Here is this week’s print column from May 21.
Absent from the television schedule this Memorial Day weekend is “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a 1930 classic that demonstrates the foolishness of war.
An adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, the movie follows a group of German schoolboys from the classroom to the battlefields of World War I. It begins with a military parade of German soldiers framed by the windows of a classroom, where a propagandistic teacher drills his students on their patriotic duty: To fight, and possibly die, for the glory of the Fatherland.
“Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country,” the teacher asserts. “Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you.”
Caught up by their teacher’s fervor, the young men agree to enlist, and are soon off to learn obedience from their town’s ex-mailman-turned-sadist Himmelstoss, a drill sergeant whose unkindly lash anticipates a long line of cinema sadists.
The young men soon learn the difference between war as extolled by their teacher and the reality of life — and death — on the front lines. The battle scenes are remarkable for a first-person, you-are-there quality, filled with smoke and confusion. At one point, two severed hands dangle from barbed wire above the trenches, underscoring the price of war more concisely and poignantly than all the special effects and bombast of Steven Spielberg’s celebrated “Saving Private Ryan.”
“All Quiet” is filled with one unexpectedly modern scene after another. Not only has it served as a template for later war films, but also it foreshadows real-life events that we consider the exclusive province of more “modern” wars.
Take, for instance, young Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), who returns to his hometown on leave, just as displaced, lost and fidgety as any Vietnam vet decades later. He can’t reconnect with his mother on her sick bed, who makes him promise to take a less dangerous job when he returns to the front, or his backslapping father and armchair warrior cronies in a tavern, toasting soldiers and debating military strategy over their lager.
The most powerful scene occurs when Baumer returns to the classroom to discover his former teacher still whipping students into enlistment frenzy. The instructor urges Baumer to share “some deed of heroism, some touch of nobility” with the class.
Paul’s response: “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country, and what good is it?”
Those who see “All Quiet on the Western Front” as reflecting only the German experience miss the point. The soldiers are not solely German; they are universal. The persuasive techniques used to drum up recruits aren’t a phenomenon unique to that country; we’ve seen them here, as well, from the demonizing of the Japanese in World War II to the branding of every Muslim as a terrorist today.
Time magazine recently reported that the number of Army recruiters who commit suicide is three times the overall Army rate. While one must be careful not to draw a casual connection, it’s hard not to consider the stress that comes from enticing young people to enlist voluntarily in two conflicts — Iraq and Afghanistan — that have claimed thousands of lives.
Extolling the virtues of an anti-war film before a holiday meant to honor the sacrifices of men and women who died in military service may seem anti-American, but it is not. The greatest way to honor the war dead is by advocating that nobody else die in war.
Or as a youthful character in “All Quiet on the Western Front” puts it: “Whenever there’s a big war coming on, you should rope off a big field … and, on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let them fight it out with clubs.
“The best country wins.”