Unrated, 2 hr. 14 min. Directed By: Lewis Milestone. Release Date: Aug 24, 1930. DVD Release Date: Jan 5, 1999.
All Quiet On the Western Front was on one of my summer reading lists during high school, I think Junior year. I’d never heard of it at the time, and I could read title from that column OR read two books from the other two columns, so I went and picked up Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel. I absolutely hated it. I got about two chapters in before I did that most horrible of things: Cliff Notes. I wrote my requisite paper using the Cliff Notes book I picked up, because the thematic questions my teacher asked were questions 1 and 3 on the list in the book. I’d like to say I was shocked, but I hated my English teacher that year. I should have agreed to go into the Honors class, with its VASTLY superior reading list, but no. I sucked and went the normal path.
I will say that I liked this movie more than the book. But it does have a serious, almost fatal flaw in my mind: this is a movie about German soldiers during World War I. And yet, somehow, everyone speaks in colloquial (for the 30s) American accents. They don’t act much like Germans, either. I found the use of American slang distracting. I could have lived without a German accent, I mean, I survived Prince of Thieves without a British one. But, languages don’t always translate out directly, and it bothered me that this was how the treated the dialogue in the novel.
But, otherwise, I thought this was a great example of the trauma of war. Various folks described this as anti-war, and I’d agree that Remarque would have preferred that war didn’t happen. I don’t really see that as a bad thing, myself and it feels like ‘anti-war’ has a negative stigma on it. What I really think Remarque (and later Lewis Milestone) attempted to do with this story was show the negative impacts of war on our soldiers, and it’s an important reminder, especially now that we’re long past the point in history where our leaders, the ones who make the decision to GO to war, spend any time fighting. Actually, I just had a flashback to Dukakis in the tank, and that made me laugh. If he’d won the presidency, and went to fight in a war, we would have been smarter to put him in a tank… or on a full-grown horse.
I also like how this film describes the sense of duty that these soldiers feel. They joined with a pledge to defend their country, even if they weren’t necessarily on board with the war. As a former service member, that was my single largest problem: accommodating my personal code of ethics with my orders. There were various shades of gray involved, and it wasn’t very often that I found myself at a turning point, but it is one of the reasons why I wouldn’t have re-enlisted. I admire that sense of duty, and I admire the filmmakers for painting the Germans with such a positive light. It would be interesting to see how this would play out with World War II soldiers: Germans who didn’t believe in the Reich or what it was doing but who had promised to defend their country and were going to do it, even when they believed their country was going down a dark road. It had to have been a part of the service in those days… not all Germans believed in what Hitler was doing.
I’m rambling, but All Quiet On the Western Front made me think. I’m thinking I should revisit the book, too.