All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Director: Lewis Milestone
“I saw him die. I didn’t know what it was like to die before!”
One of the great war films of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front is both harrowing and haunting in its graphic depiction of trench warfare and the madness of the ‘Great War’ –a truly memorable film that remains with viewers long after watching. All Quiet on the Western Front is based on Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of the same name published in 1929 and later banned by the Nazis. Remarque gained experienced first-hand as a German soldier during World War I before he was severely injured with shrapnel wounds during which time he struggled to re-acclimate himself to civilian life, a key theme in the story. The film was made on a budget of $1.25 million for Universal Pictures, under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr., and shot on open ranchlands in California with over 2,000 extras featured.
A deservedly well-celebrated film, All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Best Picture. The film opens with a title reading:
“This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war…”
The plot begins in a small German town where young soldiers are headed off to war. In the schoolhouse, a German professor explains to his students the heroism of the warriors who go to fight and die for the homeland. All the boys rise up in a fit of rapture, elevated by their teacher’s jingoism. All the young men rush to enlist in the German Imperial Army, especially Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).
Together the boys are put through a grueling boot camp before being marched to the front lines on the Western front where they encounter a horrendous lack of food, clothing, shelter, and they face continual bombing from the French army. Their trenches are invaded by rats, forced into hand-to-hand combat, and find themselves routinely driven to the point of sheer insanity waiting for the explosions to stop.
During a moment of pause, while on temporary leave, they ask themselves how a war is started. Does a mountain in Germany get mad at a field in France? The boys have nothing against the Frenchmen personally. They bemoan the richness of the Kaiser and the manufacturers who get rich off the war. Paul then visits his wounded friend whose legs have been amputated. The boots of the dying are passed to the boots of the living –from one soldier to another.
In the next battle, Paul is trapped in a foxhole and stabs a Frenchman to death. The man slowly dies agonizingly throughout the night and in the morning Paul apologizes to the unknown man’s corpse. He rummages through the soldier’s things where he finds a photograph of the man’s two children and Paul weeps. Later Paul is hit with shrapnel (just like Erich Maria Remarque), and he is sent to the hospital before eventually going home on leave only to find that things are not the same. He returns to his old classroom to find the same jingoistic professor still whipping up more young children into a rage of nationalism to fight for Germany. Paul contradicts the professor and explains the horrible brutality of war. He is then shamefully castigated as a coward.
With no place to go, Paul returns to the front only to find two of his old comrades are still alive, the rest of the soldiers are baby-faced young boys aged sixteen. While greeting one of his comrades they are both hit by a bomb and his comrade dies. In despair, Paul wanders aimlessly out to the trench and rests at the Gatling gun. During a rare moment of calm, he notices a small butterfly resting amidst the carnage. While reaching down to pick it up, a French sniper shoots and kills Paul before he can grab hold of the butterfly.
The film ends with scenes of a young troupe of soldiers as they silently march off to war –the boys appear tired, scared, and helpless. The effect is striking.