The greatest film experience finds a mix of immersion, thought provocation and engagement through the senses. All Quiet on the Western Front, through the use of magnificent sound design, production design, and the rawness of the actors and writing, combines all these elements to give a taste of war that’s incredibly powerful. Adapted from Erich Maria Remarque novel, Lewis Milestone bombards the audience with the mortar fire that could collapse the bunker at any second, exploring the idealism sold to prospective soldiers to sacrifice their lives. The sound design is that of a shell-shocked soldier, trying and failing to cope with the horrifying nature of this singular experience. Every second is hell for these soldiers and All Quiet on the Western Front expresses this terror.
Furthermore, Milestone understands the trauma of trench warfare and the unmistakable death stench on No Man’s Land. The incorporation of World War I vets as extras certainly does add a layer of realism as the film grapples with the atrocity of war, but it’s the Charles D. Hall art direction that amplifies the story to unreal heights. Combined with the Milton Carruth editing, the immersion hits in the construction of these moments.
The Soldier Introspective
However, that’s nowhere near the highlight of the film. It’s the moments the story slows down and explores the German hero propaganda involved with “the heart of war” and how its inescapable grasp on the youth of the nation. Our lead, Paul (Lew Ayres), rather in the classroom, a shaking bunker, or a hospital full of soldiers, has to face the hypocrisy of the message he was sold and the consequences he has to face. Lew is the lost soldier who has overwhelming anger and guilt. His story arc with his battalion, especially Louis (Stanislas Katczinsky), shows his growth from immature idealist to hardened realist. One of the most telling aspects of the script is the simple mindedness of these teenage boys being drafted to “save the Fatherland.” The depth of evil in the propaganda, particularly at the high school level is a dangerous addictive drug for students.
In my eyes, All Quiet on the Western Front is the WWI experience and one of the best anti-war films of all-time. It ranks up there with Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory as the standard-bearer for the experience of WWI. There’s a senselessness to the system of and general environment of war. Subjecting people to absolute unlivable conditions and causing massive amounts of deafening stress. Unable to get food supplies, the men starve as their weakened state makes the constant bombardment much more harrowing.
Fascinatingly, the story even slows down to discuss the origin of war and the question of who exactly they’re sacrificing their livelihoods for. Made in an era where pro-war sentiment was much more prevalent, seeing the honest discussion behind these nations waging outrageously vile wars at the behest of millions of young, innocent lives.
All the elements come together to form what I consider a masterpiece. The greatest pre-code war film that actively uses the freedom of storytelling to tell a story based on the truth of these atrocities. It delivers an incisive dialogue on the utter meaninglessness, as we see in the Lew facing the enemy soldier face-to-face and having to do unspeakably inhumane acts. It also travels back home and the failure for these soldiers to adapt back into society. The technical craft brings the set pieces to life in ways other films don’t, but the film is Lewis Milestone bringing all the pieces together flawlessly.
★★★★★/ Out of 5★s (94)