When you’re a kid, things seem so innocent. You are given lots of toys by mummy and daddy which you can use to create your own little fantasy world. And in this fantasy world, heroes are aplenty. My favourite hero was Action Man, the dark-haired beefy soldier. I could always enjoy playing with Action Man, because I knew that he would never die, because he was a hero.
All Quiet on the Western Front is full of heroes, innocent heroes, but heroes who have no guarantee of survival. And though soldiers in real wars are too old to play with Action Man, many of them are kids.
The 1930 film, an adaptation of an Erich Maria Remarque book, is a tale of young German men who enlist in the infantry at the outbreak of World War One after hearing their Classics teacher give a patriotic speech about the heroism of serving in the Armed Forces and “saving the Fatherland.”
The film focuses itself around Paul Baumer, who gradually becomes disillusioned by the war. He sees his friends killed and lose limbs. He stabs a French soldier, but tells the soldier he regrets it while they are lying together in a hole in no-man’s land.
The ‘talkies’ were in their infancy when this film was released, so the action sequences are not going to be as bloody as the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, nor as witty as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Nothing about this film is the ‘best’, but with one exception: it is the best “anti-war” film.
All Quiet on the Western Front is different to most war films. Most war films are patriotic and very glossy. We know who the good guys are and who the enemies are. We enjoy when the enemy gets killed, whether it’s the Nazis, Japanese, Vietcong, Al-Qaeda, or some other people. They are happy affairs.
With All Quiet on the Western Front though, the line between good and bad is blurred: we root for the Germans against the French, for example. But when Lew Ayres’ Paul Baumer is sitting in a dugout, talking with a wounded French soldier that he’s just stabbed, you realise that neither side is evil, but neither side is good.
Another great scene involves a group of men sitting around relaxing and talking about why they are fighting. One soldier, Albert Kropp, says that war begins when “one country offends another.” “Oh, well, if that’s it, I shouldn’t be here at all. I don’t feel offended,” replies another soldier. “It don’t apply to tramps like you,” says another soldier, Katczinsky. The scene exposes something very profound: it’s the man in the street who fights in the war, but they fight on behalf of the businessmen and the politicians.
But more importantly, All Quiet on the Western Front is the greatest anti-war film ever, because right up to the moment we see the hand reaching the butterfly, we know that little good will come of the men. As the opening prologue says, the film tells ‘of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.’
Picture: Universal Studios