Film Review: All Quiet in the Western Front

Any work of art which presents the truth about modern war is a rarity, and therefore Socialists should view the film “All Quiet on the Western Front” with particular interest. Made in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone, it is based on Remarque’s famous novel of the 1914-1918 war as seen through the eyes of the ordinary German soldier.

The film opens in 1914, amid the patriotic fervour of the first days of the war. Whilst a military band blares outside a school, we see a group of youths inside all eagerly clamouring to join the army. Only one of their number tries to make a stand against them, but afraid of being called a coward, he reluctantly joins them, bewildered and terrified.

A brilliant sequence follows of the training of these volunteers, and here Milestone shows us how each individual is gradually converted into an automaton in uniform. This is one of the key points of the film, and is developed later in the battle scenes.

After a period in the trenches, where they get their first shattering experience of modern war, these youngsters retire behind the lines for a rest. Here the film becomes most interesting and outspoken. Whilst the soldiers are wolfing their rough food, they discuss the war and its causes. Some of the men think they are fighting because of the natural wickedness of the enemy, whilst others do not know why they are at war at all. One by one they speak, and we realize that all these men have been led blindly into a holocaust they do not understand. Eventually one of them says that the politicians and financiers are to blame, and that they should be the ones to do the fighting. This whole scene is most movingly and truthfully presented.

The greatest sequence of the film follows—the famous “Charge Across the Trenches.” The French attack, and move in hordes across No Mans Land, mown down by the German gunfire. The camera moves along the German trench, looking out on the advancing infantry, and with superb cutting and camera movement, Milestone shows us the ghastly carnage. We are made to feel that all these figures, the oncoming French, the Germans, the machine-gunners, the soldiers in the terrible fight with bayonets and bare fists, are not individuals, but a mass of men converted into brute animals, acting as animals do. A French soldier runs up to the barbed wire and places his hands on it, preparatory to leaping over. A shell bursts, and when the smoke clears, we see just a pair of hands dangling on the wire. The Germans are pushed back, but counter-attack. Now we are in the French trenches, and the camera moves along in the. opposite direction, showing the slaughter of the German troops. In this way is shown the link between the German and French soldiers, that they are really brothers.

The rest of the film is devoted to the deepening horror felt by the German troops, in particular the principal character (played by Lew Ayres). He is at first shown as an idealistic boy, but at the end he becomes an embittered man, revolted by his experience.

The film naturally suffers from the inexperience of the actors, unskilled in the then new sound-film technique. This is especially true of Lew Ayres, noticeably in the tragic scene with his mother, and also when he is trapped in a shell hole with a dying French soldier.

Despite these faults, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a good film, and its recent general release is doubly welcome. It should remind any workers who may have doubts, what war means to them.

Derek R. Bowen

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