All Quiet on The Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s landmark epic war film from 1930, is a powerful film. The battle scenes are huge and spacious, the cast is large, and the size of the acting, typical for 1930, matches the size of the drama. However, the greatest triumph of All Quiet on the Western Front, beyond special effects and epic battle scenes, is how convincingly the movie shows us the tragedy of sending young men like Paul, its protagonist, to war.
Through the course of the film, Paul grows from naive schoolboy to jaded soldier. Along with his schoolmates, Paul decides to enlist in the German army for the First World War, encouraged enthusiastically by his high school teacher. We follow the young men through three years of training, living in the trenches and fighting in the war. The movie’s deepest emotional punch comes when Paul returns home on leave after being on the front lines. Back home, there’s an eerie distance between him and his family, not to mention everyone else around. He tells a group of young students, who are in the same position he was in before he joined the war, the truth about how horrible fighting on the front lines really is. The students call him a coward, and his old teacher objects to what he says, but Paul is simply telling the young boys the truth about what he’s experienced being a soldier in the war. The film asks us if being a soldier and fighting for your country is worth the sacrifice it requires, and here Paul gives one resounding opinion on the matter: “When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”
When compared to other war films, the cast of All Quiet is younger, and this is a great strength of the film. We believe that all the young soldiers are fresh out of grade school, because the actors were actually that young, and it makes the tragedy of seeing Paul at the end of the movie so much more powerful: we come to see him as a brooding and pained old soul, even though on the surface he is still so young. Physically, Paul looks slightly older than the sixteen-year-old new recruits at the end of the film, but in terms of experience of the world and its tragedy, the difference is like night and day. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the movie to take in: it’s one thing to see Tom Hanks struggling to live with war in Saving Private Ryan or Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter, but it’s another to see Ayres dealing with it at half their age.
We’re brought closer to Paul as the movie goes on, while in the film, he ends up all alone. No one seems to understand what he’s going through, and perhaps no audience member can completely understand his experience unless they’ve been to war themselves. It seems to me that this is why people make movies (and all art for that matter) about war. When a war movie is successful, like All Quiet is, it may not be able to get us to know what it’s actually like to be a soldier, but it can help us begin to feel the tragedy of the sacrifice it requires.