Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Director: Lewis Milestone
Length: 2h 21 min
Lest We Forget
With Remembrance Day celebrating its 100th anniversary, I felt it only fitting to watch what was considered one of the greatest War movies of all time. All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of the disillusionment of a young German soldier during the events of World War 1 as he is sent to the front lines to fight for his country. We see our hero go from a starry-eyed high schooler, pumped and ready to fight for his country, to a jaded, shell-shocked veteran who feels like he can’t even return home as himself anymore. When he returns he’s called a coward by his peers as they do not know the reality he has seen. The movie gets its name from headlines that used to appear in German newspapers. They would rave about the victories and fights on the Eastern Front as it was going superbly well for them but would be silent about what was happening on the Western Front to keep the population feeling like War was a good thing, citing “Nothing New on the Western Front”.
There’s no denying that War is a terrible thing that has left many grieving, in pain, destroyed and mentally ill. With its suffering came stories and tales of terror of what it was like on the Front Lines, the original war whose peace treaty would mark the end of the war on Nov. 11th, 1918 at 11:00 am, which would become the day we all celebrate Remembrance Day. This day is not only to honour all the men and women who died in the war but to remind ourselves of the consequences of war, the loss that comes with it, the weight that war can put on a Nations shoulders. Lest we forget we would be doomed to repeat it.
With this American Epic comes another…
This movie won the best picture and best director award at the 3rd Academy Awards. Although back then it was called The Award for Outstanding Production instead of Best Picture. Calling this an outstanding production is a bit of an understatement. To date, it is considered the most accurate portrayal of War ever to be seen on film. The director, Lewis Milestone, made sure of that as he met with actual German vets to make sure he got the details of their uniforms and daily routines down to a tee. He even went as far as recreating the actual conditions within the trenches in order to make the film as accurate as possible. A lot of those German vets would even go on to play extras in the film.
It is well deserving of its praise. Milestone very cleverly contrasts the devastation of the fast-paced war scenes with slower paced lighter scenes of the men just hanging out and talking, living their lives as much as they can. The film has no music score that plays throughout, which was an oddity at the time. Milestone’s goal with this was for the audience to get sucked into the environment without the aid of a musical score either controlling their emotions or drowning out what was going on. This was a smart move on his part as it adds a lot of weight to the war scenes that are chock-full of gunshots, explosions and yelling. A wall of sound that gets the audience right into the action, feeling what it was like to be surrounded by it, confused and scared like the soldiers.
Horrors of War
What this movie does well, and deserves most of its praise for, is showing off the horrors of war. Everyone knows war can leave people scarred and traumatized and Milestone wanted to show off exactly why that is. Utilizing stories he had heard from veterans he pieced together moments that would define this film as being the most violent of its era. A moment where a soldier grabs some barbed wire is blown up by a bomb, disappearing in the smoke leaving only his hands holding on to the wire was told to the director by a veteran as a moment he personally witnessed in the trenches. Watching the hero slowly descend from his youthful attitude to his cynical and beaten way clearly shows the effects war can have on a person. We watch as he watches friends and colleagues drop dead left and right in front of him. Watch him talk to a friend who is slowly dying in the infirmary trying to give him positive words of survival only to have his positivity taken away from him as this 19-year old slowly dies. Surrounded by old generals who have become desensitized to death, acting like it’s completely normal, we often see scenes of them sitting around talking about their aspirations and lives back home, only to be shut down by the older members, telling them “What good is all that, when you’re just going to die?”. There’s even a room at the infirmary where they take certain soldiers to die and this is told by a man laughing as if it’s a joke. Seeing the eagerness of all the young lads suddenly switch to fear and panic when faced with the reality of death adds to the reality of what was happening at the time especially as we watch one young man writhe and freak out on the ground over the situation he’s in and being held down by his colleagues who are trying to keep control of him.
One truly impactful scene sees our hero in the trenches, trying to hide from the invading American soldiers. One sees him and in a moment of panic, he stabs the American soldier. As the soldier lays there slowly dying, our hero has a moment of guilt and tries his best to resuscitate and save the stabbed soldier, who ultimately dies. Grief-stricken, he stays by the soldier’s side realizing he’s only a man just like him and just like him didn’t want this. He looks through his pockets and promises the man he will write to his wife and daughter and tell them what happens and before passing out repeatedly asks the man for forgiveness for killing him. If this scene doesn’t hit you in the stomach, I don’t know what will.
Due to its portrayal of war, this movie was banned in Germany for “Anti-War Propaganda”. It was regarded as highly controversial for its overt violence, having one of the biggest death tolls in any movie at the time. The war scenes are just a montage of death and violence, with bodies dropping to the ground non-stop, second after second. The fear permeating the scene as the soldiers sit behind their guns, bombs slowly getting closer and louder, tension building until the complete noise and cacophony of action begins. I wouldn’t necessarily call this film Anti-war propaganda as there isn’t an overt message the film is trying to hammer into the audiences’ head. The filmmaker purely wanted to portray the reality of war in the most accurate way possible and if that’s considered Anti-War Propaganda than that speaks volumes of what war truly is.
I do think this is an important film for how realistically it portrays war and should be a must watch for history classes. At least to get a good sense of what it was like for soldiers to fight in the trenches. As for casual movie watchers, if you’re looking for something to watch this Remembrance Day to truly appreciate the meaning of “Lest We Forget” than this is one to check out. If you’re not a fan of constant death, sadness and grief than you might want to skip this and find something a little more hopeful. This is one for this War Buffs but I would recommend it as a good film that portrays the real effects of war on the soldiers who fight in the frontlines.
Here’s to the men and women who lost their lives and those who survived. May we honour your lives and never forget.