World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked — like the IRS
"asks" you to pay your taxes — all the major American
movie studios to make sympathetic war films. In many cases, he coerced
them into producing propaganda films showing the Soviet Union in
a positive light in order to deceive the American people about the
true nature of "Uncle Joe" Stalin and his murderous regime.
such film was MGM's Song of Russia (1943), in which a visiting
American conductor falls in love with a Russian peasant girl. Ironically,
despite the mandate from FDR, screenwriter Paul Jarrico was eventually
blacklisted when his name was given to the House Un-American Activities
Committee. The film was also the subject of Ayn Rand's famous testimony
as a friendly witness before the committee.
what you will about FDR, but he was shrewd to use the studios to
produce and distribute propagandistic films that helped to rally
the American public behind the war cause. Films were a popular diversion
for those on the home front. One of the biggest stars at the time
was John Wayne, who made five war films from 1942 to 1945, including
to Bataan. It was the State Department who asked the Duke
to make this film, as a tribute to the guerrilla fighters in the
films have been popular since the dawn of cinema. While most may
glorify war and the soldiers who wage it, some films dare to expose
the carnage, the staggering death and destruction, and the futility
the current climate of impending war — whether it will be against
Afghanistan, Iraq or nameless, faceless terrorists wherever they
may be — will no doubt spawn a fresh round of pro-war films, one
of the greatest films ever made is decidedly anti-war in
its depiction and theme.
upon the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, All
Quiet on the Western Front (1930) received four Academy
Award nominations and earned two Oscars: one for Best Picture and
one for Lewis Milestone as Best Director. The epic film, shown from
the perspective of German soldiers fighting trench warfare against
the French during World War I, cost $1.25 million, a sum unheard
of in the early days of the talking picture.
pacifist sentiment of the film is laid out in a title card in the
story is 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 initial scene, uniformed German soldiers march through the town
to the sound of music played by a military band. The crowds on the
streets cheer and wave flags (sound familiar?). From inside a German
schoolroom, a class of boys watches the procession as their Professor
lectures them on the virtues of war:
are the life of the Fatherland, you boys. You are the iron men
of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy
when you are called to do so. I know that in one of the schools,the
boys have risen up in the classroom and enlisted in a mass. If
such a thing should happen here, you would not blame me for a
feeling of pride. Now our country calls. The Fatherland needs
leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great
sacrifice for our country. Here is a glorious beginning to your
lives. The field of honor calls you.
jingoistic speech proves persuasive as the entire class agrees to
enlist. Here we meet the main characters of the film, including
the central character, Paul Baumer.
should be noted here that one of the chief goals of government education
is to instill a sense of subservience to the state, to make "students"
willing to go to war if the state deems it necessary.
the boys arrive at camp to begin training, they discuss, with great
jocularity, fighting and killing the enemy. That sentiment quickly
fades, however, as they meet drill sergeant Himmelstoss, the former
postman, who sets the tone: "The first thing to do is to forget
everything you ever knew, everything you ever learned … you're going
to be soldiers, and that's all. I'll take the mother's milk out
of you. I'll make you hard-boiled. I'll make soldiers out of you,
or kill you!" Himmelstoss proves to be a cruel commander, taking
great delight in ordering the boys to fall down into the mud and
crawl foreword, repeatedly.
recruits are sent to a bomb-ravaged French town where they meet
the battle-weary veterans. When Paul remarks that they haven't eaten
since breakfast, the stoic Tjaden replies, "It's a bad town
to bring an appetite to, soldier. We've been here since yesterday
morning and we've been living on a bale of hay and razor blades."
When Sergeant Katczinsky returns with a pig, the boys learn that
they are a long way from home: their offer of money for meat is
dismissed as "only paper" and the only viable currency
is cigarettes, cognac and chewing tobacco.
first official task is to string barbed wire in the middle of the
night. The driver of the truck that transports them remarks that
he will be back in the morning "if there's any of you left."
The boys march in line, looking back forlornly as the truck leaves
them in the middle of nowhere. Katczinsky, known as "Kat,"
instructs them what to do when the shell-fire comes: "You're
gonna be scared … Mother Earth, press yourselves down upon her.
