Monday, March 5, 2012

Ten Films from the 1930's--#1--"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930)

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another."
-All Quiet On The Western Front, Ch. 10”
Erich Maria Remarque

"All Quiet on the Western Front" was  a major best -selling novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), focusing on the young (and older) men who are wounded or killed literally due to mechanized warfare.   Many were also wounded in the psyche from  experiences that seared into them for the rest of their lives. 
  In many ways it is timeless--all the realities of modern  "post-traumatic stress" for the returning veterans, for instance, seems totally honest and believable  both in the book and the film. 

     Published in the late 20's it was first set to be made into a silent film by Universal Studios in Hollywood.  The popularity of sound films changed that strategy and it was reset for sound. Seeing the film again, one is struck by how raw it all seems--the sound is not smooth as it is in today;s films, and the scenes of battle are not computer-generated but look more real for being depicted by real men in conditions that, while staged, look as one could only imagine they MUST have felt at times to those on the actual front. 

Many people who saw this film when it first was released must have wondered how, in less than ten years, Europe would be drawn into another disaster involving even worse death tolls.    

The film centers on a young German   named Paul who goes to the front in 1916 after getting a patriotic pep-talk to his class by a professor. Germany needs "Iron Men",  the teacher tells the class with a bravado that is all ballyhoo and no reality.  Many then rush to the recruiting office even before they are to be conscripted.


Some months pass at The front. The optimism of a quick war that had been believed by many on both sides is long over.  The front lines are an endless horror. Gas attacks. Futile charges against machine guns.  The life among the dead and the shell-shocked and the blinded and suffering.  Only with his fellow soldiers in short lulls in the war--where they talk of putting all the leaders of the nations in a ring and letting them fight the war they are stuck in--provide some  brief respite  for the young man.

On leave, Paul realizes he cannot talk about war to his family or friends in his home town.   They have no concept.  In the book by Remarque, Paul returns home to his room and the books he read and was inspired by as a young man.  They have lost their significance in a world that is torn apart by the reality of war.    

In one of the best scenes in the film,  Paul later returns on leave to the class with the same teacher and tells the students what war is really like.    The film has many great scenes like this, and, thanks to the lax censorship of the times there is a maturity to the film about matters  such as sexuality in wartime which are not graphic but refreshingly without prudery.    

In a world where leaders on all sides talk rather easily of preparing for conflicts, this material (as a book or a film) is both a relevant and poignant testimony of a human folly that cannot seem to stop.     


  1. A trailer for the film made some years after its initial release.

  2. so true Doug and this worked to the detriment of the British in that the US was so reluctant to enter WWII mainly due to their distaste for war still so pervasive from WWI.
    It must have been a very horrible experience for anyone.

  3. A film I've heard of but never seen, something I should put right one day.

    I believe that the casualty numbers in WWII were a lot less amongst the combatants, however when the civilian casualties and victims of the Holocaust are added the numbers take on a staggering quality that one can only just grasp.

  4. Doug, AQOTWF is one of the two films about WWI which ought to be required viewing - the other is the Canadian-made film, "Passchendaele".

  5. That's a good point Mike. Pro-allied studios in Hollywood started making films like "Sgt. York" with Gary Cooper, "The Fighting 69th" with James Cagney and "Mrs. Miniver" to try and stem isolationist sentiments.

  6. Yes, I think that's true of the Western Allies certainly, Jim. If I recall Britain and her Dominions lost close to a million men on the front lines and France about twice that number. There had been nothing like this war---not on such a scale, and possibly more avoidable than WWII.

    And some like Churchill saw it in hindsight as one war in two horrific cycles.

  7. The second film is one I need to rent and see obviously. I remember you posted about it not long ago, Will, and the clips looked quite graphic.

  8. I have never seen this version. I did read the book and saw the newer version of the film starring Richard "John Boy" Thomas. It was a telling portrayal of a terrible war from our enemies side.

  9. I haven't seen the newer version myself, Fred, but looking at clips of it on You Tube today it looks good. Ernest Borgnine is well cast.

    To me, it's the first great sound film made in America.
    And the subject of what combat does to young men (and now women) will never be old-fashioned, I'm afraid to say.

  10. I forgot he was in the movie. He had a major part and was well cast. I would recommend this movie as a must see. I will look about and see if i can find the version you were referencing in your blog.

  11. Extremely high praise. I will definitely look for it now.

  12. Thanks Fred. I think you'll find it worthwhile.