The next genre being tackled by the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book is War, with the first title and its recommendations dealing with tales from the First World War.
Based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, the resulting film was banned for its pacifistic views and disgust with war, it wasn’t about flag-waving and national pride, and that bothered a number of people. The film follows the journey of young German students, including young Paul (Lew Ayres) as they enlist for the war, they all have dreams of glory that are all too soon confronted with the harsh reality and madness of trench warfare.
Winning the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1930, the film is a no-holds barred look at the true horrors of warfare. This isn’t some big, fun shoot-em-up, this is a terrifying look at a world that none of us should have to ever experience.
As the young troops arrive on the frontline, they are under the threat of constant attack, which only adds to the terror of the incessant shelling, the lack of food, the horrendous hand to hand combat. The terror and madness begin to take their toll on the survivors as one after another friends and allies fall to the violence that none of them want to be a part of.
The film is epic, gruesome, and unflinching in its portrayal of reality; offering a terrifying look at the horrors of war and the villainy we inflict on ourselves as a species. It has a level of violence that, to that point had not been seen on film, but the subject matter was deemed worthy of attention, especially for its realistic presentation.
The film’s narrative is pushed to the rear when our characters arrive in the trenches and instead a series of connecting scenes and experiences fill the film. We go through their training, the catch-22 of orders, the desire to just escape, the loyalty to your comrade-in-arms, the love of peace. We experience everything from training through to a number of final moments for to many people, and the last few shots of the film are simply heartbreaking.
Between assaults, when the men can rest, there is pontificating on war, there is such a wonderful pacifism prevalent through the film, and the images of war that bracket it make a strong argument for peace. This is one that everyone should see, to understand what these events are actually like, not some romanticized version (and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good war film for entertainment, but I also know the real thing was a terror I never wish to behold).
And poor Paul… as the film draws to its conclusion he finds himself back in his old classroom, talking to youthful faces that look up to him and idealize the war. He makes an impassioned argument for peace, to avoid enlisting, to find a way to resolve things without violence. And his professor was offended.
This one is a dazzling film, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.