Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Release Date: 21 April 1930
Oscar Ceremony: 5 November 1930
Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lew Ayres & Louis Wolheim
The Academy Awards have only existed for three years at this point, and yet this is the second WW1 movie to win best picture. However, contrary to Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front is CLEARLY a drama. Based on the novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque, the film aims to make viewers witness the true atrocities of war.
The movie starts with a professor preaching the nobility of war to his young students. His persuasive speech is filled with nationalism and pride, and his students sit there and absorb every word he tells them in awe. When I was in high school, I was angry at some of my teachers because I thought they used their authority to deliver propaganda about how French is highly superior to English. That seems pretty trivial compared to this professor using his authority to glorify war and convince young men to enlist in the army. The worst part is, he is highly successful. All the boys get extremely excited about war and cannot wait to be out in the field. They enlist immediately.
The characters and plot point details are not as important as the overall anti-war message this film attempts to portray. In short, the rest of the movie revolves around these young men’s disillusion with war. Talking about it might sound fun when you’re just playing and fantasizing, but when you’re actually out there it’s a completely different story. When you see your best friends die in front of you, it’s a completely different story. It’s kind of hard talking about this movie without getting political and sensitive. Do you remember when you were a kid and you were excited to have a fire drill at school because it meant missing part of your classes? Were you kind of excited by the thrill of it? The thing is, have you ever experienced an actual fire? I bet it wasn’t so funny then, was it? Well imagine that feeling and multiply it by 100 and then you’ll probably understand how these young men feel during war.
The movie is filled with carefully crafted symbols and motifs, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was a novel first. However, in some cases, films have the power to show things in a story in a way that cannot be done on paper. One of the most memorable scenes involved a dead soldier’s pair of boots being passed on to another soldier. Following the exchange, there is a montage of different shots of the boots as they are passed on from owner to owner, indicating that each of them has died. It’s a quick yet moving and visually-striking way to portray a tragic body count.
At some point, the main character Paul (Lew Ayres) gets the chance to return to his hometown. We would normally associate that with comfort, but in this case, coming home simply leads to more disillusion. He walks down the street and sees a young boy dressed as a soldier and playing with a toy gun. He goes back to his school and sees his professor give the exact same speech he gave them before they enlisted, only this time to a bunch of even younger students. He also talks to his father, who seems out of touch with the realities of war while he discusses different strategies with his friends over a round of drinks. Paul is not sure he wants to be back in a place where people keep treating war like it’s some sort of game.
The ending was very powerful. Without giving anything away, I want to point out that as opposed to most movies made during that time, this one ends in silence. Even when the “The End” shot shows up onscreen, it is not accompanied by any type of music. I assume this choice was made on purpose, as it shocks viewers and forces them to take a moment to think about what they have just watched. It also echoes the concept of having a moment of silence for fallen soldiers.
However, what makes All Quiet on the Western Front even sadder is the fact that despite its anti WW1 message, the Second World War erupted less than 9 years after its release. It makes us wonder whether we will ever learn from our mistakes.