All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

This film was already at a disadvantage. I had read the book in high school and knew all the events that were to transpire. I also had a notion of the style and feeling the story should have, something I wasn’t sure could be captured as well on film. However, even the framework of the novel would provide a different and interesting approach to the war film and distinguish it from any other number of war films.

With World War I looming in the future, a group of young German classmates are convinced by their teacher to go to war, for honor, glory and country. Yet Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) and his pals find out that war isn’t quite as romantic a thought once they are actually faced with it. The flash of the uniform fades and the looks of bravery and courage while on parade in the city turn to fear and terror once the shells hit, the enemy charges and the bullets wiz. They’re on the wrong side of the war and their only victory can be survival.

The idea of taking the losers side of the war was the core idea that allowed the original book be an interesting angle on the subject matter. Most war films about WWI show the horrible living conditions and the terrible environment, but this film captures the crushed spirits that accompany the fact that the Germans are losing the war. As the film progresses, the situations become more dire, dank and hopeless.

Also, watching the war from the perspective of what many perceived to be the enemy, it’s surprising how similar these young men are to the same Allied boys who populated similar films. They have the same love of their country and sense of patriotism. In the huddled trenches and the ramshackle buildings they could be soldiers from any army. They have the same banter, hail from small towns, love their mothers and play practical jokes.

But all this had been captured for me so well in the novel that I wondered what would distinguish the film. Quite simply, it’s the play of images that is used to express similar ideas in different ways. There’s also a sense of image that can capture war perhaps even better than the written word. In particular, there’s this fantastic shot when the large machine guns fire where the camera just pans across enemy soldiers being quickly gunned down. It captures the intensity of that sensation of wide destruction in one sweeping camera movement.

Also, some of the most beautiful and tragic moments of the film are expressed wordlessly. Character death in particular is handled with such a grace and skill through the simple play of images that it’s simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. It captures both the power of the filmmaking medium and the spirit of the original novel.

Perhaps the best scene of the movie is when one of the German soldiers tries to keep alive one of the enemy soldiers he’s stabbed. He brings him water and tries to keep him comfortable. He tells him that he will make it, but, of course, the enemy cannot understand him. He looks through his belongings to find a photograph of the man’s wife and child. This is not some tyrannical evil, but a man with a family like him. It seems strange, but the strongest connection this character seems to have is with a man he can’t even speak to and one he’s been taught to kill.

And it’s because of unconventional moments like this that All Quiet on the Western Front is perhaps the greatest war film ever made. Following the disillusionment of these young men and the terrors of war they face present an emotionally charged story without false sentimentality or crass manipulation. It’s an honest film that delves into the darkness of war and delivers a tragic and beautiful tale through the eyes of simple soldiers.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing