MOVIES IN THE BLIND SPOT: All Quiet on the Western Front


BLIND SPOT REVIEW #6: All Quiet on the Western Front

Going back and seeing the movies I should have seen or always wanted to see, but missed.

How did it get to my "blind spot?"

This is definitely one of the most egregious movies that make my "blind spot" list.  I had always seen parts of it and it say on my shelf as a blind buy with the intention of being seen, but I never sat down to watch the whole thing.  On Veteran's Day this year, I caved and made the time.

Why should it be seen?

  The high praise of this film, despite its age, is incredibly well known as the 1930 winner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  This Smithsonian-preserved film was #54 on the first edition of the American Film Institute's "100 Years... 100 Movies" list and their #7 epic on their genre lists.  It's regarded still, to this day, as arguably the greatest anti-war film in cinematic history.

Background:  Based on the German World War I novel written by Erich Maria Remarque, the American film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930, predating World War II by nine years.  Directed by Academy Award winner Lewis Milestone and featuring a then-virtually unknown cast, the film follows one class of school boys who enter World War I for about a year.

Stirred by the speeches of glory and service by the teacher, a core group of young students in their teens, led by Lew Ayre's Paul, take their wide eyes and youthful passion to blindly join the war cause.  After a speedy basic training spent hating their local postmaster who's also their drill sergeant in the army, the crew gets their combat dream wishes and are set to the front.  Shattered quickly by the horrors of war, that dreamy luster wears off for the boys very quickly.  They experience all that is dark and evil about this war.  From the destitute trench conditions to the bombastic and deadly battlefields, most of the boys cave in some way to what they are now living through.

A few leaders emerge and value the experience they find themselves in, while others are ruined or killed.  The stronger ones begin to gravitate to the other, more-experienced soldiers who show them the ropes and help them cope with their torn emotions and psyche.  Inevitably, each of the boys are forced to become men and find that the war indeed changes them when, or if, they ever return home to their families.  Bonds are made, cores are strengthened, and plenty of lessons are learned.

Reaction:  5 STARS-- All Quiet on the Western Front was as good as advertised.  It enormously earns its reverence and celebrated place among war films and epics.  Make no mistake.  This film's resonance has not diminished with time or changing movie tastes.  You could easily put this next to the modern, colorized, and flashy war film cornerstones of today and it would still earn its rightful greatness.  I continue to kick myself that I haven't seen in sooner.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, Milestone's film is a technical masterpiece.  The battlefield photography is shockingly phenomenal.  This is not prop getting tossed around on some cheap Hollywood backlot.  Real buildings and locations crumble around live squibs and choreographed explosions with the camera right in the middle.  It goes to show that Steadicams and handheld "right there in the thick of it" footage is overrated compared to the scope to float in and through scenes of war and chaos with swooping perfection.  Even in stiller scenes, the striking closeups and intentional style to view the unfolding world through doorways and windows pre-dates John Ford's classic technique used in The Searchers.

The film's themes are timeless and the ability of the film to convey its extremely strong messages about war were mature for its day and not a bit watered down for the present.  Every war film is essentially an anti-war film in disguise.  There is always glory to be respected and celebrated, but, more often than not we see the negative effects of war.  All Quiet on the Western Front might be the finest example of that.  The glory washes away quickly and is replaced by enough realistic death and horror to let you know how that lasting glory is regained and earned by those who serve.  For Veteran's Day, its a fitting tribute and one of the all-time greats.

LESSON #1: TOO MANY WARS ARE FOUGHT BY BOYS AND NOT MEN-- The United States is no different from other countries in seeking our their soldiers at a young and able age.  It's intentional.  Young men in their late teens and early 20's are commonly not married or fathers, giving them a freedom from additional responsibility.  They are still a clean slate of moral clay that is ready for significant shaping and are at their physical peaks necessary for the job of being a soldier.  However, when those boys are lost in war, the foundation of a future generation decays and the potential for contribution beyond their service to their country is snatched away.  Those that return home become the kind of men that countries thrive with.  Those that don't are lost opportunities.

LESSON #2: THE AMBITIONS OF HONOR, DUTY, BRAVERY, NOBILITY, AND HEROISM COMPARED TO THE REALITIES OF WAR-- Those young men that join a war effort are commonly stirred by the ambitions and visions of becoming something bigger than ordinary.  There is a well-advertised honor and nobility awarded by society to those that serve in the military.  In more traditional countries, veterans and soldiers are a class above the middle in society.  Those same soldiers become sold on the idea of placing their bravery and heroism in the hands of serving their country with honor.  While much of that is true, it's a commitment that is not for everyone, especially when compared to the realities of war.  War is a dirty, deadly, and dark place that most likely doesn't create the shining heroes those kids hoped for in themselves.  It creates more scars than medals.

LESSON #3: THE FEARS MANIFESTED BY WAR-- When those fanciful notions of bravery, duty, and honor are broken by the horrors and violence of war, fears can manifest.  While a death to serve one's country is a glorified sacrifice of the highest regard, very few wish that on themselves.  The stresses caused by the wait and anticipation of possible death, especially within the squalor of WWI trench warfare can tear at any man's resolve.  We are just now in the 21st century coming around to diagnosed idea of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  I guarantee it's been around for centuries before now.  War changes these young men in traumatic ways and they carry those fears to their homes or their graves.