I wanted to like this film. I really, really did.
Based on the famous Erich Maria Remarque’s book, All Quiet On The Western Front is a tale of World War I from the German side. And where the earlier film The Big Parade focused mostly on soldiers’ heroism, Western Front focuses more on the futility and downright waste of war.
The film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, starting with the main characters as fresh-faced young students, under the thrall of a high school professor urging them all to enlist by spinning yarns of glory and valor and heroism.
But that quickly gives way to the reality of war in the trenches itself, with our band of soldiers facing starvation rations, bedding down in muddy bunks, fighting off panic during days and days of bombardment, coping with severe wounds and an endless grind of battle, without ever really knowing where they are, what they’ve accomplished, and how much difference it made. We never learn where our soldiers actually are stationed, or what battles they’re in or whether their fighting has had any impact. They’re just fighting. This is their lives now, and that’s it.
My only problem is that there are times when it feels like the film is trying to be too faithful an adaptation of the book – by shoehorning some of its text into the character’s mouths. At times this works – such as the scene where the soldiers are relaxing on a rare break and waxing philosophical about the concept of war, and their avuncular captain hits on an idea:
I’ll tell ya how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field.…on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let ’em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.
Another powerful moment is a scene where our lead (Lew Ayres, as the everymensch “Paul”) ends up in the same foxhole as a French soldier and stabs him in self-defense, but is forced to stay there for the next several hours during shelling. The French soldier takes several hours to die, and Paul, nearly out of his mind from guilt and fear, goes from raging at his victim to begging forgiveness to gnashing his teeth over war’s pointlessness.
And then there are times when Paul is forced to recite some lengthy speech lifted directly from the book, but in the book those speeches were usually something that Paul was just thinking to himself during a moment of introspection. Passages like that don’t always translate well to being spoken out loud, no matter the circumstances.
The weirdest example of this is in a scene where Paul and some of his comrades have snuck off to meet some local French girls, bribing them with bread and sausage in exchange for a little nookie. We don’t see the actual sex (this was 1930, after all), but it’s pretty heavily implied the evening will go that way as the soldiers and desmoiselles carouse. But the next scene simply has the camera pan over the darkened kitchen where everyone was eating, as Paul speaks to his hookup off camera. He first introduces himself to the uncomprehending woman he’s presumably just slept with; and then delivers a lengthy speech to her about how war has deadened him…or something. I admit I wasn’t listening, because I was rolling my eyes at how clumsy an attempt it was to cram in yet another quote.
It’s even more frustrating the filmmakers felt this was necessary, since there are some scenes they pull off so well. Like the “let the king fight in his underwear” scene quoted above. Or a scene where Paul and a buddy are getting some R&R in an officer’s bar, and spot a poster of a girl on the wall and have a whole fantastical conversation about her.
There are some haunting wordless shots as well – like a scene from a battle, where an Allied soldier grabs hold of the barbed wire in front of Paul and starts to climb over, but Paul lobs a grenade at him; when the dust clears, the soldier’s hands still grasp the wire, but the rest of him is gone. Or when Paul is home on leave, and his proud father has taken him out to the beer hall with some of his father’s friends; but after toasting Paul’s bravery, they each start to offer advice to Paul about “strategy for your next battle”, going so far as to unfold a map and point out their tactical advice. Paul says nothing; and before long, the men are arguing with each other about the best strategy. After a moment, Paul wordlessly gets up and leaves, unnoticed, as they argue on.
The last shot of the film is most poignant. It’s a rerun of an earlier scene, with the main characters arriving at the front for the first time, the row of them marching away from us, each one turning their heads to look uneasily behind them. This time the same footage is superimposed over a still shot of a graveyard filled with white crosses.
Okay, yeah, it’s a little on-the-nose, but it’s better than listening to Ayers say things that no human would say out loud without someone else eventually asking “hey, mac, why are you talking like that?”
I am probably fussing overmuch, though. The film was a huge success in the United States when it was released, earning praise for both the message and the filming. There’s a lengthy shot where the camera pans along the edge of a trench showing a seemingly inexhaustable parade of Allied soldiers running up to the edge and preparing to attack, only to be shot down at the last minute. It had….somewhat less success in Europe, however; the book was banned in Germany (unsurprisingly), and thus so was the film. Italy and Austria also both banned the film, along with (puzzlingly) Australia. And – the French weren’t all that crazy about the easy virtue of the French women depicted in the film.
However, it seems that Lew Ayres was most affected of all. The futility of war was so hammered home for him, after appearing in the film, that when World War II broke out only ten years later, he tried to register as a conscientious objector. He eventually joined the medical corps and served for three years, even earning battle stars, but the initial public displeasure with his refusal to fight left a permanent mark on his career.