This is second film in my quest to watch all the Academy Award Best Picture winners. I knew going into this that some films I would just have to tolerate and get through because the just don’t stand the test of time. This film was not one of those, this was a daring and brilliant adaptation of the novel of the same name. Director Lewis Milestone created what can be called the first masterpiece of American cinema.
I had never read the novel itself, but I know what it’s about. For those of you who don’t, here is a quick synopsis of the novel which the film takes directly. It is 1914 and World War I is just underway and a group of German teenagers, encouraged by their teacher, enlist in the army. They are green and ambitious, believing they are doing their patriotic duty serving the fatherland. They are sent immediately to the western front to fight the French and English in the trench’s of WWI. Over the course of 5 years each of them suffers the horrors of war, all dying. Some go crazy, others have legs amputated and one almost survives all while experiencing the atrocities of war.
The movies cinematography, sound and editing was way ahead of its time, heck in today’s world it would still be considered excellent. The opening of the film is gripping with the use of what is now known as a tracking shot. Following German soldiers as they march through town then pulling back into a classroom where an impassioned patriotic teacher encourage the young men of his class to enlist. He preaches to the young men about loyalty to ones country, the fatherland, and the romances of war.
Six of the young men enlist and are shipped off to boot camp. Early on they realize that the army isn’t all the glory and romance that their teacher made it out to be. After they get shipped out to the western front the begin to get picked off one by one. The mood in the fill turns from one joy and patriotism to anger and disillusionment. The films underlying themes could easily work in today’s climate with the Irag/Afghan war.
The movies mood shifts to a somber war film. As the men wait in the trench’s the bombs explode around the, starvation is around every corner and if it cant get any worse they have to fight off rats in order to sleep. Paul, the most central character, tries to hold his friends together. One of them goes insane because of the noise. Another is injured and taken away toa hospital. When the boys get some leave the go to check on their friend who has had his leg amputated but refuses to admit his leg is gone. The destruction of war continues to affect Paul.
The climax of the movie begins when Paul, hiding in a fox hole, is force to stab a French soldier who jumps in the hole with him. Throughout the night as the French soldier slowly dies Paul begs for his forgiveness and questions why God has put him in such a predicament. Paul gets leave and decided to return home to try and reconnect with his youth. However, its been 4 years in the trench’s and while the town is the same he has changed.
He spends time with his father and his friends who lecture Paul on how the Germans can win the war. The men argue over how this is all for the glory of Germany. Paul disgusted by their misguided views walks out and goes to visit his teacher who encouraged him to enlist in the first place. He finds that the teacher is preaching the same message to his students and ask if Paul wants to say something. Paul, ravaged by the thoughts of what has happened to him and his friends, tells the boy of the horrors of the war and the uselessness of it all. The teacher cannot believe Paul’s change in attitude. Paul now realizes that the only place his belongs is back with his company on the front lines. When he returns he is waiting in a trench when he see’s a butterfly. As he reaches for the butterfly he comes out of the trench and is picked off by a sniper. The final shot is just that of his hand reaching for the butterfly and going limp.
The movie is a gripping realistic portrayal of war. I would say no such film until Saving Private Ryan again showed people that war is no Hollywood movie. Upon the release of the movie, Variety magazine wrote the following: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.”