All Quiet on the Western Front is based on a novel by World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque. The story concerns a group of German students who are persuaded by their elderly professor to sign up as soldiers for the Great War. Their initial excitement and patriotic ardor quickly turn into disillusionment as they are exposed to one horror after another.
The movie is gritty and realistic, even by today’s film making standards. We see soldiers who always appear filthy and disheveled from the effects of trench warfare. They spend most of their down time scrounging for food to supplement their meager rations, and passing stories among themselves while in the trenches.
One sequence is especially memorable. It begins with the students and other soldiers sitting in bunkers, coping with aboveground shelling by playing a game of cards. The real game here is waiting for combat, and it proves too much for some of them. One soldier yells, “Why don’t we fight? Why don’t we go over?! Let’s do something!!” Another soldier, overcome by claustrophobia and panic, starts screaming and runs out of the bunker, only to be taken down by enemy fire.
Finally, the soldiers are signaled to go up into the trenches; enemy troops are advancing. A panning shot shows each German’s face as he waits for the onslaught. Silence. Then more shelling, and we see a long shot of allied soldiers advancing. Suddenly, another panning shot shows the allies from the Germans’ point of view as they leap towards the camera and into the German trenches. Following this is a melange of close ups and medium shots as men wildly shoot and stab at each other. The viewer is left feeling as if he/she were right in the thick of battle.
This entire sequence is unaccompanied by film scoring (film-length music scores were not routine until later in the 1930’s), which makes it even more harrowing to watch.
At a later point in the story, the soldiers have a discussion about their purpose in fighting. No one seems to know who started the war, or why. Given the labyrinthine history of events that set World War I into motion, it is likely that many people in higher places were also scratching their heads.
All Quiet on the Western Front was a product of profound disillusionment with war. There is no esprit de corps here, no stirring battle hymns or patriotic sentiment. All we see are people who are systematically dehumanized by a conflict they cannot understand. And by the end, we see characters whose bodies are killed long after their souls have already been destroyed.
This excellent movie is a must-see for anyone interested in film history. It is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films in the first 100 years of film making. All Quiet on the Western Front can be found at amazon.com, and is periodically shown on Turner Classic Movies.
Note: Director Lewis Milestone was known for his skill in making war movies so realistic that the viewer feels as if they were in the middle of combat. Steven Spielberg cites Milestone as an inspiration for his film Saving Private Ryan.
Pluses: Fine adaptation of a classic novel (read the book; it’s grittier than the film), great battle scenes.
Minus: Occasionally stagey acting.
Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Slim Summerville
Director: Lewis Milestone
Black and White
Length: 133 minutes.
“All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 film)” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 13 October 2016. Web. 5 November 2016.