Friday, July 16, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was the third film to win a Best Picture Oscar, but the first in a long line of war films that won Hollywood’s top prize. I wasn’t thrilled to watch this movie because, while I consider myself a bit of a history buff, I find World War I pretty boring. I mean, I know it was called the Great War, but let’s face it, trench warfare=boring on film. I was wrong. This movie really moved me, but I’ll be honest. If you voted for Sarah Palin in 2008, you may not like what you see.

Surprisingly, the movie grabbed me from the very beginning. Just like a great book (which All Quiet on the Western Front was before it was a film) this movie begins with a simple quote posted on the screen to set the tone for the rest of the film. It said,

This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war...

Whoa, heavy. I knew right then and there that this film would be a drastic departure from the peppy musical The Broadway Melody, which won the Best Picture Oscar the year prior.

All Quiet on the Western Front centers around a young German man named Paul who is convinced by a zealous teacher that fighting for ones country is the most honorable thing a young man can do. Paul and many of his classmates join the German army and begin fighting the French on the Germany/France border. The young men witness death and destruction and begin to see that there is very little glory in war. Many of Paul’s friends die or are injured during the war. After watching one friend die, Paul leaves the medical station and begins to run down the street. He recounts to his fellow soldier that it just felt so good to be alive and breathe in the air.

In another scene (perhaps the most memorable one of the entire film) Paul finds himself trapped in a hole during battle. A French soldier jumps into the hole with him and Paul stabs the Frenchman. He is mortally wounded and cries out repeatedly in pain. Paul is forced to spend the night trapped in a hole with this man he has almost killed. He tries to comfort the Frenchman, but by the morning Paul cannot stand the moaning anymore and he screams for the man to die. Realizing the cruelty in what he has said and tells the Frenchman that he will live and that he didn’t mean to kill him but that he stabbed him because he had to since the Frenchman was his enemy. Paul realizes that without this war, there would be no enemies and tells the Frenchman that he’d be his brother under any other circumstances. He begs for forgiveness and promising to write the man’s wife before the Frenchman dies.

Paul is wounded but survives and gets leave to go home and see his family. He is disheartened to see that all living in his village are so caught up in the war that no one seems to understand what the consequences of all the fighting will be. His father asks him to wear his uniform around and offers strategic military opinions. Paul goes back to the school and visits the teacher that convinced him to go to war. Paul is so upset that he tells all the young men in the classroom how terrible war is. Everyone is disgusted with him calling him a traitor and a wimp.

Paul returns to war to find that all but two of his original comrades are dead. He goes to visit Kat, one of his best friends who is searching for food. A bomb throws shrapnel into Kat’s leg and Paul begins to carry him to the Red Cross center. Another bomb hits and shrapnel hits Kat in the back of the head, killing him. Paul is unaware that Kat is dead and carries him to the medic.

The final scene is the most devastating. Paul is sitting in a trench when he sees a butterfly on the ground outside. Shocked to see such a beautiful reminder of life in the middle of such destruction and death Paul can’t resist reaching out to the butterfly. We see a Frenchman aim his gun. The final image is Paul’s hand, reaching for the butterfly and it suddenly stops. Paul has died. The music stops playing and all is truly quiet on the western front.

Here's the trailer.

According to AFI, this is the 54th Best Film of All Time out of 100.

It’s a heavy film, not for the light hearted and a definite reminder of what war can do to humans. When it was over I had to sit alone for a few minutes just to process what had happened.

If black and white isn’t your thing, never fear. All Quiet on the Western Front is going to be remade, and will star the one and only Harry Potter as Paul.

I’ll absolutely watch this film again. I think it’s an important reminder that there is a negative side to war.

I give it four statuettes out of five.

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