"All Quiet On The Western Front" **** (out of ****)
The professor tells his impressionable young students the fatherland needs them. He romanticizes going into battle. Young women will flock around them. There is glory in war. They will be heroes. And, if they should died, they will be honored. A symbol of pride.
That is how the Academy Award winner for best picture, "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930), begins.
The scene, with the power of hindsight, is meant to incite anger in the viewer. Here is an adult, a professor, someone whom you would expect would watch out for the welfare of his students, convening, tricking his students into going to an early grave. The professor never directly tells the boys they must enlist, he only implies it.
Over the years I have name dropped "All Quiet On The Western Front" and called it my personal favorite of the early war films. Most recently in a review for King Vidor's anti-war masterpiece "The Big Parade" (1925) I once again mentioned this movie and wrote it is slightly better because it has more gritty battle scenes, which make the movie seem more realistic. But, after watching this classic again, I find there is much more to enjoy and stir your emotions than the battle scenes. Scenes like the one with the professor also rattle the viewer and is one of many scenes which makes a powerful anti-war statement.
"All Quiet On The Western Front" is one of the most complete anti-war movies I have ever seen. Anything negative that could be said about war - all aspects of the nonsensical nature of it, is explored in the movie.
Although "All Quiet On The Western Front" shares a lot in common with "The Big Parade", it improves upon the minor faults of that movie. "The Big Parade" starts off strong, with similar scenes like the one with the professor, showing how delusional people are in their concept of war, egging people on to enlist, but, then the movie spends too much time establishing a friendship between the characters, in an attempt to flesh them out and make them sympathetic to the audience. When "The Big Parade" does this, it loses some of its bite. We don't see the men on the battle field until an hour into the movie, when it once again makes a strong anti-war commentary.
"All Quiet On The Western Front" doesn't spend as much time dwelling on the comradery between the soldiers instead it focuses on the fear the young men face and the horror of fighting on the battlefield. One scene in particular does something I have never seen in a war movie before, when one of the soldiers hears a bomb explosion in the distance it is subtly suggested the young man has soiled his pants.
It is because of moments like this that add value to "All Quiet On The Western Front" as the movie attempts to display a realism, a poetic realism, not seen in many war movies. The movie was based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, who fought in World War I and was wounded, and is perhaps his most famous piece of literature. It is because of Mr. Remarque's own experiences "All Quiet On The Western Front" is able to capture the small details which make it so powerful.
While "All Quiet On The Western Front" does not focus on the individual soldiers it does mainly center on Paul (Lew Ayers, in only his fifth screen appearance and second credited role). Paul is supposed to be the "leader" among his friends, all of whom have accompanied him in the army. Paul will go through the greatest transformation starting off as a young, idealistic boy to become a war weary, battle tested, cynical man.
Paul ends up befriending Kat (Louis Wolheim, whom some viewer may recognized from his role in the silent gangster film, "The Racket" (1928), which was also nominated for an Academy Award). Kat is older than Paul and has already experienced the horror of war. Kat serves as a father figure to Paul and the other younger soldiers. Kat guides the men on the battlefield and at a certain point in the story becomes the only character Paul is able to relate to after Paul feels alienated from his family when he returns home while on leave.
This friendship and their scenes together are meant to humanize the men and add moments of warmth and humor to the story to serve as a balance to the violence and death the viewer sees in every other scene.
In one of the many ways "All Quiet On The Western Front" attacks the nature of war is when a group of soldiers, Kat and Paul included, discuss how did the war begin. The men initially agree wars begin when one country is offended by another country but soon make fun of this idea as they joke, what happpens, a mountain over here upsets a pond over there? Then the soldiers declare they personally do not feel offended and do not view the "enemy" as such. Who are they fighting this war for? What is it being fought over? What benefits will the men get if they die?
It is so gratifying to hear these kind of conversations in a war movie, in any movie really. How often do Hollywood movies attempt to expose these "hidden truths"? One character even mentions the profits to be made by the gun manufacturers. When did you ever hear such talk in a Hollywood war movie? What a radical difference in tone and ideas American cinema would revert back to after this country entered into World War II where once again, like the professor at the beginning of this movie, Americans would hear the message of the glory of fighting for the homeland and the honor to be had in dying for one's country on the battlefield as young, poor, working class men, were drafted, while their wealthy counterparts received deferments.
Two other emotionally stirring moments occur when Paul does return home. Back home he finds a lot of "back seat generals", men, including his own father, who give Paul advice on how to win the war. As Paul tries to explain the conditions on the battlefield the men simply brush aside his words and ideas. Paul is only a soldiers but these men know how to win. They read the newspapers, they understand how the war is being fought and with them in control, leading a regiment the war could be won in a matter of days.
Is this the way it is in real life? Every Joe feels they are an expert because they watch the news and they know better then the men fighting on the battlefield. Paul even runs into his old professor, who is still rallying the troops, getting them to enlist. Paul gives the boys a speech which challenges the professor and his lopsided, distorted view of reality. Unfortunately the students are not receptive, another comment on society. If you try to speak against the propaganda being perpetrated you are labeled the enemy.
The second emotional sequence deals with Paul and his first kill. He is stuck with the soldier he has wounded. Paul goes through great remorse. He didn't know the man. The man had never harmed him. Paul didn't know know his name. And now, he has died because of Paul. This is war. The lives of innocent people ending at the hands of other innocent people all in the name of a government, a country which has been offended by another country.
This says nothing of the battle scenes which are gritty as we see dead bodies and blood. Yes the movie was made in 1930 and perhaps could not dare compete against the violence seen on movie screens today but for audiences in the 1930s "All Quiet On The Western Front" was as brutal a movie as they come.
The movie has aged nicely. It is still a rewarding experience. A film ahead of its time. It is able to rattle us even today. For me, it is one of the finest motion pictures to even win the best picture Academy Award, and I am someone who is usually very critical of the Academy.
Younger audiences should see this movie. It has influenced countless war movies which have followed but few have been able to duplicate what has made this one a masterpiece.