Just keep your eyes on me. When you see me flop, you flop, only
try to beat me to it." Later, they are bombarded and one of
the boys is blinded by the shellfire. In his panic, he runs toward
the enemy line and is killed in a hail of machine-gun fire. After
another soldier runs out and drags him back, Kat asks him why he
risked his life. "But it's Behm, my friend." Kat reproaches
him: "It's a corpse, no matter who it is. Now, don't any of
you ever do that again." The next morning, the raw recruits
start to realize the true nature of war and its random death.
the film's greatest battle scene, starkly realistic and unbelievable
at the same time, the French infantry charge toward the German position.
The stampede is countered with a barrage of machine-gun fire that
cuts down scores of French soldiers. When one of the soldiers is
annihilated by a hand grenade upon approaching some barbed wire,
only his hands are left, oddly still gripping the wire. Paul turns
away in disgust, recoiling at the unspeakable horror.
the thousands of French downed by the incessant machine-gun fire
of the enemy, many of them get all the way to the trench, where
brutal hand-to-hand combat ensues. After the Germans retreat to
another trench, they mount a counter-attack, pushing toward the
French trenches. This time, the charging soldiers are leveled by
intense machine-gun fire by the French. The grisly battle ends in
a stalemate, with both sides in the same trenches where they began.
The futility of war is undeniable in this example: thousands of
men dead with no "winner" in the battle.
just one day to rest and recover, the soldiers discuss the nature
and causes of war. They agree that none of them bears any personal
animosity toward the French or English people.
Well, it must be doing somebody some good.
Not me and the Kaiser.
I think maybe the Kaiser wanted a war.
I don't see that. The Kaiser's got everything he needs.
Well, he never had a war before. Every full-grown Emperor needs
one war to make him famous. Why, that's history.
Yeah, Generals too. They need war.
And manufacturers. They get rich.
Soldier: I think it's more a kind of fever. Nobody wants it in
particular. And then all at once, here it is. We didn't want it.
The English didn't want it. And here we are fighting.
comes up with the ultimate solution to governments' wars, a solution
that would end warfare forever:
tell ya how it should all be done. Whenever there's a big war
comin' on, you should rope off a big field and sell tickets. Yeah,
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 u2018em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.
the men visit their wounded and dying friend Franz in a hospital,
who complains of pain in his right toes — he has not been told that
his leg has been amputated. While one of the soldiers covets Franz's
boots, Paul prays to God to spare the life of his friend. His prayers
go unanswered as Franz dies right before his eyes. Despite seeing
countless soldiers die on the battlefield, it is only now that death
truly hits home with Paul.
one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes in the film, Paul is
trapped in a shell-hole during a bombardment. When a French soldier
jumps into the hole, Paul's survival instinct compels him to stab
the Frenchman in the throat. Unable to leave the hole, he is stuck
with the slowly dying man. Haunted by the mortally wounded soldier's
groans of imminent death, Paul screams, "Stop that. I can't
listen to that. Why do you take so long to die? You're going to
die anyway." Horrified by his own words, Paul says, "No.
You won't die. No, no, you won't die. They're only little wounds.
You'll get home. You'll be all right."
the Frenchman dies, Paul begs the corpse for forgiveness. His verbalization
of the nature of war and its utter senselessness is poignant:
see, when you jumped in here, you were my enemy, and I was afraid
of you. But you're just a man like me, and I killed you … only
you're better off than I am. You're through. They can't do any
more to you now. Oh God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted
to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each
other? If they threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you
could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. You'll have to
forgive me, comrade. Forgive me! Forgive me! Forgive me! Forgive
Paul is finally able to return safely to his own lines, he tells
Kat about killing the Frenchman. Kat tries his best to convince
him to forget about it. "You couldn't do anything about it.
We all have to kill. We can't help it. That's what we're here for."
a march to yet another battle, Paul is nearly killed by a shot to
the abdomen and Albert's leg is shattered. In the hospital, Albert
complains about pain in his foot and he comes to the excruciating
realization that, like his friend before him, he too has had his
leg amputated. "I won't be a cripple," he screams. "I
won't live, I tell you. I'll kill myself the first chance I get.
I won't live!"
eventually recovers from his wound and returns to his hometown for
a short leave. After years of war, he finds his old milieu vaguely
unfamiliar. At a pub, his father's friends presume to tell him what
war must be like, asserting that they must at least be getting good
food since "Naturally the best for our soldiers all the time.
