Directed by Lewis Milestone
Set during WWI, the story follows a young German man named Paul Bäumer as he joins the German army and becomes disillusioned with the war and his nation.
One thing that does help this film is the main character of Paul Bäumer was played by Lew Ayres, an actor that appeared to have genuinely believed in the message of the film. While he did serve during World War II as a non-combat medic, he was at heart a pacifist. Casting is important in any film. It is especially true in a film with a message.
It was common at the time even in the most serious of films to have a comedic side character present and they do that here with George ‘Slim’ Summerville as Tjaden. I am not a big fan of that. It takes away from the narrative. But it was standard issue of the time and Summerville was known for comedies.
You watch as the once idealistic young Paul experiences the realities of being a soldier and the realities of being at war. It eventually breaks him for lack of a better word, and he is left disillusioned and disheartened. He is no longer who he was, and he is not exactly happy with who he has become.
Returning home, Paul realizes those he has left behind at home have no idea how things really are. Worse yet, they have no interest in learning. He is seeing how his mother has been damaged by her worry over him. It is even implied that she was hallucinating his presence prior to him actually returning.
The movie works hard to tell you just how terrible war is with the message being we should never engage in it. It is not necessarily a message I agree with but that is a discussion for elsewhere. For the time the movie does a hard depiction of war and its effects on those involved. Death is swift and at times shocking here and comes with no glorious heroics.
The opening moments in the school room where Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) gives a speech that rouses his young students to go off and fight in the Great War is a disturbing dramatization of nationalism and how it can bring out the worst in people. The speech is still unsettling to this day.
Paul’s mentor is Stanislaus Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) a man affectionately known as Kat. He is the father figure that provides for and guides Paul during much of his experience. There is a genuine bond created between the two characters. His death at the end is shocking and I guarantee nothing like it had been seen before. It is not a glorious death but rather a pointless and meaningless one. It is still effective to this day more than 90 years after it was filmed.
It was the first sound war film to win an Oscar. Not too bad of an achievement. The film was an outstanding artistic as well as technical accomplishment. It took sound which was a novelty at the time and married it with visual storytelling to create something that is still watched and discussed to this day. Lewis Milestone was a brilliant director and a visionary here. Fun fact: he went on to direct Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and the original Ocean’s 11 (1960).
This was quite possibly the first antiwar film to come out of Hollywood. If there was one before it, I would love to see it. It can be a little heavy-handed at times. It does at times beat you over the head with its message but as I said this is quite possibly the first anti-war film to come out of Hollywood so that is easily forgivable.
This movie was made at the dawn of sound in film. It was a massive technical and artistic achievement that still holds up to this day. It is a classic film that even if you do not agree with its message it is still worth checking out.