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The International Writers Magazine: Review

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
Directed by Lewis Milestone, starring Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim
Russ Thomas

Few films can boast relevance to all eras. All Quiet On The Western Front, a 1930 screen adaptation of the 1929 novel of the same title by First World War veteran, Erich Maria Remarque – written from a German perspective – is one of these films. Hollywood shines a light on a war from which its combatants never could escape, in a deeply affective way.
Remarque wrote his gripping wartime tale with an instrument more powerful than the sword, as a reaction to the horrors he witnessed and endured first-hand, and, with bluntness and an eye for grim reality, aims to pull our faces into what the world in 1929 did not want to see. The adaptation brings these sights and sounds into film, bombarding our senses with scenes that deal frankly with all the themes of war, which still could shock even today’s audience.
The story takes us from a schoolroom, where a teacher stirs his class into enlisting for the German army – to the ‘front’, where the boys and their natural leader Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) meet older, more experienced soldiers and their leader, Stanislaus Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) – to the trenches, where the main scenes of the film take place.

Notable moments include a ten-minute battle sequence, in which fantastic direction has the camera sweeping across a desolate plain as wave after wave of French troops are mown down by machine-guns. Frequent changes in camera angles and placement give heighten the number of already innumerable men charging into death. Another scene has the boots of a dead man passed around three times, the best boots. The camera focus on these boots and not the man who happens to be wearing them, signify a terrible fact: that in war, leather boots last longer than their wearers.

The diagetic sound is amazing, and impressive even by today’s standards – the explosions and the guns and screaming whistles of shells put you right in the trenches with the men, feeling terrified for them, but not so much that you can fully comprehend what might be going on in their heads. When people say, "I can’t begin to imagine what those men were feeling", I can tell you now that this film all but takes you into the men’s heads. If we fully understood, we might adopt a seen-it-all-before attitude, and this is why it is good to stay somewhat in the dark; the film does not force-feed you, and for this reason, the empathy it arouses in you leaves a lingering reflection. Even the special effects, the visuals of exploding shells and dirt flying all around, rip open your mind just as they rip open the ground.

With Rememberance Day been and gone once again, the relevance of All Quiet On The Western Front is as important today as it was back in 1930. There is a duty to remember the dead, and the survivors, but this deep scar in the world, the First World War, should have taught our people to steer clear from inglorious wars. Since then, there hasn’t been a single day of peace, there is always some conflict going on somewhere. Each Rememberance Day has to take in more casualties of war, those of World War Two, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan – the dead, and those still alive being tormented by their experiences.

The film is anti-war without a doubt. In the final scene a hand reaches for a butterfly, an allegory of trying to attain peace, which, cynically is literally shot dead. This is more affective and just as raw as a scene of brutal hand-to-hand combat in a trench. A call for pacifism never ran so starkly and so truly.

© Russell Thomas November 2007

Russ is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

see also
A Very Long Engagement
Dir Jean Pierre Jeunot

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