All Quiet is a 1930 classic American anti-war film based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. As it turns out, both the novel and the movie are a fantastic find.
The movie kick-starts with the following quote cited directly from the novel, “It is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
The film unfolds in a boys’ secondary school in Germany at the beginning of World War I. The instructor, Kantorek, gives a rather stirring speech about the glory of serving in the Army and hails it befitting and sweet to die for one’s country (also referred to as “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”) It has been recorded in various pieces of anti-war literature how the children ardent for some desperate glory were persuaded to join the Military. In several of such literature the children are convinced to throw away all personal ambitions and serve one’s Nation. Such impressionable children as in this movie, a class of 20 young men, ‘many of whom proudly shaved for the first time before going to the barracks’, were convinced they were born for a higher purpose in life, that of serving their Fatherland. And they did allow themselves to be persuaded lest they be labelled ‘cowards” and be ostracized.
After some basic training, the “Young Heroes” are shown arriving at the combat zone. This particular scene truly describes the essence of warfare. The scene that portrays mayhem all around, with soldiers everywhere, incoming shells, and horse-drawn wagons running about is supremely realistic and it makes you wonder how the World ever survived the War. The film takes a dramatic turn when one person of the Second Commandment (as their group is referred to) is killed by an explosion. The message conveyed as the movie progresses is identical, that of just how violent the war was and how innocent people died for no fault of their own.
The most thought provoking scene in the film is when the protagonist and other characters ask themselves, “How does someone start a war?” Goethe Paul Bahmer (Lew Ayres/the protagonist), the lovably cantankerous Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville) deliberate on this for long when one of them says, “ I have never seen an Englishman till I had to shoot one on the border. Same as they won’t have seen a German till before. The civilians don’t want a war, they want peace.” Tjaden echoes the same by saying that it is when two countries offend each other; it is then that a war begins. The innocent ones are simply collateral damage. It really makes one think that these men marched sleep, fought for food, killed people who they believed were their enemies, but for what? What is it that they were fighting for?
The exact notion has been recorded in series of Anti-War literature like the poems penned by Wilfred Owen. And to think that the director, Lewis Milestone, could evoke the same message in a span of a minute is truly amazing.
The film captures all emotions accurately and the performances by all actors are exemplary. True to form, all actors have enacted their roles to perfection. Whether it was a dramatic turn of events or an emotional scene, the film envelops and overwhelms the audience. The film does get tragic in places but has been kept true to reality.
One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Paul (the protagonist) returns to his old school where Kantorek is delivering a similar impassioned and patriotic speech to the young students calling them out to their “greater purpose” in life. Lew Ayres who portrays Paul gives his best speech of the movie where he states that enlisting oneself purely to extract glory isn’t a heroic deed. He describes how men, even when they return from war, are broken and lost. This particular act would leave anybody in awe because in a period of 60 seconds he conveyed what this entire film is truly about. It is melodramatic but extremely convincing. It tells the audience perfectly how the patriotism of these ideal students was crushed by the harsh realities of combat. One is left to wonder if anything will ever kill the myth that every soldier lives to be a hero.
All in all, this film deserves all the praise it has received till now. It is incredible how even after all these years All Quiet, has survived and continues to be (rightly) considered one of the most honest cinematic works on the subject of a soldier’s life on the battlefield. It has been correctly stated that the film’s power and emotional clarity has not faded in the nearly 80 years since its initial American release.
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