Taylor Downing revisits one of the most famous anti-war films ever made.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a double Oscar-winning 1930s Hollywood film adaptation of the famous German novel by Erich Maria Remarque (Im Westen nichts Neues). It follows the story of a group of young German schoolboys who rush to enlist in 1914 and shows their gradual transition from young idealists to embittered and disillusioned soldiers. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the film still stands as one of the finest pieces of cinema made about the war and as a classic anti-war statement.

Erich Maria Remarque was just 16 when war was declared in 1914. But unlike the schoolboys of his book, he did not rush to volunteer in the first wave of enthusiasm for war. In fact he was conscripted in 1916 and spent just a few months on the Western Front before being hit by shrapnel and repatriated back to hospital in Germany. Carl Laemmle, the pacifist founder of Universal Pictures, acquired the rights to the book and appointed Lewis Milestone to direct the film. In an anti-war gesture, filming began on Armistice Day 1929.

Milestone was born in Russia but had come to America before the First World War and entered the movie business in the 1920s. At the first ever Academy Award ceremony in 1928, Milestone won the best comedy director award for his silent film Two Arabian Knights. Milestone gave All Quiet an epic quality, using 2,000 extras in some scenes, including many German army veterans living in Los Angeles. A device he used throughout the film was for someone to open a door to reveal a tableau or scene that then became the centre of action.

All Quiet was made using new sound technology and was the first of the wartime ‘talkies’. Audiences could now hear soldiers talking and, most importantly, could experience all the explosions and sounds of battle; the artillery fire, the machine-guns, the screams of the wounded. The impact was immense. However, despite a digital restoration, the primitive nature of the original sound recording, particularly of some of the dialogue, is very evident to a modern ear.

Boy soldiers

The film opens with a vast parade of German soldiers marching off to war. They are feted by cheering crowds and bands are playing. Inside a school room a teacher, played with sinister power by Arnold Lucy, is lecturing his pupils, boys of nearly school-leaving age. He cannot be heard at first as the cheering outside and the music of the bands drown him out.

When he becomes audible he is extolling the boys to volunteer. ‘My beloved class,’ he tells them, ‘this is what we must do. Strike with all our power and give every ounce of our strength to bring victory before the end of the year… You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys. You are the iron men of Germany.’

As the camera moves around the classroom the boys become more excited by the heightened oratory of the teacher. His appeal reaches a crescendo as he quotes the phrase, ‘Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland’.

The boys erupt in a frenzy of patriotic fervour and cry out one by one, ‘I’ll go’ and ‘Count me in’. One writes ‘To Paris’ on the blackboard. Another shouts ‘No more classes’. The sequence shows the power of oratory to excite and enflame a crowd and the boys march off to enlist.

The next set of sequences show the recruits going through their basic training. The one-time amiable postman of their village, Himmelstoss (John Wray), a reservist in the army, turns out to be their drilling sergeant and a cruel task-master he becomes. He makes the young boys crawl in the mud and drill until they are dropping. In no time the boys are sent off to the front where they are allocated to the ‘2nd Company’ of an infantry regiment. ‘Here’s some more, fresh from the turnip patch’ is the welcome they get from one of the soldiers.

Shell fire

A central relationship now begins to play out between the young recruits and Katczinsky, a hardened snub-nosed veteran, played well by Louis Wolheim, who was more used to gangster roles. He has a reputation for foraging and sniffing out almost anything the company needs, especially food, which is always in short supply. The lack of food provides a major theme throughout the film. As Napoleon observed, an army marches on its stomach.

Before long the young boys, led by Katczinsky, are allocated to a wire-laying party in no-man’s-land. It is the first time the recruits come under serious artillery fire and a major turning-point for the terrified young men. One of them soils his pants. ‘Never mind boy, we’ve all done it,’ says Katczinsky. Like a caring uncle, he explains the sound of the different shells to the boys and instructs them how to lay barbed wire.

But the shelling is intense and one of the boys, Behn, believes he has been blinded and runs off and is killed. In the book, each of the boys has his own character, his own hopes and fears, but in the film it is difficult to get to know more than one or two of the boys. Paul Baumer, brilliantly played by Lew Ayres, soon emerges as the central character of the film. This baptism of fire is another step towards the boys’ understanding of the true horror of war.

Shell shock

A central sequence in the film then follows. The company is cooped up in a dugout and has to endure days of constant bombardment. Slowly the nerves of the young boys begin to crack. One of them shakes uncontrollably; another suffers from nightmares; one of them screams out about the relentless hail of shells. ‘Why don’t we fight?’ yells another. ‘Let’s do something, let’s go after them.’

One of the boys, Kemmerich, breaks and runs into the trench, where he is badly injured. The film offers a good study in the early stages of shell shock, where men who have nowhere to escape and cannot hit back at their anonymous assailants have to endure continuous shelling and begin to break under the constant threat of death or suffocation.

The company waits for its food and when it arrives there is so little they have to fight over it. They are attacked by a posse of rats, which they try to kill with their spades. Then the shelling suddenly ends. Whistles are blown. The company races from its dugout to take up positions in the front trench.

In the film the enemy who come charging through the smoke of no-man’s-land are French. But for all British viewers this sequence will be a reminder of what happened on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.

