Monday Movie: All Quiet on the Western Front, by David Bax
I came to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front backwards. I saw the silent version (shot alongside the primary, sound version) first, attending a screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago in 2004. Gobsmacked by its power, I immediately went out and rented the DVD of the standard classic (RIP Specialty Video on Broadway). World War I was described as “the war to end all wars.” In a perfect world, that would be true. In that same world, this would be the war movie to end all war movies, so definite and forceful is it in its anti-war stance, while also exhibiting such grace as to place it among the best cinema has to offer in any genre.
Its plot is a devastatingly simple one. Egged on by their jingoistic professor (Arnold Lucy), who in retrospect may be one of film’s great villains, a group of young German men sign up for the army, expecting to see some action, earn some glory, help their country win a swift and decisive victory and soon return home to a hero’s welcome. The rest of the film becomes a grinding survey of all the ways in which their assumptions are more wrong than they could have imagined. Milestone cleverly employs a number of alluring cinematic techniques, including a revolutionary use of crane shots, all capturing the massive and impressively detailed sets, like the vast recreation of no-man’s-land, complete with trenches, sandbags and barbed wire. Yet, while his delivery method is beautiful, he fills his frame with shocking, grueling, sickening devastation.
Milestone’s masterpiece has two scenes that deserve to be listed alongside the greatest of all time while also serving his argument for pacifism. One of them is a charge across that mortar-cratered no-man’s-land, in which so much death is depicted and amidst such a cacophony of guns and explosions–the very earth exploding in blooms of mud and gore–it may even give the viewer PTSD. But it keeps going for minutes on end. Countless human lives are terminated and their bodies destroyed and dismembered yet it fails to cease. Milestone shows us that war is hell not just because it is a living nightmare but also because it is a monotonous, unending one. The other scene is much quieter but just as horrifying. Instead of scores of extras, this scene involves just two people. One of them is a German soldier, our protagonist, Paul (Lew Ayres); the other is the French soldier Paul has just stabbed but with whom he must share a foxhole until morning, trapped as the man slowly and painfully dies.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a film that ought to be taught in grade schools, the earlier the better. The sooner people can be made to associate war with grief, horror and nausea, the sooner the world will improve.