Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front proves to be as landmark as the book itself. A group of bright and idealistic college students eagerly enlist in the army to fight in World War I, only to find their romantic illusions shattered on the battlefields of war. The rosy glow of patriotism is immediately extinguished.
This film has been on my watch list for years, as the novel is one of my all time favorites. I read it for a war literature unit in one of my English courses, and found it to be the most harrowing work we read. And we also read a collection of brutally graphic stories about the Vietnam War.
Both the novel and film depict the devastation of war not only through the carnage but in the quieter moments. The image of severed hands clinging to barbed wire, illuminated by flashes of gunfire, is one I can’t forget. But there were scenes away from the battlefield that were equally jarring, if not more so. I haven’t revisited the book in some time, but there is one instance that I remember distinctly and which came rushing back to me as I watched it on film. One of the boys, Franz, is in the hospital after his leg has been amputated. Another, Mueller, notices Franz’s boots and asks if he can keep them since Franz won’t need them anymore. He’s so absorbed in his own plight, unaware of his friend’s anguish.
While in the trenches, Paul (Lew Ayres) pleads forgiveness from the enemy soldier he has killed. He spends the whole night with this soldier, trying in vain to keep him alive before bitterly realizing that it’s impossible. It’s one of the most arresting moments in the film, that summarily captures the senselessness of war while preserving Paul’s humanity.
“Oh, God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, you and I. If we throw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother…”
This is one of the greatest antiwar films I’ve ever seen, though I haven’t watched many. There’s a strong indictment of blind patriotism, which sounds like a clarion call now more than ever. These boys are essentially brainwashed by a cherished authority figure, their professor, who fills their mind with grand visions of victory. Dying for the fatherland is an honor; especially if you’re not the one who has to die.
“Here is a glorious beginning for your lives.”
This post is for the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by Ryan at The Matinee.