After a bit of a rough start to my journey through the Academy Award Best Picture winners (Wings and The Broadway Melody are overall achievements of their time, and little more), All Quiet on the Western Front was a much-anticipated and welcome viewing.
I read the book upon which this film is faithfully based a few years ago. It’s the kind of book that sticks in your crawl and doesn’t require a re-read before watching the movie, because you remember all of it.
Told from the perspective of a German soldier during WWI, this is the story of a group of schoolboys who volunteer after a stirring speech given by one of their professors about patriotism, duty, and honor.
But contrary to other such early war films as Wings, All Quiet does not celebrate, fantasize about, or whitewash its protagonists. This isn’t about the glories of war, for Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the 1929 novel upon which this film is based, had stood in the boots of his characters.
As the war drags on, the soldiers of 2nd Company become increasingly disillusioned. What issues do they personally have with the Englishmen they’ve been sent to kill?
The war scenes themselves, most of which take place in the filthy trenches that criss-crossed Europe, are exquisitely harrowing, putting the viewer in the middle of the worst of the worst. There are some truly phenomenal long takes, and everything stands up to the test of time.
I don’t want to spoil the film or book, for those who aren’t familiar with the story, but as the movie progressed I couldn’t help but wonder how they were going to treat the end of the book. It’s anything but cinematic—words and concepts only—no clear picture that would seem to be easily translated to the big screen—but Lewis Milestone has left us with a closing shot that is as every bit as memorable as the closing page of the book.