All Quiet on the Western Front is an epic World War I film is based upon German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s book from when he was actually a young German soldier in the trenches. The title relates to the press coverage of the war, detailing the horrors of the Eastern Front but not reporting the negativity on the Western lines.
The lead actors in order of billing are Lewis Ayres (Paul), Louis Wolheim (Kat), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis (Peter), William Bakewell (Albert Kropp) and Walter Rogers (Behn) who has the film poster as his IMDB photo.
Director Lewis Milestone took great care of details and authenticity for this film to the point that the sanitation department demanded an inspection due to fear he would be replicating the unsanitary conditions of the trenches. World War I soldiers were consulted and even had roles in the movie. The film doesn’t villainize a side, the proof being that the film has been banned in Germany and also accused of being pro-German. The film was pre-code and contained more violence then audiences of the time were accustomed to.
All Quiet conveys the wartime experience of several German youth who were enticed to enlist in the army by their overzealous school teacher. The boys leave home excited they will become heroes and the war will be over quickly just as the Civil War soldiers in Gone with the Wind initially believed. They are quickly disillusioned about the glamour of war. They have a cruel trainer and are sent too soon into the combat zone where they find a lack of food, death, and the surviving shell-shocked soldiers who have understandably become bitter.
The boys first trip to the trenches is traumatic. Behn is blinded by shrapnel and many of their company perish. So many men die that they now have plenty of food. The soldiers discuss the morality and futility of war in a very moving scene. Kat philosophizes that the leaders of Europe should “fight it out” themselves with clubs.
The soldiers face many harrowing experiences that are based on true war stories. Paul (Lew Ayres) stood out as he mortally wounds a French soldier and must spend an endless night in the trench wishing him back to life and for his forgiveness. Paul himself is later wounded and upon recovery given a furlough. He returns home and is saddened to realize he is not the same innocent boy and no longer fits in his hometown. He is disgusted by the lack of knowledge of what is really happening in the war and that there is no “push for Paris” as everyone believes. He visits his old school and observes the teacher that inspired him to enlist giving the same spiel to his current class. Paul disappoints as he cannot support the grand illusions of the class.
Paul returns early from Furlough when he can’t cope at home. In the final scene of the film, Paul is killed in battle by a sniper bullet as he reaches for a butterfly. The rest of Paul’s company reach the front line of battle as the story ends.
This is a difficult but necessary film to watch. I remember the first time I watched it I felt as if I had transported back to a very turbulent time in history.