During 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.
One 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.
Say 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 RKO's Back to Bataan. It was the State Department who asked the Duke to make this film, as a tribute to the guerrilla fighters in the Philippines.
War 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 of war.
While 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.
Based 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.
The pacifist sentiment of the film is laid out in a title card in the first frame:
This 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 …
In 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:
You 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.
The 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.
It 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.
As 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.
The 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.
Their 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.
In 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.
Despite 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.
Given 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.
Soldier: Well, it must be doing somebody some good.
Tjaden: Not me and the Kaiser.
Soldier: I think maybe the Kaiser wanted a war.
Kat: I don't see that. The Kaiser's got everything he needs.
Soldier: Well, he never had a war before. Every full-grown Emperor needs one war to make him famous. Why, that's history.
Paul: Yeah, Generals too. They need war.
Soldier: And manufacturers. They get rich.
Another 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.
Katczinsky comes up with the ultimate solution to governments' wars, a solution that would end warfare forever:
I'll 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.
Later, 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.
In 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."
After the Frenchman dies, Paul begs the corpse for forgiveness. His verbalization of the nature of war and its utter senselessness is poignant:
You 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 me!
When 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."
During 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!"
Paul 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."
One 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.
Later, 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:
I 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?
The inculcated boys begin to boo and hiss and call him a coward. Paul continues undaunted:
You 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.
Paul drives home the point that war is anything but glamorous, anything but noble, anything but heroic:
Up 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.
Predictably, his words fall on the deaf ears of the boys, who have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the splendor and goodness of war.
Paul 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:
Oh, 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.
On 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.
Near 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 limp. Silence.
In 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.
All 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 film.
Those 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?
September 4, 2001