This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Just as Pauline Kael once noted it would be absurdly narrow to classify Grand Illusion as an "escape" film, so it feels reductive to tag it with the "antiwar" label. True, it is fundamentally antiwar, but in such an unusual way that it doesn't sit well alongside smoldering masterpieces like All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory. There is no combat, there are no speeches about the inhumanity of war, and there are only two deaths: an offscreen slaying of an unnamed character, and the shooting of an officer who is willing and prepared to die, in order to free his fellows. He is given several warnings - the shooter even pleas for him to stop - and is granted a poignant bedside farewell from his very executioner.
So we don't see the most awful side of the war, and the characters retain a certain dignity, humor, and will to live throughout. There are no villains. Ultimately Jean Renoir's classic is no furious "J'accuse" but something closer to "C'est la vie." Yet that statement is not uttered as an excuse but rather as an explanation, a "C'est la vie!" uttered over one's shoulder while running in the other direction. After all, these characters do not give up easily - they resist, they rebel, they escape; if they do not "accuse" it's because they're too busy subverting. Yet they do so without idealistic illusions; they are essentially pragmatists, dedicated only to survival and endurance - in body and spirit.