Week three, and Witney Seibold, in his epic quest to watch and review every Best Picture winner, has moved on to the epic war tragedy All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930.
Lewis Milestone’s war film All Quiet on the Western Front, adapted from the often-assigned 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is an unusually ambitious feature film. It not only seeks to straddle the high dramatic of the silent era with the more staid aesthetics of the sound era, but it seeks to reveal wartime horror to such a heart-wrenching degree that it will undo war altogether. All Quiet should be required viewing for any and all young men considering entering the military during wartime as the ultimate argument against it. This is a film that can be listed with heavy-hitters like Johnny Got His Gun, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket as one of the defining war pictures this nation has yet produced.
About German soldiers, but featuring a cast of clear-talking American actors (thankfully not bothering to affect German accents), All Quiet on the Western Front is wrenching and horrifying in the way the relatively rollicking Wings was not. Not so much about a single soldier as a group of young German students who proudly enlist in WWI, All Quiet – like so many war films since – follows the tragic journey made by soldiers: The war begins, and you are an idealistic young recruit, whipped into a patriotic frenzy by the frosted words of older men. In basic training, you are forced to wipe that smile off your face, and learn to kill. By the time you’re in the trenches, it becomes an equal battle to keep your life and your wits as you are plunged into a Hell of fire and flying dirt, starvation, solitude, and a seemingly endless tide of violence at the hands of a largely unseen enemy. After only a few months of hiding in underground bunkers, sucking on your socks for the water, killing the encroaching rats, and daydreaming of oatmeal without dirt in it, war begins to resemble life in a gulag.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a film about dehumanization, and how war reduces and shrivels all the beings who come into contact with it. There is no heroism. There is barely survival. Indeed, All Quiet is pretty explicit about its body horror, and how mutilation is the surest sign of dehumanization. In one of the film’s most infamous shots, a soldier is exploded by a bomb, and his severed hands remain gripped to the barbed wire in front of him. In a later scene, an injured and half-mad soldier doesn’t realize he has lost a leg until his compatriots tell him so. The compatriots, meanwhile, can only think to scavenge his boots; It’s not like he’ll need them anymore. In this film, the mind is destroyed at an equal rate with the body.
There is little in the way of humanity. Occasionally, you’ll find a friend; The character of Kat (Louis Wolheim) is a tough-talking, rough-featured survivalist who knows how to finagle food in desperate situations, and whose gruff pragmatism acts as a beacon for the younger soldiers who often need a shot of humanity in an otherwise maddening chaos. The only release these soldiers have are their appetites. When they manage to get some good food, and spend an evening sharing it with French country girls, we see their peace finally coming to the surface. In this world, human appetite is the only thing left of humanity.
In the film’s most terrifying scene, Paul (Lew Ayers), the only character who could be considered a protagonist, stabs a French soldier in a hole. The French soldier does not die immediately, and Paul has to spend the entire night giving him water, trying to help him, but ultimately breaking down and screaming at him to die already. When the French soldier does die, he continues to talk to the corpse, sorry for what he had to do.
Is All Quiet on the Western Front at all preachy? You bet it is. It’s polemical and tragic in a way that is meant to decry war rather than tell a story. There are several speeches and conversations about war itself, and the flip way some soldiers dismiss it, and the tragic ways others accept it. But at the end, no one seems to want it. In the film’s final scenes, Paul returns home and rants about how no one really understand how horrible everything really is out on the Front. “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country!,” he raves in a classroom of young hopefuls, all just now receiving the same recruitment speech he himself received all those months ago.
The examination of a soldier’s life in post-war times – and their inevitable longing to return to the trenches, thanks to an addiction to thrill and a sense that this is the only “real” life – is a theme that will be explored time and again in Best Picture winners. Post-war life is the central theme of The Best Years of Our Lives, and All Quiet bears more than a passing thematic resemblance to The Hurt Locker.
The Academy has, on Sunday, just awarded Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, a turgid downer if ever there was one. All Quiet shows that the tradition of awarding polemical tragedies has always been around. Thanks to its vintage, however, All Quiet takes on a classical feeling, making it feel grander. This just may be a great movie.
Join me next week for Cimarron.