It would have been very interesting to watch this movie when it first premiered. The look on the faces of the audience would really have been something to see. It couldn’t have been easy to stomach this; I haven’t seen a lot of film from the late-20s/early-30s, but I can’t remember a more graphic and unforgiving depiction of war from the time. In a lot of ways, this feels like the predecessor to Saving Private Ryan. It really strives to leave you as shell-shocked as the soldiers moving through the war.
Obviously, this is based on Erich Remarque’s novel of the same name. I haven’t read it, I’m afraid, so I can’t tell you whether or not it’s a good adaptation of the book. What I can tell you is that this is a surprisingly great movie that does an awful lot with its material. By now most of us know just horrible World War I’s trench warfare was. But this movie goes beyond that — it gives you the full experience of the soldier, from his idealism and arrogance in signing up for the armed forces, to the variety of experiences that grounds that sort of thing out of him. No matter how clear your vision when you’re heading out to the trenches, your perspective gets severely changed if you spend any length of time there.
It’s the beginning of World War I, and a college professor is telling his students that one of the most important things a man can do is go to war in defense of his Fatherland. One by one, they’re whipped up into a frenzy, and class is abruptly cancelled when they all sign up for the war effort. They leave their hometown with a parade and flag-waving, and there’s a lot of talk of people coming back quickly and victorious.
What follows is a long slog in which the reality of war pummels the naivete out of these kids. They watch their friends die all around them, get wounded and mutilated, go crazy as they try to deal with constant gunfire and bombardment. I’m not sure if the sound mixing on my copy of the DVD had been remastered, but the whistling and explosions formed a constant backdrop to the dialogue that you couldn’t really ignore. It prickled the back of your neck, and I can only imagine how much worse it would be if you were nestled in a bunker knowing that all of that noise represented weapons going off specifically to kill you.
The story unfolds in what’s essentially a collection of connected vignettes. We follow Paul (Lew Ayres) through his tour of duty and his metamorphosis from fresh-faced youth to battle-scarred soldier. When he goes back to his hometown on leave, the bucolic surroundings seem almost simple and quaint. The jubilant chatter of the old men (his former professor among them) uncovers a profound ignorance of how the war is really fought. They tell him to run strategy up his chain of command, as if punching through the lines that have been established is the easiest thing in the world. When Paul snaps on them, there’s a sense of catharsis as he tells them how it really feels to be in the fight and just how much it’s destroyed him.
What’s striking about this movie is how one’s ideals break down in the face of the reality of what it means to defend them. Paul and his fellow students love the idea of fighting for Germany, but when faced with the very harsh conditions under which they have to do so, the enthusiasm is sapped for them. They begin to doubt the reasons for war in the first place. After all, what have they got against the English and the French? They struggle to come up with a reason during a discussion, and there’s even a very striking scene where Paul tries to save a French soldier’s life just minutes after wounding him during the charge. It’s very interesting to me to see someone explore the effects of this sort of philosophy. You’re willing to fight and die for your country? Well here it is. This is what it means.
There is a very wide gulf between the discussion of a thing and the actual experience of it. And I love the lesson in that. This could extend beyond the extreme circumstances of a world war or the lofty ideals of patriotism. This applies to the very small things, to personal experience. You can talk all you’d like about being poor, for example, or being on welfare. But it’s a different thing entirely to actually be there. I’m sure the same holds for being rich. For most of us, it’s easy to imagine how easy it would be for us to do the right thing as millionaires, to be philanthropic and generous to our friends and family. Who knows what it’s really like to step into that lifestyle? Who knows what we would do if we were thrust into it?
It’s difficult to consider that just because we can imagine ourselves in a circumstance it doesn’t mean we actually know what it’s like to be there. We imagine that we know ourselves well enough to know how we’d react in these extremes. What All Quiet on the Western Front tells us is we don’t really know ourselves at all. We don’t know how fiercely we would cling to our ideals once they’re threatened, and we don’t know what would give way to higher considerations we had never thought of before. The people that Paul watches dying don’t go silently and nobly, knowing that they’ve given their lives and bodies to a good cause. They go in pain, doubt and fear, wondering what the point of it was. This set against their sunny optimism at the film’s outset — and the ignorant pride of his hometown elders near the end — makes the tragedy that much starker.
Needless to say, I loved this movie. It was a genuine surprise from start to finish, and I don’t even have to make any qualifiers or excuses for it. It’s genuinely moving, intelligent and compassionate, and it deserves its spot in the top 100.