21 July 2008

Give Peace A Chance

So you want to join the army and fight in a war? First of all young fella, let's have you sit down and watch this movie. It's called All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe you heard something about a book by that name, one written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German who fought in World War I. You probably saw it prominently featured in a school library. (The Nazis didn't care for its message so they used it for kindling.)  Well, a movie based on the book was made t back in 1930.

Sit down! They made some really good movies back then and this is one of 'em. Movies don't need to be in color to be good, kid.
No, nobody you're likely to have heard of in it. Biggest star in it was Lew Ayres. Director was Lewis Milestone. Maybe this'll impress ya, it won the Best Picture Oscar. I know that means a whole lot more to you than it does to me.

Okay, here we are, the movie's started, now watch....

By the end of the film my imaginary young friend would hopefully been struck by many, many scenes and moments from this extraordinary film. A lot of outstanding movies have a few noteworthy moments. All Quiet is teeming with them. To wit...

The teacher inspiring his innocent young students to enlist. One by one they rise from their seats and shout in exaltation that they'll join. In a montage that we'll see copied over and over in future films, Milestone focuses on each face one at a time.

As the young soldiers are dropped off to fight in their first battle we see them march forward each looking back at the camera. What are they looking at? Their lost innocence? The safety of home?

At the sound of the first shelling at least one soldier soils himself.

Under fire for the first time one solider is blinded and hysterically runs about until, inevitably, he's killed.

Soldiers undergoing days of shelling, non stop explosions, snap under the pressure. ( Who can blame them?)

A soldier visited in hospital complains of a terrible pain in his foot only to discover to his utter horror that one of his legs has been amputated. A comrade asks about his boots, the amputee, after all, won't be needing them.

We see that soldier run off to battle in those boots only to be quickly mowed down. Now a third solider wears the boots, he, too, is killed.

In battle a man takes hold of a fence. An explosion. Only the arms remain.

In a contemplative moment a soldier asks about this war's origins. He is told that a war starts when one country insults another. The soldier is befuddled, wondering if a tree from Germany insulted a French mountain. (Most wars are just about that stupid.),

Ayres' character, Paul, takes cover in a shell hole. A French soldier sees him, pounces, but Paul is ready with a knife and stabs him. Paul and the dying man spend the night in the shell hole. Paul talks apologetically to the enemy soldier, even after his foe dies. He speaks of how they could have been, should have been friends.

Paul returns home on leave. He confronts the teacher who inspired him to join. The professor is in the midst of trying to exhort another class of young men to join the fray. An older, wiser Paul does not make a patriotic speech the teacher expects, instead warning of the reality of battle.

Friends die, lose limbs, go mad. Horrible deaths are witnessed.

All Quiet on the Western Front came along at just the right time, three years after the full on introduction of sound in movies. This proved important. The bombing, in particular reverberates throughout the picture, as much and as important a character as the film had. It's timing was key in another way as it was completed three years before the Production Code began being enforced. While there is no profanity or blood and brain matter splattered about, AQotWF is a very real look at war that wouldn't have been possible with the Code's enforcement.

An endless series of horrific events would not make for a watchable film. But AQotWF is filled with humanity in the persons of the soldiers who fight. It is because of their camaraderie that they don't all go completely insane. Yes, they fight because they must, but they also fight for each other. Humans are pack animals. For most of us comfort, security and friendship all stream from the company of others. In times of stress that is particularly crucial; there's no better example than soldiers in war. AQotWF gives us that. Seventy-eight years later it is still the quntiessential anti-war film.

It also gives, or should give, anyone who watches it pause about going to war. Unfortunately, those people do not include so many of our leaders, so many of whom are ready to send other people's children and spouses off to war. Some folks never learn.

Right Kid?

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