Why you should care
Because one story above all the rest has shaped how we picture World War I, and it’s still causing controversy.
The “war to end all wars” has faded from living memory, but it’s clearly still on our minds. If you’ve opened a newspaper, gone to the movies or turned on the TV this year, chances are you got a glimpse of century-old horrors — muddy trenches, bombed-out landscapes and young soldiers with thousand-yard stares.
A hundred years on, it’s worth examining why these images strike such powerful chords. After all, World War I was fought on many fronts — what is it about the trenches that haunts our modern sensibilities? The truth is, we’ve all been shaped by one story in particular without realizing it.
People were still scrambling to come to terms with what World War I meant, and the film had an answer, albeit a grim one.
All Quiet on the Western Front is nearly as old as the Great War itself — and since 1929, it’s been stirring up emotion, controversy and inconvenient truths.
To gauge the impact this war story made in its heyday, imagine a bizarre cross between the Harry Potter films and Saving Private Ryan. When the novel by German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque was released in 1929, it leapt to the top of best-seller lists. Cinemas in European and American cities treated the 1930 Hollywood version with unprecedented respect: It played at two leading London theaters simultaneously, an unheard-of feat at the time.
How to explain the popularity of a film about the most devastating war the world had ever seen? The truth was, in 1930, people were still struggling to come to terms with what World War I meant, and the film had an answer, albeit a grim one.
All Quiet on the Western Front follows a band of German school friends who journey from the innocence of youth to the despair of war. One boy, Paul Bäumer (portrayed by Lew Ayres), undergoes rigorous basic training and, to his excitement, finally gets to see combat. But when he and his friends arrive on the Western front, they quickly learn that war is not the adventure they’d planned; in fact, it’s hellish and destined to destroy them indiscriminately.
The dangers, savageries, the madness of war, and the appalling waste and destruction of youth … depicted with relentless veracity.All Quiet features some of the most agonizingly real war scenes of all time. Characters die brutally; soldiers slog and stumble through mud and otherworldly craters on fruitless charges. As one of the first blockbuster “talkies,” All Quiet’s sound mix is an unsettling series of explosions, gunfire and tense silences — especially, film historian Dorothy Jones notes, when accompanied by devastating human close-ups.
Paul’s eventual take on war? “You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you?” he sneers incredulously while on leave, visiting his gung-ho old schoolmaster who convinced him to enlist. “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.”
But of course, he does die — spectacularly and needlessly, hit by a sniper as he reaches for a butterfly just over the edge of his trench. It’s an iconic, sobering image that captured a World War I people could understand and process psychologically.
“I hate it,” one London reviewer and veteran exclaimed in 1930. “It made me shudder with horror. It brought the war back to me as nothing has ever done before since 1918. The dangers, savageries, the madness of war, and the appalling waste and destruction of youth … depicted with relentless veracity.”
He wasn’t the only one who disliked it. During the film’s controversial Berlin premiere, the then-unelected Nazis rioted in movie theaters. Goebbels strongly objected to the film’s pacifist message and later banned the film in Nazi Germany. When Universal reissued the film in 1939, it added a damning epilogue showing Nazis burning Remarque’s novel.
Despite its basis in truth, All Quiet on the Western Front is fiction — its war, however historically accurate, is an imaginary one. But it’s what viewers took away from the film that matters. Saving Private Ryan, arguably the closest thing to D-Day we’ll ever see, compares in that it follows a group of young men through the horror of combat — but Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama is undeniably about a “good war” and doesn’t summon the same weighty despair as All Quiet’s trenches.
A century after the Great War, All Quiet on the Western Front still conveys the human side of war more viscerally than any memorial service.