All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Director: Lewis Milestone.
Starring: Lew Ayres (Paul), Louis Wolheim (Kat), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Arnold Lucy (Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jr. (Peter), Walter Rogers (Behn), William Bakewell (Albert), Russell Gleason (Mueller), Richard Alexander (Westhus), Harold Goodwin (Detering), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), G. Pat Collins (Bertinck), Beryl Mercer (Paul's Mother).
This film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's pacifist novel about the experiences of German boys during World War I.
Spoiler warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
The movie will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
Pictures of troops marching. Postman Himmelstoss has been called up for service in the German army. A teacher speaks to his students in a rah-rah tone for Germany and its war efforts. He says that it will be a quick war with few loses. He adds that it is a great honor to fight for the fatherland. Paul Baumer, writer and student leader, shouts that he will serve with the army. The chant of enlist now goes up and the boys start singing. They are all enthusiastic about going to war. They are soon donning their military uniforms for basic training.
Himmelstoss appears and the boys give him a hard time. But Himmelstoss will be in charge of the young men. Power seems to go to his head and the class soon resents him for making them crawl in the mud during their training. The news comes that they will be going up to the battle front. Paul Baumer comes up with an idea. The young men way-lay the drunken Himmelstoss, spank him, pick him up and throw him in the mud.
The young soldiers arrive at the front. They meet Westhus, a big fellow, and sergeant Kachenzkey who scrounges for extra food for the unit. The experienced soldiers don't want to get to know the newcomers because "These babes get knocked off to fast."
The young fellow go on a wiring detail to string some barbed wire. An Allied bombardment begins and the men have to make a run for it. One of the guys is hit and screams about his being blind. It's Behn. Another soldier retrieves Behn but the fellow is already dead. Kachenzkey is mad and tells his crew: "Don't none of you do that again!"
The unit heads to the front. They live in a bunker. Dirt constantly falls on them. Kimmerick, a buddy of Behn, is very upset. He tries to flee and sergeant Kimmerick hits the fellow in the stomach to stop him. Rats run through the trenches.
When the shelling is over, the whistle blows and the men climb up and out of the trenches. Many are mowed down. The enemy counterattacks and reaches the German side. There is hand-to-hand combat. The Germans have to retreat to another trench. The German unit loses half their men, 75 of 150 men. The men of the unit start asking important questions: "How does a war get started anyway?" The manufacturers are the ones who get rich from war.
Paul Baumer walks two miles to see Kemmerick in the hospital. They took his leg off and someone stole his watch. Moreover, Kimmerick knows he is on his death bed. Paul prays for the nineteen-year old Kimmerick. Kimmerick dies and Paul inherits his fancy boots. Back with the unit, Paul tells Mueller that he saw Kimmerick die. Mueller takes the fancy boots. Not long afterward, Mueller gets wounded and someone else gets the fancy boots. That fellow, in turn, gets hit.
The men complain that they have lived through three years of shells and bombs. Himmelstoss arrives to take charge but the guys from his home town won't obey his orders. The postman tells them "You'll pay for this." The unit has to attack and Himmelstoss hides in one of the fox holes. Paul finds him and tells him to get up. Himmelstoss gets up and starts shouting "forward" and goes ahead of the troops. The unit is slaughtered by the Allied artillery. With an Allied counterattack the Germans have to make a run back to their lines. Paul now finds himself in a fox hole. A French soldier jumps into the same fox hole and Paul stabs him. The Frenchman does not die. He lays their gasping for breath. Paul tells him "I want to help you." But in the morning Paul can't stand the man's moaning anymore. He asks him "Why do you take so long to die?" He regrets the questions and tells the man that he is not dying. The Frenchman dies. Paul talks to the corpses and explains "I didn't want to kill you. You're just a man like me and I killed you." He then asks the Frenchman to forgive him. Paul says he will write the man's parents. He checks the man's papers and finds out that he was Gerald Duval with a wife and a young daughter. Paul asks the dead man to forgive me. At night the bombing stops and Paul is able to return to his lines.
The unit gets some time away from the front. They go to a bar and drink. Paul talks with his friend Albert about girls. May 1917 turns into September 1917. Paul and his fellows take a bath in the canal water. They see three French girls walking along the canal. They call to the girls and ask them not to go away. They shout to them that they have food. This interests the girls and they turn around to talk with the guys. But all this fun is stopped by a German guard.
