Cast: Lew Ayres (Paul Bäumer), Louis Wolheim (Stanislaus ‘Kat’ Katczinsky), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis, Jr. (Peter), William Bakewell (Albert Kropp),Russell Gleason (Müller)
Director: Lewis Milestone
My rating: 9.5 / 10
It’s the eve of World War 1 or the Great War in Germany and a town celebrates those who have joined the army. In class Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy) gives an impassioned speech about the glory of serving and “saving the Fatherland”. On the brink of becoming men, the boys in his class, led by Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), are inspired to join the army and find glory
Their delusions of glory and a quick victory are broken during their rigorous training under the abusive Corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray), their former mailman who runs then though the mud and ensures they never get to enjoy any off time.
The new soldiers arrive by train at the combat zone, which is mayhem, with incoming shells, horse-drawn wagons racing about, prolonged rain and no food. The men they have joined have not had food for two days but one of them the ‘veteran’ “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), manages to find a slaughtered hog he has stolen from a field kitchen. The young soldiers “pay” for their dinner with soaps and cigarettes being told than their paper money is no good here.
The new recruits’ first experience on the Western front is to re-string barbed wire. It is a harrowing experience with bombs dropping and Behn is blinded by shrapnel and hysterically runs into machine-gun fire dying. After spending several days in a bunker under bombardment, they at last move into the trenches and successfully repulse an enemy attack; they then counterattack and take an enemy trench with heavy casualties, but have to abandon it. All the recruits now realise they are in some kind of hell and there is no glory. They are sent back to the field kitchens to get their rations; each man receives double helpings, simply because of the number of dead even if the chef only wants them to get a normal ration. Tensions are high and the group is upset that their food is normally prepared so far from the front the get little or it is no longer warm.
They hear that they are to return to the front the next day and begin a semi-serious discussion about the causes of the war and of wars in general. They speculate about whether geographical entities offend each other and whether these disagreements involve them. Kat jokes that instead of having a war, the leaders of Europe should be stripped to their underwear and “fight it out with clubs”.
One day, Corporal Himmelstoss arrives at the front and is immediately spurned because of his bad reputation. He is forced to go over the top with the 2nd Company and is promptly killed. In an attack on a cemetery, Paul stabs a French soldier, but finds himself trapped in a hole with the dying man for an entire night. Throughout the night, he goes from wanting the soldier to die and desperately wanting him to live and in the end the soldier dies. He cries bitterly and begs the dead body to speak so he can be forgiven. Later, he returns to the German lines and is comforted by Kat.
Going back to the front line, Paul is severely wounded and taken to a Catholic hospital, along with his good friend Albert Kropp. Kropp’s leg is amputated, but he does not find out until some time afterwards. Around this time, Paul is taken to the bandaging ward, from which, according to its reputation, nobody has ever returned alive; but he later returns to the normal rooms triumphantly, only to find Kropp in depression.
Paul is given a furlough and visits his family at home. He is shocked by how uninformed everyone is about the actual situation of the war; everyone is convinced that a final “push for Paris” is soon to occur, that conditions are great and the soldiers get the best food while those at home suffer for then.
When Paul visits the schoolroom where he was originally recruited, he finds Professor Kantorek prattling the same patriotic fervour to a class of even younger students. Professor Kantorek asks Paul to detail his experience, at which the latter reveals that war was not at all like he had envisioned and mentions the deaths of his partners. This revelation upsets the professor, as well as the young students who promptly call Paul a “coward”.
Disillusioned and angry, Paul returns to the front finding his company is filled with new young recruits who are themselves now disillusioned; he is then happily greeted by Tjaden.
He goes to find Kat, and they discuss the inability of the people to comprehend the futility of the war. Kat’s shin is broken when a bomb dropped by an aircraft falls nearby, so Paul carries him back to a field hospital, only to find that Kat has been killed by a second explosion. Crushed by the loss of his mentor, Paul leaves.
In the final scene, Paul is back on the front line. He sees a butterfly just beyond his trench. Smiling, he reaches out for the butterfly. While reaching, however, he is shot and killed by an enemy sniper. The final sequence shows the 2nd Company arriving at the front for the first time, fading out to the image of a cemetery as they are all dead.
What’s to Like
The real life depiction of war, from the promise of glory to the reality of death. The acting is first rate.
What’s not to Like
A movie that exposes the many lies of war, how those very happy to send boys to die aren’t willing to sacrifice their comforts or believe stories of failures or misery. Everyone dies in this movie and in senseless ways, often in pain and despair but the despair is ours as well as their entire futures are taken away for nothing, no real principle especially not in the Empire Wars of World War 1. While this is a very old movie and conditions for ‘modern’ wars are very different (but still depressing in their own way) there are still many third world battles operating the same way, pressing the young into service to die for the old and powerful.
Really the type of movie everyone should watch at least once in their life.
- Best Picture – winner
- Best Director (Lewis Milestone) – winner
- Best Writing, Achievement (George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews) – nominee
- Best Cinematography (Arthur Edeson) – nominee