It was in a high school history class that I first encountered All Quiet on the Western Front. Even as my classmates groaned over the black and white, I think Mr. Acton realized this was one of those films that everyone needs to see. Between then and now, the film based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque and directed by Lewis Milestone, resonated just as well within me, just as it has for generations over the past eight decades.
In Germany, WWI is beginning like a fanfare outside the windows of a classroom full of young men, barely old enough to sign up for the war. Their old teacher fills them with pride, calling them the “iron men of Germany” and asking if they will join up. While he makes war sound like a romantic and honorable duty, some of the boys drift into their own fantasies about making their parents proud in the German uniform and riding in a parade in their honor with women all around. Throwing their young ambitions to the wind, the entire class signs up and together they learn the cruel truth about war.
All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the most violent and graphic films of its time. It was not until 1934 that the Production Code was enforced, keeping films less graphic and racy. We see the gritty side of trench warfare full of rats, barbed wire, amputations, men being mowed down in waves from the early machine guns and bombs exploding at all hours. Between seeing these young men cope with dying, being driven mad and becoming ruthless killers the psychological aspects of the film are just as compelling as the visuals.
One of the most captivating scenes in the film is when Paul (Lew Ayres) is stuck in a ditch overnight with a man he wounded. With bombs and gunfire all around, he cannot risk leaving, but between that and a man slowly dying by his own hand, he becomes very disturbed. He goes back and forth from hating the man, wishing he would die faster to wanting to help him. It is such a poignant and emotional scene that puts faces to either side of the war and shows an inner struggle within Paul that many soldiers try not to think about. This was one of the most memorable scenes back in that classroom nearly ten years ago, and it remains one that affects me the most.
The crushing sense of disillusion these young men face is what sets this apart from many other war films. The stark contrast between the boys as they cheer around their classroom to the realizations of a violent death in a muddy trench is startling. After seeing this level of soul crushing brutality, it is hard to imagine anyone willing to go to war. That is something rare to see in war films until the Vietnam era, and I believe makes this better than many modern war films.
Because of the film’s realistic and unflattering look at war, it was banned in many European countries until the fifties. It was playing for a short while in Germany, but during many screenings, Nazis would interrupt the film by storming into the theater chanting their slogans, releasing rats or setting off stink bombs. While it was still playing in neighboring countries, there would be busses secretly shuttling people from Germany to the screenings.
All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those essential films that everyone should see. The fact that it is over eighty years old seems to drive people away, but I assure you, it is one of the best quality films you will find from the thirties. Many times, today’s war films are all gore and no substance. This is a film that is not too gory by today’s standards, but holds its merit within its ideals. Between its strong anti-war message, heartbreaking storyline and intense images, the film can still captivate viewers today.
“You’re just a man like me and I killed you. Oh God, why did they do this to us?”