I had already seen All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s classic anti-war film that took the Best Picture at the 1930 Academy Awards, when I sat down to view it this weekend. But my first viewing of it took place in… middle school… I think… anyway, it’d been a really long time so I felt I was due for another screening, given that I keep seeing it pop up on lists that I take perhaps too much stock in.
The film tells the story of a group of young boys in Germany signing up to fight in World War I (or The Great War as it then would have been known [woo history class!]). The boys go through the difficulties of boot camp, but nothing prepares them for the struggles that await them on the battlefield. They are unprepared for the hunger and fear that will soon threaten to paralyze them, for the sadness that comes with losing friends, and for the anguish that comes with taking somebody else’s life.
But I have to say that after my refresher course, I didn’t find it as good as I remembered. Before I proceed, let me clarify, All Quiet on the Western Front is largely a phenomenal film, but as far as anti-war movies go, let’s just say I’ve seen better (Paths of Glory springs to mind). It’s likely due to the fact that it was made in 1930 at the advent of sound, a time when the rules for cinema were up in the air, and the excitement over actually hearing words meant that a lot of exposition was told and not shown, a detriment to any film, regardless of its esteem.
And this film is held in high esteem, and not without cause. It’s a well-acted, well-shot, well-directed film. It’s an, at times, brutal, unflinching look at the horrors of war that doesn’t shy away from detailing the physical and mental damage that can occur in battle. One of the key scenes involves the young platoon’s first taste of combat, but no actual fighting begins until after several days of being held up in a bunker while the enemy drops bomb after bomb. With every wave of dirt that falls from the ceiling, the soldiers lose more of their hold on their senses, and as hunger tightens its grip, the squad begins to believe that their chance to die for their country is coming sooner, and with less dignity, than expected.
Then the bombs stop and a more tangible horror steps up. As mini-guns mow down waves of oncoming soldiers, and bomb blasts reveal nothing but a pair of hands where a man was present just seconds before, the young platoon quickly realize that the heroic notion of fighting for their homeland that they so readily swallowed back in school is not as attractive a notion as they were led to believe.
But for all the scenes like that one, or the scene where an injured friend dies unceremoniously in a hospital amid a sea of likewise anonymous soldiers, there is still the lengthy sequence where one soldier, Paul (Lew Ayres) goes on leave and with not an ounce of subtlety tells a group of kids that war is hell, and then later wonders aloud why he has to lie to his mother about why he’s going back. As I already mentioned, this film came out at a time when people were still trying to nail down exactly what made for quality cinema, so a few blunt sequences are to be expected.
And it’s not as if an overly didactic scene or two somehow negate some beautifully artful touches like the famous last scene of Paul getting shot as he reaches for a butterfly, the war finally claiming him as he attempts to embrace a life outside of battle. And of course my disappointment could also stem from the wave of films that debuted in AQOTWF‘s wake making it seem cliche by comparison (sort of like how, to a fresh viewer, Halloween might look like a rote slasher flick, even though it was the inspiration for every slasher flick that have since made it seem rote).
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change the fact that despite a few hiccups and lapse in subtlety or two, All Quiet on the Western Front is a devastating, tragic, and ultimately human look at the ravages of war. As the opening prologue states, the film tried “simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war,” and in that sense, they succeeded.
Posted under Kyle's Adventures in Pop Culture
This post was written by Kyle on April 20, 2011