When discussing this film, I feel it is best to repeat the film's opening title card in total: "This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war..." So this is an attempt to make a serious, unblinking look at war and its horrible effects on the men who fight it, and on that level it is an unqualified success.
For the second time in three years, the academy would give the best picture award to a film about WWI, and both are directed by army veterans and feature big fighting scenes. But the tone of this film and WINGS couldn't be any more different; unlike that film, this is, as the title card suggests, least of all an adventure.
Published in 1928, Erich Maria Remarque's book of the same name, based on Remarque's own experiences as a German foot soldier, was an immediate success, quickly being translated into many languages and selling over two million copies; it is still a revered and studied book. (It was also banned by the Nazis, not surprisingly given the subject matter).
A powerful image
The movie opens with a small German town gearing up for war, and we see the soldiers marching while the townspeople cheer and chatter about how short and easy the war will be. We then see a college professor named Kantorek (Arnold Lucy)addressing his class of all male students; he gives a stirring speech about the glory of war, calling the boys "the iron men of Germany", and some of the students imagine themselves as soldiers, marching to glory. They enthusiastically rush to join the army, and the rest of the film follows them through boot camp and combat, where we find their naivete will not last long.
Although Milestone stages the battle scenes extremely well, he also gets the other details of a soldier's life right; the muddy trenches, the long marches, the constant hunger, the boredom in between the fighting and the mixture of terror and exhilaration that comes from the moment before the battle begins. One of Milestone's best sequences comes when a group of soldiers are crammed into a bomb shelter in a trench that is being shelled by enemy fire: with nothing to do but wait it out, some of them try to sleep, others play cards, but none of them can ignore the constant explosions, getting louder and louder, that rock their shelter. When one of them snaps and runs out onto the battlefield, we can fully understand his reaction.
There are two large battle scenes in the film, and it is to Milestone's credit that they focus on different aspects of combat and do not feel repetitive in any way. The first is a major ground assault by the German soldiers that shows the vast scope of the fighting: there are excellent tracking shots of the soldiers in the trenches first waiting for the incoming invasion, followed by more tracking shots of brutal hand to hand combat(Arthur Edeson's great cinematography was nominated for an award also). Even more striking is the moment where, in one sweeping camera motion, we see a machine gun nest mow down a whole line of attackers. And what better illustration of the whole pointlessness of the war can there be than at the end, when we find that, despite all the fighting and killing, neither side has gained any ground; there is no victory or glory here, only death.
The second battle reverses the first, depicting loss of life on a more personal level: The film's main character, Paul(Lew Ayers), is part of a German attempt to capture a town. Separated from his men, he is forced to hide in a hole while enemy soldiers run by. When one of them jumps in the hole, he stabs the man in the stomach; still pinned down by fire, he slowly watches the other man bleed to death. In the film's most famous moment, Paul realizes that this man is just a soldier like him, and he breaks down, begging for the man's forgiveness and promising to contact his family to apologize. Ayers plays this scene all out, and the power of it still holds up eighty years later.
The two enemies
Another sequence that keeps the film from being too much of a downer comes when some of the soldiers steal away from camp to share some food with some obliging French women. It ends with Paul, talking to a woman that he has just slept with, (and who doesn't speak any German) vainly trying to explain that, even though he will never see her again, he will never forget this perfect moment. It fully captures the feelings of a young man, made old through battle, desperately trying to make some connection with someone, even if it's with a woman he can't even talk to. This is a poignant moment, even though Milestone coyly keeps the camera out of the bedroom the whole time(we only hear them talking).
Another famous (and controversial) scene comes when Paul, slightly wounded, returns home on leave, and wanders by his old classroom, where his former professor is giving the same jingoistic speech to another class. Paul wanders in, and when the teacher asks him to give a few inspiring words about his experiences, he can only describe the horror of it all, saying "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! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?". Although the students are quick to call Paul a coward, the film(and the novel)are definitely on his side of the argument, and therefore seem to embrace the pacifistic notion that dying for one's country is mostly an abstract idea, believed by people who have never been near a battlefield, and that those pretty words become meaningless in the face of death. While I personally am sympathetic towards this view, I can see how others might object to it, especially years later, after events like the undeniable evil of the Axis powers in WWII, make Paul's sentiments seem wrong. However one feels about this argument, it is one that rarely is brought up in a war film at all, and therefore it makes the film more thought provoking and commendable than most films on this subject. Milestone did not water down the message of the book, and I think that's admirable. Ironically, he would go on to direct pro war propaganda movies during WWII.
It is interesting to note that, over fifty years later, the academy would give the best picture award to PLATOON, another war film made by a veteran that shares some similarities with this one: both have main characters that are college students that drop out to enlist in what they see as a just war, they both have that character bond with an older, battle hardened soldier, and, most importantly, they both show their heroes go from gung ho war supporters to cynical pacifists. It's tragic how this same story can be played out again and again.
I have spent most of this essay praising the film, but I do have a few minor quibbles with it: while the dialogue is mostly good, there are moments where characters speak their thoughts out loud in a exaggerated, declamatory way, that still shows the influence of silent film acting. This is particularly noticeable when Paul prays for the life of a friend of his who's dying in a hospital. Even more maudlin is the saintly nature of Paul's mother (Beryl Mercer), who's bland homilies to him seem unnecessary, and plunges the film into sentiment; fortunately, she's not on screen for long.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's obvious that I love this movie; to me it has hardly aged at all, and it is still provocative and powerful. Certainly it is one of the best war movies ever made, and worthy of winning best picture.