All Quiet on the Western Front
There had been anti-war films before, but nothing remotely on this scale. And there had never been one nearly as bleak as this. Not a single frame in this movie makes war seem the tiniest bit fun, glamorous, exciting, heroic, or even patriotic. No, this movie correctly portrays war as the terrifying, horrifying, gut-spilling, miserable, screaming-in-agony-and-terror atrocity that it is. Always, not just in the trenches in World War I (though this war, somehow, has always seemed exceptionally awful), but all wars. It may not seem so bad to generals far behind the combat areas, or to bomber pilots flying beyond the reach of ground fire, or to drone pilots safe in Nevada while raining death on the ground in Afghanistan, but put those people on the ground and deep in the stink and shit and babies with their arms and legs blown off and then see what they think. And believe me, I’m dead serious about this, I don’t think a general or a bomber pilot or a drone pilot should be allowed to work in the rear areas or far overhead without serving at least a few months in the infantry, in combat. Real combat, where a general could have his brass hat blown right off his fucking head.
It was written by Erich Maria Remarque, who had been in the German trenches, living in the mud, dealing with cold and hunger every day. It was directed by Lewis Milestone, who apparently never saw combat (he made films in the Signal Corps) but who understood what was happening at the front lines, where men were made to charge into machine gun fire and died by the tens of thousands every day. He also saw the rear areas, where hundreds of legs and arms were amputated after each battle, where men were blinded, where other men’s minds were so shattered that they could no longer walk and could not stop screaming. (Patton: “There is no such thing as battle fatigue!” Slap!)
It was filmed on an unprecedented scale. A frontline set of the trenches covered many acres. Tons and tons of black powder and dynamite were used to create the almost continuous explosions the 2,000 extras charged through. (Some of it was very dangerous. Milestone himself was knocked unconscious by a chunk of debris.) The sound was so massive that a viewer like myself, after hearing it go on for only a few minutes, could hardly stand it. It’s hard to imagine such pounding could go on without pause for weeks and weeks. But it did. And it’s hard to imagine the effect on audiences in 1930, who had never seen anything on this scale, could hardly have imagined the depths of hell these soldiers lived under. Modern audiences have seen it all, of course, and yet I still think most would be affected by seeing this. About all it omits, for the sensibilities of the day, is the actual shots of steaming guts spilled into the mud, and heads blown off.
It won Best Picture and Best Director that year. It was so effective at exposing war for the insanity it is that Hitler’s fucking Nazi thugs sabotaged showings of it in Germany, beat up projectionists, and finally succeeded in having it banned. Shit, it was banned for longer or shorter periods of time in Australia, Austria, and Italy, and in France until 1963! You can sure see the thinking of the general staffs: How ya gonna get ‘em to sign up for that shit? (Sadly, it’s still all too easy.)
Seen in 2017, it does have some weaknesses. Much of the acting is overblown (notable exception: Louis Wolheim, who underplays, if anything) and the message is often driven home with a sledgehammer. But that was probably what was needed at the time. And on the other hand, many of the scenes, shots, and much of the editing is wonderfully evocative. And it must be said that, even with today’s techniques, the scenes of combat still rank right up there with the best ever done. It’s totally amazing, and not for the faint of heart. But for anyone thinking of signing up … this should be required viewing in every recruiting office in the land.