Part 1 of Portrayals of the First World War in the Media: All Quiet on the Western Front

As part of a new feature, every so often I will be watching a film, TV series or documentary and assessing how I feel is represents the First World War. I won’t be giving a complete run down of the media sources that I write about, but I hope to give an insight into the programs and to encourage you the reader, to watch and enjoy for yourselves. The first film in this series will be All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 version) one of the oldest films that has been made about the war.

By Universal Pictures – site, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40715664

All Quiet on the Western Front is based on the book of the same name published in 1928 by Erich Maria Remarque. During the First World War, Remarque was conscripted into the army at the age of 18 and served in Northern France and Belgium.  On 31st July 1917, he was wounded by shrapnel and was evacuated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war recovering from his significant wounds. Initially, Remarque could not find a publisher for All Quiet on the Western Front, but when he did, it became an international bestseller, quickly followed by theatre and film productions across the world, particularly in Germany, the UK and the US, the most famous being the 1930 cinematic version made in the US.

As viewers will quickly gather, All Quiet on the Western Front shows us the German perspective of the First World War. The film starts in a small town in Germany, hearing the news that war has come. We find our main characters in a school room, all young men who are being encouraged and coerced by their teacher to enlist and serve their country. We follow this group of young men through their training and arrival at the front, where they are immediately confronted with the realities of war. Death visits the group almost as soon as they arrive in the trenches, a young man being killed whilst involved in a wire laying party. Another of the group cries ‘he didn’t even want to go to war!’ Other realities that the group face are hunger, (a constant through the course of the film) fear – a fear of death, fear of pain, fear in all its forms – and the constant presence of death and how the living take precedence. An example of this, is when one of the group loses his leg and another member asks, without much tact, if he can now have the formers leather boots, seeing as he no longer needs them. The former gets quite upset and those that have gathered to see him, leave. The soldiers who wants the boots tells Paul Baumer, the main character, that he didn’t mean to be like that, and Paul replies that he knows also adding ‘good boots are scarce’. All of these instances, and many others throughout the film, change the group from naïve and keen young men little more than boys, to battle hardened and cynical men who know the value of what they have. The author is very clear in his portrayal of the hardships of war, which is not surprising given that he would have experienced incidents like these himself.

The film, and the book that it is based on, is often described as anti-war, a point of view that was becoming more commonplace after the war, and points are raised by the characters throughout the film about the whys and wherefores of the war. In one particular scene, the main group of characters are gathered together and discussing how the war came about. They question each other; who benefits from war and who wanted the war? They all agree that the war was wanted by and benefitted the same people – manufacturers, generals, kings. Not the ordinary people like them, they didn’t want the war. There are many scenes like this throughout the film, another example being one of the most iconic scenes in the film. It depicts a moment between Paul and a dying French soldier in a shell hole in No Man’s Land. Without going into too much detail, Paul begs the Frenchman for forgiveness and asks him many questions, which he cannot answer due to language barriers. Paul then proclaims in anguish one of the most iconic lines of the film ‘Why did they do this to us? We just wanted to live you and I’ The pain and the anguish felt by the characters as they grow and develop through the movie is very evident at all times and really adds a dimension of understanding for viewers who may not have or may never experience the horrors of war. Considering this is a film that is 90 years old now and certainly lacking the special effects and so on that we take for granted, All Quiet on the Western Front, certainly provokes the audience into thinking about the true cost of war.

Paul Baumer, the main character of All Quiet on the Western Front from The Guardian

For me, this film highlights important aspects about the First World War that should be thought of in depth. As stated above, it is clear that the film and book are anti-war. Like anything that is overtly pro-war, this anti-war film must be taken with a pinch of salt. We must be aware that yes, the First World War was horrid in many ways and the experiences of such could alter opinions, but also that as an overtly anti-war film and book, All Quiet on the Western Front, will be specifically highlighting the worst parts of the war.

As a piece of film, it makes the topic of the First World War accessible to large audiences, even to this day. When it was released in 1930, well within the lifetime of those who had lived through the war, it was exceedingly popular and well-received around the world, being nominated for four Oscars and winning two. Interestingly though, by 1933 and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, All Quiet on the Western Front was considered unpatriotic. Screenings on the film were banned and the book itself became one of many that were burned by the Nazis. Nevertheless, both book and film are important pieces in the literature and media that has been built as a result of the First World War. It is certainly a good place to start if you have never watched any media about the First World War before.

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