“War is not a courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that, and not play at war.”
Leo Tolstoy wrote these words in his famous epic, War and Peace. Tolstoy died in 1910, blessedly four years before World War I broke out. 19 year later, Erich Maria Remarque wrote the scathing, anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on his experience serving in the German army during World War I. The following year, Lewis Milestone adapted his book into the award winning and enduring film classic of the same name. Both book and film were deemed so inflammatory, they were banned in Nazi Germany and elsewhere during times of war.
Normally, I’m quite strict about reading the book before the film, but I was looking for something fairly quick and easy to supplement our study of World War I, and this is *the* seminal WW I film – particularly noted for its unflinching portrayal of trench warfare. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from the movie, and so I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not a perfect film – definitely shows its age in spots – but overall it’s retained a lot of its relevancy. Izzy and I were particularly impressed with the camera work as there were some remarkably beautiful, creative and impressive shots throughout the film.
Thus far, this is the most anti-war ‘anti-war’ movie I’ve ever seen. This is granddaddy of them all, the OG if you will.
All modern war movies I’ve seen (from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan, Born on the Forth of July to Full Metal Jacket), while absolutely making an earnest effort to depict the horrors of war, have a somewhat ‘romantic’ feel. Perhaps it’s the music or the handsome A list actors. Whatever it is I’m always left with that the implicit message is, ‘Yes, war is horrible, but……. it’s also kinda awesome. It makes men out of boys, it unveils our true natures, yada yada yada‘.
This movie shows that yes, war certainly turns boys into men, but at what cost and what kind of twisted manhood is it? (Keep in mind, this is the war that produced The Lost Generation – writers such as F. Scot Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who were both plagued by alcoholism and depression.) And, yes, war absolutely strips away the veneer of civilization to reveal what’s really underneath, but it also asks, ‘Why on earth would we want to do that?‘
I think the best thing this movie does is tell the story from the other side – the Germans (aka The Huns) during World War I. Audiences are forced by the very nature of storytelling to sympathize with the enemy and see ourselves as ‘the other’. We are, in effect, rooting for ‘our side’ to lose. It’s so incredibly effective that it’s actually shocking to me that more movies don’t do this. This also illustrates the highly manipulative power of cinema!
Another interesting thing about this movie is that the ‘hero’, Paul Bäumer, doesn’t really emerge as the protagonist until about halfway through the film. I understand in the novel he’s the narrator so it’s probably clearer that he’s the protagonist throughout. However, in the film version, for the first 45 minutes or so, Paul is just one of many – nearly indistinguishable from his schoolmates with whom he enlisted. Paul slowly rises above the other young men – namely because he survives, but also scene after scene demonstrates that Paul is just a bit more sensitive than the others. And we see time and again that the war is never able to completely take that away from him – even if that’s the only thing it leaves him.
Beyond Paul’s individual experience, this movie brilliantly portrays the drudgery, the boredom, the exhaustion, the terror, the indignity and the pointlessness of war. As such, the film really drags in spots – particularly when the men are whiling away their time waiting for the next engagement. This could be viewed as a weakness or a strength. I have mixed feelings myself.
The other thing this film depicts very effectively is the ugliness of raw fear. The audience often sees the young soldiers cowering, shrieking like women, or simply losing their minds over the horror of it all. It’s not at all what we’ve come to expect from war movies, and it’s incredibly unsettling.
The soldiers are divided into two general categories – the naïve new recruits or the jaded older guys. There is no in-between really. Paul is the only one we ever see make the transition from one to the other. The ‘heroes’, such as they are, aren’t heroic because of their bravery in battle, but rather because they are somehow able to retain some shreds of human decency and compassion. Kat, the jaded old soldier, teases the new recruits, but ultimately takes them under his wing and tries to shepherd them through this mess as best he can. Paul never stops trying to spare people’s feelings, never stops trying to find beauty in the world – even if it means his undoing in the end.
An interesting little tidbit about this movie is that it was filmed pre-Code – meaning that it’s a bit more gritty than one might expect from an old movie. The war scenes are pretty intense, although, for some, reason black and white always seems to mute the overall intensity. Also, we get to see some bare bums in one of the film’s few lighthearted moments. Pre-code movies also had more freedom in terms of storytelling conventions – the bad guys don’t have to be punished and the good guys don’t always win.
In the end, I was surprised at how much both Izzy and I liked the movie. I think I’d always assumed it would be too dated and esoteric to hold much appeal. And in truth, it is a bit dated (the schmaltzy acting and dialogue in particular), but overall it’s quite approachable and holds up pretty well. The special effects in particular were pretty impressive when you consider the film’s age. Part of me wonders if this might be a movie that could be watched entirely without sound to great effect.
“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”