Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres
Director: Lewis Milestone
All Quiet on the Western Front is a movie with cajones. It takes a lot of nerve for a movie that was made during the early talkie era to use sound — not words, not voices, but sound itself — to tell the story. It’s a movie that pushed the limits of filmmaking at the time. It’s also a movie that is leaps and bounds past the previous winner.
While it’s certainly not the first film on our list to deal with war, it’s the first to deal with war in such a realistic way. Wings was breathtaking in its own way and did not pull punches when it dealt with man’s eternal battle with his neighbors. However, All Quiet on the Western Front makes it look as though it is a total glorification of, and justification for, war.
This time along, we get to have the opposing view of World War I. The story centers around a Paul Bäumer, a young German teen who gets swept away in German nationalization and, with the urging of a quite animated and unrelenting teacher, goes off to fight for the Fatherland. As with most men that get swept up in such a frenzy, he and his schoolmates are extremely excited to defend their country’s honor. Although the depicted boot camp is rough, it matters not to them. They are ready and willing to fight and give their lives for the Kaiser!
It’s only when they are finally sent off to the battle lines is when reality sets in. This is where All Quiet on the Western Front shines.
The story telling techniques use less dialogue than expected to get the anti-war message across to the audience. Instead of using voices and words, the film uses war itself as the deliverer of the message. The first night that Paul and his company spend on the battle front they are sent out on night duty. Soon into their conversation with Paul’s soon-to-be mentor, Katczinky, a tracer lights up the darkness and the bombardment begins. Dialogue becomes non-existent to the soldiers and the audience alike. Instead we all hear bombs exploding, sending the message that there is nothing to this world other than the war.
The bombardment lasts at least ten minutes, which is enough to drive the audience mad.
The unseen enemy only makes an appearance a handful of times. Mostly it stays in the distance, lobbing bombs at the Paul and company. When the enemy does make an appearance it’s in the form of a French soldier that dies at Paul’s hands. Paul is then forced to come to the realization of what he has done. He searches the body and finds pictures of loved ones. He realizes that the Frenchman was just trying to live his life just like the rest of us. He begs for the lifeless corpse’s forgiveness to no avail.
The madness of the unseen enemy does not stop there. While in the trenches, the soldiers try to keep themselves busy by playing cards and talking about home. However, the explosions continue, shaking the bunker itself and raining dirt on the soldiers’ heads. When one of the soldiers breaks, it’s absolutely genuine. The torture that the soldiers face, day in and day out, is clearly portrayed by some top notch actors who pushed the boundaries of what acting was at the time.
When the German soldiers do come face-to-face with their aggressors, they fight tooth and nail with an animalistic fervor. As the enemy approaches, machine guns are used to mow them down. When that is not sufficient bayonets, shovels and fists are used to confront the enemy. Blood flows freely.
One of the most jarring moments in the film is when a soldier runs towards the camera, we see an explosion and all that’s left are his hands, gripping the barbed wire.
When it does come down to dialogue, most of it centers around why they were there or what they would do after the war was over. While it sounds as though this may be a bit too much for the audience, it’s absolutely appropriate and justified. The soldiers express the concept of distrust in one’s own country for sending them off to such a horrible war. They express disgust in the fact that someone is profiting off their misery. They don’t quite understand what started it all. The only thing they understand is that they are there and have no way of getting out.
In the end, it’s all for naught. As with all wars, there is no happy ending. The final, silent scene, involves a solitary Paul in the foxhole waiting for the faceless enemy. When we do finally see the antagonist, he takes aim at Paul. A single shot rings out in the battlefield.
The last thing we see is a field full of white crosses. Superimposed on this are the men who went off to war with Paul, marching into the twilight. One by one, they turn to the camera to acknowledge the audience for one last time just before they shuffle off this mortal coil.
Universal Pictures apparently knew they had an important story to tell back in 1930. They pulled no punches. All Quiet on the Western Front is an extremely dark and gritty story that uses graphic imagery to tell its story. And why should they have pulled their punches? It’s an important story to tell, especially considering that the audience it was meant for never thought another unimaginable war such as this was nine years in its future.
It’s a pity that we don’t always learn from such anti-war stories. This is certainly not the last war or anti-war film that will appear on this list. Some will glorify war while others will show the causes and people it affects. One thing I’m starting to understand about this endeavor is that they’re not all going to be easy watches. However, some are honored with the Best Picture award because of their importance. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a film.
Next up: Cimarron