Skip to main content

Back to the Feature: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

“And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death.”
                A Variety article characterized Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front as a film that should be mass-produced and reprinted in every language until the concept of war ceased to exist in the world. Which is a pretty big declaration for a film made prior to most of the past century’s most terrible wars. But at the same time, the explicitness of its anti-war message and effectiveness at conveying that message make it even more relevant today because of those many terrible wars that have illustrated how important this film is.
                The film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is about a bunch of eager young men in Germany at the outset of the First World War. They enlist in the prospect of glory and heroism only to be exposed to the reality and terrors of the war. Primarily the story follows Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) and his personal experiences and tribulations as he endures harsh conditions, friends and companions dying around him, and losing hope and understanding in the world. And so the film follows the narrative of the war which is that of excitement and hope followed by mass slaughter and trauma.
                One thing that strikes me instantly in All Quiet on the Western Front is that it sticks to the source material’s German leads. It would have been easy and typical for Hollywood back then to transition the story into an American setting with American heroes. And while these Germans are very Americanized it’s still a pleasant surprise that they were bold enough to humanize the enemy only twelve years after the war ended. It shows audiences that these feelings about the war and what it did to people was universal regardless of which side you were on. And while if this film had been made a few years later, I doubt the Germans would have been portrayed so sympathetically (what with you know, Hitler being around), it still strikes me as very open-minded and honest for its time. Another thing to really appreciate about this film is that it was made before the Hays Production Code took effect allowing the violence of war to be portrayed with a much better sense of realism and dreariness. It’s one of the last times before the 1960s that this level of gritty imagery of war is seen. The films feels legitimate when we see people losing limbs, getting injuries, blood appearing with the bodies on the battlefields and helps the viewer experience the horrors as the characters do.
                The film really employs the ideology and honesty about the war in a number of interesting scenes. One of my favourites is when the group are gathered around discussing why they’re fighting in a half-serious manner. It’s hard to believe those kind of conversations didn’t take place for the average tommies many unaware of the nature of the war’s beginnings, or alternatively in full understanding of how ridiculous it was. The older mentor figure of their group Kat (Louis Wolheim, there are a lot of Louis’ in this film!) ends it by giving a comparatively sound alternative to letting millions die over a dumb conflict. The price of war gets plenty of exposure,, no better than in the church-hospital scene where Paul’s trying to comfort a dying man while a friend tries to get his good boots them being such a rare commodity. I feel like for the first time, people who didn’t experience the war were getting an idea of how horrific it was in these scenes, and with a notable death scene later on even more so. There’s a scene where their training instructor arrives at the front and finds the respect to rank has broken down in the anarchy of the trenches, showing the meaningless of the chain of command when all boils down. At one point Paul winds up abandoned in No Man’s Land with an enemy French soldier who he tries to keep alive despite having shot him in the first place. Ayres really sells the lamentation and it’s so effective that similar scenes have been enacted in many war films since. They’re the kind of scenes beyond the comprehension of Professor Kantorek blissfully unaware of the true nature of war but endlessly promoting it for its glory and majesty. After the almost satiric but sadly ironic scene at the beginning, we eventually get to a point where Paul confronts him and it’s just awesome as he does all to discredit him and discourage the students from believing his bullshit. It’s slightly preachy but by this point we’ve seen enough to be firmly on his side. And all of these in addition to the final couple scenes are just beautiful.
                Speaking of beauty, the shots in this film are wonderful. They’re so great and realistic, I wonder if they fooled me by inserting actual footage from the war. But we still see our characters in some of these shots so it’s still really impressive. And for a film made in 1930 it’s all the more amazing. This was one of the earliest talkies so the music and dialogue synching is a little noticeably off but the editing and cinematography which looks better than a lot of films today more than make up for that. And while the film can be accused of being driven by its message, it has a really decent story backing it up, well-written and complete with great characters. There are admittedly a number of nameless figures but the three or four characters you get know in their misery grow on you. Kat in particular, his cynicism and insights as well as intelligence and guidance make him immediately likable. And being a war film it’s very important to create likable relatable characters for the audience to latch onto but also like in any war film be careful about getting attached. Though that is actually an important part of the experience.
                All Quiet on the Western Front is certainly one of the greatest war films ever made if not the best. It’s attention to capturing the reality of war in vivid detail creates one of the most profoundly effective anti-war messages ever. It turned Lew Ayres into conscientious objector during the Second World War which was almost Hollywood suicide at the time. And for him to be pushed to do that based on a film is incredibly telling of the power of the medium. What it accomplished for its time is a marvel and is as relevant today as it ever was. Which is unfortunate. This is one of those films that really has the power to change the world and that Variety article hoped it would. The fact that we’ve had many terrible wars since this film shows we may not have been listening. And whether it has the power to end such an awful thing or not, it wouldn’t hurt to watch All Quiet on the Western Front every so often as a reminder, a testament to the millions of lost souls, and a warning.

Popular posts from this blog

Mary Tyler Moore's Best Moments

A couple days ago, we lost the icon Mary Tyler Moore. On the Mount Rushmore of groundbreaking comediennes, Moore has an undeniable place (with Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Cloris Leachman). She was often the best part of the Dick Van Dyke Show, making for half of one of the greatest TV couples. Through her own series, she was a key part of one of the most important and timeless shows of all time. Her kindness, perseverance, and good humour made her a role model for all, but especially women and girls whose greater representation in media she pioneered. She was such an endearingly sweet woman, a champion of diabetes research and a great philanthropist. When watching either of her classic shows, she always felt like a good friend. And now the world has lost that friend.
          In honour of her passing, I want to highlight just some of my favourite Mary Tyler Moore moments both as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, that attest to what a great comedic and inspirational talen…

Disney Sundays: Moana (2016)

When I heard that the next Disney movie, Moana was going to be based around Hawaii, I was tempted to say, “haven’t we been here before?’ It doesn’t feel like too long ago that we had Lilo & Stitch. I was more curious though when I heard it would revolve around Hawaiian mythological figures like Maui and fantastical monsters. But then I remembered Ron Clements and John Musker were the directors behind Hercules and I worried. However I needn’t have, as Moana is easily the pair’s best film since Aladdin.
          A teenage girl called Moana, resident of a small isolated tribe on one of the Polynesian islands, is chosen by the ocean to be an emissary to the banished demigod Maui and convince him to return the Heart of the Sea (a small pounamu stone) to Te Fiti -the goddess he stole it from who’s cursed their world with famine as retribution.
          Though this is a standard and fittingly mythic hero's journey, the story is nonetheless an exciting one to follow due in…

Overlooked Specials 12th Day of Christmas

12th Day of Christmas:
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol This Christmas Day how about we dispense with the feels in favour of a mean but comedically genius one-off of Britain’s best series. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Blackadder, the series about a witty schemer reincarnated through various periods in British history, this special should still make you laugh. An inversion of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Blackadder played of course to perfection by Rowan Atkinson is the kindest man in England which everyone uses to take advantage of him. But an encounter with a Spirit of Christmas causes him to change his ways. Most of the Blackadder cast: Atkinson, Tony Robinson as Baldrick, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Miranda Richardson appear here and are excellent, as are guests Miriam Margolyes, Jim Broadbent, and Robbie Coltrane in a role I’m sure inspired J.K. Rowling to request him for Hagrid. And the writing from Richard Curtis and Ben Elton is as sharp as ever. It’s relentlessly enjoyable, funny…