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This is an English language film (made in America) adapted from a novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque. The film follows a group of German schoolboys, talked into enlisting at the beginning of World War 1 by their jingoistic teacher. The story is told entirely through the experiences of the young German recruits and highlights the tragedy of war through the eyes of individuals. As the boys witness death and mutilation all around them, any preconceptions about "the enemy" and the "rights and wrongs" of the conflict disappear, leaving them angry and bewildered. This is highlighted in the scene where Paul mortally wounds a French soldier and then weeps bitterly as he fights to save his life while trapped in a shell crater with the body. The film is not about heroism but about drudgery and futility and the gulf between the concept of war and the actuality. Written by
Michele Wilkinson, University of Cambridge Language Centre, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Erich Maria Remarque's novel and the film made from it may possibly be the greatest anti-war statement ever created. All Quiet on the Western Front won a deserved Best Picture Academy Award in the year it came out and brought great prestige to Universal Pictures as the first Oscar in that category won by that studio.
Lew Ayres is the student leader of a bunch of German school boys in 1914 who listen to the voice of their school master and enlist in the war that's just been declared. The whole class enlists and that's not hyperbole because in Germany at the time it was the boys who got the education and the girls if they got it, got it separately from the boys.
I'm sure that viewers of All Quiet on the Western Front today probably are asking why that school master and so many of his generation were urging their youth on to such folly. Very simply that their generation had a quick victory in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War. Every generation since wars were recorded figures their war experience will be the same for their children.
Only it wasn't. On the western front the Allied and Central Powers armies were locked in a bitter stalemate that ran diagonally across France and Belgium from the English Channel to the Swiss border. This went on for a little over four years. In fact had it not been for the fact that America joined the Allied side and the French and British held out until they did, I'm sure an honest armistice would have been declared long before November 11, 1918.
You lived, fought and died in those trenches. Either you were defending or you were attacking the other guy's trenches against murderous automatic weapon fire and long distance artillery batteries. All Quiet on the Western Front was the first great war film of the American sound era and graphically shows that.
And it shows that from the enemy perspective. That's something today's audience can't appreciate, the fact that the film was from the Wilhelmine German perspective. Remember these were the enemy a dozen years before. But the experience in the trenches was universal.
Lew Ayres became a star with this film and it effected him so deeply that he became a committed pacifist which caused later problems in his career. He's the voice of reason and civilization and the voice of a lost generation of Germans who would never have listened to the demagogic appeals of the Nazis.
Louis Wolheim plays the veteran soldier who befriends Ayres and his school boy chums and teaches them how to survive in the trenches. It turned out to be his greatest role. He was a brutish looking man and played mostly those types in silent films. All Quiet on the Western Front would have been the start of a whole new career opening. But Wolheim died the following year just as he was to start filming The Front Page. Adolphe Menjou took the part of Walter Burns in that film which Wolheim was to have.
The third really stand out performance is that of John Wray who some might remember as the brutal prison guard in Each Dawn I Die. Wray plays an officious mail man who is in the German Army Reserve. He gets called up and this little nobody gets rather impressed with himself and his new found authority as a training sergeant to Ayres and his friends. Later on at the front, he gets a view of combat he wasn't quite ready for.
All Quiet on the Western Front with its eternal message of peace and life will be one eternal film, it will be shown and appreciated for many generations to come.
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