There is much bitterness in the words we use when confronting the unknowable the unquantifiable and the unlovable. Those awful moments when a mystery is so perplexing that we gasp at our own ignorance. But too, there is lightness in the reflection of our soul's innocence as we ponder and continue the day to day. Rationality is a reward we bequeath a loving nature.
The sorrow and the pity. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is, 82 years after its release, the definitive film about war. "And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death," says the main character Paul Baumer. At the start of the story he and fellow classmates are being inspired to go to war by a teacher. A teacher who will stay comfortably behind and rally other young men to enlist and face death, maiming and lifelong psychological trauma.
Paul and the other soldiers have one powerful ally: one another. So it is with war where men (and now women, luckily for them) find their only comfort is the brotherhood of their unit. They fight and live for each other and their process is to "do a job." Political questions do not engage them, nor does nationalism any more inspire. They contemplate philosophical questions as one does when staring at death.
At home on leave Paul is lost, mentally and emotionally. No one understands "what it is like." Their words are all wrong because they do not allow his experience to breath and be real. They bring a false reality where a "big push" can see their armies take Paris, as if war only took place on a map with saltshakers for armies.
There is a strange comfort for Paul to be back at the front, even where death continues to pay regular visits. In war, death is a way of life, something reliable and strangely knowable. Part of an experience that otherwise lacks parameters and dimension.
All Quiet was directed by Lewis Milestone and is based on the magnificent novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Lew Ayres played Paul. It should be noted that the Nazis hated the book and the film.
Ride the High County (1962) can be summed up in the words of the main character Steve Judd (Joel McCrea): "All I want is to enter my house justified." Those words were remade into the film title Do the Right Thing, 27 years later, whether Spike Lee knew it or not.
Steve Judd wasn't always a lawman. At one time he was young and wild and in need of a good whopping. Whether it was the beatin' that did it, Judd took to the law and earned his pay honestly and in service of civilization in an Old West that needed every bit of it. For a time he rode with one Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Many years on he's riding with him again to collect some gold from a frontier mining camp to bring back to a bank. They are joined by Westrum's partner, Heck. What Judd doesn't know, but comes to suspect, is that his old partner means to turn on him and, with the help of Heck, run off with the money.
As if that weren't enough, more complications ensue mostly centered around a beautiful young woman who entangles herself in their journey. Legal disputes, gunfire and seven deaths result. So there is action and drama and plenty of character,s some of the most unsavory kind (hello, Warren Oates). There is also the magnificence of the Sierra Nevadas as a backdrop.
It is a full rich stew which is remarkable given its run time is just under 95 minutes. People do wrong and right as people will. They find ways to rationalize doing the wrong, unless they are so purely corrupted by dark forces that they just do and don't think about it. Judd is purposeful and resolute in doing what he knows is right, this has become as natural as breathing. Some people, I suppose, are like that. But even Judd acknowledges that there are gray areas. The girl asks him: "My father says there's only right and wrong - good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?" To which Judd replies: "No, it isn't. It should be, but it isn't." It isn't but Judd can steer himself as close as possible to what he feels in his bones is right, he knows he can walk into his house, justified. Not a bad lesson for a 50 year old Western.
Sam Peckinpah directed Ride the High Country. Mariette Hartley plays the young woman in her screen debut.