All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)
Director: Delbert Mann.
Starring: Richard Thomas (Paul Baumer), Ernest Borgnine (Stanislaus Katczinsky), Patricia Neal (Paul's mother), Ian Holm (Cpl. Himmelstoss, the drill instructor), Donald Pleasence (the school teacher).
This TV movie is a remake of the 1930 film. Borgnine and Neal received Emmy nominations.
A group of young German men all in the same class at school are being prepared by their teacher to be good soldiers for the German fatherland. The entire class goes into the army. A smaller part of the class stays together. The movie concentrates on the experience of one of these students, Paul (Richard Thomas) and his small cohort.
Paul and his cohort go through basic training together. They are unfortunate enough to get Cpl. Himmelstoss (Ian Holm) as their drill instructor. The corporal takes great pleasure in torturing his trainees, especially Paul, who he puts through extra unpleasant tasks. In retaliation, Paul and his group give the Corporal a "blanket party".
On the front lines, Paul and his group get an "old hand" (Ernest Borgnine) as their "guardian". Once in combat, we get to see all the horrors we have read about that took place during the trench warfare of World War I: both sides are entrenched with only about a hundred yards separating the two enemies; the terrible effects of gas as a weapon; the devastating effects of the machine guns; and the futility of the charges and coutercharges.
All this adds up to such stress that it would lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in the men, that is, if they survive the war. We see friend after friend of Paul's original group being killed or wounded.
Paul gets a chance to go home on a short leave, where it is obvious that he has suffered considerable psychic damage. He feels as if home is not home any more. Everything is strange to him. He feels as though his true home is now with his comrades. (This is not strange. Sociologists have discovered that what keeps men fighting in such terrible situations is not their commitment to honor or fatherland, but to their buddies. Men in combat facing death day to day often form a bond with their buddies that can never and will never be matched anywhere else.)
Paul returns to the front and is united with his comrades. The question now remaining is will Paul and his buddies make it through to the end of the war or will they be casualties like many of their friends?
It is interesting to consider the war from the German side, but to tell the truth the story is universal. It's commitment to one's comrades in arms, not to any ideology, that keeps men fighting. And this is true of the majority of all soldiers, regardless of their nation. Although not being particularly fond of German militarism, it is easy to identify with the young German men. After all, they are in the same mess as their equivalents on the other side.
Because of this universal theme of the importance of men's commitment to their friends in surviving warfare, one identifies with the common soldiers of both sides. And that makes the film anti-war. The big guys run the war, but the common soldiers do the fighting and dying and these soldiers are all in pretty much the same situation.
All is quiet on the Western front only when the war ends.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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