Not many movies have been as influential and controversial as All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s 1930 epic based on the best-selling book by Eric Maria Remarque. At this point in film history, movies were not produced on such a grand scale, and those that were that happened to deal with war, were generally poorly made, with battle scenes bordering on the comical and downright awful. This film changed all of that.
While movies like The Birth of a Nation glorified violence and war, All Quiet on the Western Front took an anti-war approach, with graphic scenes of battle and violence. The film centers on a young man, Paul Baumer, played by Lew Ayres, from the moment he enlists out of school until his untimely and ironic death at the end of the film. It portrays him as just an ordinary boy, forced into becoming a man due to the grizzly nature of World War One. As he sits in the classroom, the teacher rails on and on and about how glorious the war is, and how all students must volunteer and fight for the “Fatherland”. The young and impressionable boys end up joining the fight, and they are witness to the horrors of war.
The film sends the audience directly into the heat of battle, with swooping camera angles, massive amounts of exploding artillery in the foreground, and scenes of long lines of soldiers charging at each other from trench to trench, as well as hand-to-hand bayonet combat. Perhaps the goriest of these scenes is when a dying soldier reaches up from the ground and grabs onto a line of barbed wire, an explosion ensues and he is hidden by the smoke for a few seconds, but when the smoke clears, all that is left his hand, wrapped around the wire it clung to. There is also a scene at night, when Baumer bayonets an enemy soldier in an explosion crater, and watches him die in front of him. He feels no patriotism, but shame and anguish, as he talks to the fallen soldier telling him how much they are alike, and crying because he did not to want to kill him.
When Baumer comes home on leave, he visits the same school teacher who convinced him to go. The teacher is so excited and begs him to tell of the excitement on the front line. Baumer becomes angry and shouts, “I’ve been there! I know what it’s like! I heard you in here, reciting that same old stuff. Making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?” The students listening then become upset, and yell at him for showing signs of cowardice.
The end of the film is extremely saddening, as Baumer, who was always an artist, spots a butterfly at the top of the trench. Forgetting where he is for a moment, he runs up, with a pad in hand, but an enemy sniper spots him and shoots him, killing the young solider instantly.
It was because of this unflinching, and un-patriotic look at war that lead to the film’s banning in Germany until 1956. The film was also made before American censorship rules were enforced, making it the most graphic movie made until that time. The influence it had also affected the cast, as Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector during World War Two, which led to his unfortunate blacklisting in Hollywood, and years worth of shame.
All Quiet on the Western Front still stands up to today’s standards of filmmaking, although the eighty years of wear and tear on the original negatives have left all versions of the film, when transferred to DVD, looking grainy, but it is still watchable. As the title card at the beginning of the film states, “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to 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 its shells, were destroyed by the war.” I will rate this an 8 out of 10, as this is one of the greatest examples of anti-war filmmaking in history, and it is movies like this that paved the way for, in later years, movies such as Paths to Glory and Platoon.