Cine-East Film Club Presents #49: 1930, All Quiet On The Western Front (Lewis Milestone)

by George_East on August 13, 2014

Katczinsky: “I’ll tell you how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field…And on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put ’em in the centre dressed in their underpants, and let ’em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.”

To tie in with our current Songs To Learn and Sing theme week of anti-war songs and the Centenary of the First World War, this week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation is the granddaddy of anti-war films, Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Erich Remarque’s first world war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

I have written before that there is a marked difference in the cinematic treatment of the First World War and the Second World War.

There are far more films about the later war, most of which in some way or the other portray heroism.  The dynamic nature of the war and the clearly moral aspect of the cause against the Nazis, the ultimate bad guys, lend themselves to easy cinematic treatment.

It is also the reason, I think, why many Second World War films are overly simplistic and consequently aren’t very good.   The two that have featured so far in the Cine-East Film Club have played against the usual tropes of such films by in the classic film of the Warsaw Rising Kanal portraying something that was heroic but unredeemed because it was doomed, or in the case of Sam Peckinpah’s extraordinary Cross of Iron, setting the film amongst the Nazis, and undermining the heroics of the platoon by the (by then equally doomed) cause for which they were fighting.  Those two are both masterpieces.

Films about the First World War, on the other hand, are far fewer in number but in general terms the quality is higher.  The tragedy of the First World War has also tended to attract high quality directors.  If you randomly come across a First World War film, the chances are it will be better than a random Second World War film you happen upon.   It also explains how come All Quiet on the Western Front is after Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory,  the fourth First World War film to be featured.

All Quiet on the Western Front had been published in 1929 by Remarque, who was a German veteran of the western front, and who had himself been conscripted into the infantry at the age of 18.   Remarque was wounded in the leg in July 1918, and saw out the rest of the war in a military hospital.    The novel would be an immediate success – its reporting of the realities of the war from the ordinary soldiers’ perspective rang a chord with many of those who had served or lost relatives in the conflict.  It would be banned under the Nazis for its pacifism and anti-patriotism.

Milestone’s Hollywood film version made a year after publication of the novel a little surprisingly keeps the German setting (rather than transferring it to an allied unit) without in any way seeking to demonise or even particularise the German experience.   This is not a miserable and deadly experience based on the lie of patriotism because they are a German unit, but because they are ordinary soldiers.  The fact that the actors speak in their normal American accents and use American idioms in their dialogue, serves to emphasise that the film’s message is universal.

Its focus is on a class of young school age volunteers who are whipped into a patriotic frenzy with dreams of heroism and glory by their classics teacher (who is keen to instil in them Wilfred Owen’s great lie, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) .   They enlist as volunteers as war breaks out and the small (and typical) German town they are from is swept up with war fever.    Their concerns that they may not even see any fighting (as the war is bound to be over before they get to the front line) are soon dispelled as they are sent to the front within a few days of starting the training they expected to go on for weeks.     In fact four years later, none of them will be left in one piece – most dead, some crippled by losses of limbs with a lifetime of begging ahead of them.

Milestone depicts the production line of death that was the Great War by a great shot of two trains simultaneously sitting at the railway station, one dispatching them and other troops for the front line, the other with its distinctive red cross taking the wounded away to hospital or the morgue.

The boys have their illusions shattered as to what war is about within minutes of arriving as an artillery bombardment rains down on them.   They quickly discover the realities under the tutelage of veteran, Kat (played by the fantastic Louis Wolheim with his boxer’s flattened nose and gangster heavy features), who they first meet after he comes back from scrounging a pig carcass, for the company to supplement the starvation rations they are supplied with (a later scene will show the older men back home telling one of the men on leave that it is ‘only the best for our men at the front’.   A bit like James Coburn’s platoon commander, Steiner, in Cross of Iron, Kat helps the new men to learn how to survive at the front – it is not about the greater glory of Germany but about staying alive and looking after each other in the company.

Life at the front is shown as constant barrages of artillery, which if they do not kill or main will sure as hell result in you becoming a quivering wreck.  One of the company’s number who is driven to his wit’s end by the unrelenting shells falling on the trench and runs is not treated as a coward but just as another soldier who cannot take it anymore, as he is stretchered off having been shot by enemy fire running from the trench.

One spectacular sequence shows an attack on the German trench that the company is in.  The barrage stops and then there is an eerie silence as the look outs scour the horizon for the waves of surging troops leading the assault who will appear any moment.  The tension is palpable – Milestone’s genius here is to reverse the more expected way of showing trench warfare, the attack on the opposing trenches across no man’s land and into machine gun fire.   Instead he shows it from the defenders’ point of view – if anything this is even more horrific, as they just wait for the attack, knowing it is going to come bringing death in its wake.

But Milestone doesn’t stop there, the trench is overrun but then the Germans re-group and counter-attack.  The overall result is many hundreds of dead on both sides and the company back in the trench it started in.  The battle, like so many in the First World War, was utterly pointless, with no ground gained and the lines back to where they were before the battle started.

This is a pre-Hays code film (so the strict censorship which would apply across all Hollywood films for 30 years from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s hadn’t yet been introduced).  The war is as a result shown in its visceral reality.  An artillery bombardment leads to a soldier shitting himself.    Three members of the company are able to trade bread for sex with local French farm girls.   This is all shown by Milestone for the tawdry unremarkable reality it no doubt was.

But Milestone is keen to empahsise a broader message, that the war was not an ordinary man’s war, but one for the elites and those sat back home far from the front line playing armchair generals.   In one of the most famous scenes in the film, one of the company Paul (Lew Ayres), will find himself in a fox hole in no man’s land with an enemy soldier who he has wounded.  As the battle wages on above them, he will go from trying to kill him, to futilely seeking to keep him alive.  They are one and the same.  It could have been reversed.  Two ordinary blokes fighting for they know not what.

These experiences will see Paul (again a bit like Steiner in Cross of Iron) even though totally disillusioned by the war unable to adjust to life back home even for a short period of leave, resulting in him returning to the front early, as his mother (the great Beryl Mercer, who also plays James Cagney’s Tom Powers’ doting mother in The Public Enemy) pleads for him to take on a less dangerous role at the front and as the latest credulous students at the school he attended call him a coward for telling them the truth about the war, rather than the patriotic message his former teacher urges him to impart.

Although there have been plenty of other anti-war films since (and many of those have been truly great), it is All Quiet on The Western Front that is the starting point for pretty much everything that came afterwards.  Its influence can be felt on films as diverse as   The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket  and Saving Private Ryan. 

In the centenary year of the First World War, as Tories like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson try to revive the notion of the Great War as a just and noble cause, it ought to be compulsory viewing.


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