"This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war..."
With these opening lines written across the screen, the filmed version of "All Quiet On The Western Front" begins down its spiraling road of death, destruction, futility and and dreams turned into nightmares, courtesy of a war that was billed as "the war to end all wars." Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, who also served in World War I, we are entreated entrance into the lives of German schoolboys barely out of their teens, who having been coached by their elderly professor about the great honour to be incurred "fighting for the Fatherland," literally sign their lives away, but not before bearing witness to the horrors that follow war like camp followers, offering themselves on the altar to Death and his court.
Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) is mesmerized by the sabre being rattled by his professor and along with his congruous friends, Kantorek (Arnold Lucy), Franz Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), Leer (Scott Polk), Peter (Owen Davis, Jr.), Behm (Walter Rogers, Jr.), Albert (William Bakewell), Westus (Richard Alexander), Mueller (Russell Gleason) and Deter (Harold Goodwin), decides that they should do their duty and defend the country that gave birth to them. After all, they deduced,the war shouldn't take that long and they will be coming back to hearth and home before their meals have time to go cold.
The exuberance of youth on their faces, the daydreams of what they envision war to be, and the cocksure attitudes that they own, will eventually betray them and deposit them into the inferno of hell that only knows two things on the battlefield -- life and death. The smiles and thoughts of glory will be erased from their faces at the first fatality they witness and even then, they will deny that it exists at all. Like cold, hard punches to the face, Death will not be denied.
After the rigors of bootcamp for the friends, they are sent to the front; babes in the woods thinking for all the world that they are on a lark. Their largest complaint is the pangs of hungry stomachs, used to be fed on time. They will soon learn that food comes when IT is ready and not before. They will make the acquaintances of Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville), battle scarred and seasoned soldiers who look upon the new recruits initally as thorns in their sides, who will do their best to get themselves killed because of their rawness. Katczinsky eventually becomes a father of sorts to his troops and it is under his wing that the recruits play out what is left of their lives.
The lives of the comrades are etched as tiny stories into the psyches of their beings, and as each is abruptly ended, they fade into the fabric of history, making a quilt of memories that sing of expectations cut down in the flower of their youth. The full circle of emotions and the letdown that accompanies them is skillfully played by this youthful cast.
Lew Ayres was 21 years old when he made this film, and it gave his career the boost it needed to make him a star. At times, and they are few, his acting is a little wooden, but when the need is there for actions to speak louder than words, his body language projects the requirements necessary. Louis Wolheim was superb in his role and he is the glue that holds this film together. His seasoned grunt, weathered from frays with the enemy too numerous to count, and the pathos he projects, will stay with the viewer long after this film has ended.
Lewis Milestone, the director (Best Director for this film) and one of the writers (uncredited) of "All Quiet On The Western Front"(Best Picture), has produced a lean and elegant film that spills onto the fabric as one the great epics about war to have ever been made. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson (Oscar nomination)has shown us the insanity of battle and the antipathy that accompanies it. In one scene, slightly reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan," a French solder is advancing upon the German trenches when a bomb goes off behind him. The next vision we see are his hands and wrists, severed from his body that has disappeared, gripping barbed wire strung to prevent the advancement of troops into home space. For a film of 1930, this had to be a first.
Paul returns to his village on leave, and goes back to his old school. His professor is lecturing a new crop of young men on the virtues of going off to war, and Paul can only listen to the same speech that befell him four years before. When he is asked by the professor to tell the class about the "glories" awaiting them, his response is to declare, "We live in trenches and we fight. We try not to be killed -- that's all." A monumental letdown and shock to young boys who have now heard firsthand the way that REAL war is played. He has gazed into the jaws of death and lived to tell about its violence.
There is a scene toward the end of the film that predicts things to come. Katczinsky had always said that the war would not be over until they "got" him. Paul returns from leave, finds him foraging for food in the forest for his men and returns back to camp carrying his friend and comrade, who had been hit by a bomb dropped from a plane, but had initially suffered minor wounds. A second bomb explodes, but this time with deadly results. Unbeknownst to Paul, Katczinsky has been fatally injured. His one reason for coming back to the troop and away from his own family and the foreignness of them and his small town, has now slipped away.
Later, Paul is shown in the trenches, with a rifle his only companion as he watches other soldiers bailing water out. It is an execise in futility as it manages to begin its downward spiral back into the trench with each pouring. A lone harmonica plays. Paul notices through his shot hole, a butterfly by a discarded tin can; a slice of beauty on a field of death. Against all reason, he attempts to touch the delicate renderings of life and when he is unable to do it from the safety behind the sandbags bordering the trench, he comes over the top and to a certain death. It is interesting to note that butterflies have historically been perceived as purveyers of eternal life.
There is an eerie precursor of a scene that shows all the young friends as they were as they marched off to war with visions of glory and victory. Each one looks back at the camera as they pass and underneath their ghosts is a large cemetery, iced with white crosses of those who have passed before them and who will continue to sap the landscape with their deaths.
This is a film that is timeless in its approach to war and all it encompasses. It is as fresh today as when it was made almost 73 years ago. Battles have always been fought by youth, who don't see the incredible sacrifices that will be made, but rather think of themselves as infallible and strangers to death. Those who will never have to face the Black Spectre will always scream the loudest, unable or unwilling to put themselves into the forefront. Men in ivory towers will make the rules and become gods in their own right as they check off the list the numbers of men (and now women) who will make the ultimate sacrifice and be replaced by more and more of their ilk as they march towards the known and unknown.
As we sit on the eve of battle, we should all be reminded of just why wars are fought, and in the end, ponder the reasons that brought forth said catastrophy, and wonder just what it was all about in the first place.
Born Lev Milstein, Lewis Milestone emigrated from Russia at the end of World War One, where he broke into film-making by directing training films for the US army. After several years working as an assistant director, Milestone was given his first directing gig by Howard Hughes, and in 1928 won the Oscar for Best Director of a Comedy Picture at the first ever Academy Awards for Two Arabian Knights. Over the next three decades, Milestone directed such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, Pork Chop Hill, A Walk in the Sun, plus the enjoyably rubbish rat packer Ocean's 11.