The men return at night to the canal. They swim across the canal naked. When the French girls see them they laugh at their nudity. The girls start eating the food the guys brought. After time alone together the men swim back over the canal to the German encampment.
The unit heads out for a big offensive, but they find themselves being shelled. Paul is hit in the side. He finds himself in the hospital along with his friend Albert. A guy in a nearby bed is taken to the "dying room" from which no one returns to the hospital ward. Later they move Paul to the dying room. Paul protests that he is not going with them. He is told that he is only going to the bandaging room. Albert has a leg amputated. When he learns that his leg is gone is becomes very scared. Paul returns to the ward very, very happy.
Paul is soon back in uniform. Albert has to stay behind. Paul goes back home. Many of the shop in town are closed and it is very quiet. At his home his sister greets him. He finds that his mother is ill. And he now looks at his house as if it were some strange place. He tells his family that he just has to leave. He changes out of his uniform. He finds that the older men love to ask him about the war. He is upset about their enthusiasm and tells them that war is different when you're in it. The old men get into disputes about war strategy.
Paul visits his old professor who is still pushing the Fatherland concept. The professor is happy to introduce Paul to the students. He describes Paul as the kind of soldier everyone should envy. But Paul does not respond the way the professor would wish. He says that they live in trenches and they fight and sometimes they are killed. He disagrees with the professor that it is beautiful and sweet to die for your country: "What good is it?" Some of the students shout "Coward!" at him, but Paul is not deterred: "We sleep and eat with death."
Paul realizes that even though he still has four days of leave he just can't stand it back home. He says good-bye to his mother who cautions him to try to get a safer job in the army.
Back with his unit the cry goes up "Paul's back!" But Paul finds that there are a lot of new guys in the unit who he does not know. One kid is only sixteen years old. Westhus is dead and sergeant Kachenzkey is out looking for food for the unit. Paul goes out and finds Kachenzkey. He explains to the older man that he found that "I'm not good back there anymore." He tells Kachenzkey that he is all he has left.
An allied plane sees the two men in no man's land. The pilot drops a bomb near them and the sarge is hit in the shin by shrapnel. Paul carries Kachenzkey on his back. Another bomb is dropped and this time the sarge is killed by a piece of shrapnel. Paul, however, does not even know that sarge is dead. He just keeps on talking to sarge as if he were alive. Paul brings sarge to the medics only to be told that the man is dead.
Paul helps bail water out of the trenches. He is in a pensive mood. He sees a butterfly flitting about. It lands near the edge of the trench and Paul reaches his hand out to the butterfly. An Allied sniper sees Paul's movement and shoots Paul dead.
Lew Ayres as Paul got great praise for the role, but at times I thought he was quite awkward. But the story is still great.
I grew up on those war movies starring John Wayne where it as all glory and honor and the expendable characters are always shot somewhere not too disgustingly bloody. Then I saw the movie "Platoon" and thought that finally we get a taste of the real thing. I thought this was something really new, but recently I saw "All Quiet on the Western Front" and must say that "Platoon" sure had its predecessors. This movie catches the terrible disillusionment following the carnage of World War I.
The movie follows a group of young German men still in school being inspired by the great patriotic speeches of their professor. In fact, they are so inspired that the whole class enlists to go off to war as a group. Starting with great enthusiasm, the boys get a real education once they get out of basic training and are sent to the front. The veterans in their company are already cynical about the trench warfare into which the opposing armies have been forced. Not only do the men face dirt, filth, rats, and hunger, they also face constant bombardments and then the actual fighting.
In World War I the improvement of the machine gun allowed hundreds of men to be cut down by one machine gunner or crew. This is vividly shown when a long line of attacking French soldiers reach the outer barbwire and are mowed down by the German machine guns. Then when the Germans counter-attack, they are in turn mowed down by the French machine guns. Predecessor of the bloody scenes of the movie "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan," an attacking French soldier manages to reach the barbed wire of the Germans only to be blown apart by an artillery shell, leaving only the amputated two fists and parts of the forearms still hanging onto the wire.
The movie focuses on the hero (Lew Ayres) as he becomes more and more cynical. The pacifist message comes though with the emphasis on such points as: the average soldier doesn't really know what the countries are fighting about (or are fighting for the wealthy capitalists); the futility of trench warfare and, by extension, the futility of all war; the old men play at being armchair generals while sending the young men into harm's way; the recognition of the common humanity of the enemy soldiers; and many more.
In summary, "All Quiet" is a very modern movie even though it came out in 1930 (with sound movies only coming out in 1929).
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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