Unfortunately, my views on All Quiet on the Western Front are affected by the fact that I first read the book, an incredibly dark and powerful novel that views a largely overlooked war from a largely overlooked (at least in America) perspective. As this blog will reflect, there are numerous stories about Vietnam and World War II. The former will reflect on the terrors of an unnecessary war, the latter on the evils of the Nazis and the necessity of American heroism. This movie follows a group of German boys-turned-soldiers in World War I. It is interesting that this film is American. None of the characters even have accents. It makes the glaring similarities between all soldiers in the war even more startling, as their naiveté and wanderlust turn to cynicism and horror. In my opinion, the movie loses some of the force in its portrayal. It seems too light, to forced, which is most likely a product of how old it is. Despite this, it has aged well enough to carry over the message of its source material.
Paul, the main character and de facto leader of the class of schoolboys, survives on the front for years. It is through him that we witness the atrocities and dehumanization of war. The disenchantment begins at the boys training. Their instructor is vindictive and cruel. He later is moved to the front, where those students of his left alive mock him and ignore his stringent need for protocol in the face of trench warfare.
One intriguing scene has the younger boys and their older mentors in the company discussing the cause of the war. None of them know who started the war. They feel no hatred towards the British or the French soldiers they are fighting. They determine war must be something for an emperor to have under their belts, a way for industries to get rich, and generals to have something to do. This prompted one man to say all wars should be settled by leaders, generals, and their advisors at the top in a free for all fist fight in their underwear. This sort of anti-war sentiment is indicative of the time period. No one wanted war anymore. Before World War I many people had felt the naïve notions of heroism and patriotism. It was thought the war would end quickly, something the school teacher that pushes the boys to enlist even says.
Paul is eventually forced to face the nameless, faceless enemies when he is trapped in a foxhole with a French soldier. Paul stabs the man, then tries to keep him alive, telling him how he had to stab him, that before the soldier was an enemy but now he’s a human being, just like Paul. When the man dies Paul begs for his forgiveness, promising to care for the dead soldier’s wife and child. It was only the dehumanized versions of the soldiers that he could stand to kill.
There are several other examples of how Paul’s view of the world changes. He realizes how ill informed, how blinded by patriotism his hometown is during a trip on leave. Paul confronts his school teacher, telling him how “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 countries, and what good is it?”
Perhaps the ultimate example of futility and hopelessness of the war comes at the very end. Paul and one of his best friends, an older soldier named Kat, are out searching for food when a bomb falls and shrapnel shatters his leg. Paul carries him to a field hospital, only find out a second bomb killed Kat on his back. The next scene is Paul being killed by a sniper while he reached for a butterfly. The last of the school boys is dead.