All Quiet on the Western Front

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If i could ask how an American WWI movie was made about French soldiers, i would appear to have forgotten that an American WWI movie about the German soldiers was made almost 30 years previous! What a different world it was back then.

I remember a number of years ago, during the build up to Remembrance Day ceremonies CBC news was interviewing some historian (narrows it down eh?). During the interview they were going over rather mundane topics of how many people were likely to attend, how many troops Canada had lost, etc. I would have forgotten the interview entirely if it weren’t for the little video bit that they were playing in the corner of the screen during it all. Some editor had gotten his hands on some old footage from WWI, and had pieced it together to play as they talked.

However, this wasn’t just behind the lines or life in the trenches footage this was actual combat footage. I stared at the small box bewildered and confused as the interview went on and on while in a small corner i saw men get tangled up on barbed wire, get shot down, or wrench and stagger as a cloud of gas passed over them. To this day, i’m completely confused as to what i saw, was it real, or a reenactment? Was the editor aware of the footage? Was it some kind of sick joke, to have that playing offhandedly in the corner of the screen? It was a truly strange experience.

 

THE STORY

Follow Paul Baumer and his class mates as they lose their zeal, their minds, and humanity in the brutal trenches of the western front.

 

THE GOOD

I think this film’s best quality is how it isn’t all that overtly manipulative in trying to get me to sympathise with the young men as they decide to go off to war and realise suddenly that it wasn’t a good idea. They are all mostly blank slates, and as they die off it is up to me as an audience member to see the tragedy of the situation.

Of course the film helps, but it does so in indirect ways. Like the scene where after a rotation at the front the soldiers in Paul’s company sit around and chat about the war, only to show that none of them have a clue as to why they are here, and who started it. Or how it is clear during their first engagement, their training did nothing to prepare them to see men blasted into pieces or fight with rifle butt, shovel, tooth and nail for their lives. They have no idea where they are posted and what battle they are participating, and none of that really matters when someone is on top of you and your friends are screaming. Most tragic though is how the war changes them and home, Paul’s homecoming is not one filled with laughter and joy, but bitterness, emptiness, and confusion. Home has changed by the time Paul comes back on leave, and most importantly he has changed.

The battles capture the feeling of combat footage, and show the terrifying monotony of artillery barrage, infantry attack, retreat, counter attack, and repeat over and over again for years on end. There’s none of the promised excitement, and heroism their professor/recruiter promised them, only monotony and death.

 

THE BAD

On first watch i will admit it took me a while to realise that Paul was the protagonist of the whole movie. I found that he almost stayed in the background until he visits his friend in the dressing station, there were just too many names and faces at the beginning, and it is mostly because Paul really doesn’t have very much of a personality for himself until the end of the movie.

Also, the pacing and over all structure of the film is rather slow compared to the scripts of today. It certainly feels like an “old film”, and yes can be a bit of a bore if you don’t adjust your expectations.

 

THE UGLY

I agree that All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most effective anti-war films ever made. It presents a portrait of a group of young men charging into the growing maelstrom of the worst war the world had seen, with nothing to guide them but fervent patriotism that is blasted away the moment the first shells start to drop. War and people who fight it has changed since then, WWII was perhaps even justifiable but that doesn’t stop this film from showing the terrible tragedy and consequences that killing another human being can be.

 

5 stars

OUT OF FIVE

 

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