Saturday, October 27, 2018

The First Great Anti-War Movie

It was not until All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that the romantic view of war was cast aside, as movie goers were admonished that “Death is not an adventure”. Here German soldiers, all of whom look and act like wholesome “All American boy” types, are decimated by the war “with the impersonality of sausage going through a meat grinder.”  In this film the soldiers lose respect for authority after seeing the horrors of war and say such things as, “It is dirty and painful to die for your country”. The view of frontline romance is equally unsentimental, as French peasant girls give the German soldier-youths sex for food, and the men have sex with the women as a relief from the horrors of war. Ultimately, the protagonist is un-heroically killed by a sniper while huddling in a filthy trench one beautiful morning. In this film love does not conquer all. War conquers every decent impulse.

Although the leading characters in All Quiet on the Western Front are Germans, thus allowing the film to not directly condemn either the war aims or the war conduct of the United States in World War I, and although the film was both a box office hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture (1930), there were many who saw the film as, “The most brazen propaganda film ever made in America. It undermines beliefs in the Army and in authority. Moscow could not have produced a more subversive film. Its continued uncensored exhibition especially before juveniles will go far to raise a race of yellow- streak slackers and dis-loyalists”.

All Quiet on the Western Front touched on one of the underlying problems of modern industrial society, the need for the individual to conform to industrial discipline, even if this requires that he march off into a senseless war created by competing economic elites. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s book of the same name, the film puts provocative language into the mouths of the characters, “Who wants wars? Emperors, generals, manufacturers...” This World War I film reveals a nation turning inward rather than one looking for an imperial “policeman of the world” role.

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