We know, first hand, that the First World War was a nasty, ugly and brutal experience. That’s true of any war, but this one was different because of the magnitude of new technology. That technology included massive killing machines like the machine gun that had been perfected to the point that a single soldier could mow down an entire regiment. The tank premiered, and made it possible to get across enemy lines into places that soldiers on foot could never go. Most importantly, the motion picture camera, which captured moving images of war for the very first time. It was the first war to have documentation of the actual event and record interviews with survivors who could tell the story of the Hell they endured.
What is told in eyewitness testimony from the actual soldiers from the field (all of whom are gone now, making their on-camera testimony invaluable) was also chronicled by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929 in his landmark novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Remarque, himself a soldier who was wounded, determined to write a book (which I have read) that chronicled the war without glorifying it into a romantic adventure. So too is the film version, a graphic and often scary depiction of a world war that, in the long run, destroyed a world.
All Quiet on the Western Front, like the book, sugarcoats nothing. The film charges headlong into battle in an effort to portray a war that was unholy chaos. Here is a film that has such a knowing hindsight about the realities of trench warfare that you can scarcely believe that it happened just 100 years ago.
The soldiers in the film are German but they have American accents. Their faces aren’t distinguishable. If you took away their uniforms, you’d never know where they hailed from. The movie makes the point that all wars are the same, that war is the same thing over and over and the only thing that changes are the uniforms. The soldiers here are meant to represent the idea that all sides fight the war with the same disillusionment and heartache.
Sixty countries were involved in the First World War and they all suffered under the same delusion: Young naive boys with wonder in their eyes listened to patriotic speeches in which war was presented as a glorious adventure, that doing one’s duty was simply a matter of putting on a beautiful uniform and riding into battle on horseback with a saber flashing in the sun. They soon know the reality that the First World War was a contest of endurance, that it was a pointless and bloody and that it was a constant unceasing stalemate that never moved in either direction. We know the degradation of humanity and the waste of millions and millions of lives for nothing.
Having revisited the film again I find that I could argue that the movie reinforces this point over and over for nearly the entire length, that war is nothing more than a grueling bloody, pointless exercise in hoping that you are lucky enough to remains standing when it’s all over. However, the movie depicts how the soldiers in the trenches saw it and that’s pretty much it. They saw it day to day, month to month, one year into the next for four unbelievable years. They went for the romantic adventure and quickly found themselves knee-deep in mud, decay, rats, starvation, bullets, bombs, rain, blood and death. To desert would have meant being shot.
I have seen All Quiet on the Western Front at least five times – I revisit it every few years – and I am always amazed that it doesn’t away from its message and that it is never shy about how propaganda led to a great deal of the carnage.
The film opens in a classroom in Germany where are seated two dozen young men who are being spirited on by a jingoistic teacher who tells pupils “You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys — you are the iron men of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called to do so. It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads.” He concludes boastfully that “Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland. Now our country calls. The Fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country. Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you.”
We meet this man twice, once at the beginning of the film and then again just before the third act. From what we’ve seen it becomes uncomfortably clear, by the second visit, that this man (like many men like him) has never set foot on a battlefield. Then again, no one could have understood the sheer gory magnitude of this war. In recent years, there had been The Boar War and the Spanish American War with its romantic tales of glorious battles on horseback with the saber flashing in the sun. No one understood the impact of 20th century warfare, of tanks and bombs and mustard gas.
We meet these boys with a sparkle in their eyes. They have fantasies about the spoils of war and that’s mostly what urges them to join the cause. As they march off to the front, as they fight, as they quickly become disillusioned by the horrors of war they begin to die one by one and their number dwindle. At first, our focus isn’t on any one particular soldier but as the body count goes up one soldier, a nice kid named Paul (Lew Ayres) comes into focus. He doesn’t seem as naive as his classmates but none-the-less he goes off to fight for glory. He is more thoughtful than those around him and we see that most especially in one bone-chilling scene in which he finds himself alone in a trench with a French soldier (the first Frenchman he’s ever seen) that he has stabbed in the chest. Feeding him water to keep him alive he finds that it doesn’t work and as the soldier dies Paul asks his forgiveness and promises to send news of his bravery to the man’s wife and daughter when he finds their photograph in the his coat.
Paul’s growing disdain for the whole mess reaches further than even he can understand. After being wounded he returns home to see his mother and finds that he doesn’t fit anymore, that the war has torn something from his soul and that he can’t return to his life, therefore that he must return to the battle. During the trip he finds himself back in the classroom where he confronts the professor who inspired his classmates off to war all those years ago. We find the professor again boasting of the glory of battle and the spoils of war to a group of boys who look even younger than Paul and his classmates had been. Urged by the professor to tell the boys about the greatness of fighting for one’s country he instead tells them: “It is dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it is better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country and what good is it?”
What stays with me about All Quiet on the Western Front are the battle scenes.. We see the boys lined up at the trenches, firing out into No Man’s Land, not especially at anything but just in case. Then the enemy emerges from the gas clouds, maybe a hundred, maybe a million, charging at the trenches, some are shot dead, some make it to the trench. The boys fire their rifles and machine guns and sometimes they hit something but how could anyone be expected to fight them all off, there are just so many of them? How could anyone put a human being in a situation like that, especially one barely eighteen years old. How could a survivor sleep at night with those memories? As Eric Remarque put it in the novel: “We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces”.