That's our motto: the best for our soldiers." Looking at a
map, the men arrogantly trade strategies for winning a war about
which they really know nothing. Paul glumly states that war isn't
the way it looks on the home front. The men dismiss this, declaring,
"Oh, you don't know anything about it. Of course, you do your
duty and risk your life, but for that you receive the highest honor."
imagines a group of hawkish neocons gathered at a bar, debating
the best tactics for expunging Osama bin Laden and ridding the world
of terrorism once and for all.
Paul wanders over to his old school and hears the Professor giving
the same speech glorifying the war that he and his classmates heard
years before. The teacher spots Paul and hails him as a hero to
the young boys assembled, asking him to tell the students "what
it means to serve your Fatherland." Paul demurs despite repeated
exhortations from the schoolteacher. He finally relents:
heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron
men, more young heroes. You still think it's beautiful and sweet
to die for your country, don't you? We used to think you knew.The
first bombardment taught us better. 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?
inculcated boys begin to boo and hiss and call him a coward. Paul
asked me to tell them how much they're needed out there. He tells
you, "Go out and die," but if you'll pardon me, it's
easier to say go out and die than it is to do it. And it's easier
to say it than than to watch it happen … There's no use talking
like this. You won't know what I mean, only it's been a long while
since we enlisted out of this classroom, so long, I thought maybe
the whole world had learned by this time. Only now, they're sending
babies, and they won't last a week.
drives home the point that war is anything but glamorous, anything
but noble, anything but heroic:
at the front, you're alive or you're dead and that's all. And
you can't fool anybody about that very long. And up there, we
know we're lost and done for, whether we're dead or alive. Three
years we've had of it, four years, and every day a year and every
night a century. And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are
clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we're done for, because
you can't live that way and keep anything inside you.
his words fall on the deaf ears of the boys, who have been thoroughly
indoctrinated in the splendor and goodness of war.
is so entirely disillusioned at the atmosphere in his hometown that
he decides to return to the front four days early. When he does,
he discovers that very few of his old comrades remain — the company
is staffed primarily by raw, sixteen year-old recruits. Paul is
anxious to see his old friend Kat, whom he finds searching for food.
They talk, and Paul foreshadows their deaths:
I'm no good for back there anymore, Kat. None of us are. We've
been in this too long. The young men thought I was a coward because
I told them we learned that death is stronger than duty to one's
country. The old men said, "Go on. Push on to Paris."
It's not home back there anymore. All I could think of is "I'd
like to get back and see Kat again." You're all I've got
left, Kat. At least we know what it's all about out here. There
are no lies here.
the walk back to the unit, Kat's knee is wounded by a bomb from
a plane. Paul carries his friend over his shoulders. Another bomb
comes very close to them. Upon returning to the tent, Paul gets
some water to give to Kat, but another soldier advises him not to
bother. "He's dead." The jaded soldier returns to a card
game with another man, completely inured to death. Paul walks out
of the tent, overcome with grief at his friend's demise.
the end of the film, Paul is sitting in his trench when he spots
a butterfly through his gun hole. Seemingly oblivious to the constant
danger of the interminable warfare, he reaches out to the butterfly.
A French soldier sights Paul with his rifle and fires a single shot.
All we see is Paul's hand as it spasms for a second before going
the final scene, Paul and the other soldiers are seen marching grimly,
superimposed over a battlefield filled with white crosses. They
each look back, the bitterness of futility and despair etched into
their weary faces. Fade to black.
Quiet on the Western Front is a brilliant film that compellingly
expresses the death and destruction that is the reality of war.
While the film ultimately reveals a pacifist message, it does so
in an honest, stark manner. Even though I have described many scenes,
that will in no way lessen the impact from viewing this gripping
of us who oppose the perpetual wars of the state should see it (or
see it again) to reinforce our viewpoint. Those who support Leviathan's
Total War should screw up the courage to see this significant film
and ask themselves these questions: do I really support the state
sending my loved ones to meet such a demise? Would I be willing
to submit myself to such horrors? And if the answer to either
question is "no," how can I continue to support the state
and total war?
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The Valley News.