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The Great Media: All Quiet On the Western Front

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via www.filmreference.com

We continue exploring our dark themes in our Great Media series.  This entry refers to the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque and the 1930 film of the same name.  Both are great.

Our generation of Americans is quite accustomed to two variants of war story: the glorious World War II story, and the pessimistic Vietnam War story.  Growing up with those movies, one might be tempted to think that the Vietnam era invented the anti-war movie/novel, but you'd be wrong.

In 1929, German novelist Erich Maria Remarque wrote a novel inspired by his own experiences in The Great War, later called World War I.  It tells the grim story of a handful of German schoolboys convinced to volunteer for war by their ultrapatriotic teacher and their experiences on there.

Lots of spoilers follow.

The narrator Paul Baumer is a literary Mary Sue, but not in a bad way.  He is our main character, and the lens through which we watch the action of the story as he and his schoolmates learn that the war they have volunteered for will likely kill most of them.  That Baumer himself dies in the end is particularly wrenching.

Baumer and his schoolmates form a classic team of personalities, like one might find in the X-Men or the Goonies.  One of them just wants to go home to his farm to be with his wife.  One of them is a ladies' man.  One of them is really book-smart.  One of them is the simple-minded strong guy.  One of them never really wanted to be there at all.  Another of the main characters is a grizzled veteran of the war that they meet when they finally reach the front.

As the stories progress, some of them will die quick deaths.  Some of them will die slow, agonizing deaths.  None of them escape the story unharmed either physically or psychologically.

Above, I called the movie "anti-war", but that's not exactly true.  It is certain that the war depicted in this story is particularly grisly and violent.  It was, after all, the first truly industrialized European war.  One of my favorite passages of the book reveals that Remarque is not truly anti-war.  He just believed this particular war was pointless, overlong, and had gone on long past the point of anything positive coming out of it.

Remarque says in this passage that if the war had been a short one, those who fought it would have gone back to Germany (or to France or to England), and used their experiences to do great things and live great lives.  Instead, because the war was so destructive, too many of them will return to their home countries damaged, broken men incapable of any real accomplishment.  And that's just the ones who lived.

Almost 80 years ago, a German writer was writing about the destructive psychological impact of war, a concept that many of us may have thought was invented by those wusses who went to Vietnam.

If the novel is not anti-war, it is definitely anti-something, and Remarque saves his most biting criticism for the Man Who Bullies Others Into War Without Risking His Own Life Or Sacrificing Anything Himself.  The ultrapatriotic school teacher who convinced Baumer and his young friends to go to war for their country is made out to be worse than a fool.  He is a dangerous fool, one whose foolish notions get people killed while he lives in righteous comfort.  

At one point, Baumer is given leave and returns home to confront his school teacher, who is trying to convince a new charge of students to enlist.  Baumer verbally hammers the teacher and warns the young students not to listen to their teacher.  The teacher is eventually conscripted and ends up on the front line himself.  Baumer, sickened by his encounter with the school teacher and other civilians who do not understand what he has seen, decides to return to the front early.

The novel was adapted into a film starring Lew Ayres, who may be little known to people my age, but who was something of a big star in the 1930s and 1940s, and continued working steadily into the early 1980s.  The film is quite faithful to the book, and I think of them almost interchangeably.

Classic scenes in the novel and the movie include

  • a scene where Baumer is trapped in a hole alone with a dying French solider, whom Baumer himself mortally wounded (scene pictured above).  The hole is in No Man 's Land, so he cannot leave it until he has the cover of darkness.  While waiting for darkness, he goes through a series of emotions including hatred for the Frenchman and then sympathy and finally horror at having killed a man he does not know but who has a wife and a family;
  • a scene where Baumer and two friends find three young women living alone in a farm house near the front.  The 1930 movie actually has brief rear male nudity and the strong suggestion that the soldiers and the women had sex.  I found this rather surprising in a 1930 film;
  • the aforementioned scene where Baumer returns home and confronts his school teacher;
  • a scene in a hospital where one of Baumer's buddies is in the midst of dying a slow death.  The hospital staff has stolen his heirloom watch, and a member of the company is manuevering to take his comrade's boots after he dies;
  • the death of the last of Baumer's close friends, the veteran Kat.  
  • the death of Baumer himself, who in the movie-version dies in one of the great scenes of early cinema.  He reaches across an embattlement to catch a beautiful butterfly and is cut down by an opportunistic French rifleman.
The title of the novel and the movie refers to the press dispatches from the front the day of Baumer's death.  His death is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that the dispatch reads, "All quiet on the western front."  It is the final emotional blow; the realization that the death of this character we came to know well and to care about, was just a small, insignificant story in the larger war.

I highly recommend both the novel and the movie, but don't get the later movie or the television version.  Get the grainy 1930 movie with Lew Ayres.  Yes, it shows German soldiers speaking English with American accents, but just live with it.  The movie is great.  The novel is actually quite short and easy to read.  It could be read in an afternoon if you are dedicated to it and read decently quickly.  Read the book in an afternoon and rent the movie the next day.  Best weekend you can spend with a grim, pessimistic somewhat anti-war story.