“All Quiet on the Western Front” Still Powerful After 80 Years

by Borderstan.com November 10, 2010 at 6:53 am 2,173 1 Comment

Mary Burgan Borderstan Movie Fan

Mary Burgan is the Borderstan Movie Fan.

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. Mary Burgan is a retired professor of English and association executive. Her previous reviews are listed at the end of this post.

Veterans Day is tomorrow, Nov. 11. So when thinking about war movies for this week’s review, I decided to watch All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). I have to admit that I had heard about this classic anti-war film for many years, but I had never actually seen it.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a long movie — almost two hours. I almost stopped watching along towards the middle. There were endless shots of dirt flying from endless bombs dropping. There were shots of hordes of young German recruits marching, or trudging, from one battle to another. And the battles almost never stopped.

All the clichés from a hundred war movies were there. The young soldier who goes nuts during a bombardment, the grizzled old veteran who calms them down,  the young soldier who is unaware that his leg has been cut off, the soldiers who long for a woman, or a farm, or a piece of bread. And then I realized that I was watching the film that was the source for all these familiar images. All Quiet on the Western Front set up the most dire and unrelenting rendition of the deprivations of war that had ever been portrayed in a film — before or since. Spielberg admitted that when he made Saving Private Ryan.

I am glad I continued to watch the film to the end, for its repetition of battle and wounding and death is finally gripping because of its suggestion that war is never-ending. It deserved one of the earliest Academy Awards for best picture not only because it was anti-war, but because its effort to make the battles real are still startling in their detail. And the acting by a very young Lew Ayres (who later became a conscientious objector in World War II) was superb.

A silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front was issued for theaters that didn’t yet have sound in 1930, and that fact indicates how early the film was. The marks of a silent film are on it as well — the concentration on facial expression to convey emotion, the staging of scenes as tableaus, and the shifting from one episode to the next with no transition except for a black screen. But all these add to the raw, emotional impact of the film.

And there is the final scene when the young Ayres, reaches out from his foxhole to touch a  butterfly that has settled just beyond his reach, only to be shot by a French sniper at that very moment. I knew it was coming. I waited for it. And I was overwhelmed. And so now I can report that All Quiet on the Western Front is still a terrific film, and this may be just the season to download it or order it from Netflix.

There are a number of other more recent films about soldiers in war, but I will mention only one that really affected me — that I thought avoided the clichés by making them fresh again.

The film I have in mind is last year’s The Messenger starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. Harrelson and Foster play army veterans who are employed as members of the Casualty Notification Service in the early days of the Iraq War. They serve as the first contacts between families and the news that their son, brother, or husband has been killed in the Middle East (though the service has now changed to become far less stark than it is portrayed in the film).

As the flinty but vulnerable old vet of the first Iraq War, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award, and he deserved the honor. But I found Foster equally impressive. His quietness builds to a devastating monologue in which he recounts his own battle in Iraq in a way that matches the intensity of All Quiet on the Western Front.

The clichés are there — the camaraderie of the soldiers, the longing for home, the intensity of fear and noise and confusion in battle, the raw surprise of bloody death. It is true that soldiers escape dying in our modern wars, far more than they did in 1918, but the death continues on, and only a few of those who survive find the peace they need at home.

That is what we need to remember on this Veterans Day.

Other Reviews by The Borderstan Movie Fan


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