“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.” —Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front
It is sacrilege to say the First World War was pointless, but the people who fought it paint a bleak picture, and none bleaker than Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a fictionalization of his experiences as a soldier in the German war machine. Conscripted at 18, he fought at the front, taking shrapnel that got him out of the trenches until the end of the war. He would relate his experiences in his 1928 novel.
This month marked a century since the end of the War to End All Wars. Remarque’s work was adapted in film twice, once in 1930 and again for television in 1979. The great gap between them and the differences in how they both look back on Remarque’s seminal work tell a story of American cinema’s grappling with the horrors and inhumanity of war at two very different points in history.
Baumer: And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay. And we eat and sleep with death.
The 1930 black-and-white film, directed by Lewis Milestone, comes at the material a mere two years after the novel was published. Watching it today—a tale of World War I made on the eve of the fearful age that would end in World II—is one of the most harrowing viewings I can think of at a time when far-right ideology is again beginning to chant and march in the Western world.
The story follows young German Paul Baumer and several of his fellow classmates as they are roused to patriotic fervor and head off to war. What follows is familiar to anybody who’s watched a few war movies: harsh training by a callous instructor, naïve young soldiers heading off to the terrible front, and the individual anecdotes of blood, pain, hunger, deprivation, and eventually death that stalk all soldiers in all wars. World War I holds a place of grim fascination in our fictional portrayals of war. It’s become a symbolic turning point of a kind in warfare—not the beginning of total war, but the definite beginning of the individual soldier’s impotence and cheapness in the face of the mass destruction dreamt of in the 20th century. That sad song belongs to Remarque, and Milestone’s feature covers it with grim straightforwardness.
Milestone often frames shots with scenes of mundanity in the foreground and a background that peers through a doorway or windows, always with marching soldiers or rain-swept trenches, as if to remind the viewer of the sheer pervasiveness of the war, its utter inescapability. No matter what small comforts or camaraderie Baumer and his beleaguered colleagues can find amidst the terror, it’s always right outside their fragile little shelter, waiting like a wolf.
Kantorek: This lot? Not like you. Defeatism has infected them. They haven’t got your spirit, Baumer.
Baumer: Not the Iron Youth, eh? No Iron Heroes? Just boys. Want to play. Laugh. To stay alive.
The contrast with the 1930 film and the 1979 adaptation for television is not only in how the latter leans on technical advances when the former had to make do with more creative camera work and judicious use of the effects available at the time—it also approaches the project with more modern editing, beginning in medias res as Baumer and his cohort slug it out in the trenches, and then cutting back and forth between the past and the present. Director Delbert Mann is going explicitly for juxtaposition—between the lofty rhetoric that got Baumer to enlist and the cruel realities of the trench, between the sweet hope of his comrade in arms’ mother Kemmerich and his pathetic death in a field hospital so overrun with casualties that the doctor sneers that he doesn’t know which amputee Baumer is referring to when he calls for help.
The 1979 film hits many of the same beats as the 1930 adaptation, even if it shuffles the order, but its more naturalistic, method-style acting and the places it wants to point its keener focus mark it as a product of the post-Vietnam era—with squibs and blood bursts to spare, sparer dialogue, and with much more emphasis placed on the sadistic training of Ian Holm’s Himmelstoss, the man who whips the young men into shape (and who ends up on the receiving end of their “gratitude” for having done so).
When Baumer returns to show Professor Kantorek the effect of his proselytizing for the army on the boys who had to go and die, the 1930 version is a soliloquy delivered before an ungrateful classroom of Kantorek’s next victims. The 1979 version is a quiet, seething recrimination between Kantorek and Baumer alone.
If anything, the cast of the ’79 version is a major reason for a watch: Ernest Borgnine as the crafty Kat, Donald Pleasence as Kantorek and Holm as Himmelstoss (with an added scene showing the latter paying for his cowardice in an ironic way that the 1930 version did not have).
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields. —John McCrae
Both films follow the plot of the novel closely enough that they end in the only way such a hopeless story could. In the 1930 version, Baumer reaches out of the trench toward a butterfly—in the 1979 adaptation, he begins to sketch a bird singing near the trenches. The faceless enemy gets in a lucky shot, and his war is over.
It’s chilling to think of the great gulf, not just of time, but of our understanding of war that mark the nearly 50 years between these two takes on the same harrowing story of modern war: The former made before World War II taught the world that it had failed to learn the lessons of the Great War, the latter made after Vietnam had soured the United States on foreign adventures so completely that there has never been conscription since.
The ceaseless folly of the 20th century must all have seemed distressingly familiar to Remarque, who died in 1970 in Switzerland. For his honesty in decrying the dehumanization of war, Remarque was persecuted. A short three years after the 1930 film won an Oscar, his works were denounced and burned in Nazi Germany, his military service and German heritage called into question, his citizenship eventually revoked. He would flee first to Switzerland, and then to America. His sister was imprisoned and beheaded—a fate he learned of only after the war.
It’s a stark reminder that proves exactly what Remarque warned: Old men froth at the mouth to stuff us into fancy uniforms and send us off to the trenches. But they really don’t want to hear about those trenches from the young men who have the nerve to come back.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.