Directed by: Lewis Milestone
Written by: Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, C. Gardner Sullivan
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander,
War typically begins with one moment that impacts generations after it. That one moment leads to the enlistment of men and boys to join a battle where they seek to make a difference, only to discover that they are simply pawns in a large chessboard. A fresh new set of recruits learn this lesson in the harrowing All Quiet on the Western Front, as it remains to be a sobering reminder of the consequential impacts of battle on the individual.
After hearing an impassioned speech from their professor to protect the homeland, a group of young boys eagerly join enlist to defeat the French. Upon their arrival to the front, they see superiors that see them more as soldiers rather than humans and learn about their true value out on the battlefield. The story mostly follows Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) and the individuals he meets and the relationships he forges.
While All Quiet on the Western Front comfortably sits as one of the greatest war films ever made, seeing it as an audience member makes it feel like a horror film. Not one typically found in the genre, but we know the fate these young men have as they enter this war and there’s not much we can do to stop them. How could we after seeing the impassioned justification by the professor at the beginning of the film? The future soldiers are told about the opportunity to be men, see women, and not have to attend school again. A future they really want but then they face a reality that harshly awaits them. These types of promises did not begin with this story, as it has been utilized to convince many groups about the great things that await them if they jump into battle.
It makes it all the more interesting when seeing the perspective of the film being German soldiers in World War I. Typically, war films capture the perspective of the winning side, which typically encompass the United States, England, and France. They had the heroic moments fighting off the Kaiser in World War I and then Adolf Hitler in World War II. All Quiet on the Western Front puts the audience in the German perspective and what these soldiers thought they were getting themselves into. These soldiers did not go into it with hateful intentions to kill others, they simply wanted to defend their country. A belief that has stayed true well into the 21st Century, but has not stopped the number of lives lost.
Entering war opened the eyes to these young men and kept everyone else at home incredibly ignorant of what happened on the front lines. It painfully displays itself in the sequences of one of the soldiers returning home for leave. He quickly discovers that the information being told to the common folk grossly exaggerated the reality of what the soldiers faced while in battle. Every interaction shows the massive ignorance on display as some believe that the soldiers receive incredible treatment or that the country may be entering the verge of victory. Beliefs based on fiction, as we see the soldiers fight for food and struggle to live in the trenches. Again, something that could be equated to modern times and how we believe to know the circumstances of soldiers when our beliefs could not be farther from the truth.
It may be basic to state this, but the sound work on display in the film truly leaves quite the mark. That may be commonplace with war films, but with this film being released in 1930, the bombs and the other sound effects truly display the horrible experience of these soldiers. A moment of peace could be interrupted at any time by a bomb that will forever change the lives of the soldiers. It became even more impressive when the sound integrated with the battle sequences.
Painfully bleak with an incredible purpose, All Quiet on the Western Front had plenty to say and did it powerfully. It remains one of the great war films in cinema history and has ripple effects that have lasted almost 100 years at this point. It shows the brutality of war and just how quickly youthful excitement can be eradicated by the reality of peril and battle. The soldiers followed in this story experience the worst circumstances any person could imagine, from having to kill another person and seeing their friends mercilessly die in front of them. The film never lost its edge and it helps solidify it as a warning call of the empty promises involved in fighting wars started by men who will never fight the battle themselves.