Telling a World War story from the German perspective was not a common occurrence in classic film, but in 1930 Hollywood did just that with All Quiet on the Western Front. Based on the classic novel by German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, the story is told from a neutral position that describes the personal impact of war on the soldiers without delving into the political motivations for the conflict itself.
The lengthy story follows a group of classmates who are inspired to enlist by the exhilarating speech of a teacher. The heat of the moment and peer pressure leads a great number of them to join up together, but basically none of those boys will make it out unscathed. After surviving training, the men go to a combat zone where chaos has hit a town. They are joined up with older soldiers and want to know where they can find some grub, but the incumbent soldiers have been without food for much longer. The young men bond with “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) over the pig he has procured for dinner and the cigarettes and other loot the boys hand over as payment for the meal.
The men next spend sleepless days in the trenches waiting for a bombardment to cease. One soldier, Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), loses his nerve and runs out of the bunker and is injured. This boy once bragged about the nice boots his uncle gave him to use at the front, but at the hospital his peers beg him to give them up because his leg has been amputated. Kemmerich dies in the hospital with Paul (Lew Ayers) by his side, who retrieves the boots for another soldier. Mueller (Russell Gleason) is quite pleased by the comfort the boots afford, but he will expire and the boots will pass on to another soldier, who will also find no need for them.
Paul slowly becomes our protagonist and we particularly bond with him when he spends most of a day in a shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed. The enemy is slow in dying and Paul suffers a range of emotions as he promises to save the man and becomes furious that he will not awaken to forgive him. Paul is later wounded and sent to a hospital where he learns about a “dying room” where men are taken just before they pass so that a bed in the ward can be freed. He becomes hysterical when taken to this room, but returns triumphant. The injury has afforded him leave and time to return to his home. There his parents are quite proud and insist he wear his uniform, but Paul cannot relate to his former way of life and his inability to cope leads him back to the front early. By this point, all but Kat are no longer part of the Second Company he once knew.
I read the book of “All Quiet on the Western Front” when I was in college and do not remember too much of it. What has always stuck in my mind, however, is the story of the boots and their importance to the men and their movement from one individual to the next. I also distinctly remember how detailed the experience of Paul in the hole with the dying soldier was and how much space was spent describing that encounter.
The story is one of the more honest accounts of war that does not overly dramatize the experience. Although the film starts out with equal attention paid to all the young men, before we know it we find ourselves intensely invested in Paul. When the character returns to the classroom of that inspirational teacher while on leave, I could not help but notice the stark contrast between the young, fresh-faced boy who started the film there and the sullen-eyed man who returned to it.
Ayres’ performance is remarkable. He plays consoling, hysterical and cynical all very well and is easy to sympathize with. It is a wonder he was not nominated for an award. The movie did win Best Director for Lewis Milestone and Best Picture at the Oscars that year.
- All Quiet on the Western Front is set for 8 p.m. ET Feb. 6 on TCM.