In Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, there are two sides to the war being fought: the French and the German. Set during the first days of WWI, they are only two players in a catastrophe that would soon engulf much of the globe; Germany would be left decimated and ready for a young Adolf Hitler to champion its resurrection while America would loudly announce its place as a predominant military force.
But Milestone’s film isn’t about the history or the politics of the Great War. There have been classic films made about those subjects but they remain bound by time, lashed to the eras they depict and the social climate of the time when they were released. All Quiet, on the other hand, has survived all these years and continues to be (rightly) considered one of the most honest cinematic works on the subject of a soldier’s life on the battlefield. In both its silent and early sound incarnations, the film’s power and emotional clarity has not faded in the nearly 80 years since its initial American release.
Given its blunt critique of the ‘glamour’ of war and the ‘men’ who begin wars vs. the ‘boys’ who fight them, it is no little surprise the film was heavily censored in France, Australia and Nazi Germany, not to mention banned in Italy and Austria into the 1980s. In America, it took Best Picture, Best Director and the since-retired Outstanding Production honors at the third Academy Awards.
It begins in a schoolroom where a group of students are being rallied by their naïve professor who calls them the ‘Iron Youth of Germany.’ Catchy, right? The image of being a hero to their parents or having a girl on each arm is enough to sign away your life when you’re a teen, and soon enough the military roster is full of names. Milestone and the great cinematographer Arthur Edeson unleash a montage of young boys yelping their devotion to country, their faces equal parts excitement and madness; the ‘Yee-haw’ montage from Howard Hawks’ Red River is a dead ringer.
What begins as a battalion of go-getters is quickly thinned out to a handful, the entire Company typified by the would-be Goethe Paul Bahmer (Lew Ayres) and led by the lovably cantankerous Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville). Vigor gives way to cynicism and fatalism of the thickest variety. In the film’s key scene, young Bahmer stabs a French soldier and then attempts to save his life in the foxhole. As the Frenchman takes his last breaths, Bahmer frantically asks the soldier why he couldn’t kill him instead. There’s no glory for Bahmer, Katczinsky, and Tjaden, just a long death march that seems to get longer as it goes along.
Steven Spielberg has openly credited All Quiet as a blueprint and influence on Saving Private Ryan but the similarities are minor at best. Spielberg, ever the sentimental American, structures both death and war as moments of heroicism, not to mention arguing that there’s a positive point to both. Far more vicious in his outlook, Milestone openly posits war as a marketing ploy used by elders to bolster their country’s dominance while promising a pipe dream of national notoriety to its youth. No soldier is a hero and no act is particularly brave in All Quiet on the Western Front and, as the opening text promises and as Bahmer repeats in a concluding tirade, the only thing worse than dying on the battlefield is living through it.
During their last meeting, Tjaden sarcastically boasts to Bahmer that the enemy is working hard on something that will finally kill him. As Army ads soundtracked by Kid Rock continue to run ad nauseum in our time, one has to wonder if anything will ever kill the myth that every soldier lives to be a hero.