New Orleans – We were in the mountains surrounded by snow and ice. It was very, very cold. We couldn’t get what we wanted to watch; let’s call in technical difficulty. Ok, how about a movie on Netflix for a father-and-son Saturday evening? All Quiet on the Western Front was on offer. Nominated for a best picture academy award this year, Chaco, what do you think? I read the book maybe sixty years ago. I don’t remember it that well, but it’s about World War I, let’s try it.
So, we did. At least, we watched two of the two-and-a-half hours of one of the darkest movies ever made on that Saturday night, before crying, “Uncle!” We manned up on Sunday evening to finish it off. I have no clue whether it’s the best picture of the year, though it is a profoundly moving film and every bit as great as the book. At the same time, this is not a movie made for family movie night or taking a date out. This is a vivid picture of the plain and simple brutality and inhumanity of war, as well as the naïveté of young conscripts and the self-delusion of military leaders. The power of the book and the film is that it is also a story from the perspective of the losers, rather than the winners. We follow the war from the German perspective. We find decent people, sent to kill, and trying to stay alive, but no heroes anywhere.
The Western Front refers to the bloody trench warfare on the battleline between Germany and France. At the end of the film, a crawl line points out that some 17 million died in WWI, and more than 3 million on the Western Front in the futile effort by both sides to advance. Hardly 100 meters changed hands in the bloody back and forth over three years. The trenches were wet, muddy, cold, miserable experiences for ill-fed, poorly trained, and supplied troops, especially on the German side, but seemingly not much better on the other side either.
The terrible carnage made War World I, supposedly the “war to end all wars”. The claims of US President Woodrow Wilson and some of the allied nations and their efforts to create the League of Nations for an enduring peace turned out, as we all know, to be pipedreams. World wars, civil wars, local wars, have continued, so that we even have “forever wars.” It’s impossible to watch the movie without thinking, now over one-hundred years later, how eerily similar this is to what we read and see in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the terrible death and destruction there.
The “all quiet” part of the Western Front was finally the armistice agreed by the parties on such difficult terms that the peace itself is part of what led to Hitler’s efforts at revenge which became World War II. Of course, war is unforgiving, and every single rank-and-file soldier the film followed pays the ultimate price, including the main character; young man ordered with his comrades on one last charge against the allied lines within literally minutes to when the armistice was scheduled to begin, ending the war. They ran against bullets to their death for absolutely no reason other than the fact they were ordered to do so, and therefore they lost their lives pointlessly.
We got up when it was over. We didn’t see any irony in the movie’s end. War is pointless from start to finish, as much in the beginning, as it is in the end. Watching All Quiet on the Western Front unremittingly and solemnly drums that lesson into anyone with the stomach to watch it, if they needed reminding.