Monday 11 November 2013

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

I'm rather wary of war films.  As part of my job I visit elderly people in their homes, and I've known a couple of them to spend their entire lives sitting before the television, watching war-film after war-film.  They wake in the morning, put on a war adventure channel, and watch it until bed-time, every day until they die.  It's one way to spend retirement, I guess, but one of them shouts and screams death-threats at the films' villains, 'bloody Japs', 'we're gonna kill ya', and so on, and many phrases far too coarse or murderously racist for me to reproduce in the pages of The Penciltonian.  War films seem to play to, and encourage, a horrible sort of xenophobia.

For this reason I spent a long while avoiding 'All Quiet on the Western Front', which I'd bought from a very interesting charity shop in Walkley (the right-hand half of the shop was a charity shop like any other, and the left-hand side was a pet-shop.  One of the shop assistants was a giant dog).  If I'd given the film's packaging slightly more attention it might have allayed my fears.  Firstly, the protagonists are WWI Germans, an unlikely set of heroes for an American film, and secondly this is a famed anti-war picture.  That's a genre I can more easily get behind.

I've heard it said that it's impossible to make an anti-war-film, as war always looks really cool.  I'm not sure I agree with the argument, but it's an interesting one.  War looks absolutely awful all the way through this movie.  The youths, a class of boys, are stirred up by their schoolmaster with a torrent of rhetoric about glory and duty to defend their country.  They chant joyfully about their fatherland as one might today yell 'U-S-A!  U-S-A!'  Inside twenty minutes they're on the front lines, and everybody starts starving and dying, being blinded, losing limbs and freaking out.  The main character, Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) sees all his friends and contemporaries wiped out, and, when he returns to his home-town on leave, finds his old community refuse to believe his stories of a futile, unwinnable war.  They're too convinced by their own opinions, and by the propaganda from the media.

In Britain today, the old idea that soldiers are all inherently heroic is making a return, meaning that any future wars will be far more appealing to our society.  So far as I can ascertain, soldiers have two main jobs: shooting people, and threatening to shoot people if they fail to obey.  As a career, it's a very exciting way out of the poverty of austerity Britain - glamorous, masculine, and with the chance to punish the enemies most cursed by xenophobic tabloids.  One needn't be heroic to find that appealing.  One need only be physically fit.  Perhaps I'm excessively liberal, but I favour peacemakers to gun-toting peacekeepers, and find teachers, firefighters, missionaries and (when they're not being scary) police officers more admirable than armed drones.

The opening slide of the movie
I was pleasantly surprised to find 'All Quiet on the Western Front' so well-made and watchable.  If you've been following The Penciltonian with an obsessive avidity, you may recall that I've really liked the 30s films from Germany and Russia, but found the English-language stuff like 'The Island of Lost Souls' (1932) and 'Lives of a Bengal Lancer' (1935) for instance, to be rather heavy-going.  This was made only three years after the first feature-length talking picture, and the transition from silent films to talkies was a pretty bumpy one.  Here, though, is a well-crafted film, directed with a flair - with, for instance, some extremely disturbing shots of mass death when the British come over the top - and which wouldn't seem outdated even if it were released a decade or two later.  This is an impressive film with a message worth hearing.

P.S. Happy Poppy Day, if that's what floats yer boat.

No comments:

Post a Comment