.
Certainly the Corporal's was, no matter how laced with humour the sequences where he made his escapes were, not that this was especially hilarious as the jokes were either rather broad or more subtle, with little middle ground. So he visits a dentist as part of his next scheme and it's supposed to be funny that he is finding it an ordeal, yet Renoir was stronger on scenes with the dentist's daughter (Cornelia Froboess) who is a German girl speaking French, on the broken side but understandable, and she and he find a connection in the madness that suggests romance would have been on the cards if circumstances had been different. These patches of poignancy were what offered the film a distinctive melancholy, that war had brought ordinary people to this.
Different nationalities who would have got on famously should there have been no conflict at all. The Corporal doesn't so much indulge in his heroic breakouts for the glory, it's more like he is extremely dissatisfied with the way the world has gone and he is dead set on kicking back against the insanity that means he is unable to live in his homeland of France (he is transferred to a German camp early on after that first attempt) with his family, a right that would have been perfectly reasonable at any other time. Do not dismiss the camaraderie between the prisoners, either, as that turns out to be as important to keeping the morale up as any orders from back home would have been, if not more so, with the Corporal making fast friends with both Papa and Ballochet and more along the way, though not everyone is going to survive by chancing their arm against the Nazis. In places this was pretty tense with the lead characters doing their best to negotiate transport and papers in their bid for freedom. The prolific Cassel (Vincent Cassel's father) found one of his best roles here. Music by Joseph Kosma.