The British artillery had kept up a barrage for seven days and nights. The infantry believed that no one could live through this and that they would advance right over what was left of the German line. But the Germans had dug deep bunkers in the chalk, sometimes on two levels, with some officers’ quarters even being carpeted. Although the strain on the defenders was immense, when they emerged from their dugouts at 7.30 on the morning of 1 July, discipline and order prevailed and, as in All Quiet, the German soldiers took up their positions, manned their machine-guns, and prepared to repel the attackers.

Close-quarters killing

Unlike the British Army on 1 July, many of whose soldiers were told to walk slowly in line across no-man’s-land, the French Army in All Quiet come charging at full speed at the German trenches. Huge numbers are shot down, one of them in front of Baumer, clinging to the barbed wire just a few feet away. But there are so many French that they keep on coming and finally enter the German trenches. Furious hand-to-hand combat ensues.

Katczinsky kills a man with a spade just as he had killed a rat a few hours before. The Germans are thrown back to their reserve trenches and then launch a counter-attack. They in turn suffer heavy losses but advance to the French line. Then they are ordered to fall back.

This attack and counter-attack is typical of trench warfare. The German determination never to surrender a foot of ground shows why losses on both sides were so heavy. The eager young boys of 1914 are now well on their way to becoming hardened soldiers and men.

The men of 2nd Company retire behind the lines for a meal, but only 80 have survived. The cook has prepared beans and sausages for 150 and refuses to serve it all to just 80, but an officer intervenes and orders it to be shared out. At last each man gets enough food to gorge on.

In their torpor, they debate the causes of war and joke about whether it was the Kaiser or the manufacturers that had started it. Katczinsky suggests that all the kings and politicians and their cabinets should be put in a field, stripped to their underpants, and made to fight it out between themselves with clubs. Doubtless such talk is common with soldiers at war in all eras.

Boots of death

Some of the boys visit Kemmerich in hospital, where he is near to death. The overworked doctors, one of whom has carried out 16 amputations that morning, have amputated his legs.

Tactlessly one of the boys asks if he can have Kemmerich’s fine leather boots. He eventually passes them on before dying. The boots then become a linking image for the next few scenes. We see one after another of the soldiers wearing these boots as he marches into battle and to death. Only the boots survive.

One of the central scenes of the film takes place during another battle. Paul Baumer takes refuge in a shell crater. A French soldier jumps into the crater and in a struggle Baumer stabs him.
The Frenchman takes hours to die, gasping and gurgling. Baumer is filled with remorse and no longer sees him as an enemy soldier but as a fellow human. He finds his wallet and a photograph of the man with his wife and child. Baumer offers him water and does all he can to keep him alive. When the Frenchman finally dies, Baumer is distraught and says he will contact his wife and comfort her.

The scene, set simply in the mud and filth of a shell crater, epitomises the anti-war message of the film, that protagonists on all sides are just men who have been duped and tricked into killing each other.

After being wounded and spending time in hospital, Baumer takes a week’s leave and goes home. He barely recognises his home town, where shops are closed, people are starving, and his mother is ill. His proud father, on the other hand, shows him off to his drinking cronies, who then start to argue about what is the best strategy to beat Germany’s enemies.

Shell fodder

Baumer slips away and visits the school where the same master from the opening sequence is transforming another class of hauntingly young boys into patriotic recruits for the Fatherland. The teacher asks Baumer to tell the boys about the glory of war. Baumer is reluctant but eventually tells them: ‘We live in the trenches, we fight, we try not to be killed.’ He continues: ‘You still think it is beautiful and sweet to die for your country, but that all changes under the first bombardment.’

This is not the heroic picture of war and the noble German soldier that the teacher or the boys want to hear. One of the boys calls Baumer a coward. He leaves and decides to go back to the front. Baumer reflects, ‘What is leave? Only a pause that makes everything else worse.’

This disconnect between the experience of the soldiers at the front and the civilians at home with their ignorance of the reality of war is something that was widely experienced by soldiers in all armies in the First World War and would have been deeply felt by ex-soldiers in the audience only 12 years after the Armistice.

Baumer returns to his true comrades in 2nd Company, only to find most of them have been killed and replaced by young boys, the latest cannon-fodder sent out from Germany. He tracks down Katczinsky, who as usual is on the scrounge. As they return to the line, Katczinsky is hit by a bomb from an enemy aircraft.

Baumer carries him back, only to find he is dead by the time he reaches the dressing station. With almost nothing left to live and fight for, the last famous scene sees Baumer in the front trench. He reaches out to catch a rare and beautiful butterfly but is spotted by a sniper and hit. With a look of calm satisfaction on his face he seems content that the end has come at last.

All Quiet’s impact

The film was released in the USA in April 1930 and had a huge impact. It won Best Picture award at the Oscars, and Milestone won the Best Director Oscar. In Britain, where the mood had already turned against the war and a spirit of pacifism was spreading rapidly, it received rave reviews. Lloyd George called it ‘the most outstanding war film I have ever seen’.

The film helped to shape an enduring image of the war, with the mud and filth of the trenches, and the sacrifice and horror of human wave assaults against machine-guns and artillery. And the film emphasised the basic humanity of men at war, in this case, the German soldier. However, in Germany and the Soviet Union the reaction to the film was very different and it was banned in both countries.

Different versions of All Quiet, some much shorter than the original, were produced during the 1930s, and alternative music was recorded for the final scene. Lewis Milestone requested before his death in 1980 that the film should be restored to its original version and length. This finally happened in 2005, when the Library of Congress restored the film digitally, and it is this version that is now available on DVD.


This feature appeared in issue 45 of Military History Monthly.